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.

7.62 KvKK 62

The Finnish-built 7.62 KvKK 62 machine-gun has recently received a hail of criticism apparently coming from a short article in the Swedish version of YLE News. This bills the machine gun as both unreliable and dangerous, and questions why the Finnish Defence Forces continues to use this dangerous weapon.

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Czech soldiers with LK vz. 26. Source: Wikimedia Commons 

It is true that the weapon has a reputation of being unreliable. In part this comes from flaws in the dated design, the weapon is based on the pre-war Czechoslovakian LK vz. 26 (Kulsprutegevär m/39 in Swedish use) via the vz. 52, but a large part of this reputation also stems from the fact that many exercises use blanks as opposed to live rounds, with the blanks having a considerably lower gas pressure than the ammunition the KvKK is designed for. The weapon does also fire from an open bolt, which means that it is susceptible to dirt entering the chamber. The open bolt mechanism could also potentially cause the gun to “run away”, meaning it will continue its cycle of fire until running out of ammunition. This is especially true for older weapons, were use and excessive cleaning have caused a large amount of wear over the years (the open bolt does however offer the advantage of not having a round chambered with the firing pin in position, which in turn diminishes the risk for accidental firings).

The KvKK employs some design decisions that seems good on paper, but has proved less than stellar in practice. It uses the same 7.62×39 mm cartridge as the AK-series of assault rifles, meaning that ammunition is interchangeable between the squad riflemen and their supporting weapon. However, this also means that it fails to provide a longer reach and/or heavier punch compared to the assault rifles. The weapon lacks a trigger guard, to allow for the operation with heavy gloves on during the winter, but this also increases the danger of a branch or similar getting caught in the trigger firing the weapon. To keep the part count down, the weapon also lacks a quick-release barrel, lowering the amount of sustained fire that can be achieved by the weapon. The simple truth is that the KvKK has never been anything but an adequate weapon at most, which is somewhat strange given that its “brothers” in the form of the Finnish AK-clones were widely seen as some of the best assault rifles in the world during their heydays.

In many ways, while it is billed a light machine gun and employed as such, it is closer in design to a pure squad automatic weapon. The fact that it is currently being replaced with the PKM is interesting in this light, as the latter is a pure general purpose machine gun, firing a full powered cartridge in the form of the venerable 7.62x54R. The PKM is in all respects a far more formidable weapon, which greatly adds to the fire power of the Finnish infantrymen. The problem, however, is the price tag, which has slowed down procurements.

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7.62 KvKK 62 in action. Source: Puolustusvoimat.fi 

So, is the KvKK a dangerous weapon that should be banned as soon as possible? Keeping in mind that I am no dedicated small-arms expert, I’d say the answer is ‘no’. Certain weapons are apparently worn out, and as with all old equipment they need to be checked carefully before being issued to conscripts. Still, the sheer number of weapons needed to train fire support dictates that it has to remain in service for some years to come (and probably for issue to 2nd line troops during wartime for quite some time in the future). My personal experience is that the absolute majority of firearms related accidents happens when people neglect the basic safety rules of always remembering where the barrel is pointed, not touching the trigger when not meaning to fire, and all in all never messing around with the weapon unnecessarily. Field exercises will always be a high-risk environment, and accidents such as the one described by YLE should always be investigated thoroughly to avoid similar tragedies in the future. However, the sad truth is that most accidental discharges happens for no other cause than simple stupidity, and for that, there is no remedy but even more safety training and observation of the way individual conscripts handle their weapons.