Heavy Metal in the South, Pt. 3 – A Tank Factory of Your Own

As mentioned in the last post, a big part of the reason behind the Polish decision to go for the K2 Black Panther was the industrial package. Now, it should be emphasised that there really are no bad tanks on the (western) export market today. The competition and continued development of the main platforms has made sure of that, and which tank would come out on top depends heavily on your terrain, doctrine, and a host of other aspects. The differences in combat capability between individual variants of the same tank – such as Leopard 2A4 and 2A7V – are also vastly larger than between different tanks of corresponding vintage – such as M1A2SEPv3, Leopard 2A7V, and K2NO.

K2 Black Panther tanks from the South Korean 11th Mechanised “Hwarang” Division during a combined arms exercise back in January. It seems likely that in addition to getting the WKM-B the eventual K2PL-standard would feature a remote-weapon station for the weapon as opposed to the pintle-mount seen here, as is the case of the K2NO. Source: ROK Army FB/Jung Seung Ik

Obviously, even if Hyundai Rotem would strike gold and bag the Norwegian order, the K2 would be an outlier in Europe. So is it worth the issues that will cause? There was a particularly sour comment made by KMW advisor Nicholas Drummond to CNN, in which he described the tank as “overall less sophisticated with inferior electronic architecture” compared to the Leopard 2, leading the news outlet to sum it up as “essentially a less capable version of the German Leopard 2”. What exactly he based that comment on is unclear to me, as most open sources seems to agree on the K2 being on par with the most modern versions of the M1 Abrams and Leopard 2 when it comes to these things. He eventually took to Twitter to give a more nuanced critique, but even there he repeated the claim that the K2 Black Panther is based on the Leopard 2, and that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Now, if getting the same powerpack and sporting a 120 mm smoothbore gun is using the “Leopard 2 as a model”, the whole argument is spun out of a rather thin thread. In particular when you realise that the plan all along was to move away from the German powerpack to a local replacement. My understanding is that the tanks currently rolling off the production line indeed has a Korean Doosan DV27K engine (interestingly enough a long-stroke design rather than the MTU883 short-stroke), though the transmission still is German after the local replacement experienced issues (the transmission is in many ways the more complex and specialised part of the powerpack).

Still, he has a few valid points – such as the Leopard 2 thanks to its age being a more mature system, and that the 2A7-family of versions sporting many of the key systems that are selling points of the K2 (active protection, integrated BMS/C4I-solutions, and so forth) – and it is true that the huge success of the Leopard 2 on the export market is a significant advantage when it comes to pooling spares and resources, as well as sharing in the R&D costs. However, the situation is not quite as rosy as he would have you believe. While a number of European countries back in the day did set up domestic production lines, many of those have since closed or gone cold, with production of Leopards in recent years becoming a significantly more German affair. He is also overlooking the sheer scope of the Polish framework agreement.

There are currently roughly 1900 Leopard 2 tanks in service in Europe once you remove the 280 or so Norwegian and Polish tanks that are to be retired in the near-future. This is a ball-park figure based on Wikipedia, but should give the correct order of magnitude. You can add another 82 Canadian ones, as well as approximately 550-600 in service or on order from other non-European customers (the question mark being the total number in Singaporean service). With the exception of Austria, the European tanks are operated by NATO-members, so there will indeed be the opportunity to share logistics. At the same time, the numbers aren’t overwhelmingly in favour of the Leopard, as the total NATO-fleet of Leopards is somewhere in the order of magnitude of twice the Polish order – significant, but not the 9:1 Drummond’s thread might give the impression of. Also notable is that with R&D-cost sharing usually being done on a per system-basis, and with ROK sporting a couple of hundred K2s themselves, the situation isn’t looking overly detrimental to what it would have if Poland would have gotten a thousand Leopards and made up a third of NATO’s Leopard-fleet.

A family picture taken at ADEX21 of the Omani-test vehicle, an operational-standard K2, and the K2NO sporting the Kongsberg Protector RWS and Trophy active defence system. Source: Hyundai Rotem

Now, the supply base will be narrower, and Korea as a source for spares and potentially crucial upgrades does raise more questions than a European country would. Any Polish factory will also be within range of more Russian long-range systems than German factories would be, and the work involved in getting spares from South Korea to Poland is bound to be a more complex logistical process than simply driving trucks over the border from Germany.

However, as mentioned there is deep mistrust towards the German arms industry following years of issues with the Leopards (there is room for glancing in the mirror on the side of the Polish authorities, armed forces, and industry as well, that is for sure – however, right or wrong, that does not change the overreaching sentiment in Warsaw). In addition, the inability to find common ground on Ukraine is cementing the split further. Drummond argues that it would be “ridiculous” to suggest that Germany would not support its NATO-ally Poland, and by extent argues that anything relating to arms deliveries to Ukraine is a different beast and shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath.

This might indeed be a correct reading of how Berlin thinks, but unfortunately for Drummond it just underscores the rift between how the strategic picture looks in Warsaw and Berlin respectively. Because while Poles without doubt are nice people who help Ukraine out of their kind hearts, there is also a strong strain of strategic self-interests that goes into arms deliveries to Ukraine (as indeed is the case for a number of countries along NATO’s eastern front). Ukraine’s fight will in many ways determine the security environment Poland will live in for decades to come, and a big part of why Poland is shipping their tanks to Ukraine is because Ukrainians fights not just for their own survival, but for the safety of millions of Poles, Finns, Estonians, and a host of other NATO- and EU-citizens. Berlin’s inability to grasp the Polish sense of urgency and how important they see the deliveries to Ukraine means that the discussions about e.g. the delivery of just 44 used Leopards does raise questions about Germany. And these questions are not just about Berlin’s willingness to aid Ukraine, but as the transfer would bolster Polish security, the questions raised are tied directly to Germany’s willingness to stand by its allies – at least that is how the question is formulated in Warsaw (and in a number of other capitals). Not necessarily because Berlin would make a conscious decision to abandon their allies, but because the strategic picture in Berlin is so remarkably different from that seen further east. And seriously, if me noting this rift makes me a Putin apologist, then that’s a really curious definition of the term (with that said, there certainly are Putinists who try to increase the rift among Western countries by using these talking points for their own purposes. That, however, should not take away from valid criticism).

It also in many ways is a two-way street. The fact that South Korea is still in a state of war with the North and have uneasy feelings about China (and to some extent doesn’t trust Japan, although a direct ROK-Japanese conflict is extremely unlikely) does indeed raise questions about what happens with promised deliveries in case of a renewal of fighting along the 38th parallel? However, at the same time the unease about a massive nuclear-armed adversary on the other side of the border is something Poland and South Korea have in common – and apparently something Germany for all its talk is lacking – and this is were security of supply suddenly is turned on its head. When Warsaw call Seoul and tells them “We need this now, because we worry for our national security”, they speak a language Seoul understands. And while they most likely won’t risk their own national security to meet the Polish needs, short of that one can expect them to show a greater interest than Berlin would. Because Poland isn’t a user among 18, but the largest customer and the bridgehead on the European market. And because the Koreans know themselves what it means to feel like you are living under threat, and understand that sense of urgency and the can-do attitude needed to meet that threat.

Is the risk of a Korean War 2.0 in the next five to ten years or so (after which the local Polish production lines should be up and running) big enough that the whole deal deserve to be questioned? Personally I don’t think so. The challenges in this deal are found elsewhere, and we’ll get to those, but it is good to realise that it is not just about performance of the tanks, but about how the fleet will be kept supplied as well.

So yes, Poland won’t be able to share spares with their NATO-allies (to say they won’t have “interoperability”, as Drummond does, is a stretch), which is a minus. At the same time, as a Finn I certainly understand the feel that one wants to be able to handle production and management of spares in-country. These things are always balanced against each other, and which one will take precedent depends on national needs and industrial policy. Drummond also goes on about the possibility of Poland not being able to support its K2 fleet, and possibly also the K9, overlooking the fact that with Poland a total of five NATO countries will be operating the SPG – all of them in Europe (compared to seven for the PzH 2000).

Clip from the Norwegian tests, starting with the K2 Black Panther showing off the hydropneumatic suspension

From a wider European perspective, while the Leopard 2 is an excellent platform for years to come, and while MGCS looks promising, having another serious contender (or two, with the M1 Abrams finally finding a European customer) and a  new production line in Europe is certainly a net positive in my opinion – even for us Leopard 2-users. Competition will drive the prices down, will force the large European defence companies to stay innovative and efficient, and if the worst comes to play, you certainly can’t have too many tank factories on the continent. Already now Norway is benefitting from this effect, as the Norwegian decision later this year will certainly be made with a better offer from Germany than would have been the case if the K2 wasn’t on the table. If that means one Leopard-user less with whom to share the R&D and spare part costs, I believe we not only can live with that, but that we might even be better off at the end of the day.

With that said, the level of ambition shown by the Poles and the challenges therein should not be underestimated. Just getting license production rolling will pose a challenge, as starting up a production line can easily run into cultural issues with the developer, differences with the supply chains, and teething troubles, all of which tends to increase both delays and costs. That is not to mention bringing along the K2PL-upgrade which so far is only a paper-product (if even that). Once we start looking at the K3PL next-generation tank, we are slowly approaching territory which if not exactly fantasy-land then at least belongs to its neighbour, rather-unlikely-land. Let’s remember that even countries with decades of unbroken production and development of main battle tanks have faced issues once they have started looking at the next generation of things. The challenges inherent in the complete program should not be underestimated!

One of the things supporting a successful joint Polish-Korean endeavour is the history of ROK with the successful K1-project and the proven ability to both design, produce, and maintain the tanks in operational service. Here a K1 is undergoing maintenance at an Army depot. Source: ROK Army/Lt. Kim Bitchan

However, before we start mourning failures that haven’t happened, let’s remember a few details that increase the probability of success. One is the know-how of the Koreans, and this being their best shot at entering the extremely competitive and conservative European market, and at a time when it is bound to grow. Success with the K2PL – and potentially the K3PL – would offer a unique opportunity to court countries that are vary of overreliance on German (and to a lesser extent, French) arms suppliers, and as such might be open to buying from unconventional sources – especially if the product is good. This is a serious driver for the Koreans to go above and beyond when it comes to helping their partners – and crucially, customers – in this endeavour. Similarly, the Polish industry is staffed by people motivated by the national security crisis brought on by Russia, and eager to show the world what they can achieve. A will to perform won’t get you the whole way, but it is a crucial ingredient. In this case it is also backed up by a solid knowledge base acquired over the years through producing, maintaining, and modernising a number of different vehicles. The most notable projects are without doubt the Rosomak and the older PT-91, but also work on other military vehicles have taken place in Poland in recent years. The step-by-step approach with deliveries of ROK-standard vehicles, production of K2PL, and only then a new design, gives significantly more credibility than what would have been the case if Warsaw would just have tried to build a MGCS-competitor on their own.

Still, it is a long way that stretches ahead for the Polish-tank program(s), and caution is a good companion. But as Poland is increasingly becoming the most important European ground power in NATO – and as such a key ally for both Finland and the other allied states around the Baltic Sea – I sincerely hope for the best.

Heavy Metal in the South, Pt. 2 – The Asian Jaguar

The Republic of Korea has obviously a long history of being on more or less permanent war-footing, but it was somewhat more recently that they really fired up their own arms industry. For the MBT-side of things, this kicked off with the K1, which entered service in the late-80’s. This was a tank related to the M1 Abrams, although sporting enough differences – most visibly the integration of a combined torsion bar/hydrodynamic suspension as well as a more traditional diesel engine, but also a somewhat different approach when it came to sensors and sights – to ensure it was a new tank a not just a local copy of the M1. The K1 has moved through a number of versions, including following the path of the Abrams of going from a 105 mm rifled main gun to a 120 mm smoothbore one, and by all accounts have provided good service to the ROK Army even if never quite grabbing the headlines. Interestingly, one of the few export attempts was to Malaysia, where it was beaten by the PT-91. It’s a small world…

But there was still room for more tanks to replace old M48 Pattons. One of the solutions was to accept a battalion of T-80U from Russia – apparently as payment for debts owed by the Soviet government. A large-scale order for Russian steel was not, however, in the cards. Instead, development of a new tank started.

A rather wet T-80U in Korean service. The tank has also appeared in a number of other western countries, so ROK isn’t unique in their knowledge of it. However, as opposed to the handful of tanks running around in UK and US (and earlier, Swedish) testing grounds, the Koreans are one of extremely few Western-aligned countries to have operational experience of its usage. Source: Wikimedia Commons/박종훈

There is obviously no proof that the ROK would have used that inside knowledge of what was then one of the most modern non-Western tanks of the battlefield when designing what would become the K2. But I guess it didn’t hurt. Neither probably did the fact that ROK also operate a limited number of (ex-IDF) T-62 and T-72M1 in the aggressor role.

If the K1 had borrowed from the Abrams, the K2 would borrow from the Leclerc. Exactly how much is somewhat open for discussion – one anecdote gives that the autoloader is copied based on ‘YouTube-videos‘, though it should be noted that development work of the K2 was quite far along by the time YouTube was launched, leaving open the option that the term should not be taken literally but rather in general for video-clips on the internet, that a video clip helped iron out the final design at a rather late stage, or that the whole anecdote is fake. In any case, like the Leclerc, the tank is relatively light and sport a three-man crew tanks to the autoloader removing the need for a dedicated loader.

The K2 Black Panther entered service in 2014 – two years after the Japanese Type 10 and as such laying claim to being the newest tank in operational service. This newness has to some extent been exaggerated, as while the tank might be decades newer than much of the competition, the continuous development of the current generation of western tanks means that the latest and greatest version of the Leopard 2 and Abrams are more or less sporting the same level of protection, firepower, and combat management systems as the K2 does. There is without doubt a benefit to being able to integrate 21st century systems from day one of the design instead of bolting them on afterwards, which is seen in e.g. the growth in weight and lower mobility of the latest versions of the Leopard and Abrams, but this is more along the lines of bonus points in the margin than evaluation winners. All in all, it is a good and very modern tank, but it is still a competitor to the current generation of M1A2 SEP-series and Leopard 2A7, rather than to the next generation such as MGCS.

The K2NO during winter tests in Norway. While decidedly the underdog, the fact that Norway already operate the K9 Thunder and the reportedly stellar performance of the vehicle during the winter tests does give the Korean tank some opportunity for an upset. Source: Torbjørn Kjosvold/Forsvaret

South Korea had faced issues with entering the European market for quite a while, the most successful defence export being the world’s greatest Les Misérables parody – Les Militaribles, set at the ROKAF’s 22nd Fighter Wing. However, in the last decade, sales of the K9 Thunder has picked up pace, as has interest in a number of other systems, such as the K21 IFV. The K2 has also showed up in Norway, where the tailored K2NO-variant is competing against the Leopard 2A7NO for the contract as Norway’s next MBT. While the Leopard arguably is the favourite, the K2 is reported to have outperformed the Leopard in recent winter testing, thanks to the advanced suspension and low weight allowing for good mobility (it should be remembered that the Korean peninsula is no stranger to snow).

It deserves to be emphasised that the market for a supplier of a modern tank is really limited, in particular if you aren’t interested in Russian (or rather, Soviet) or Chinese designs. The Leclerc scored a single export order to UAE, who eventually donated a number of tanks to Jordan. The Challenger 2 saw a small order from Oman, while the Ariete never left Italy. As such, all three are more or less out of the game at this stage. Just how dominant the Leopard 2 has been on the export markets is evident when one remember that the M1 Abrams has scored a whooping six export deals before the Polish one – all except Australia being to the Middle East or North Africa. So if you have burned your bridges over the Oder-Neisse line, have been politely declined to come aboard the MGCS in the earlier phases of the project, and still want to get your own tank production line with transfer of technology and the potential of a future tank design, where do you go? To Seoul.

The South Koreans were ready to supply not only tanks to Poland, but to participate in setting up a complete associated infrastructure including technology transfer, license production, development of an improved local version known as K2PL, local production of spare parts, and joint development of a future tank tentatively described as the K3PL. This all weighed heavily in the Polish decision, with some Polish analysts going as far as calling the K2 inferior to the M1A2 SEPv3, but the overall deal making a K2-buy interesting.

After years of rumoured interest, the outbreak of the war ensured that Polish authorities saw the K2 being the preferable way forward, and earlier this week signed a huge framework agreement covering buys and local production of not just the K2, but also K9 howitzers and FA-50 light fighters. In addition there are discussions regarding the IFV-side of things – in practice a further developed version of the K21-version known as AS21 Redback which is currently on offer to Australia –  as well as about the K239 Chunmoo multiple-rocket launch system to complement the HIMARS ordered by Poland.

The scope of the framework agreement is huge. For the K2, it starts with 180 tanks of the current K2-version delivered starting this year and stretching out to 2025. As said, these would cover three battalions of 60 tanks eachEdit: Seems a Polish battalion is 58 tanks to be exact, this changes a few numbers down the line, but nothing drastic. This batch would be followed by an additional 820 tanks built locally to an upgraded K2PL-standard, with deliveries starting in 2026. All in all, that makes it a nice even 1,000 K2 in Polish service, which would fill a total of 17 tank battalions. Looking back at the OOB, that would mean converting all three remaining divisions into more or less the same pattern as the 18th with its six tank battalions, leaving Poland with a full four divisions of around 360 tanks each (one of them being a battalion short).

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The cost of the tanks, according to the framework agreement, would come in at approximately 12.86 MEUR per vehicle, which is a lot but not overly expensive. In fact, it ties in rather nicely with the 11.2 MEUR per vehicle that Slovakia reportedly is paying for their CV90 IFVs, as well as with the reported 2009 unit cost of 8.5 MUSD for the Korean production run which inflation-adjusted to 2022 dollars (CPI. Yes, not ideal for military systems) and converted to Euros sits at 11.6 MEUR (and which at the time earned the K2 a Guinness World Record as “Most Expensive Tank”). Now, comparing vehicle costs are always complex and usually  sits somewhere between “As relevant as the price of fish in Goa” and “Moderately useful” on the scale of relevancy to the discussion, but it does not feel like the Poles are paying a lot considering the reported scope – if the 12.86 Bn EUR really cover the whole acquisition program.

Approximately here we ought to stop and acknowledge the fact that Polish defence procurement has a history of not being straightforward, and with the politicians and armed forces having a tendency of being better at presenting plans and concepts rather than actually seeing them through. A framework agreement, even if a signed document and certainly of value, is not and should not be confused with an acquisition contract proper. However, several of the programs now kicked off are not new, but rather ones that have been in the pipeline for years without anyone actually pulling the figurative trigger. The war next-door certainly has given them a renewed importance, and as such it certainly is possible that the framework agreement will lead to serious orders – and fast, if the scheduled first deliveries in 2022 are to be met.

Still, it is difficult to overstate how ambitious the current framework agreement is. One thing that almost certainly will suffer is the ambitious K2PL-variant proposed during the last few years, which would have been a radical redesign that also included a lengthened hull with an additional roadwheel. It does seem unlikely that the currently described K2PL which will be ready for local production in four years would feature all the envisioned improvements, and as such that particular concept is likely dead. More likely, the K2PL is an iterative design on the current chassis, as the variant is said to feature improvements to the armour and observation system, a new active soft-kill/hard-kill protection system (the Elbit ASOP/IFLD), as well as integration of new types of programmable ammunition and the locally built 12.7 mm WKM-B heavy machine gun as the secondary weapon of choice (this is a Polish NSV chambered in .50 BMG).

However, the really interesting side is the industrial aspect, and here we have a true ‘glass half full/empty’-situation.

Heavy Metal in the South, Pt. 1 – Mr. Creighton’s Tank

Poland has been a regular feature on the blog, largely due to it being one of the few European and the sole western country bordering the Baltic Sea to actually count the strength of its ground forces in divisions and not brigades (or battalions…). Poland is also a country that has extremely bad memories of Russia during the last few centuries, and as such has taken a prominent role in the response to the war in Ukraine. Crucially, this include the transfer of quite a few tanks and self-propelled guns to Ukraine, leading to a renewed hurry to rearm the Polish Army with modern equipment.

A very busy-looking M1A2 System Enhancement Package (SEP) v2 Abrams exercises in Poland in 2016. The SEPv2 is a step below the v3 Poland is acquiring, but externally the vehicles are rather similarly looking, including the significant amount of turret-mounted stuff compared to the original clean M1 of the Cold War. Source: US Army photo by Sgt. Ashley Marble/Wikimedia Commons

A brief summary for those who don’t have keeping track of Polish tanks on the top of their to-do-list. The Polish Army sport four divisions, one of which is the 11th ‘Lubuska‘ Armoured Cavalry Division, with the other three being the three mechanized ones: the 18th  ‘Żelazna‘,  12th ‘Szczecińska‘, and 16th ‘Pomorska‘. There has been quite a bit of cut and paste and general moving around of units and equipment in recent years, so with the caveat that I certainly might have missed something, the 11th and 18th operate mixes of Leopard 2 and older tanks (T-72 for 11th, PT-91 for 18th), while the 16th uses a mix of T-72 and PT-91. Despite the name, the 12th is a motorised unit based around the Rosomak (local version of the Patria AMV) rather than a true mechanised division. The PT-91 is a locally upgraded T-72, while the ‘real’ T-72 that are in use are made up of a combination of T-72M1 and the lightly upgraded T-72M1R. For IFV, the BWP-1 (BMP-1) soldier on, while the Rosomak is in use alongside tracked vehicles in the 11th and as mentioned a key vehicle for the 12th. For artillery, the venerable 2S1 Gvozdika 122 mm SPG is slowly on the way out, while the Krab is on the way in. This is a unique Polish hybrid sporting the chassis of the South Korean K9 Thunder but with a British AS-90M Braveheart turret. The Braveheart traces its roots to a cancelled upgrade-program for the British standard AS-90 SPG, crucially fitted with a modern 52-calibre gun instead of the 39-calibre one used by the UK.

Edit: Turns out the 12th also is a mechanized division, and I was just fooled by their homepage which prefer to show off the modern wheeled brigade and not the old Soviet-designed iron. Funny that. Thanks to Piekarski for pointing that out!

Now, Poland and Germany has had a somewhat complicated relationship over the years (mild understatement), and the Polish Army and political leadership has not been happy with their recent dealings with the German defence industry (another mild understatement). This is to the extent that the planned Leopard 2PL upgrade program has been cancelled, and instead all Leopard 2A4 and 2A5 are to be withdrawn from service. Edit: I was under the impression that the severely delayed 2PL-program had been cancelled with the decision to withdraw the Leopards from service, but apparently it (at least) for now continues, with the goal of converting another 20+ tanks this year. Good catch by nonameplease!  At the same time, you do not need to be a genius to realise that the T-72M1 and PT-91 really ought to have preceded the Leopard 2 into the greener pastures beyond, meaning that the Polish Armed Forces are looking at replacing all tanks in the current inventory, an inventory which as mentioned is one of the largest in Europe.

The most positive thing that can be said about the T-72M1 on the modern battlefield is that it is no more outdated than many of the Russian tanks it could be expected to meet, and that having an old tank usually is better than not having any tank at all. Here a T-72M1 of the 18th division’s 19th brigade is basking in the Polish sun. Source: 19th brigade FB

What has made the situation even more urgent for both generations of tanks is the war in Ukraine, which for the Leopard 2 has seen the faith in Germany as an arms supplier take a serious hit, while for the T-72/PT-91 an undisclosed but significant number – it could eventually be possibly 240 T-72M1 and all 230 PT-91 – have suddenly found themselves on a train heading east. Add the 140+ Leopard 2A4 (perhaps two companies of which are converted to 2PL-standard) and 105 Leopard 2A5 which are all to head out, and Poland is looking at replacing something in the order of 700 tanks in total. One possibility has been to temporarily increase the number of Leopards in service, and Poland has been in discussion with Germany about getting another Leopard battalion (44 tanks), but German officials have stated there simply isn’t that amount of tanks available and has instead offered 20. The whole thing is something of a mess, and while it is unlikely that this is (just) about German reluctance to meaningfully help Ukraine in a serious – if indirect – way, it has certainly further widened the gap between Warsaw and Berlin (interlude: go read this excellent piece on the background to the German mindset. It doesn’t help Ukraine that we know why the system is broken, but it offers a refreshing take from the inside).

So the Polish Leopard is dead – as much from industrial issues and politics as from anything else. What to do instead?

Back in April Poland received approval for the purchase of up to 250 M1A2 SEPv3 tanks from US authorities. Not 700, but still a sizeable number. However, building 250 tanks will take time, and time is obviously something Warsaw feel they are a bit tight on at the moment. As such, this was followed up by the announcement that they will procure an additional 116 M1A1 SA tanks, which thanks to being used US tanks are available for if not immediate then at least rapid delivery. The M1A1 SA is an upgrade program from 2006, which saw older vehicles equipped with newer sensors, improvements to the engine and armour, as well as generally overhauling the old vehicles to give them longer life. It might not be the newest and greatest, but it is certainly a huge step above any of the Soviet designs rolling around. The M1A2 SEPv3 is on the other hand currently the latest and greatest of US tank designs, sporting things such as improved armour, the CROWS-LP remote-weapon station, and an under-armour auxiliary power unit which allows the vehicle to produce power without using the notoriously thirsty gas turbine. It has been stated that the M1A1 SA vehicles will also be upgraded to M1A2 SEPv3 standard once things are starting to fall into place.

The signing ceremony for the Polish M1A2 SEPv3 Abrams tanks took place at the base of the 18th divisions’s 1st armoured brigade outside of Warsaw, and sported a number of US tanks painted in Polish colours. Source: kpr. Wojciech Król/CO MON

An interesting detail is that Poland has indicated that all 366 Abrams tanks will go to the 18th, which alert readers will remember is a mechanised and not an armoured division (at least for the time being). However, the OOB is somewhat non-standard, with the single armoured brigade operating the Leopard 2A4/2A5, and with the 21st infantry brigade and the 19th mechanised brigade both operating a single battalion of ex-Soviet tanks – despite one supposedly being mountain infantry and the other a mechanised unit.

Let’s pause for a moment and think about this number – because 366 tanks deserve to be put into perspective.

A US Army armoured brigade combat team sports 87 M1A2 tanks, with three battalions of 29 tanks each (a total of six 14-tank companies and a single tank attached to each battalion headquarter company). This means that a traditional US armoured division with three armoured brigades would put a grand total of 261 tanks in the field. That’s just over 100 tanks less than the 18th division would field, but perhaps more striking is the fact that it’s significantly more than twice the 148 tanks the whole of the British Army will be able to muster. ‘Żelazna’ means ‘iron’, and the division will certainly field plenty of that. In essence the division will either sport three very heavy (122 tank) armoured brigades, which each have 40% more tanks than a US ABCT, or there will be four 90 tank brigades. The Poles have earlier experience of four-brigade divisions, as the 16th used to have control of the 1st armoured brigade before the 18th was stood up as a new division, so it is not impossible to imagine that being the plan. However, as we will get to eventually, there is also talk about 60-tank battalions in the Polish Army, which would mean that 366 tanks would give a nice even six battalions Edit: Seems a Polish battalion is 58 tanks to be exact, so that leaves about a dozen in reserve. In that case, the division would likely be built around three brigades with two armoured battalions each.

But that still leaves at least one armoured and one – or possibly two – mechanised divisions without replacement tanks for outgoing ones (even if it is a low-stakes bet that in the short-term the Leopards of the 18th will replace the T-72M1 of the 34rd brigade in the 11th division, bringing the unit back into an all-Leopard division until the withdrawal of the Leopard). The solution for this was found in a somewhat less likely direction.

Review: Next War: Poland

Chances are that if you are a reader of the blog, you have spent some amount of time thinking about NATO’s northeastern flank. The defence of the Baltics has become an issue of considerable debate, with the Suwałki gap doing its best to become the Fulda gap of the 21st century. At some point one start to wonder how a confrontation would play out? What difference would it e.g. make if NATO sent reinforcements into northern Poland?

NWP

Enter Next War: Poland, an old-school hex-and-counter wargame with all the bells and whistles to warrant an interest also from the professionals. It arrives in a nicely sized box, which is packed full with two maps, plenty of countersheets, and all the rule and scenario books you need. For a full review of what’s in the box, check out this video on GMT Games’ YouTube channel.

…and, yes, the box isn’t one of their better-looking ones. I have a hard time figuring out why GMT chose the mix of pictures of completely different styles. It is especially puzzling as they have some quite spectacular boxarts amongst their offerings, such as Labyrinth or Pendragon.

The maps consist of two completely different ones, one of which is the hex (‘operational’) map which cover the northern part of Poland and into the southern corner of Lithuania. Here the main battle is fought, where brigade and division level units (and the occasional battalions) run around and collide into each other. However, as we all know a major part of the fight would be to get units into theatre. This takes place on the second map, the strategic display. In essence, this cover the Baltic Sea and surrounding land areas, and consists of land and sea regions, as well as holding boxes representing out of area assets (naval units in the North Sea and long-range air units). Here it is possible to fight the battle for sea superiority in the Baltic Sea, to conquer the Baltic states, and to drop a bunch of airborne units on Gotland to exercise control of the shipping lanes and air space if you are so inclined.

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Nice A2/AD bubble you’ve got there, would be a shame if something happened to it…

There are a basic and advanced rules, as well as basic and advanced air rules. The basic rules are rather straightforward for a wargame, while the advanced ones are close to a full-on simulation. Under the advanced rules, the strategic display, a detailed logistics system, and a host of support weapons ranging from short-range ballistics missiles to artillery makes it possible to simulate the Russian A2/AD-bubble and NATO attempts to breach it in all its glory.

The game is complex, there’s no denying it. Multiple factors are at play throughout the turns, and keeping track of everything does feel slightly overwhelming at times. Part of this is due to the modularity of the system. The Next War-system, Poland is the fourth volume, is based on a set of common rules, some of which are shared between basic and standard games, some of which are differing. Then comes the game specific rules, which as the name implies cover things specific for the Polish theatre, as well as the scenario rules. This leads to quite some browsing between the different booklets at times. On the other hand, the modularity is without doubt one of the strengths of the game. In essence, it is one great sandbox, and while it does feature a number of different scenarios with varying levels of NATO reinforcements forward-deployed to the area, there’s nothing stopping you from gaming out different scenarios according to your own liking. The same can be said about the rules, where it is rather easy to pick and choose, e.g. to combine a full set of logistics rules with the basic air war.

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The sheer number of rules can make the game feel a bit overwhelming at times. Still, the gaming aids are top-notch, and help considerably once the game starts going!

The fighting follows a rather standard pattern, with units from one side attacking a neighbouring hex, possible support being allocated, and a number of modifiers come into play depending on everything from how well units cooperate to the type of terrain. A single die roll then resolves each battle, with the result being cross-referenced with the final combat ratio on a combat results table, which sports both die-roll modifiers and column shifts. The advanced air rules are a blast to play, and lets you pit individual squadrons against each other, while the naval rules are by far the most abstracted, and in my opinion, weakest ones. It very much feels like the navy is only included because NATO need to be able to leverage the carrier strength of the US Navy and to have a means of transport for the US Marine expeditionary force headed for the beaches of Kaliningrad or a nice Polish harbour.

An interesting concept is the initiative mechanics, whereby one of the players might have the initiative for the whole turn. This provides additional movement and combat phases, representing an attacker having the momentum, but can also easily lead to overstretching as the game also simulates the downsides of pushing the units hard to try and keep up the momentum. If the initiative player isn’t able to keep up the steam, judged by the amount of victory points during the last turn, the turns becomes contested until either player manages to secure the initiative again. This is a prime example of how complex real-world effects are taken into account and integrated into the game by relatively straightforward means.

There are some weaknesses with the game. The maps are nice, but they are printed on thick paper and not mounted. This is the usual way when it comes to wargames, and it is a nice paper quality. Still, it is something worth noting for any non-wargamers stumbling upon this. The player aids are also printed on the same thicker paper, and are in full colour. The main issue for me personally is however the scope of the hex map. As it sits now, it covers the majority of the Kaliningrad exclave, but not quite up to its northern border. In the same way, the southern part of the Suwałki gap is covered, but the battle for its northern end will take place solely on the strategic display. And if the player wants to do a Bagration 2.0 and head for Warszawa from the south, that would be outside the scope of both maps. I understand the reasoning though, because it ties in with another issue.

The game is huge.

The maps are 56 x 61 cm and 56 x 86 cm respectively. In addition you will have a number of cups with all counters that doesn’t happen to be on the board at any given moment, and it is usually a good idea to have the rule books and player aids nearby. All in all, this might not be the game for you if live in a small flat. Effectively doubling the size of the operational map by extending it towards Vilnius to the north and Krakow to the south would mean that any game would require quite a bit of property to be properly set up (with that said, if a double size map covering Vilnius to Krakow would be offered as an add-on, I would certainly buy it!).

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A Russian armoured unit have broken through a gap in the lines and is heading west, but risks a potential supply shortage as Polish infantry dug in in the main cities still control the road network.

The observant reader will notice that a pattern emerges. The scope and complexity of the game is intense, but at the same time its greatest strength. Already with the relatively limited playing time I’ve had with it I’ve learnt new things with regards to the real world situation. It should be stressed that the complexity is based on the fact that modern conflicts are complex and multifaceted, and it never feels like the rules are complex just for the sake of it. Instead, while I am a novice when it comes to hex-and-counter games (my sole earlier experience is described here) I felt that my understanding of real-world conflicts helped me get going with the game. The rules felt logical, and it was easy to grasp what the designer was going after with any single point (though as noted memorising the whole lot was quite something else!). I also never felt like I encountered any significant case of a real-world factor missing (there’s even rules for refugees clogging the roads during the early stages of the conflict), which is high praise for a wargame in my books.

The game isn’t for anyone, but neither is this blog, so I have no qualms about highly recommending it to any of my blog readers with an interest in conflict simulation!

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There’s no lack of counters, and I highly recommend some kind of storage solution if you invest in this game, as sorting through the whole bunch is *not* and ideal way to start your gaming session…

…and before anyone asks: Finland isn’t included, Sweden joins NATO with their Air Force and SOF units if Russia invades Gotland (P 18 is missing), Norway is missing, while Denmark is a fully featured though minor NATO-country.

Oh, and we certainly need a volume in the series situated in northern Finland/Sweden/Norway. Please, GMT?

Hussars heading east

In an earlier post, I argued that the Suwałki gap was in fact ill-suited for a full-scale Russian armoured offensive with the goal of linking up Kaliningrad and Belarus, as the terrain and road network did not favour that kind of manoeuvres. This naturally leads to the next question, namely what the alternative would be?

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Major roads in Northeastern Poland (including planned expansions). Source: Wikimedia Commons/Sliwers

Going south from the gap, the first opportunity is Białystok. The city is the main hub of northeastern Poland, and features a significant amount of both roads and railroads, and has the benefit of being approachable from Belarus along two major road, Grodno-Białystok from the northeast and Baranovichi-Białystok from the East. From there it is possible to either turn north towards Suwałki (along E67, not visible on map) or southwest towards Warsaw. However, the areas east of the city  are heavily forested, and it represents a significant detour if the aim is to reach Suwałki from Grodno.

However, the route that promises a decisive victory fast, as well as dragging away Polish reinforcements from the Kaliningrad/Suwałki-region, is the E30/A2 road from Minsk via Brest and on to Warsaw. Brest is located directly on the eastern bank of the river Bug, which in this area marks the border between Poland and Belarus. Striking out from Brest would make it possible to potentially take the border bridges over Bug in a coup, or at the very least prepare the crossings on allied territory. Here, the E30 as well as the twin-rail railroad would provide a crucial lifeline for the advancing forces, and the right flank would be protected by the Bug.

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The Vistula basin covering the eastern parts of Poland would play a major role in influencing any operations in the area. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Kmusser

This is not a new idea. In the summer of 1944, the Soviet Operation Bagration included a major offensive in the Lublin-Brest area, where the Soviet forces (including the Polish 1st Army that was transfered from the Lviv sector halfway through the operation) captured bridgeheads over Vistula at Magnuszew and Puławy (approximately 60 and 100 km south of Warszaw) and over Narew at Serock (40 km north of the capital). However, the Polish capital did not change hands until the launching of the Vistula-Oder offensive in January the following year, a controversial fact from a Polish point view.

 The Vistula opposite Magnuszew, site of the bridgehead in 1944

As noted, this would be a major treat towards the Polish capital, and it is very likely that Poland would direct at least two of its three main divisions to meet this. In practice, the 16th ‘Pomorska‘ Mechanised Division would be left to deal with Kaliningrad, creating a situation where both sides would be roughly comparable, and causing a stalemate around the exclave. This would likely be in the interest of Russia, compared to an offensive closer to the Suwałki gap which would make it easier for Poland to shift troops from one front to the other, thereby negating part of Russia’s quantitative superiority.

The downside to these military upsides is that while a ‘disturbance’ in the Baltic region could perhaps be caused to look like a Ukraine-scenario, thereby delaying a NATO-reaction during the critical first days, an armoured corps moving west along the E30 would be a sure way of launching WWIII, especially as Germany would be far more likely to intervene if the advancing Russians where on the (literal) highway to Berlin than if they occupied Vilnius.

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PT-91 Twardy of the 1st Brigade. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Polish MoD

This is obviously not something that hasn’t crossed the minds of the Polish general staff, and the above-mentioned 16th Division actually has an additional armoured brigade in the form of the 1st ‘Warszawska‘ Armoured Brigade equipped with PT-91 Twardy (modernised T-72), BWP-1 (local-designation for BMP-1), and 2S1 Gvozdika. The brigade is headquartered in the Wesoła district on the eastern outskirts of Warsaw. In other words, it is located on the ‘right side’ of both the Bug and the Vistula, and as such is well-placed to meet any offensive along the Brest-Warsaw axis. However, the equipment is rather old, and while the Twardy is a significant step up from the T-72, it is still far from the latest generation of tanks.

As such, it is a noteworthy move when the Polish Defence Forces announce that a tank battalion from the 11th ‘Lubuska‘ Armoured Cavalry Division in the southwestern parts of Poland is set to transfer to Wesoła. This is to make room for the US Army units coming to Żagań, currently home to the division’s 34th Armoured Cavalry Brigade. The 34th sport two battalion equipped with the Leopard 2A5, currently Poland’s most modern main-battle tank. Moving one of these battalions East of the Vistula radically alters the number of units available to the Polish in this key area during the first day or so after mobilisation. It does seem like the Polish Army has recognised the need to be able to concentrate more high-quality units in defence of the capital at shorter notice, and comes as part of a trend in which the West tries to shorten response times in general, and with a focus on heavier units in particular. This is also evident from a Finnish perspective, and both the recent transfer of older Leopard 2A4’s to ‘new’ units and the creation of fast response units in the Army can be seen as part of this very same trend.

Lectures in Kokkola – Frisk goes Live!

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”.

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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 panssarilaiva will be mentioned.

Information about the lecture and registration is found here, under the name “Laivue 2020 ja Merivoimien kehitysnäkymät / luentotilaisuus”.

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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.

Kaliningrad and the Suwałki Gap – a look from the other side

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. [1]. 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) [2], 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 [3].

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Scale models of P-800 Yakhont/Oniks missile and vehicles from a K-300P coastal defence battery. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Vitaly Kuzmin

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 [4]. 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 [5].

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 [6]. Note that the picture in the source is of the anti-missile radar Voronezh-M, also found in Kaliningrad [7], 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 [8], 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 [9]. 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.

In summary

  • 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.

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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 [10]. 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.

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The range covered by three artillery batteries deployed in Siluté (Lithuania), Budry, and Gorowo Ilaweckie in green. The ranges are 48 km for the battery in Siluté, based on the XM982 Excalibur guided munition in service with the German PzH 2000 (though currently not with the Lithuanian army), while the range for the Polish batteries are a more generic 40 km. In blue we have the 160 km of the US ATACMS missile fired by the M270 MLRS, with the batteries deployed to Suwałki and Elblag.
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The range of three SAM batteries with ~100 km range (e.g. Patriot PAC-3, SAMP/T), deployed in Tauragé (Lithuania), Elblag, and Suwałki.

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.

 

In summary

  • 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.

Suwałki gap

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 [11]. 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 [12]. 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 [13]. 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.

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Polish Leopard 2A4 from the 11th “Lubuska” divsion during exercise Steadfast Jazz, held in Poland and the Baltic States during 2013. Note the winged hussar emblem on the turret. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Cpl Madis Veltman, Estonian army

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.

In summary

  • 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

Conclusions

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.

 

 

The Navies of the Baltic Sea

This blog post started from the rather innocent sounding question whether an illustration used by a Finnish news source described the number of warships operated by the countries bordering the Baltic Sea correctly. The short answer is “For some countries, yes, for others, no.” However, this answer doesn’t really add too much to the discussion, so I felt a proper look into the issue was needed.

A few notes on my methodology: I have only counted warships featuring some kind of missile armament, be it anti-ship or air-defence missiles. The Parchim-class corvettes technically do not fit this description (as they feature anti-submarine rockets and torpedoes, but no missiles), but as they clearly are designed for combat and not patrol duties, they are still included. Germany and Russia base parts of their navies outside of the Baltic Sea, and in these cases I have tried to count only those that are homeported in the Baltic Sea. In the case of Denmark, all naval units are based in the Baltic Sea, but I have decided to exclude the Knud Rasmussen-class arctic patrol vessels, due to their main area of operation being outside of the Baltic Sea. In practice, large parts of the Danish navy would probably be operating in the North Atlantic as part of mixed NATO task forces in case of war, something which further underlines the problems of a comparison like this.

A third problem is that counting units skews the comparison in favour of smaller vessels. E.g. the ten small Finnish vessels rank higher than the eight Swedish (all of which are larger than the Finnish fast attack crafts). Generally, larger ship will have a greater “combat value”, so I have included the approximate total displacement of the surface vessels for each navy. While this is far from perfect, e.g. the Hämeenmaa-class scoring higher than it should, this gives a slightly more nuanced picture of the situation (compare e.g. the ten Finnish vessels to the five Danish). For submarines, the variations in size are not as dramatic, with all submarines based in the Baltic Sea being of roughly the same size. Midget submarines and/or diver delivery units are probably operated by Russia and potentially by some of the major NATO-countries (Germany, Poland,… ?), but these are highly secretive projects, and little to no information is available.

Finland: 10 surface units (3,800 t) + no submarines

The Finnish Navy is centred around the Hamina- and Rauma-classes of light fast attack crafts (FAC) with four units of each, supported by two Hämeenmaa-class minelayers that are able to fulfil secondary roles as surface combatants or tenders.

Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania: No missile armed surface units + no submarines

The Baltic States all operate small fleets of patrol crafts of various age and capabilities, including retired vessels from Finland, UK, and the Scandinavian countries. None of these are armed with surface-to-surface or air defence missiles. Compared to the Finnish vessels, the combat value of these naval vessels are closer to those of the Finnish Border Guards than the earlier mentioned fast attack crafts.

Sweden: 8 surface units (4,220 t) + 4 submarines

The pride of the Swedish Navy is the five stealth-corvettes of the Visby-class. Of the earlier corvette-classes, two Stockholm-class and one Göteborg-class corvette are also in service. The Swedish submarine force with one Södermanland- and three Gotland-class AIP-submarines are amongst the most modern and lethal littoral submarine forces in the world. Current plans calls for conversion of two of the corvettes to patrol vessels, without missile or anti-submarine capability.

Poland: 6 surface units (7,640 t) + 5 submarines

Poland fields a mixed force of modernised material from the Cold War (one Kaszub-class corvette + three Orkan-class FAC’s) as well as two ex-US Navy Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates. The modern MEKO A-100 Gawron-class corvette program would have made the Polish Navy one of the most modern green-water navies in the world, but was cancelled a few years ago, with the sole completed hull slated to be commissioned as a patrol vessel. The mixed submarine fleet is made up of a sole Kilo-class submarine and four ex-Norwegian Kobben/Type 207-class submarines (a fifth hull serves as a spares source/moored training facility).

Germany: 14 surface units (12,320 t) + 4 submarines

The German Bundesmarine is divided between the Baltic and the North Sea. Naturally, units can be regrouped from one to the other with ease, but even the ones stationed permanently in the Baltic Sea make it a force to be reckoned with. The vessels all belong to Einsatzflottille 1, of which 1. Korvettengeschwader with its five Braunschweig-class corvettes constitutes NATO’s single most powerful surface strike unit in the Baltic Sea. These are backed up by eight Gepard-class FAC’s (and their two tenders, which lack any meaningful value as combat vessels). Four Type 212 A submarines are also based in the Baltic Sea, which makes up a submarine force to rival the Swedish one.

Denmark: 5 surface units (21,000 t) + no submarines

Denmark is a special case amongst these countries as they hold Greenland. Thus, the Danish fleet include two purpose-built arctic patrol vessels, but a number of other surface vessels also undertake regular patrols to Greenland and the Faroe Islands in the North Sea. All Danish units are large by standard of the Baltic Sea, with the lead ships being the three Iver Huitfeldt-class frigates. The Navy field two interesting hybrid frigates/tenders/transport ships in the form of the Absalon-class, as well as four StanFlex 3000/Thetis-class ocean patrol vessels/light frigates and the two (a third is on order) earlier mentioned Knud Rasmussen-class patrol vessels optimised for the North Atlantic. How many of the Danish warships should be counted as based in the Baltic is therefore an open question. Even if only the five ‘proper’ frigates are counted, leaving the patrol vessels free to prowl the North Atlantic, the Danish navy is one of the larger in the Baltic Sea. Denmark is currently without submarines, having retired the last ones during the last decade, but the possibility remains they will acquire new ones.

As a side-note, the Danish ice-reinforce patrol vessels/frigates have several of the features sought after in the Finnish MTA 2020 concept, and a developed version of these might have been the choice if an existing vessel had been chosen for the program.

Russia: 26 surface units (39,450 t) + 2 submarines

Russia fields four fleets (Northern, Baltic, Pacific, and the Black Sea Fleet), of which the Northern Fleet is the main one. The exact number of vessels operational at any given time requires a certain amount of guesswork, as vessel can be rebased, and the age of several important classes means that some vessels are in reserve and/or unavailable due to major overhauls.

Of the 50+ vessels of the Baltic Fleet, around 25 can be included in our comparison, with the rest being minehunters/-sweepers, landing ships, patrol crafts, or belonging to any one of numerous auxiliary vessel classes. The Baltic Fleet has two Sovremennyy-class destroyers, the largest surface combatants based in the Baltic Sea, and two large frigates of the Neustrashimy-class. Four smaller Steregushchy-class heavy corvettes/light frigates are also available, and are by far the most modern vessels of the Baltic Fleet’s major surface units. Considerable numbers of older vessels are still in use, including Parchim-class anti-submarine corvettes (six vessels), as well as Nanuchka- (four vessels) and Tarantul-class FAC’s (eight vessels, including the single heavily moderinzed Project 12421 Molniya). Two Kilo-class submarines are also in use, but in addition to these one or more new-built submarines may be conducting sea acceptance trials in the Baltic Sea at any given time. The midget submarines/diver delivery units may include the Triton in different versions (namely Triton 1, 2, and/or NN), the revived Losos/Pirhana-class, the Sirena-class, or something completely different. Here is a brief introduction to the different Russian/Soviet designs known to have been in service at some point.

Sources for this post include USNI’s Combat Fleet’s of the World (16th Ed.), the official homepages of Bundesmarine and Søværnet, Skipper’s well-timed post on the current status of the Swedish Navy, as well as this page, recommended by Jägarchefen.

…And Wikipedia, of course.