The Swedish Armed Forces has started an operation to raise their readiness in the South-east and central Baltic Sea. The behind this being the “extensive military activities” being conducted in the region, which include both Russian and Western activities. According to the Swedish Armed Forces, the exercises being conducted in the region are larger and more complex, and takes place at a swifter pace compared to earlier ones. Coupled with COVID-19 the situation is significantly more volatile and unpredictable. The key focus for the Swedish operation is increased maritime surveillance (including from the air), but Gotland is also being reinforced. Readers will remember that the Battlegroup Gotland is still in the process of being stood up (eventually it will become a battalion-sized battlegroup), but what the reinforcements now consisted of are unconfirmed.
Notable is that two days ago a USAF MC-130J Commando II special forces aircraft landed on a short stop in Visby. The aircraft did not take part in any Swedish exercise, though it was reportedly taking part in an unspecified US one that included the visit to Gotland. This was followed by a three-flight of MC-130Js skirting the Swedish border during a flight from Norway today. As far as I am aware, no details have been released about the flights.
Lots of US Hercules Ghosts on the move.
GHOST71, AE5963 13-5786, US Type code: C30J Lockheed MC-130J Hercules
GHOST72, AE4E19 11-5731, US Type code: C30J Lockheed MC-130J Hercules
The Russian and Belarusian activities are all significant, with Belarus having initiated a readiness check that aims at raising the armed forces to their highest level of readiness, something that includes calling up the reserve. At the same time, the Russian Western Military District is reportedly home to a major exercise, including the Baltic Fleet and the Baltic Fleet’s Army Corps in Kaliningrad, as well as unspecified units in the St Petersburg area. This in turn is naturally of significant interest to the West, and among the visitors in the area is one of two RC-135U Combat Sent strategic electronic reconnaissance aircraft.
US Combat Sent also watching Kaliningrad. It did some low flying off the coast.
It is important to note here that Swedish Armed Forces are clear that the readiness operation is indeed an operation and not an exercise. However, there are some interesting overlaps in that the main surface striking force of the Swedish Navy, four of their five Visby-class stealth corvettes, earlier today started an air defence exercise in the waters south of Stockholm (Västervik-Nynäshamn). Crucially, the Finnish Navy is also taking part in the exercise with an unidentified mineship. So far no information has been released about what not happens with the exercise, or with the Finnish contribution.
Edit 25/08/20 11:15 GMT+2
While the exact scope of the Swedish operation remain uncertain the morning after the announcement, the fact that it is unprecedented in near-term Swedish history is starting to become clear. Johan Wiktorin, long-term Swedish defence analyst and member of the Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences, notes that he hasn’t seen anything similar since the 1991 Soviet coup attempt. At the same time, his colleague in the Academy, Annika Nordgren Christensen points out that the terminology used is new to the Swedish Armed Forces, and has not been used earlier.
Jag har inte upplevt en liknande beredskapshöjning i Försvarsmakten sedan augustikuppen 1991. Denna gång är vi också alerta, men uthålligheten inte densamma. Vi kanske inte är intresserade av ett försämrat säkerhetsläge, men det är intresserat av oss. @FinansdepSvhttps://t.co/NawZ6ADAJb
The decision not to go with the traditional “readiness check” (Swe. beredskapskontroll) shows that the message the Swedish Armed Forces wishes to communicate isn’t so much that they practice being able to swiftly respond to a sudden crisis, but that they as of today are at a level where they keep an eye on any potentially hostile movements and stand ready to counter these should the need arise. As is usual with these cases, and as is clearly stated in the Swedish press release, the risk for open war remains low, since none of the countries involved are interested in an all-out conflict. However, with the large number of moving parts currently involved, the risk of miscalculations leading to someone getting caught in the machinery is higher than normal.
With the FDF and Finnish government having had some time to react, it does seem clear that we won’t see any Finnish participation in the Swedish operation. This would require a political decision, and as such would most probably be communicated through the appropriate channels. However, as is well known, bilateral exercises and information sharing takes place on a regular basis, and as one of the main themes of the Swedish operation is enhanced information gathering to ensure a correct situational picture over the central and southeastern Baltic Sea, there exist a significant grey zone for what is an exercise, what is an operation, and what is a unilateral Finnish operation that just happens to create information that can be shared with Sweden. As opposed to the Swedish Armed Forces culture of sharing openly and directly what is going on, the Finnish Defence Forces is known to rarely discuss anything directly related to operational activities. As such, unless the air traffic monitorers suddenly catches a Finnish bird outside of Kaliningrad, it is very difficult to tell if Finland has raised the readiness levels in a parallel operation to the Swedish one.
While the Finnish silent culture can be supported from an operational security point of view, and a good argument can be made that the message can be sent to potential adversaries as effectively through actions rather than words, it has also come under increased scrutiny and faces criticism. In particular the question has been raised how to handle this discrepancy between Finnish and Swedish ways of handling strategic communications in the event of a joint response to a serious crisis?
Suuri ero Ruotsin ja Suomen välillä:
Ruotsissa valmiuden kohottamisesta kerrotaan herkemmin, koska ymmärretään että #viestintä on myös osa puolustuksen kokonaisuutta. Suomessa yritetään pitää asiat piilossa/salassa. Tämä(kin) pitäisi yhteensovittaa #turpo kriisissä. https://t.co/Y7qUC0wLGB
The Finnish Navy has now confirmed that it is FNS Uusimaa (’05’) that is taking part in the exercise.
The exercise develops the vessels’ national capabilities and the interoperability between the Finnish and the Swedish vessels in anti-aircraft warfare at sea.
The exercise is part of the larger cooperation frame between Finnish and Swedish Navies with the aim to maintain the vessels’ interoperability and the capability of the vessels to serve as part of the Finnish-Swedish fleet troops. In the exercise formation the Finnish minelayer will technically operate as part of the Swedish troops but stays under the national lead of the Coastal Fleet. In this exercise there will be no participants from other countries.
The exercise will take place at sea, and minelayer Uusimaa will not moor in Sweden. There will not be any exchange of crew between vessels during the exercise.
This exercise is preplanned among the other exercises between the two countries and it was accepted as an international exercise included in the 2020 programme by the Ministry of Defence.
The post is also found in a Finnish translation made by James Mashiri on his blog Somesotilas.
Finnish daily Iltalehti published an analysis regarding the Squadron 2020-program, and like most analyses, if your baseline data is incorrect, your conclusion is likely to go wrong. This is what happened here as well.
The analysis is a hodgepodge of correct information leading to false conclusions, unrelated anecdotes, strange non sequiturs, and plain wrong information, all being presented in a package that is more akin to an opinion piece directed against the Navy and the leadership of the Defence Forces. While any major shipbuilding program for the Navy will lead to a number of more or less ill-informed pieces on the “but Panssarilaivat“-subject, this is a particularly poor example of the genre. Some of the most glaring errors:
Claiming that the Finnish steel-hulled corvette would be related to the US aluminium-hulled patrol vessels of the LCS-program
That this relation would cause any issues the LCS has to carry over to the corvettes
That stationing Bastion anti-ship missiles in Kaliningrad(!) would make the Finnish ships “easy targets”
Claiming that the A2/AD-bubble in Kaliningrad creates an impenetrable “steel dome” (see earlier post)
That recent developments in radar technology (“spotting seagulls at long ranges”) is a disruptive event that makes stealthy warships useless
That the vessels would be “effortlessly” distinguishable against the horizon
That the Finnish coastal defence ships ate the whole defence budget prior to WWII, and was the reason the Army had to go to war under-equipped (see earlier post)
That the ships are big to be able to cope with deployments on the high seas during international missions (see earlier post)
Claiming that the Navy wants to lay mines on the high seas (certainly not the case, see page 15)
That it is impossible to judge the effectiveness of the vessel before launch, due to expected teething troubles (this is an insult to all engineers in the marine industry)
That corvettes, sporting a heavy battery of surface-to-air missiles, would need more air cover from the Air Force’s fighters than the current fast attack crafts, or the host of other high-priority targets being found in the southern parts of country (see earlier post)
The article brings up Patria’s recent concept of a containerised version of the NEMO-mortar system, apparently in an attempt to show that missiles can be land-based, overlooking the fact that there actually are truck-based system in service in the Finnish Defence Forces (as opposed to containerised mortars), and that these and the warships are seen as supporting and not replacing each other (see earlier post)
That the whole of the Baltic Sea could be closed by Russian missiles bringing down the Øresund Bridge (not the case, the amount of rubble would be relatively minor relative to water depth and easily cleared)
The deal would likely overheat the Finnish shipyard industry and hurt the competitiveness of the Turku yard (utter rubbish, the closure of the Rauma yard cost 600 persons their job, with the re-started RMC having created around 450 jobs, and crucially within a short enough time-span that retraining hasn’t been a major factor)
That the NATO-countries bordering the Baltic Sea sports a vastly larger fleet than the Russian Baltic Fleet (see earlier post), making the Finnish ships redundant, somehow forgetting that we’re not a NATO-member (and that the inlet to the Baltic Sea was supposed to have been cut)
That the new Finnish Katanpää-class mine countermeasure vessels are failures (see earlier post) and lack any meaningful role in a future war (see earlier post)
The final conclusion is that the Navy doesn’t need the new corvettes, which are useless, and now we must hope that the politicians overrule the admirals to force a time-out and re-evaluation of the future needs of the Navy. As is evident from the links above, the arguments he bases this assertion on are either false, misunderstood, or completely irrelevant for Squadron 2020. Most have been addressed on the blog before, but a few deserve a closer review.
The LCS – an unrelated vessel for an unrelated mission
The text makes a big deal about the fact that the Squadron 2020 is based on the US Littoral Combat Ship, and the issues faced by that project.
The major issue here, is the fact that the notion that the two projects would be in any way related is completely false. The secondary issue is that the article completely overlooks the planned role for the LCS.
The LCS came about largely as a result of the withdrawal of the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates. These were the smallest ocean-going combat vessels of the US Navy, and this lead to an increased demand for the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. It was quickly recognised that for a number of the missions these high-tech destroyers were overkill, and a smaller (i.e. cheaper) solution had to be found for flag-waving and patrol missions where asymmetric threats was the main thing to worry about. The problem for the LCS, and especially for the Freedom-class, is that they look like full-blown corvettes or light frigates, but are in fact large patrol ships (‘PS’, according to the USNI Ship Designation System). This means that they are not to be seen as one-for-one replacements for the earlier frigates, but to take over some low-end missions from larger surface vessels at a low(ish) cost. However, they have received a far share of critique for being lightly armed and having less ability to withstand combat when compared to the 1970’s OPH-frigate. This has in turn lead to demands for increasing the weapons load and resilience of the ships’ systems, to make them true corvettes/light frigates. An upgraded ‘LCS-frigate’ is also offered for export, and Saudi Arabia has expressed interest in this design.
Long story short: that the new US patrol vessel isn’t as damage resistant as combat vessels doesn’t have anything to do with the new Finnish corvette.
Anti-shipping missiles in Kaliningrad – Come again?
The article claims that the new Finnish vessels will be sunk as soon as they appear at sea, because the Russians have created their A2/AD-fortress around Kaliningrad, including basing the K-300P Bastion-P in the exclave.
I do not understand the leap Ainola does here. The Bastion can’t reach anywhere near Finnish waters from Kaliningrad, so despite the fact that it is a matter of serious concern for the Poles and Lithuanians, and to a lesser extent the rest of the Baltic states and Germany, it doesn’t affect Finland directly. In other places, he sternly states that the southern parts of the Baltic Sea is none of Finland’s concern, but the tactical picture there apparently is? Especially out of place is the mention of Kaliningrad, as fired from Russian territory bordering the Gulf of Finland, the system covers roughly all Finnish waters east of Hanko.
As mentioned earlier, the Bastion is a potent weapon, but far from a ‘silver bullet’. It still needs targeting data, and the high speed is something of a mixed blessing, as it creates lots of heat for passive shipborne sensors to pick up and presumably also has an adverse effect on the final stages of target acquisition and interception.
Radars, seagulls, and jamming
Radar technology has made huge progress in recent years, but in all fairness, it isn’t a question about finding a seagull at range. To begin with, radar-cross sections can be widely detached from the area and volume of an object (ask the B-2 Spirit). In addition, there is the major issue with how to discern the relevant radar returns (i.e. ships) from irrelevant ones (i.e. seagulls). This isn’t anything new, and modern radars are very good at processing the myriad of returns. However, in the same way, modern countermeasures are very good at hiding these relevant returns. It is a continuous game of hide-and-seek, and while details are classified, it is safe to say that any kind of disruptive leap has not happened. Especially when you throw in the Finnish archipelago.
What would the alternative then be to the four corvettes? It is safe to say that this has probably been looked into by the Navy, and as mentioned I have discussed the question in my earlier post on why the increase in hull size is needed, but a short recap is in place.
One issue that is often glossed over is how radically the threat picture changed for the Finnish Navy with the end of the Cold War. The Navy has two ‘hard’ main missions in case of war: protecting Finnish shipping lanes and covering the southern flank. During the Cold War, any Soviet flotilla could rapidly depart the Estonian coast, and in a matter of hours have crossed the narrow Gulf of Finland to launch an amphibious assault to threaten major Finnish cities and installations, including the capital. With Estonia re-establishing its independence, this threat has decreased radically. The 336th Naval Infantry Brigade which is the main striking force of the Baltic Fleet is also based in Kaliningrad and not Kronstadt. However, while the threat of amphibious assaults have diminished, the threat to shipping has increased. This is due to the increased dependence on imports following the general trend of globalisation in society as a whole, and for the defence forces in particular. Also, the striking power of submarines and especially aircrafts have increased. This threat requires more than a number of shore-based missile launchers. It require constant presence, and a readiness to counter surface, sub-surface, and airborne threats.
Would it be possible to meet this without corvettes?
Would it be cheaper, and more efficient?
Finland could continue down the current road, featuring smaller, basically single-role warships. But getting four hulls (3D-capability and a mineship) for every corvette would not be cheaper, and would certainly lack the tactical flexibility offered by the corvettes.
Would it be possible to replace some of the roles with other systems?
It might be. Shore-based missile batteries can take over part of the air- and anti-shipping tasks, though these would lack some of the operational flexibility provided by the highly movable corvettes. The sub-hunting role is harder, with helicopters being the obvious choice. However, helicopters have their limits. They are excellent at locating and attacking a target when its presence and general area has been determined, usually by a shipborne system, but are poor tools when it comes to escorting ships, due to their relatively short endurance. One alternative would be to follow the Norwegian example, and buy a squadron of maritime patrol aircraft. 5 Boeing P-8A Poseidon for the RoNAF came in at around 1.1 billion Euro, so getting a meaningful number wouldn’t be cheap. Operating costs are hard to compare between aircrafts and corvettes, but it is safe to say getting the infrastructure (and mountain of sonobuoys needed) would effectively burn through any ‘excess’ money saved by scrapping the corvettes. A smaller aircraft might do, but it’s hard to see that this would cause any savings given the increased demand for shore-based missile systems that would follow this approach. And seriously, if you are concerned about the survivability of a corvette in the Baltic Sea, a converted airliner probably won’t fare better…
While it is no secret that I have voiced opinions about how the Navy, especially at the start of the program, handled its public relations and how the project was marketed to the broader public, there is really no excuse for an experienced journalist to produce an analysis so basically flawed as has been the case here. I am confident the Navy will rise to the challenge, and provide the information needed for our politicians to make the right choice and approve the crucial program that is Squadron 2020. If anything, Finland need more, not less, corvettes than planned.
James Mashiri also made an excellent overview of some of the articles and press releases related to the program. Note that most are in Finnish.
The Articles and Press Releases related to this post (newest to oldest)
It seems evident that 6 October was a day of heavy Russian military air traffic in the Gulf of Finland, reminiscent of certain episodes during the second half of 2014. Unfortunately, another episode also reminded of 2014, in that the Russians twice intruded on Finnish airspace. The first intruder was a single Su-27P, ‘red 42’ (RF-92414), which briefly entered Finnish airspace over the sea south of Porvoo 16:43 local time. It was intercepted by Finnish QRA, which duly photographed the armed Russian fighter.
The Russians had time to deny this incident, before the next intrusion took place at exactly the same place a few hours later. Another Su-27P in the ‘Red 4x’ sequence flew the same route inside Finnish airspace, and was documented by Finnish QRA at 21:33.
Both aircraft carry a mix of short-range highly manoeuvrable R-73 IR-missiles, mid-range R-27T IR-missiles, as well as long-range R-27ER semi-active radar-seeking missiles. This varied load-out is nothing new, and e.g. on this photo taken by US fighters during the Cold War the same missiles (though in older versions) are found on the same stations.
In theory the mix gives the Su-27 and unprecedented ability to target different airborne targets near and far, though in reality the different versions of the R-27 are starting to show their age. The lack of an active radar seeker on the R-27ER is also a significant handicap.
As noted, both intrusions took place at the same location, outside of Porvoo. A map released by the Finnish Border Guards leave little doubt that the intrusions were intentional, as both fighters flew the same track with a few hours in between. Both fighters entered Finnish airspace flying straight towards Kallbådagrund lighthouse (and in the general direction of Helsinki), and then turning parallel to the border just inside of it, before dashing out at the same location.
Notable is that while earlier intrusions have often been by cargo planes, and have often been blamed on the weather (in the cases where the Russians have conceded that they indeed have intruded on Finnish airspace), the weather during 6 October was good, with no reason to deviate. It is extremely rare that Russia have made these ‘visits’ with fighters, and the use of armed fighters to send a message like this is a step up in rhetoric.
An interesting question is related to the general state of readiness for the Finnish fighters. The closest permanent QRA is stationed at Kuopio-Rissala airbase in the central parts of Finland, from where the flight time would seem prohibitively long (especially as there has been no reports of supersonic flights by the Finnish Air Force).
The air force naturally refuses to give any details regarding the alert level and where the fighters that intercepted the Russian air traffic were based. During 2014 it was acknowledged that the air force temporarily based Hornets on civilian air fields in the southern parts of the country, including Helsinki-Vantaa international airport, to reduce intercept times. Finnish MoD Jussi Niinistö praised the reaction times of the Hornets, and noted that in addition to the two intruding Su-27P’s an unspecified number (‘several’) of identification flights were made. He also noted that this took place on the same day that Finland signed the bilateral defence cooperation deal with the US, and that the Russian behavior did not affect this in any way. It seems likely that the Finnish Air Force had some kind of prior knowledge, or that they were able to change their stance and react very quickly to the sudden increase in air traffic.
The QRA duty for the Estonian airspace is currently handled by a detachment of German Eurofighters, which, like their Finnish colleagues, had flown a number of identification flights during 6 October. If the intruder was photographed is not yet known. The Eurofighters currently operating out of Ämari air base are five aircraft from TaktLwG 74, homebased in Neuburg. The raw performance of the Eurofighter when it comes to climb rate and acceleration makes it right at home when it comes to these kinds of intercepts, and according to open sources the German fighters reached 848 knots (~1.3 Mach) during their missions, the highest speed noted in any intercept over the Gulf of Finland during 6 October.
Another part of the puzzle came on 7 October, when Estonian sources claimed that the ro-ro vessel Ambal then in transit was carrying Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad. The vessel is operated by Anrusstrans, which sports a small and varied fleet of cargo vessels and tugs. The vessel arrived in Baltiysk on the evening of 7 October. Crucially, she had been transiting the Gulf of Finland during 6 October, leading some to speculate that the Russian fighters had been escorting her. It is possible that the air and sea traffic was part of an exercise aimed at practising how to transfer reinforcements to Kaliningrad, an operation which would require air superiority over the Gulf of Finland and eastern parts of the Baltic Sea during the transit, though a traditional escort mission where fighters would follow a lumbering merchantman at (relatively) close range seems unlikely. It is also unclear if the Iskanders are the only units moved to the exclave during the last days, or if other units have been transferred as well.
Russian Navy BSF's Buyan-M Class Corvettes 603 Serpukhov & 602 Zeleny Dol (in order of transit, 1 mile apart) southbound on the Bosphorus pic.twitter.com/vpE9n1Imjf
Of further interest is the fact that on 5 October it was reported that two Buyan-M class corvettes that had transited the Bosphorus seemingly heading towards Syria, instead could be heading for the Baltic Sea. The introduction of these highly capable corvettes armed with Kalibr cruise missiles in the Baltic Sea would add significant fire power to the Russian Baltic Fleet.
I am happy to announce that I will be holding two lectures in my hometown of Kokkola this autumn. These will be held as part of the courses provided by the National Defence Training Association of Finland (MPK), in particular its training and support unit in Middle-Ostrobothnia (Keski-Pohjanmaan KOTU). A well-trained and motivated reserve is one of the key pillars of the Finnish Defence Forces, and unfortunately the recent budget cuts have left a significant hole in the defence force’s ability to maintain the training level of the reserve. Partly to compensate for this, motivated reservists, simply called aktiiviressuja (“active reservists”) in Finnish, can apply to any of the varied courses MPK provides. These include everything from taking part in full-blown military exercises to civil defense courses such as first aid, oil-spill cleanup, and prepping (or why not try Operating and maintaining a chainsaw for women?). MPK does a stellar job in providing efficient and varied training of a high-quality despite having a very limited budget, and it is a great honour for me to be a small part of this important work!
My lectures will deal with topics familiar to the readers of the blog, with the first one held 13 October and covering Kaliningrad and the Baltic states. Those who have read my earlier post on the topic will undoubtedly recognise some of the material, but I will also aim to include enough new material to make it interesting, something which shouldn’t be too hard considering the rapid pace of development currently affecting defence and security in the greater Baltic region. One sub-topic which was not featured in the post at all is how a potential crises in the region would affect Finland, something which I believe will be of great interest to my listeners.
Information about the lecture and registration is found here, under the name “Kaliningrad ja Suwalkin aukko – Baltian avain / luentotilaisuus”.
The second lecture, held on 10 November, will be a general overview of the future of the Finnish Navy. Naturally, a lot of focus will be on Squadron 2020. But while the reintroduction of large surface combatants into the Finnish Navy rightfully takes a lot of the limelight, a number of other interesting projects are also ongoing. These include the mid-life updates of the Hamina-class FAC and Pansio-class mineferries, as well as naval applications of the Patria NEMO. My stated goal is that the audience will get a picture not only of what will change for the navy in the near- and mid-term, but crucially why these changes will be implemented. Oh, and I can almost promise that the word panssarilaivawill be mentioned.
Information about the lecture and registration is found here, under the name “Laivue 2020 ja Merivoimien kehitysnäkymät / luentotilaisuus”.
Both lectures are free of charge, and I will make sure to reserve time for questions and some discussion towards the end. I have received questions if the material will be available somewhere, and the short answer is “I hope so”. This depends on in what form I will have my speaking notes, but if I reckon that they can be of use in a stand-alone format, I will post them here on the blog afterwards.
Being aware that both topics are rather specialised, I will keep the baseline so that no background knowledge of the specific topic is required, and then build from there. Let’s put it like this: if you enjoy the blog, I believe you will enjoy the lectures as well.
P.s. RUMINT suggests that there just *might* be some coffee involved.
The discussion regarding the potential of an armed conflict, or even regional war, between NATO and Russia over the Baltics have become a staple of the post-Crimean world. Most of the focus has been placed on the difficulty in reinforcing the Baltic states in the face of a Russian anti-access/area denial ‘bubble’ (A2/AD) created with Kaliningrad as the centre of the bubble, and the potential of strengthening this bubble by rapidly occupying the Swedish island of Gotland. If this was to happen, the only way of reinforcing the Baltic states would be over the Polish-Lithuanian border, a strip of land which rapidly has become known as the Suwałki gap (named after the Polish town at one end of the gap). The Suwałki gap in turn is claimed to be extremely vulnerable, as it is wedged in between the Kaliningrad enclave and the Belarusian border.
I will argue that this is, in certain aspects, an oversimplification, but that contrary to what one might expect, this does not lessen the risk of a confrontation.
The A2/AD Bubble
With regards to the A2/AD bubble set up in Kaliningrad, it is usually seen as blocking maritime and airborne forces. By using a combination of long-range high quality surface-to-air missiles and anti-shipping weapons (land based missiles as well as surface and subsurface units), Russia would be able to deny NATO forces entry into the southern parts of the Baltic Sea, and any units operating there would be under constant threat. These two features are a key part of the definition of A2/AD challenges, see e.g. . As NATO is lacking both numbers and key capabilities (such as mechanized and armoured units) in the Baltic states, any NATO response to an incursion would have to include a rapid transfer of reinforcements from other NATO countries and into the Baltic states. The ability to hinder or disrupt these reinforcements would ensure that Russia can maintain superiority on the battlefield in terms of both numbers and lethality of the weapon systems employed.
This description is usually accompanied by maps featuring rings at 400 km, the stated maximum range for the longest ranged surface-to-air missile in current Russian inventory (the 40N6 missile of the S-400 Triumf system) , as well as at 300 km, the approximate maximum range of the K-300P Bastion-P coastal defence system’s P-800 ‘Yakhont’/’Oniks’ missiles .
However, this fails to account for a number of facts. To begin with, at maximum range missiles lacks the energy to be able to chase down and hit maneuvering targets such as fighters. The very long range nature of the 40N6 also by necessity dictates that the missile is extremely large, further degrading the performance against maneuvering targets. As such the main use of the 40N6 is likely against large high-value targets such as AWACS, tankers, stand-off jammers, and transport aircraft. A more fitting maximum range when discussing fighter-sized targets would be that of the somewhat smaller and shorter-ranged 48N6E missile, which in its latest version feature ranges over 200 km . This is still a highly potent weapon, but the area covered is roughly a quarter of that of the 40N6.
For anti-ship missiles, the need to maneuver isn’t as crucial, but going out to maximum range means that a measure of tactical flexibility is lost. This includes routing the missiles to attack from unexpected vectors, or simultaneous impact by missiles approaching from different directions, see e.g. video clip from Ruptly .
The main problem operating out at very long ranges is target acquisition. The range of radars are usually limited by the horizon, which is the reason that aircraft mounted radars are so popular. This is a problem for Kaliningrad, as the whole area is easily covered by NATO air defence networks (more on which later), and as such Russia has installed over the horizon (OTH) radar arrays in the area. In the case of Kaliningrad, it was recently disclosed that the Sunflower-E (Ru. Подсолнух-Э / Podsolnukh-E) long-range air- and surface radar will be installed in Kaliningrad . Note that the picture in the source is of the anti-missile radar Voronezh-M, also found in Kaliningrad , and not of the Sunflower-E. The exact range of this array is unclear, but the manufacturer claims it can be used to cover the 200-mile (320 km) economic zone of coastal countries , while the earlier quoted Russia Today article cited ranges ‘up to 450 km’. This latter figure is likely against large airborne targets at altitude, which is also in accordance with a widely circulated but unsourced graphic . The radar array is made up of a ‘forest’ of individual antennas, which means that it is likely very resistant to shock waves from bomb blasts. However, the largely immobile nature and size of the installation means that its exact location is well-known, and while the antennas might be hard to destroy and do feature a certain degree of redundancy if damaged, the system likely has other key components (power supply, transmitters, receivers, and operator centrals) which are more vulnerable.
Radars are also inherently active, which means that they can be located once they start transmitting. To avoid this both anti-ship missiles and the S-400 has the ability to be fed targeting data from passive sources such as emitter locators, which work by locating an emitting radar of the adversary. This is particularly effective if the enemy forces have used active jamming to make the use of own radars impossible, as the active jammer is a very strong source of emission, and hence easily targeted. As a general rule, these systems are however less accurate than active systems, and the difference is emphasised when operating at very long ranges. The fact that all missiles discussed here have their own active radars does remedy this to a certain extent.
The A2/AD bubble in Kaliningrad is made up of some of the world’s most modern anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles
To achieve accurate targeting data at extreme ranges, it relies on potentially vulnerable sensor systems
Secondary sensors are available, but offer a somewhat degraded picture
The bubble does not start at an absolute range (e.g. 400 km), but instead gradually increases in capability and lethality the closer one gets to Kaliningrad
Logistics and Kaliningrad as an enclave
Often overlooked in the discussion is the logistics of the A2/AD bubble and the vulnerability of Kaliningrad itself. The long range missiles of the S-400 and K-300P systems are large and bulky, with e.g. the 48N6E being 7,5 m long. The TEL firing units as well as transport units for reloads are all based on either 6×6 all-terrain trucks pulling semi-trailers or self-propelled 8×8 heavy all-terrain vehicles. The pure size means that the battery won’t have too many missiles with it in the field. Notable for Kaliningrad, if reinforcements are needed fast, only large transports are able to airlift the loaded vehicles, and only a limited number at a time.
Out in the field, the battery moves as a large convoy of bulky vehicles. The firing battery comprises an engagement radar and up to twelve TEL’s, each with four missiles. These are then backed up by the supporting vehicles, including missile transports (roughly similar to the TEL’s in outward appearance) and the reload vehicle with a heavy-duty crane. The firing batteries are then linked to a centralised command vehicle and a long-range acquisition radar. This means that any S-400 battery on the move will include ten to twenty oversized trucks. For the K-300P, the composition is roughly similar.
This mobility is one of the great benefits of the S-400 and K-300P systems. The whole battery can be moved around quickly, and deployed in a spread out fashion to hide from enemy units, see e.g. example of K-300P firing P-800 Yakhont from a concealed position . However, as soon as the radar starts emitting, the rough position of the battery can be found out. This means that for the the systems to heighten its chance of survival, the battery will frequently need to change positions. This in turn means that there needs to be several batteries moving around in a coordinated fashion, so that at any given time there will be a firing ready battery somewhere. For the anti-ship batteries the need to operate with the battery’s radar on is smaller, and by extension they can more easily stay hidden.
Kaliningrad is roughly 200 km long (east-west) and 100 km wide (north-south). This rather small area would have to host a number of S-400 batteries, one or two of which at any given time are shifting from one firing position to another. It is clear that during the movement phase the large trucks would be vulnerable to detection, and by extension suppression and destruction. The same would be true for the large resupply vehicles bringing new missiles from warehouses out to the firing units deployed in the field.
The logistics for the missile batteries is but a small piece of the larger logistical headache concerning the Kaliningrad enclave as a whole. As mentioned, it is wedged in between NATO countries, and while it can disrupt air and seaborne reinforcements into the Baltic countries, it is in fact even more tightly besieged itself.
If we for a moment turn the table, and start drawing range rings based upon NATO weapons systems, it soon becomes clear that current medium/long range systems such as the Patriot PAC-3 or the SAMP/T could seal of the airspace of Kaliningrad. Similarly, the narrow width in the north-south direction means that large areas of Kaliningrad are covered by current Polish and Lithuanian artillery systems deployed inside their own borders. This means that the suppression of enemy air defences mission (SEAD) could in part be undertaken by artillery units equipped with modern munitions instead of risking aircrafts and pilots as would usually be the case. If long-range surface-to-surface systems such as the US ATACMS missile system are used, the whole enclave can be covered by ground based systems.
The small size of the Kaliningrad is problematic with regards to keeping the location of the SAM batteries concealed when shifting position
The whole enclave would be under siege from the onset of hostilities, as the whole airspace can be covered by a small number of units operating current surface-to-air missiles
The size of the enclave means that NATO ground based systems would have a large impact, including performing missions usually reserved for airborne systems (such as SEAD)
The Suwałki gap
As a consequence, the importance of the Suwałki gap to both sides becomes clear. The gap, roughly the area coloured yellow in the map below, constitute the sole land route between the Baltic countries and the core of the NATO countries found in the European mainland. Similarly, the area marks the shortest distance from the Kaliningrad enclave to Belarusian territory, and as such is the most likely place for a Russian attempt to relieve the surrounded enclave.
The gap is often described as ‘vulnerable’ from a NATO point of view, mainly due to it being only 65 km wide at its narrowest point. This means that the entire width of the gap is within range of Russian artillery, and ground units could cover the distance in a matter of days (or less if unopposed).
However, this fails to account for a number of factors. While disrupting the movement of troops on the two main roads (Suwałki-Kaunas and Augustów-Alytus-Vilnius) and single railway that passes though the gap is possible not only with artillery as well as with e.g. special forces on foot, cutting it off completely and opening a corridor to Kaliningrad is another thing completely. The main transport arteries of the gap, as mentioned, traverse the region in the northeast-southwest direction, i.e. between Poland and Lithuania. There are a number of smaller roads going in the opposite direction, but in general it is easier to move troops and materiel between Poland and Lithuania than between Kaliningrad and Belarus. The main road going east from Kaliningrad goes north of the gap, and passes through the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, before continuing on to Minsk. The terrain is also very varied, with especially the area bordering Belarus being heavily forested. As such, the terrain is well-suited for the kind of light infantry that makes up the majority of the Lithuanian army. Below is an example of the terrain found in this area, featuring the road from Belarus to Druskininkai, Lithuania.
Perhaps the most often overlooked factor is the Polish army. At the same time many NATO countries have shifted to lighter and smaller units, Poland has maintained a core of heavy units, lead by the formidable 11th “Lubuska” Armoured Cavalry Division . The unit is a full-fledged armoured division, featuring two armoured brigades equipped with Leopard 2A4 tanks, to be upgraded to the Leopard 2PL standard . Backed up by two mechanised divisions equipped with PT-91 Twardy, a locally modernised MBT based on the T-72, it could provide the core of a complete armoured corps, one of very few left in NATO.
The big difference between the Polish army and others large armoured units in NATO is that it is based close to the Baltic countries, and, crucially, that the political leadership in Poland and the Baltic states largely shares the same view of Russia and the need to counter an increasingly aggressive Kremlin. As has been noted in other scenarios, the key to countering a Russian aggression in the Baltic states would be to get qualified units on the ground as soon as possible, to boost deterrence and provide an answer to the heavily mechanised Russian ground units that otherwise would be hard to counter for the light infantry units that make up the core of the Baltic armies . Importantly, if a crises were to start to unfold, the Polish units might be the only ones where there would be both the political will and a short enough transfer time that they might pass through the Suwałki gap and take up position before the gap would be under serious threat. The distance from Suwałki to e.g. Tartu is just over 600 km by road, a far cry from the logistics involved in getting a US or British armoured division deployed to Estonia.
It is obviously not without problems to deploy these units to the Baltic states. To begin with, the eastern Polish border can hardly be left undefended. Also, there is a gauge break between the Polish and Lithuanian railway systems, meaning that, until Rail Baltica is ready, what would otherwise be the most efficient way of rapidly moving tracked vehicles from Poland to the Baltic states feature a severe bottleneck. Also, the 11th “Lubuska” division is deployed in the southwestern parts of Poland, more or less as far from Lithuania as possible. The 16th “Pomeranian” Mechanised Division is however deployed opposite Kaliningrad, and while its PT-91’s are inferior to the Leopard 2PL, they are superior to anything currently deployed in the Kaliningrad enclave.
The main logistical arteries of the Suwałki gap, constituting two major roads and a railway, all go in parallel from Poland to Lithuania, with only smaller roads in the gap connecting Kaliningrad and Belarus
While part of the Suwałki gap is open ‘tank country’, other parts are heavily forested and/or broken up by water. A mechanised force would be vulnerable to ambushes and being funneled into bottlenecks
The Polish army fields a considerable striking force in the form of heavy armoured and mechanised units, as well as what is likely a lower threshold to deploy these in the Baltic states in the face of a crises compared to NATO countries located further from Russia
All in all, the Kaliningrad enclave does constitute a strategic problem for NATO in times of crises, due to its location at the entrance to the Baltic states and with the long ranged systems based there interfering with any NATO operations in the southern Baltic Sea. However, it is not an absolute hinder to NATO operations in the area, and in a prolonged conflict it would effectively be under siege. Similarly, the Suwałki gap is not necessarily as vulnerable as it is sometimes portrayed. Also, while the draw down amongst the traditional major NATO countries have left gaps in the ability of NATO to rapidly project military power with heavy units, Poland still upholds a sizeable mechanised force within striking distance of the Baltic states, coupled with a more assertive political leadership compared to what is often seen in the traditional NATO countries.
However, while all this might seem to be good news for NATO in the face of increased Russian aggression and the reckless behavior displayed by the Kremlin in relation to several of their neighboring countries, I will argue that the opposite is in fact the case.
The ability of NATO to respond to a Russian aggression aimed at the Baltic states, as well as the possibility to move Polish units into the Baltic states at short notice, create a scenario where, in an unfolding crises, time would not be on Russia’s side. In fact, if Russia would conclude that a confrontation was inevitable, it would make sense to strike sooner rather than later. Through this, the capabilities of NATO and the relatively weak position of Kaliningrad might actually become catalysts for instead of deterring an open conflict.
While a regional conflict over part of the Baltic states would be bad enough, this is far from the worst scenario. St Petersburg is within 150 km from the Estonian border. If the Kremlin actually start believing their own narrative of an aggressive and expansionist NATO, even the possibility of NATO moving a mechanised division into Estonia might be the spark that ignites a larger confrontation. And a conflict in which Russia feels that its very heartland is threatened by NATO tanks is one from which it won’t back down. I am strongly of the opinion that appeasement is not the best way forward when it comes to Russian aggression. But if Putin makes a move towards the Baltic, NATO just might be out of good options.