Combat Boats and Landing Craft

One of the earliest aspects of the current wave of close Finnish-Swedish military cooperation has been that between the marine infantry in the two countries. This was formalised as the Swedish Finnish Amphibious Task Unit (SFATU), which originally was envisaged as a crisis management tool for the littorals. In later years the scope has been increased, as can be seen during the upcoming weeks when the unit will be training in Finnish waters. Parallel to the Navy’s main exercise Silja, the unit will perform a short pre-exercise which started 27 May, and on 3 June SFATU will switch over to the main exercise and take part in Silja together with the better part of the Finnish Navy (including the marines and coastal units). The Swedish marines are joining in the fun with a total force numbering around 400 personnel and around 40 boats.

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Finnish Jehu-class in the foreground with a Swedish CB 90H in the background. Note the differences in profile. Source: Merivoimat.fi

As usually when the two forces operate next to each other the differences in equipment has raised some questions, especially in this case where both units are tailored to operate in the same niche environment that make up the Northern and Western coastline of the Baltic Sea. The most striking difference is the combat boats used, which don’t show much of a resemblance to each other. It should be noted here that in my line of work at Kongsberg Maritime Finland Oy, formerly Rolls-Royce Oy Ab, I have come into contact with both vessels. However, all information in this post is based purely on open sources (as is all my writing). In addition, I won’t discuss concepts of operations or similar details covered by OPSEC in this post, even in cases where such information is available in open sources.

The CB 90H is a truly iconic vessel. The development work took place in the late 80’s, and the first vessels entered operational service in late 1990 under the designation Stridsbåt 90. The Swedish designation literally means Combat Boat 90, and in the same way as Strf 90 thanks to it’s export success is universally known as CV 90 the boat quickly went from StrB 90 to CB 90 internationally. From the outset the vessel was known as CB 90H (‘H’ coming from its ability to transport half a platoon) to distinguish it from the somewhat similarly looking but smaller and simpler 90E (‘E’ standing for Enkel, the Swedish word for simple).

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A CB 90H showing the twin mounted 12.7 mm FN M2 heavy machine guns next to the bow doors. Source: Joel Thungren/Försvarsmakten

CB 90 was an almost instant success both domestically and on the export market. At a time when many navies still used open landing crafts powered by traditional propeller/rudder-arrangements or outboards it employed twin waterjets to give superior maneuverability and a very good acceleration and top speed. The vessel also came armed with heavy machine guns which could support the landing, and the possibility to lay mines or drop depth charges over the stern. But perhaps the most visually striking detail is the extremely low profile. This is made possible by moving the control station to the very front of the vessel, allowing the crew a good view over the bow despite being placed low inside the hull. The vessel scored a number of export deals, including to Norway, Mexico, Malaysia, and the US Navy (known locally as Riverine Command Boat, RCB). Both for the export market and for domestic use a number of different versions have been developed, including versions sporting ballistic protection. The latest version is the Stridsbåt 90HSM for the Swedish marines, which feature better protection, a new driveline, and provisions for a remote weapon station. The latest order means that Dockstavarvet, nowadays owned by Saab, will be able to celebrate 20 years of CB 90 production (though not continuously).

Swedish CB 90s of the 2. battalion of Amf 1 forming up during exercise Aurora 17. Source: Mats Nyström/Försvarsmakten

The general layout has been successful enough that it has been adopted by a number of foreign projects, none of which have enjoyed the same success of the original design. It isn’t completely without drawbacks though. The most important drawback is that the placement of the crew stations in front of the passenger compartment leads to a chokepoint when the marines exit between the navigator and the helmsman. Sitting close to the bow also means that the crew will experience heavier loads on their bodies when encountering waves (especially at speed in rougher conditions). Rearward vision also suffers, and in general keeping a low profile means that there are certain limitations once it comes to situational awareness and the ability to mount sensors and weapons high. Still, these are of secondary importance to a vessel whose main purpose is to get marines ashore, and fast.

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A Jurmo under way in the Finnish archipelago. From the picture it is easy to see that the pivot point around which the hull moves when encountering a wave is rather far aft, meaning that the pitch when encountering waves in a planning vessel will be worse in the bow compared to further aft. Source: Merivoimat FB

At the same time as the Swedish Navy was busy driving around in combat boats, the Finnish marines had to make do with open and semi-open landing crafts. These weren’t necessarily bad landing crafts, but they offered little combat potential (no, a pintle-mounted 12.7 mm NSV doesn’t make a combat boat) and worse protection for both the crew and the embarked marines. On the positive side, their conventional layout meant that loading larger cargo was possible, and swiftly getting marines out of the passenger compartment was relatively easy. Having the crew at the rear also meant that slamming the bow in heavy weather doesn’t affect the crew in the same way, instead letting the unfortunate few marines closest to the bow take the beating. Especially the Jurmo-class was a very good ‘truck’ for the marines. But it was still a truck, and the Swedish marines were driving around in (light) APCs.

The answer to the demands of the Finnish marines came to be the Jehu-class, where much of the focus is placed on combat ability. The Jehu, or Watercat M18 AMC as it is known to its builder Marine Alutech, comes with both ballistic- and CBRN-protection, a roof-mounted RWS (Saab’s Trackfire RWS in Finnish service), and a serious communications suite. Following on the Finnish traditions, the passenger compartment is close to the bow, meaning that the control stations are in a raised deckhouse found midships. This means that the vessel in general will be higher (adding weight), but also offers more space for the crew working area. To compensate for being larger, the vessel has some serious power, with the twin engines being rated at 1,150 hp (compared to two times 625 hp on the original CB 90H and two times 900 hp in ‘operational‘ setting on the 90HSM).

Bigger isn’t always better, but the increased size of the Jehu compared to both CB 90H as well as earlier Finnish designs opens up new possibilities, such as the fitting of a 120 mm NEMO mortar turret (with a direct fire ability). This is a capability the Finnish Navy urgently needs, and something which almost gave the Swedish marines their SB 2010 a decade ago. In the end, SB 2010 remained a paper product, cancelled by overzealous politicians, but the concept had called for a larger combat boat, with a general layout not completely unlike that of the Jehu.

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Finnish marines disembarking from a Jehu-class landing craft. Note the Trackfire RWS which is mounted high with an excellent field of fire. Source: Merivoimat FB

In the end, the CB 90H and Jehu are examples of the principle that the same operational environment can lead to rather different solutions, all depending on how you prioritise between the inevitable trade-offs.

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Ivan Gren 2.0 – new capabilities and tactical refinements

The lead ship of the Russian Ivan Gren-class had a long and troubled start of it’s career, requiring over 20 years of work before it finally was accepted into operational service in June 2018. For a while the whole future of the project, including the second sister laid down in 2004, seemed to be in jeopardy. However, the French refusal to deliver the two Mistral-class vessels built for the Russian Navy following the Russian invasion of Crimea suddenly threatened the ability to maintain the amphibious capabilities of the Russian Navy in the medium term. As such, work continued/was restarted on the second vessel, named Pyotr Morgunov, in late 2014.

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Ivan Gren at sea. Note the bow doors. Source: Mil.ru via Wikimedia Commons

The Project 11711 Ivan Gren-class is significant for the Russian Navy in many ways. It is one of very few major warships to be added to the Russian Navy since the end of the Cold War, and as such is important both from an industry and prestige point of view. But that also mean they play a key role in revitalising the amphibious fleet, which currently mainly rests on ex-Soviet Ropucha-class LSTs backed up by the last few Tapir-class LSTs. The newest of these are approaching 30 years in service, with the older ones dating back to the late 60’s. The fleet has also been heavily worked as part of the Russian campaign in Syria, where they have run cargo between Black Sea ports and Syria on a regular basis. As such, a replacement is sorely needed.

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The stern of the Ivan Gren, showing the rear ramp as well as the helicopter platform and hangar in the rear island. Source: Mil.ru via Wikimedia Commons

A short interlude on explaining the different kinds of amphibious ships and what makes them differ from each other:

  • The Landing Ship Tank, LST, is a large landing craft capable of traversing open waters which can be driven onto the beach and unload vehicles through the bow,
  • The Dock Landing Ship, LSD, has a well dock (hence the name) from which it launches landing crafts which then ferry personnel and vehicles to shore,
  • The Landing Platform Dock, LPD, functions as a LSD but has better aviation facilities to be able to support helicopter assaults,
  • The Landing Helicopter Dock, LHD, and Landing Helicopter Assault, LHA, both look like small carriers with full-length flight decks and a focus on helicopter and V/STOL operations. The LHD also has a well dock, while the LHA doesn’t.

Both the LSD and LPD can be found with bow doors similar to the LST, making vessels such as the Ivan Gren hard to classify accurately. This is especially true, as the designations above are based on US naval vessels, and vessels of other nations doesn’t necessarily strictly adhere to the same dividing lines. In the case of the Ivan Gren, it lacks a well dock, but the presence of a hangar is something unheard of in most other LSTs.

The Mistral-class is a typical LHD, which can bring in a 40-tank strong Leclerc battalion, some 900 troops, and some 16 heavy helicopters in shorter operations. To say that by acquiring the significantly smaller Ivan Gren (13 tanks or 36 APCs, 300 troops, 2 helicopters) the Russian Navy replaced the shortfall in amphibious capability would be a lie. In essence they go from being able to lift a tank battalion to being able to lift a reinforced motorised company per ship. However, the vessels still hold great potential, though especially the Ivan Gren has been plagued by technical issues.

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Ropucha-class LST Aleksandr Shabalin unloading a swimming BTR-80 APC which will drive the last part to the shore under it’s own power. Source: Mil.ru via Wikimedia Commons

A notable tactic of the Russian Ropucha-class is that instead of driving all the way to the shore and beaching the bow, they stay some distance out and let amphibious vehicles enter the water through the bow doors and ‘swim’ the last part to the shore. This has certain benefits, as well as some rather significant drawbacks. The obvious benefit is the ability to use shores where the large LST can’t safely beach itself. The requirements for a suitable landing spot are rather strict, as it should be solid enough and at a shallow enough angle to allow the forces to disembark safely, while still being deep enough to allow for safe passage to and from the shoreline. The LST is also kept out of range of most infantry weapons, with the swimming vehicles providing smaller and less valuable targets. The biggest drawback is that it takes significant time for the APCs to reach shore, giving prolonged warning to the waiting defenders. The swimming vehicles are also more vulnerable to bad weather compared to the larger ship, and while their low profile makes them hard targets, their situational awareness is seriously hampered until they can get out of the water. As such a dug-in defender with ample anti-tank weapons can wreak havoc on an incoming wave of swimming APCs.

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A typical modern amphibious assault from NATO exercise Trident Juncture 18 with a heavy CH-53E transport helicopter heading to shore escorted by an AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, with landing crafts below and a Mistral-class LHD in the background. Source: Ole-Sverre Haugli/Forsvaret

The obvious solution then is to add speed. This is nothing new, with both the US and the Soviet Union having added some classes of faster landing crafts and, crucially, helicopters to their amphibious forces already during the Cold War. The helicopters give the possibility to secure spots that aren’t reachable from the sea (i.e. in the enemy rear), and provides significantly faster cruise speed compared to any landing crafts found. But if landing a motorised battalion by sea is hard, helicopters aren’t suitable for anything heavier than light infantry, make a serious amount of noise, and have their own set of requirements when it comes to landing locations. As such the need to be able to bring heavy ships close to shore will remain if the landing is to be able to open up a new front (in the long run a harbour with working port facilities will have to be secured, which further opens up interesting tactical and strategic considerations which are too complex to fit inside the scope of this post. Just be aware that securing a beachhead is rarely enough).

The Mistral could thus have landed infantry units by helicopter to secure key spots along the shoreline and protect the beachhead from counterattacks until the main fighting force, including tanks, could be carried ashore by the heavy landing crafts operating out of the Mistral’s well dock. The Ivan Green can try to do a ‘lighter’ version of the same thing, with a total of two Ka-29 transport helicopters carrying two squads each ashore to be followed by infantry in swimming BTRs. The use of helicopters is also evident in how the Russian naval infantry brigades are set up, as one of the three (or possibly four) rifle battalions in any brigade is airmobile.

The other option is to use faster landing crafts. The general arrangement of the Ivan Gren is such that landing crafts can be carried as deck cargo (light craft such as RIBs can also be launched and apparently retrieved over the stern ramp). However, the lack of a well dock means that these have to be carried as deck cargo and then hoisted with a crane over the side of the ship, a time-consuming maneuver which also increases the risks during the transfer of soldiers between the LST and the landing craft compared to using a well dock.

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Project 03160 ‘Raptor’ at sea. Source: FmGo . 111 via Wikimedia Commons

The latest development is that the Russian Navy has ordered two further vessels of a modified Ivan Gren-class. These will be further tailored to provide additional options to the task force commander when it comes to how the forces will be landed, namely with improved aviation facilities and better facilities for handling landing crafts. These are stated to be either of the Project 03160 ‘Raptor’ or the similar looking Project 02510 BK-16 classes. Both of these are best described as combat boats or assault landing craft, being able to transport around twenty marines to shore at high speed, and then support the landing with machine guns and other infantry support weapons from roof-mounted remote weapon stations. The reasoning behind this is clearly stated in an Izvestia-article, where former chief of the General Staff of the Navy, Admiral Valentin Selivanov, was interviewed:

Boats will allow the special forces to quickly and quietly approach the shore to ensure a successful landing of the main wave of the landing. They will destroy the most important firing points, demining approaches to the coast.

The special forces in this case could be ‘true’ SOF such as OMRP, or elite marine infantry such as the separate reconnaissance battalions of the naval infantry brigades (724th Separate Reconnaissance Battalion in the case of the Baltic Fleet’s 336th Guards Naval Infantry Brigade). Another interesting aspect is that modifications to enhance the ability to operate the assault crafts are apparently still unconfirmed, and could include either a dedicated chute or even a well dock instead of the rear ramp. While the latter is unlikely considering the serious modifications to the basic design it would entail (especially considering the projected in-service date of 2024/2025), it would be a significant improvement to the Russian capabilities and in essence make the two vessels of the second batch LPDs rather than LSTs. This would also improve the ability of the Russian Navy to operate far from home both on amphibious assault missions as well as on more peaceful ones, such as disaster relief.

In essence, the non-delivery of the Mistral-class has caused a serious gap in Russian amphibious capabilities in the near- to mid-term, especially when it comes to the ability to conduct stand-off amphibious landings with helicopters and fast landing crafts. Now the Navy is trying to make up for at least part of the shortfall in capability through ordering more vessels of the troubled Ivan Gren-class and trying to adopt the design to better fit the stand-off requirements. Time will tell if this will make a useful workhorse of the class in the vein of the venerable Ropuchas, or if it will be left a poor attempt to beat a square peg into a round hole.

Hat-tip to Robe Lee (@RALee85) who first brought the story to my attention. Head over to Twitter and give him a follow if Russian equipment is of any interest to you!

The other island

In the shadow of Sweden re-militarising Gotland, the focus of the Finnish discussion rapidly turned to two things: Why is the Finnish government cutting defence spending in the budget proposal presented this week, and what to do with our own blank spot, the Åland islands?

The Åland islands have been demilitarised since the (First) Crimean War of the mid-19th century. The Russian Empire, to which the Grand-Duchy of Finland belonged back then, had built an impressive coastal fortress at Bomarsund, which an Anglo-French force captured in 1854. The whole siege cost both sides less than a 100 dead each, and would probably have been all but forgotten if not for two aspects: The first ever Victoria Cross was awarded for gallantry shown during the battle, and the fact that the peace Treaty of Paris (not to be confused with the 1947 edition) that ended the conflict declared the islands demilitarised (though not the surrounding waters).

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The final assault on Bomarsund. Source: Wikimedia Commons
It should be noted that the legal status is far from clear-cut. The islands have been dealt with in a number of treaties, including the above-mentioned Paris Treaty of 1856, but also by the League of Nation decision of 1921 (expanding the demilitarisation to include surrounding waters), and the treaties with the Soviet Union following the Winter and Continuation Wars. Col. (ret.) Anders Gardberg has written a study on the islands, including the legal aspects, found here.  The questions it deals with are largely unchanged over time, keeping the 20 year old paper highly relevant. Of note is that the 1921 Convention allows for Finland to, if  “‘exceptional circumstances demand’ send into the zone and keep there temporarily such armed forces that are ‘strictly necessary for the maintenance of order'” (as quoted in Gardberg’s paper). A piece of interesting trivia is that unlike what is often stated, the inhabitants of the islands can actually be called up for conscript duty, but only in the Pilot- and Lighthouse authority. This in turn was quickly disbanded and turned into the Finnish Maritime Administration following Finnish independence, making this something of a moot point…

If we however leave the legal fine print aside, and accept the fact that there is currently nothing that points towards the Finnish politicians mustering the willpower to let the needs of the defense of this strategic area prevail over the political inertia of status quo and significant local (and Russian) opposition to an even partial re-militarisation, the question appears how much of a problem this really is?

There is little doubt that today there exists plans for the Navy to conduct a updated version of the WWII-era Operation Regatta, wherein a naval convoy at the outbreak of hostilities quickly shipped the necessary forces to the Åland Islands.

The problem, as is generally the case with the Finnish Defence Forces, is that the number of standing marine units (not counting the ships) ready to intervene at a short notice is negligible. In practice, this means that for Operation Regatta 2.0 to succeed, the crises needs to have escalated over time to the extent that a mobilisation of reservists have been initiated, and the first act of hostilities need to be something else than a ro-ro vessel heading out of St Petersburg suddenly altering its course and unloading a reinforced mechanised battalion in Mariehamn. The absolute nightmare is a coordinated surprise assault by sea and air, allowing rapid transfer of a brigade (or possibly even a reinforce one) to occupy the Åland mainland, something which could easily come out of one of the Russian snap exercises. This would be extremely hard to dislodge, and would effectively cut off Finland from the rest of world, with regards to both military room to manoeuvre and the flow of vital goods such as food and fuel for the society as a whole. This would either require Finland to give in to any demands placed by the Kremlin, let the Finnish society literally starve, or defeat the Russian force on the battlefield.

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The new Jehu-class fast assault craft of the Finnish Navy. In effect, it upgrades the coastal jaegers’ mode of  transport from ‘truck’ to ‘IFV’ to use a land forces metaphor. Source: Wikimedia Commons/MKFI
The later need not necessarily be by a frontal assault. The major difference between Gotland and Åland is that the former is a largely continuous landmass, while the latter is made up by 6,700 named (and a further 13,000 unnamed) islands and skerries. The archipelago is a battlefield unlike any other. It is virtually impossible to control all islands, leading to the forces being grouped on the ones deemed strategically important from where they can then extend zones of control over the lesser ones. Naturally, this calls for a very delicate balance between overextending and leaving gaps in the defence. As any kind of retreat or bringing in of reinforcements during an ongoing fight is extremely hazardous, operations are usually characterised by swift and determined assaults where the attacker tries to throw the defender into the sea by asserting man- and firepower superiority. If the first attack fails, the only option left is usually to try and withdraw under fire. The Hanko campaign of 1941 is probably the best historical case study to shine light on the dilemmas.

The issue for any Russian troops sitting on Åland is that they are too few to hold all major entryways at any given point. This would be the case even if this was the single main offensive operation in the Baltic Sea region, which would in turn mean that the occupiers would include the 336. Marine Brigade and the 76. Air Assault Division in Pskov (note that this is an understrength divsion). Any Russian occupation would still leave potential weak spots which would allow Finnish coastal jaegers and special forces to set up their own position in close vicinity to the Russian positions.

Finnish marine forces in action

In case the conflict started according to the Crimea-blueprint, where the Russians have deployed forces to protect their (shipping) interests in the area but the different forces aren’t actually shooting at each other, the Finnish troops could theoretically play to the strengths provided by their supply lines being short and well-protected, and create a counter-siege where the occupiers are cut off from the Russian supply bases in the St Petersburg area and the Kaliningrad exclave. This would force the Russians to either escalate the conflict into a real shooting war (one in which they have lost the element of surprise and would clearly be the attacker) or back down. If the shooting war is already a fact, the ability to use long-range anti-shipping missiles from the mainland’s archipelago and light infantry units to operate in the Åland archipelago in hit-and-run attacks and as spotters would create a race to the bottom, where both Finland and the occupying force are under siege, and the question is which one breaks faster.

However, even if the possibility of bouncing back from a strategic surprise is there, this is dependent upon the Finnish government exhibiting the required determination to realise the strategic importance of the islands and put up a fight to defend these. Sadly, this is the single part of the whole Åland question which I feel is questionable.