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.

AAR – Operation Gudrun

For some Friday night off-topic, I’ve played a game of Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations. The game is best described as Harpoon on steroids, though the developer doesn’t think that catches the huge improvements found under the hood (“Only in the sense that each new FPS is a new version of Wolfenstein3D”). Anyhow, if it’s good enough for RAeS to blog about, it’s good enough for me.

The scenario in question is the later two-thirds of Swedish author/blogger Lars Wilderängs techno-thriller “Midvintermörker“, a Swedish “Red Storm Rising” set in Gotland during the last shivering days of 2012. This post will certainly contain spoilers, so if you are a Swedish-speaker who hasn’t read the book, go do so before reading any further.

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“Midvintermörker” was Wilderäng’s debut novel, and while the grand story might not be that innovative, it is still a very enjoyable battlefield description. The sequel “Midsommargryning” features a more complex and interesting story set in a ’round two’-scenario a few years after the first book, and the only real downside of the book is that the storytelling suffer a bit from the author taking the opportunity to sneak in a few political visions (those who have read Clancy’s later works knows what I’m talking about), such as an updated model for how conscription could work. On the whole, I personally find Wilderäng’s style of writing enjoyable, though I wouldn’t be surprised if some are irritated by his continued use of irony.

Still, the novel’s greatest achievement isn’t its literary merits, but the fact it played an important part in lifting the Gotland-question out of the #säkpol-blogosphere, and into the everyday political discussion in Sweden.

Operation Gudrun

(Gudrun was a storm that caused widespread destruction in Sweden during the early days of 2005, let’s hope that this time around the destruction is amongst the Russians and not the Swedish forces)

When we roll in, the Russians have landed in Slite, a small town on the eastern shores of Gotland, and are starting to unload their heavy equipment from a 18,000 DWT ro-ro ship. Our main objective is to sink this vessel, which should seriously delay the invasion. As the invasion took us completely by surprise, our radar networks are down, and the air force has suffered considerable losses. Our main forces are as followings:

We have a mechanised force (including Leopard 2A5’s and CV 9040’s) on Visby airport, which also holds two JAS 39C Gripen which was the islands QRA detachment before the outbreak of the hostilities. A number of infantry recon platoons are found on the island, as well as four mortar platoons, equipped with heavy mortars and STRIX anti-tank mortar rounds. On a wartime base (with practically no reloads) we have a number of Gripen’s armed with AIM-120B AMRAAM’s and IRIS-T missiles, and the main Gripen force is found north of Stockholm. Here we also have three Gripen’s armed with RB 15F anti-ship missiles, which will be my best bet in taking out the ro-ro. Outside of Slite one of our submarines lurk. I also have two C-130 Hercules transports loaded with special forces for an air drop, and some CB 90 H fast assault craft with Hellfire-armed marines aboard.

The enemy currently has air superiority (or to be precise, we have no idea what is found in the skies above the Baltic Sea, as our radar network is down), and two batteries of Tor (SA-15) SAM’s are in the area. In addition, they have superior ground forces, so we can’t just throw them out by racing headlong into Slite. This leads to a complex plan, given by the in-game objectives:

Objectives:

  1. Secure Tingstäde with ground units in order to stop any Russian ground forces from passing this point.
  2. Secure the airspace on and around Gotland enough to for a safe air drop. The drop may have to be done even if the airspace is not 100% in our hands.
  3. Bring the Tp 84’s* over the designated landing zone to the west of Slite.
  4. Find SA-15’s and have them destroyed using STRIX mortars or other weapons available.
  5. Destroy the RoRo ship before it is able to unload the majority of the landing force.

*Tp 84 is the Swedish designation for the Hercules.

While the plan is complex, it probably represents my best shot at getting things done, so I start by sending all mechanised units securing the airport towards Tingstäde. My forces are so small, I decide that keeping some units at the airport probably means spreading them too thin. Two of my three infantry recon platoons starts to head for the LZ, to check that the area is clear and, hopefully, get the location of the SAM’s even before we bring in the lumbering Hercules. My submarine meanwhile gets orders to patrol outside of Slite, and the CB 90’s start moving to take up position west of Fårö. If the sea outside of Slite is cleared, we might be able to sneak them close enough to get to a landing zone just north of the harbour, from where they can target the landing force with their Hellfires.

AAR first moves.JPG

The sub quickly locate three contacts outside the port, and identifies the southernmost (SKUNK #61) as a light frigate. Since we are talking about a non-Swedish naval ship just outside of an occupied Swedish port, I decide to manually mark it as hostile. Shortly thereafter, my northernmost recon infantry spots the other two contacts, and can confirm that SKUNK #62 and #67 are Parchim-II class light frigates. These have some ASW capability, with suitable sensors as well as weapons (torpedoes and RBU-6000). It seems the Russians have set up a picket chain of light frigates to protect the beachhead from unwanted visitors. Still, if there are no further surprises awaiting closer to shore, we should be able to handle them.

AAR Parchim.JPG

Our Norwegian friends decides to supply us with AWACS-data from the NATO-network over Link 16. Mange takk!

The infantry also makes another sighting, a single Su-25SM and two attack helicopters, a Mi-28N and a Mi-24V respectively, are airborne. As I completely lack any kind of ground based air defences, these could potentially make short work of my troops and plans. I decide to launch Gator #1 and #2, the two Gripen’s I have based in Gotland.

The plan is simple: get airborne, fire of all of my eight AMRAAM’s, and then land as fast as possible before enemy fighters or SAM’s wake up.

AAR anti-CAS.JPG

The result is a disaster. The aircrafts can’t get a single shot to connect, and while trying to get back to base, Gator #2 is brought down by a Tor, followed by Gator #1 by a R-27R launched by a Su-27 circling over the southern parts of the island (how did AWACS miss that one!?!). In the meantime, the Mi-24’s and Su-25’s target the mortars with missiles and bombs, wiping out one platoon completely and causing losses to another. The only positive thing with the sortie was that the aircraft identified the approximate location of the Tor-M1K’s, as well as the ships in Slite harbour. We also got confirmation that there are in fact two each of the helicopters, and a total of three Su-25’s over Gotland.

A four-ship JAS 39C’s from Aquila flight on the warbase is dispatched to take up the anti-CAS mission while I still have some mortars left…

The Mi-24’s then go for the Leopard’s, and knocks out one while another is hit but survives. The Mi-28’s in turn engages the remaining mortars with rockets but misses, and I send the mortars east into the LZ to get within firing range of the SAM’s approximate locations. Having expended all their munitions, the helicopters return to Slite and the Sukhoi’s depart for Kaliningrad.

In the meantime, our submarine has fired on FFL #61, the southernmost of the frigates, but misses. This causes the other Parchim’s to move north, away from Slite, but into the path the CB 90’s have to take if they are to attack the harbour.

However, while Gator flight was ultimately unsuccessful, surprisingly few enemy fighters are in the area. I decide that now is as good a time as any to dispatch my special forces. The Hercules pair depart for Gotland, ordered to fly as fast and as low as possible to the landing zone just west of the SAM sites.

AAR Aquila.JPG

One of the few Su-27S airborne over southern Gotland has turned towards the approaching Aquila flight, and come in over the Swedish mainland. The first AMRAAM salvo misses, but second finally brings it down.

The submarine takes a max-range shot at the north-eastern Parchim, while the northernmost recon infantry manages to report on ships in Slite. Seems it is a single ro-ro surrounded by four Ropucha LST. A pair of Su-24MP ELINT planes that have been flying west of the island are intercepted, with the first being brought down by an AMRAAM. The second turns east and tries to escape out over the sea.

The Parchim outruns the two torpedoes. Ought for four shots so far.

Two ground units are spotted to the southeast of the mortars. If these turn out to be anything more serious than light infantry, they will crush my mortars if they start moving north. One of the mortar batteries is sent further northwards to avoid having my whole stock of STRIX-grenades knocked out in one go, and a tank platoon supported by a mechanized infantry platoon are dispatched from Tingstäde to intercept the enemy forces. I keep most of my forces at Tingstäde, as I have a gap between the mortar units and my recon unit on the northern flank, and I don’t want some unspotted enemy platoons to sneak through there and take Tingstäde in my rear.

The second Su-24MP is finally brought down by an IRIS-T after having evaded several AMRAAM’s. In the chase one of the JAS 39C’s actually overflies the Tor-batteries (despite my effort to try and route them further south), but the radars are silent. Out of missiles?

AAR CAP.JPG

Turning south, a minor air battle evolves between two Su-27S and all four Gripen’s currently operating over Gotland. The Sukhoi’s make a clean sweep, including in one instance dodging an IRIS-T, and then downing the JAS 39C at close range with a R-27R…

AAR ground battle.JPG

In the meantime, the advancing tank platoon locates the position of the two SAM batteries, and identifies the two mobile contacts as two armour platoons (T-90A).  STRIX are called in on both batteries (knocking out one and damaging the other) and one armour platoon (damaged). The Leo’s then get permission to fire, and make quick work of the T-90’s, with the mortars finishing off the last SAM battery with traditional HE-rounds.

More CAP aircraft are slowly inbound, which hopefully should get to Gotland in time before the Herc’s do, and I decide to finally authorise the anti-ship mission. Three Gripen with Rb 15F anti-ship missiles will target the ro-ro, while three Gripen with Mjölner stand-off munitions dispenser will target the four Ropuchas. I have no idea what kind of damage the Mjölners will do to the ships, but it is worth a try.

A mechanised infantry unit is spotted on the outskirts of Slite, followed by two more units closer to the city.

AAR Parchim

The submarine has finally started to line up some shots, and bags two of the Parchim II’s.

In the next air encounter, a Su-27S dodges eight AMRAAM’s, and while another Su-24MP is brought down by an IRIS-T, a Su-25SM manages to bag Aquila #8 with an R-60T. There seems to be something wrong with our missiles today.

AAR Endgame

However, the first two RB 15F hits the ro-ro vessels, and the ships is a total loss.

Conclusion

With the ro-ro ship destroyed, the primary invasion force has been significantly reduced, and the scenario ended.

I have somewhat mixed feelings about the scenario. It was great fun to play the storyline from the book, but there was a few issues with the implementation. The main problem was that the Russian ground units didn’t fire upon my forces. I don’t know if this was caused by limitations to the game, it is called ‘modern air/naval combat’ for a reason, or if the scenario designer had forgot to mark a checkbox somewhere. The Russian naval force was also markedly weaker than in the book, and I believe it might even have been possible to just launch the air attack without first taking out the SAM’s. I also couldn’t get the ‘Hercules over the LZ’-trigger to fire, but this might have been due to the Tor’s already having been taken out, and when starting the mission some Russian mission areas were set up wrongly. Other than that, and ‘Romeo’ being misspelled ‘Romio’ in all instances, it worked out rather nicely.

On my part, my single largest mistake was sending Gator straight for the enemy, which lead them to having to overfly the SAM’s on their way home. A better idea would have been to send them out west over the sea, turn around and fire, and then land on the airport without actually overflying the battlefield at any point. I also was unable to take advantage of the fact that I had local numerical superiority in almost all dogfights, as well as having active medium-range missiles against an enemy equipped only with semi-active ones. In a perfect world, I should have been able to use my AMRAAM’s to force the Sukhoi’s to turn away before the R-27R’s could impact. For those wanting to try out the scenario, it is found here

For the game itself, it is a blast to play! Granted, the learning curve is quite steep, and such seemingly simple things as setting up a patrol zone can be daunting if you have many border points. The execution is however good for the scale, and small touches like actually showing the probability of hit, modifiers, and RNG roll for each weapon engagement makes a surprisingly big difference for accepting outcomes that goes against what one feels should be the case (such as AMRAAM’s consistently missing ~50-75 % PH shots). There are some (minor) issues, especially with the ground units. The Leopards were able to identify boogies as fighters at longer ranges than the Gripen, which doesn’t feel right. Also, as the player sees everything his or her forces see, this gives too much information to certain units, and the possibility to game the system. Note however that while this helps with tactics, all platforms have their individual sensors modelled, so for the most part platforms still need to get the proper sensor lock (which can be anything from Eyeball Mk.1 to a specific radar) before they can target hostile units within range. For recommendations regarding what scenario to play, I recommend this one, where the player gets to command the Finnish Navy and Air Force in defense of the Åland Islands against the approaching Baltic Fleet. 

Admittedly, watching blue and red symbols move over a map isn’t everyone’s idea of a nice pastime, but for the readers of the blog, this might be one game simulator to look into!

Final score card

SIDE: Sweden

===========================================================

LOSSES:

——————————-

5x 120mm Mortar [STRIX]

7x JAS 39C Gripen

1x Leopard 2A5 Main Battle Tank

EXPENDITURES:

——————

8x Tp 613

9x RB 98 IRIS-T [AIM-2000A]

40x RB 99 AMRAAM [AIM-120B]

4x Generic Flare Salvo [2x Cartridges, Single Spectral]

4x Generic Flare Salvo [4x Cartridges, Single Spectral]

15x Generic Chaff Salvo [8x Cartridges]

120x 120mm STRIX Mortar HE

16x 120mm Rheinmetall APFSDS-T

180x 120mm Mortar HE

2x RB 15F Mk2

 

SIDE: Russia

===========================================================

LOSSES:

——————————-

1x Su-25SM Frogfoot A

2x Su-27S Flanker B

4x Su-24MP Fencer F

3x SA-15b Gauntlet [9A331] TELAR

8x T-90A Main Battle Tank

2x SKR Parchim II [Pr.1331]

1x Commercial RO/RO Vessel [18,000t DWT]

EXPENDITURES:

——————

16x AA-10 Alamo A [R-27R, MR SARH]

5x Generic Flare Salvo [4x Cartridges, Single Spectral]

37x Generic Chaff Salvo [4x Cartridges]

384x S-5K 57mm Rocket

8x AT-6 Spiral [9M114 Sturm-V]

3x AA-8 Aphid [R-60TM]

10x SA-15b Gauntlet [9M331]

8x RBK-250-PTAB CB [30 x PTAB-2.5 Anti-Tank Bomblets]

8x AA-10 Alamo C [R-27RE, LR SARH]

Exercises and (a lack of) confidence building measures

The only thing differentiating war from maneuvers is the last stage on the last day. The concentration of forces and the logistics is the same for both.”

– Lt.Col. Ben-Porat, AMAN, on the lessons drawn from the Soviet repression of the Prague Spring (as quoted in Abraham Rabinovich’s ‘The Yom Kippur War’)

There is a major problem with Russia’s continued large-scale military maneuvers, in that they could easily be used as a cloak for invading a neighbouring country.

There is nothing wrong with letting the defence forces train. In fact, it is a crucial part of maintaining a functioning armed force. Exercises not only let soldiers on all levels practice their skills and get used to life in the field, but it is also the best tool available (short of actual war) for evaluating the standards of the force exercised and identifying possible shortcomings.

However, as noted by Ben-Porat above, putting your forces in the field with equipment and logistical backup makes them ready to go to war. Especially if you include mobilising other supporting functions in the society and include live firings, as has frequently been the case with the large Russian exercise held during the recent years.

Due to this, non-aggressive countries usually employ a number of different measures to build confidence amongst other countries that they in fact do not plan to go to war. These include e.g. pre-announcing the exercises, including key information such as scope, location, and stated aim of the exercise in the communique. Inviting foreign observers will also ease the tension. Placing major exercises far from potential flashpoints also helps. Certain elements needed, e.g. bridging equipment, can also at times be left out of the major exercises, and instead be practiced in smaller scenarios (though this is not always advisable, as there is a great benefit in practicing all parts of the machinery at the same time).

Russia does none of these things. Instead, Russia has chosen to leave the CFE treaty. They have held a significant number of large and very large exercises, often in the western parts of the country, and sometimes very close to the border. In addition, the exercises are usually not pre-announced, but snap drills. These are exactly the kind of exercises that rapidly could turn into an invasion, and the fact that they take place with regular intervals also mean that a real build-up to an invasion would be hard to spot amongst the string of similar snap exercises. All of this wouldn’t be that much of a problem, if not for the continued aggressive behavior by the Kremlin, including invading and occupying part of two neighboring countries during the past eight years.

The latest round of exercises is in effect nothing short of a mobilisation of a number of units in a composition that would allow for a swift transition into combat operations, and Russia doesn’t really seem interested in trying to disprove this notion. This resembles the build-up to the invasions of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, as well as the above mentioned intervention in Czechoslovakia, where a seemingly normal series of exercises in a number of Warsaw Pact countries suddenly turned into a full-blown invasion featuring over a quarter of a million soldiers from four countries. However, perhaps even more spectacular was the success of the Egyptian-orchestrated deception leading up to the Yom Kippur War.

A Case Study: Exercise Tahrir-41 becomes Operation Badr

In the spring of 1973 the Egyptian army massed a significant force on the west bank of the Suez Canal. This included not only combat-ready troops, tanks, and artillery, but bridging equipment as well. Amongst the Egyptians were found contingents from other Arab nations, including fighter squadrons from the Libyan and Iraqi air forces.

For Israel, standing on the opposite bank of the ‘best anti-tank ditch in the world’, this presented a problem. The Israeli army was made up largely of reservists, and mobilising would mean a significant disruption in the everyday life of the Israeli society. The Israeli intelligence community was also split, with the leader of AMAN, the military intelligence directorate, judging the risk of war as ‘very low’. The general staff of the IDF and the leadership of the foreign intelligence department Mossad disagreed. It was not that they felt that war was a certainty, but due to the consequences if war was to break out they argued for raising the level of preparedness.

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War did not break out in May, and the whole situation would probably have slipped into obscurity, if not for the fact that half a year later, the same situation repeated itself. On October 1, Egypt launched a large scale exercise codenamed Tahrir-41. This had been preceded by a general movement of troops towards the canal and a raising of the alert level in all three branches of the Egyptian defence forces. The development was closely monitored by the Israeli intelligence community, who actually got wind of the exercise already on the night between 24 and 25 September, when a division was spotted being moved towards the canal. They then continued to follow the build-up, which included mobilisation of reserves, cancelling leaves, and works on fortifications. In the same way, a build-up by Syrian forces across the ceasefire line in the Golan Heights was monitored, but dismissed as simply a defensive move following fears of an Israeli response following an air battle held earlier in September.

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A few dissenting voices were present in the higher echelons of the Israeli intelligence and defence communities. Notably, deputy chief of staff, and armoured corps legend, General Israel Tal, who insisted that Syria was preparing to launch an imminent attack, and that if the air force was neutralised due to weather or enemy air defences, the balance of forces was such that the Syrians would sweep through the Israeli defences in Golan and down into the Galilee. Inside AMAN, Lieutenant Colonel Keniezer, the officer responsible for Jordan, had got into an actual shouting match over the war threat with General Shalev, head of AMAN research sector, after Jordan’s king Hussein secretly visited Tel Aviv and warned Israeli prime minister Meir that Syria was preparing to go to war. Lieutenant Colonel Ya’ar, the officer in charge of Syria, also believed war was imminent, and bypassed the chain of command to warn IDF’s Northern Command directly. Colonel Ben-Porat, chief of AMAN’s SIGINT department, was also questioning the official line. He had been the one who studied the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia on location the year after it took place, and now asked for permission to call up 200 intelligence reservists and to activate the most secret listening equipment available to the department. However, General Zeira, the commander of AMAN, was not impressed, and, pointing to the similarities to the exercise held in May, got the final word.

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On the sixth of October five Egyptian divisions crossed the Suez Canal at the same time as three Syrian divisions launched an assault on the Israeli lines in the Golan Heights. The Yom Kippur War had begun.

All pictures taken by author at Emek Ha’Bakha (‘Valley of Tears’) in Golan, site of one of the hardest-fought battles of the war.

Milk, Market failures, and an MP

Growing food in northern Europe is the perfect example of a market failure.

The weather is cold and unpredictable, the labour costs high, and few of the areas here are known for being particularly fertile. In strict economic terms, we would be better of letting someone in a warmer place produce the food, which we then could trade for something else.

However, food is amongst the most basic needs of human beings, and maintaining a certain degree of self-sufficiency is a strategic interest. Enter the need for the government to step in and subsidize the farming sector.

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Interestingly enough, while the Finnish agricultural sector is very limited in the scope of people employed by it, the former Agrarian party is still a dominant force within the current Finnish political landscape. Exactly how this has come to be is an interesting question, but for now it is enough to note that the Centre Party currently is the largest party and holds the Prime Minister’s seat, and apart from including a strong agricultural wing, the party also has a history of leading the Finlandisation process during the Cold War.

With this in mind, it came as no surprise when Jari Leppä, member of parliament and chairman of the Parliamentary Committe for Agriculture and Forestry, now joined a number of MP’s calling for an end to the EU imposed sanctions on Russia, so that the “market would get moving again”. While the EU has not imposed any sanctions regarding food products, Finnish farmers, and especially the dairy farmers, have been hit hard by the Russian counter sanctions. The alternative, according to Leppänen, is that EU would compensate the farmers “fully” for the downturn in exports to avoid “a single segment of the population paying for great power politics”, as he describes the current situation.

This was rapidly shot down by both leading Centre politicians and the minister in charge of foreign trade (coming from the National Coalition Party). The government stands firmly behind the common EU-line, was the message, and minister Mykkänen also pointed out that with the Ruble being roughly half of what it was before the invasion of Crimea, the exports would unlikely be at the same level anyhow.

While I greatly sympathize with the hardship endured by the Finnish farmers in general and due the Russian sanctions in particular, I still feel that Leppä’s move is purely populist in nature. Russia, Finland’s authoritarian neighbour, has invaded and forcefully annexed a part of another sovereign country two and a half years ago, as well as continuing to wage a low-intensity war there. Discussing ending the sanctions in the hope of getting Russia to end their sanctions, because we have to remember that it is a Russian and not a EU’s decision that stops Finnish dairy exports, is the completely wrong signal for militarily non-aligned Finland to send. Saying that that agriculture is the single sector affected by the sanctions/counter sanctions is also plain wrong. Several different manufacturing and service branches have been affected, either directly or indirectly by the downturn in Russian economy. The difference is that companies in other sectors have to bear their geopolitical risks themselves, which they also factor in when making export pushes in potentially unstable markets, a description which was apt for the Russian market long before Crimea.

For the agricultural sector, the situation has been different, as the primary producers sell their wares to one of a very limited number of buyers, who then makes the decision where to sell the goods to the consumer. This means that the individual farmers can’t take part in deciding where to push their exports, while still, unlike workers in other sectors, they share in the economic risks due to often being small-scale entrepreneurs. This is in many ways the core of the problem for the Finnish agricultural sector, and has nothing to do with Russia in particular. Rather, it is a case of a poor negotiating position and a high economic risk leading to a very small room to maneuver when it comes to sudden shifts in the market. It is in many ways imperative that the government aids in trying to solve this puzzle, but if further compensation is to be paid, it should be done due to the disastrous rainfall this summer, and not because Russia has decided to invade their neighbours and implement sanctions on Finnish milk.

Estonia Leads the Way

In the stream of Russian snap drills that have come to be part of the ”new normal”, news broke today of a more surprising snap exercise, held by Kaitsevägi, the Estonian Defence Forces. In a surprise move, Estonia has launched an unannounced exercise involving the whole standing army made up of two infantry brigades, the aptly named 1. and 2. Jalaväebrigaad (est. infantry brigade). The exercise does not include calling up reservists.

What is truly astonishing is the rapid expansion undertaken by the Estonian Defence Forces as a whole. Before the Russian invasion of Crimea the Estonian army consisted of a single light infantry brigade, featuring wheeled transports in the form of the Patria (Sisu) XA-180EST and XA-188 APC as the only vehicles with any kind of armour protection, and while a nice long-term expansion plan had been drawn up already in 2007, little of this had materialised. The Estonian army was a professional force with ample of experience from Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as from UN missions, but it was woefully undersized and lacked key weapons systems and capabilities to be able to defend its homeland from an aggression by a modern mechanized force.

However, everything changed with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and a number of planned procurements shifted into high gear. These included the acquisition of surplus CV9035NL infantry fighting vehicles from the Netherlands (also source of the earlier XA-188) and modern Javelin anti-tank missiles, of which especially the former is a key element in the 1. Jalaväebrigaad’s transformation into a (light) mechanised brigade. The years since have also seen the delivery of the first Mistral M3 short-range air defence missiles, which together with the Saab Giraffe radars they are networked to significantly boosts the integral air defence capability of the 1. Brigade.

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Corporal Roman Metsatalu from the Scouts Battalion on a foot patrol in western Baghdad. Estonian Army soldiers served with US Army soldiers from 10th Mountain Division, as part of the Multi-National Corps to secure a 15-kilometer section of road in western Baghdad, during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Source: Wikimdeia Commons/Sgt. David Foley, U.S. Army
The numbers have also grown, with the Kaitseliit (volunteer Defence League, roughly corresponding to the National Guard) receiving a record number of applicants in 2015 and crucially the 2. Jalaväebrigaad being activated in 2014. The brigade might be young, but it traces its roots back to the Estonian War of Independence and the Julius Kuperjanov Partisan Battalion (est. Ülemleitnant Kuperjanovi partisanide pataljon). With the 1. Brigade being formed around the capital of Tallinn in the northern parts of the country, the new brigade is situated in the south-eastern parts of the country, proudly wearing the arms of Livonia and colours of the city of Tartu, opposite the border of Pskov and the Russian 76th Guards Air Assault Division.

Even more importantly, the army has stepped up its training regime, both in size and in complexity. The annual spring exercise of 2014, Kevadtorm 2014, was the largest held in the country up to that date, but was surpassed by the corresponding Siil 2015 exercise the following year. Siil 2015 was not only the biggest Estonian exercise to date, but it was also the first time the whole brigade took to the field to practice as a coherent unit, the first time the artillery battalion fired all their guns as a unit, and the exercise ended with the first time the whole brigade stood at attention together in a magnificent lõpurivistus (literally “finishing alignment”). To these can now be added today’s snap drill, specifically meant to test the ability of the army to respond swiftly to the emergence of a new threat (something one can’t help but feel would be a sorely needed exercise in Finland as well).

While Tallinn might be worried about their eastern neighbour, they are certainly not going to just lay flat in the hope of not provoking the bear. Instead, they are doing the best they can to plug the holes identified in the capabilities of their armed forces. The fact that certain key capabilities, such as air policing, are provided by NATO, means that they seem to be doing quite well with the limited resources they can muster with 2% of the GDP.

The next time anyone tries, Estonia is determined to not give in without a fight.

FNS Pohjanmaa, Alfons Håkans, and two Ministers of Defence

I will readily admit to being a great fan of the FNS Pohjanmaa (01). The Finnish Navy has always been centred around the southern parts of the country, so the towering minelayer named after my home province and sporting the pennant ‘01’ as befitting a flagship instilled a certain sense of pride. The news that she is to be scrapped is a sad one, but I can’t say it surprises me.

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FNS Pohjanmaa (01) outside of Suomenlinna. Source: Wikimedia Commons/MKFI

 

The ice-classed hull is old, the vessel originally being built in the late 70’s, and the combination of minelaying capability and the ability to feature a total complement of 120 persons when acting as a training ship (compared to the complement of 60 for the roughly equally sized Hämeenmaa-class) made the ship a highly specialized tool for a trade that doesn’t exist outside of a very limited number of navies, all of which operate in the Baltic Sea. When it was clear that Estonia wasn’t going to buy the ship, it was more or less set that the ship would have to be scrapped (let’s face it, while it would have been nice to see the vessel becoming a museum ship, this wasn’t going to happen, the number of people living here interested in visiting an old minelayer is far too low to warrant that).

 

So it was an expected decision when the Ministry of Defence on the 18th released a statement saying that the vessel will be broken up, as no suitable buyer had come forth. This seemingly clear-cut case then took an interesting turn, when the CEO of Finnish salvage company and tug operator Alfons Håkans Ab Oy contacted news agencies and, very frustrated, said that the company had made an offer that the military had completely ignored. Soon enough, former Minister of Defence Stefan Wallin publicly called for the scrapping to be put on hold, until the issue had been sorted out.

 

Unsurprisingly, the whole issue have yet more angles, and the Ministry of Defence have been quick to give out further details to explain the situation, commendably enough with the costs of the different alternatives spelled out.

 

Keeping the minelayer mothballed costs around 10,000 Euro a month, most likely the sum is being made up by a combination of keeping the ship’s interiors dry and warm (i.e. above freezing), and having someone check up on it every now and then to make sure nothing bad happens. In other words, the hunt for a buyer had already cost roughly 150,000 Euros. As such, Minister of Defence Jussi Niinistö gave two months’ time to find a buyer, otherwise the ship would be scrapped. Early September no buyer had been found, and it was decided that the vessel should be scrapped. This would cost around 458,600 Euro, a high cost mainly due to the asbestos found aboard, but it was calculated that the scrap metal would be worth 210,500 Euro, leaving the state with a net loss of 248,100 Euro. It was at this stage in the process that Alfons Håkans made their offer. To begin with the offer was for 200,000 Euro, but they eventually raised it to 350,000 Euro. To note is that this would not have gone straight into the state’s account, but rather the cost of dismantling all armaments and military equipment from the vessel would have had to be deducted, meaning that the net gain of the affair would have been smaller.

 

However, the main issue was that the shipping company was not able to state the intended use of the vessel clearly enough, a prerequisite if a Finnish naval vessel is to be sold on the civilian market. The fact that it had been a combat vessel also meant that it would still have been classed as defence material despite having been demobilised, something which further would have placed it under export restrictions (I am assuming the MoD is referring to the Wassenaar Arrangement). The company states that their aim was to lease the ship to third parties for the following roles:

  • Training vessel
  • Humanitarian assistance to refugees on the Mediterranean
  • Watching oil and gas fields (unclear to me if they mean as a Safety Standby Vessels or patrol vessel)
  • Deep-sea fisheries protection

The yard assures that when at some point in the future they will sell the vessel onwards, they will not do it to a customer in a country that is currently at war.

It seems evident that the company does not have a set mission or long-term contract ready for the Pohjanmaa. Instead, they seems to have sensed the opportunity to get a reasonably sized vessel for a bargain price, and that the time for finding a user would have been only after the vessel was acquired.

Export control is a quagmire, one which I myself am far from an expert at. Suffice to say is that as this vessel would at least be classed as dual-use (or military goods, if we are to believe the MoD), the paperwork involved in hoisting a flag other than the Finnish on it isn’t something you handle in a freely written letter to the logistics command. That the company apparently isn’t aware of this isn’t surprising, as their business so far has been largely (exclusively?) in the civilian market.

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The crew of the Pohjanmaa left their mark at the port of Funchal, Madeira, during one of the ships many extended voyages. Source: Author

Why Wallin has taken an issue at Pohjanmaa being scrapped is unclear. Perhaps he wasn’t aware of the full story (Niinistö’s post came only after Wallin had released his view on the issue), or then he is trying to get back at the Finns Party for the so called Scandal of Dragsvik. In 2012, then Minister of Defence Wallin first said that he had not given the Defence Forces any guidance as to which garrisons could be disbanded, only for it to later turn out that he indeed had said that disbanding the Nyland Brigade was impossible, due to its status as the only unit in the forces to provide training for Swedish-speaking Finns. This obviously provided the anti-Swedish parts of the Finns Party with a tempting target, and they unleashed quite a campaign against the Swedish-speaking minister. Their reasoning was that the Finnish-speaking North Karelia Brigade had been sacrificed to save the Swedish-speaking unit, and the whole issue eventually culminated in a vote of no confidence against the minister. Despite passing it with a clear margin, he stepped down as minister and leader of the Swedish People’s Party of Finland shortly after this, citing reasons other than the scandal.

The opinion piece by Wallin feature a number of oversimplifications, the main one being that he quotes the 350,000 Euros as the net gain for the state, but he also questions how the “trusted Finnish company” could have given a decisive answer as to the end-use of the ship they don’t yet own?

The question regarding the cost for the navy to demilitarise the vessel is somewhat open, but safe to say is that it probably wouldn’t be cheap. The deal with Alfons Håkans would also have included all spares belonging to the ship, spares which in many cases probably can be used for the Hämeenmaa-class (all three vessels resemble each other rather closely, and e.g. feature similar Wärtsilä-Vaasa 16V22-diesels, although the Hämeenmaa-class has the uprated 16V22MD-version for 3,200 BHP a piece compared to Pohjanmaa’s 2,800 BHP a piece), as well as all emergency equipment belonging to the ship, further diminishing the net gain. However, Wallin is probably right in that the cost for the state would have been less if the vessel had been sold and not scrapped.

This leads us on to the other issues, namely the reputation of Alfons Håkans. There is no denying that Alfons Håkans is a serious company, and one that stands out as a bright success story. In fact, following recent acquisitions a few years ago, it is the shipping company with the largest number of vessels in both Finland as well as the Baltic States (though naturally the tonnage is more limited). The exact financial state of the concern is unclear to me, as it is made up of quite a number of different companies (at least the following companies are operated by the Håkans-family, though I am unsure whether they are financially linked to each other: [1], [2], [3], [4], [5], [6]), of which the parent company seems to have been changed into a holding company without employees a few years ago. However, this is not an unusual way to organise larger companies, and I’ve found nothing to indicate that the company would be in any kind of difficulties. As such, it is perfectly plausible that they could have acquired and made a profitable business out of leasing the Pohjanmaa onwards, despite the fact that at 1,100 t light it is considerable larger than the Pontus, another ex-naval vessel that currently is the largest ship in the company fleet. However, their reputation is somewhat marred by the fact that Alfons Håkans has at times been at odds with the authorities, such as in the case of the subsidiary Baltic Pilot which for a while offered piloting for services. The special status of the state-owned ice-breaking company Arctica Shipping has also been a topic of heated discussion.

The most relevant quarrel is however not the odd status of privatised piloting and ice-breaking in Finland, but the story of Airiston Helmi Oy, a small travel company based in the southwestern parts of the country. The company has Russian owners, and apparently gets a steady influx of money from somewhere, as it remains active despite never having made a profitable year since its founding in 2007, and accumulating a net loss of 2,4 million Euros in the last four years alone. The company made the headlines after it was found out that it has bought a number of properties situated next to the main seaway leading in to the Port of Turku, one of the most important harbours in Finland and home to Pansio Naval Base and the navy’s main surface force, the Coastal Fleet. Alfons Håkans got dragged into the Russian property buying-discussion after it turned out that they had sold two ex-naval vessels to Airiston Helmi, and that contrary to the contract they signed when acquiring the vessels from the navy, they had neither renamed the vessels nor repainted the hulls to avoid confusion with active duty naval vessels. Instead, only the pennant numbers had been removed. This seemingly minor oversight spawned a minor scandal as the strange financial state and property affairs of the buyer became clear. While Airiston Helmi certainly seems too obvious to be a front for Russian intelligence, it is equally clear that small green men in bogus naval transports attacking strategic seaways fits into current Russian military thinking. Alfons Håkans shrugged off the whole thing, the buyer was in a hurry to seal the deal, and there simply wasn’t any time to repaint the vessels. If the navy had an issue with this, they could contact the owner directly.

The hitch with this is that grey hulls and the vessel name Kala aren’t in any way restricted to naval use. The legal reach of the navy does not extend any further than the entity that buys the vessels directly from the navy, who has signed a deal to repaint them. As soon as the vessel is sold onwards, there is nothing the navy, or anyone else for that matter, can do about it. Legally speaking the navy could probably demand some kind of compensation from Alfons Håkans, “We were in a hurry” seldom works as a legal reason for not following written contracts, but in the end they decided against pursuing the issue further. However, It is safe to assume the affair wasn’t forgotten when Alfons Håkans called and asked to buy the former flagship.

To sum it all up: It’s a pity to see the Pohjanmaa go, but the reasons for denying the sale seem perfectly valid. I don’t believe Alfons Håkans is a Russian agent, but they could have handled the Airiston Helmi-affair a lot smoother than they did, and as a consequence of this they probably didn’t receive too much goodwill from the defence forces, who chose to stick to the a rather stringent interpretation of the rules for selling military goods. Having had a more thorough look through the current export control regulations would probably have helped too. Why Wallin has decided to make a fuss about the issue is beyond my understanding.

Su-24 Down in Syria

Earlier today a Russian Su-24 was shot down close to the Turkish-Syrian border. According to Turkish media, the unidentified plane was shot down in Turkish airspace, after repeated warnings (10 warnings over five minutes being quoted). Russian sources claim the aircraft was brought down in Syrian airspace, something which seems to be corroborated by the fact that it was later the rebels who showed pictures of the dead pilots.

An interesting piece of evidence that surfaced surprisingly fast was a purported radar track of the Turkish F-16 as well as the Russian Su-24. According to this track, the Su-24 overflew a salient, crossing approximately 2.5-3 km of Turkish territory. In practice, even if the plane flew at low speed, it would not have spent more time in Turkish airspace than 10-30 seconds. Even if the F-16 fired an AMRAAM (the usual weapon of choice for today’s F-16 pilots) the moment the Su-24 crossed the border, chances are it would have been back in Syria by the time the missile impacted. However, a more likely explanation is that Turkey is getting fed up by the Russian intrusions, and as they never manage to shoot down an intruder during the act, they instead opted to chase it down over the border.

Overflight

This brings up the question of Rules of Engagement, or ROE for short. These are a the rules set out by countries to govern their armed forces use of force, in this case the Turkish government/higher command stipulating when their fighters are allowed to fire air-to-air missiles. In western countries during peacetime the usual rule set is variations on theme of “use of force is allowed only if fired upon first, or if there are definite indications that the enemy is about to fire”. This has clearly not been the case here (the Su-24 can carry R-60 short-range missiles for self-defence, but I find it extremely hard to believe it would have tried to take on an F-16 in a fight), and even more interesting is a tweet alleging that the Turkish fighter had shot down an ‘unidentified’ intruder. Visual identification is more or less a pre-requisite for handling this kind of incidents, and not positively identifying your target prior to shooting it down could quite possibly be a violation of international rules (if the quote was indeed correct).

Both pilots seems to have been killed, the most popular story in circulation is currently that Syrian rebels fired upon the pilots while they were descending in their parachutes. If so, this is a clear violation of international law, but in all honesty should not come as a surprise, given the extremely dirty nature of the Syrian civil war.

The Russian Air Force has obviously been aware of the fact that it could one day face the possibility of having a pilot down behind enemy lines, and that given the nature of the conflict, the best way to get any downed pilot back alive was by retrieving him themselves. As fast as possible. For that use, a single Mil Mi-8AMTSh transport/assault helicopter has been standing ready for CSAR-duty (Combat Search and Rescue, pronounced ‘Caesar’) in Latakia. The Mil Mi-24P attack helicopters operated by Russia in the area also have the ability to transport a small number of passengers, and unlike the Mi-8, they provide a decent level of armour protection.

It seems that after the plane was shot down, the CSAR team was alerted, and the Mi-8AMTSh set out together with at least one Mi-14P as escort. It appears the helicopter was damaged by fire from the ground, and had to make an emergency landing in friendly territory. There, the helicopter was then destroyed by a TOW anti-tank missile launched by rebels. The fate of the crew of the helicopter, as well as the Spetsnaz team presumably carried for the CSAR mission, is not clear.

The political fallout from this incident is far harder to judge. Apparently, Turkey has decided to play it hard, either in an attempt by Erdogan to bolster his approval ratings and/or to discourage Russia (and Assad) from attacking the rebels in north-western Syria, which include Syrian Turkmens. Incidents like this doesn’t necessarily have to escalate, during the Cold War there was a number of incidents involving airplanes being shot down, colliding in mid-air, or crashing due to aggressive manoeuvring (mock dogfights). However, Putin’s language in his speech today was confrontational, accusing Turkey of siding with terrorists:

However, today’s loss is a result of a stab in the back delivered by terrorists’ accomplices. There is no other way I can qualify what happened today.

Our aircraft was shot down over Syrian territory by an air-to-air missile launched from a Turkish F-16 plane. It fell on Syrian territory, four kilometres from the Turkish border.

[…]

They were conducting an operation to fight ISIS in northern Latakia – a mountainous area where militants, mainly those coming from the Russian Federation, are concentrated. In this sense, they were doing their direct duty delivering preventive blows at terrorists who could return to Russia at any moment. Those people should certainly be classified as international terrorists.

We have long been recording the movement of a large amount of oil and petroleum products to Turkey from ISIS-occupied territories. This explains the significant funding the terrorists are receiving. Now they are stabbing us in the back by hitting our planes that are fighting terrorism. This is happening despite the agreement we have signed with our American partners to prevent air incidents, and, as you know, Turkey is among those who are supposed to be fighting terrorism within the American coalition.

[…]

We will of course carefully analyse what has happened and today’s tragic event will have significant consequences for Russian-Turkish relations.

We have always treated Turkey not merely as a close neighbour, but as a friendly state. I do not know who benefits from what has happened today. We certainly do not. Moreover, instead of immediately establishing contacts with us, as far as we know Turkey turned to its NATO partners to discuss this incident. As if we had hit their plane and not the other way around.

Do they wish to make NATO serve ISIS? I know that every state has its regional interests, and we always respect those. However, we will never turn a blind eye to such crimes as the one that was committed today.

The stage is set, and it seems like two Presidents’ with far reaching powers and agendas are bound to collide.