Review: Russia’s Warplanes (Vol. 1 & 2)

If last month’s review was a unique book covering a rarely seen topic, this month’s double have it tougher when it comes to defending their necessity – do we really need yet another book on the same MiG’s, Sukhoi’s, and Tupolev’s?

Spoiler alert: Yes, we do.

But let’s take it from the beginning. As the subtitle indicate, the topic is the aircrafts and helicopters of today’s modern Russian Armed Forces and export derivatives of these. You will not find the MiG-21 here, but instead what is probably the most up to date go-through of all Su-30 versions found throughout the world. The books are complementary volumes, were Volume 1 deals with tactical combat aircraft (up to Su-24 and -34), transport and attack helicopters, reconnaissance, surveillance, and special missions platforms (including aircrafts, helicopters, and balloons!). Volume 2 takes on strategic bombers, maritime aircraft, transports, tankers, and trainer aircraft. In addition, volume 2 also covers developments regarding the aircraft presented in volume 1 which took place during the year between the two volumes (August 2015 to August 2016). It also feature a chapter on the Russian air war in Syria.

The books are divided into chapters according to the role of the aircrafts, and each aircraft get their own sub-chapter. In cases where significant changes has been made, new generations get their own sub-chapters, such as the MiG-29 being split into the early air superiority line and the multirole MiG-29K/29M/35 line. All data is given in running text, with no data tables or similar. This makes the book highly readable, with clearly structured sub-sections making it possible to easily find any data point you might be looking for. It is certainly possible to read the books cover-to-cover, though I find it more enjoyable to head straight for the aircraft I am currently interested in. The books do provide an excellent one-stop shop for well-researched information on the Russian Air Force of today, making them invaluable when you suddenly feel like checking up the capabilities of that Il-20M spotted at pictures of Hmeymim air base.

Screenshot 2017-10-05 at 21.02.12

While the stars of the book certainly comes as no surprise to anyone, the Su-27/30/33/34/35-family e.g. occupy 30+ pages of the first volume, the books leave ample room for less well-known systems as well. The trainer versions of the Tu-134 get their own sub-chapter, and I didn’t even know about the existence of Russian tethered balloons before I read about them here! In short, if it flies and there is a reasonable connection to the Russian armed forces, it is represented in the books.

As with the book on Russia’s air-launched weapons, it certainly feels well-researched. Without losing the big picture, Piotr Butowski provide valuable insight into details. This is the first time I have encountered the fact that Sukhoi differentiates between the Vietnamese Su-30MK2V and the Venezuelan Su-30MK2V by writing the former with a Cyrillic Ve (Су-30МК2В) while the later is written with a Latin V (Су-30МК2V), just to give a small example on the level of detail.

Screenshot 2017-10-05 at 19.51.08

I actually struggle to find any major faults with the two volumes. Compared to the earlier review, these come in at a solid length of 252 and 251 pages respectively. The soft-cover books hold up well (though my examples did have a corner being slightly damaged in the mail), and I have experienced no issues with the binding despite at times leaving the book opened for some time. I like the fact that the books provide both a suitably deep (obviously a subjective measure) overview of the famous aircraft in use, but perhaps even more I value the fact that I now have a trusted source for easily looking up more obscure systems such as UAV’s and some of the newer sub-variants of older designs. The fact that the books are so new certainly provide added value, as they cover the recent period of modernization of the Russian Air Force.

Highly recommended!

Both books were provided free of charge for review by Harpia Publishing. The contents of this review has not been discussed with or revealed to Harpia before posting.

Review: Russia’s Air-launched Weapons

Harpia Publishing is one of those publishers who seems to have a more or less continuous stream of interesting titles coming out, but who’s books I’ve never actually have gotten around to trying out. As such, I gladly jumped on the opportunity when they contacted me and asked if I was willing to review their recent titles on the Russian Air Force. First out is something quite a bit out of the ordinary: Russia’s Air-launched Weapons by Piotr Butowski.

Screenshot 2017-08-31 at 21.05.36

Compared to many western countries, Russia operate a range of different air-launched weapons. Partly this is due to the fact that while many design bureaus have been pushing newer designs, few weapons have been completely phased out in the recent decades. Instead, newer weapons have been bought in relatively small series, which are used alongside older designs. Russia has also kept a considerable number of ‘traditional’ gravity bombs, and contrary to the west, largely use these as ‘dumb’ weapons due to the difficulty of fitting them with guidance kits (contrary to the Mk 80-series, the Russian bombs are usually welded monoliths, making it impossible to change out the fins).

All this makes for a bewildering array of weapons, making the need for this book high amongst aviation geeks. A second group for which the title ought to appeal are national security pundits keeping track of what the Russian Air Force carries and uses in Syria.

The book uses a clear layout, going through the weapons category by category, including strategic weapons (nuclear bombs and strategic/theatre-level cruise missiles), tactical cruise missiles, air-to-air missiles of different classes, helicopter launched missiles, bombs, rockets, guns and gun pods, as well as naval weapons such as torpedoes and mines. Targeting pods also get an overview, though it should be noted that Russia has traditionally preferred fixed sensors instead of pods, and these sensors aren’t covered in the book. All currently operational weapons are covered, as well as those currently in development. An interesting aspect is that Butowski appears to have toured major Russian air and arms shows for years, providing a valuable source of information for projects which have at different times been in development, but which then have faded away or gone silent for some time.

There are some real gems in this volume. While I appreciate having a comprehensive overlook of the R-27 family or the Kh-31, my personal favourites where the more obscure weapons systems, such as the huge Klevok-V helicopter-launched missile, the S-13ALT radar decoy rocket, or the air-dropped mines, information on which is hard to come by.

9A4172K Vikhr and a B-8V-20 20-round rocket pod, both systems are covered in the book. Source: Минпромторг России via Wikimedia Commons
The book is a rather thin soft-cover, being just under 100 pages, and I must admit I felt a bit disappointed when I first pulled it out of the postal package. Having read it my opinion changed, and it doesn’t feel like it leave things out due to its size. When I reached the last page, on the whole I felt I had gotten all information I had hoped for, with the possible exception of the chapter on naval weapons which I felt could have been a bit longer, as well as discussing at longer lengths to what extent some systems are in wide or limited use. Those are minor complaint, as said, the information on naval systems are hard to come by, and the book provide new information for me here as well. For the production figures, it is understandable that these are guarded secrets of the Russian Air Force. The level of illustrations is also good!

On the whole, it is hard to not recommend this book. As said, it isn’t overly thick, and the price (around 20 euros) is on the higher end. However, it functions as a very handy guide both to those wanting to ID what is hanging under the wings of Russian aircraft at home and abroad, but also for modellers looking into creating suitable loadouts for their models. The information seems solid, and especially considering the fact that this is in many ways an unique book in covering the latest development up to this year. Well worth a recommendation.

A Squadron from the North

Few readers of the blog are likely to have missed the fact that the world’s largest submarine and sole survivor of the Akula (NATO-nickname ‘Typhoon’) class recently paid a visit to the Baltic Sea for the Russian Navy Day parade. TK-208 Dmitriy Donskoy grabbed most of the headlines, but as with all good tricks, it’s when you watch the ball too closely that the magic happens.

Hieronymus Bosch: “The Conjurer” (via Wikimedia Commons)

In the Baltic Sea the submarine completely lacked suitable weaponry, sensors, and quite frankly space to move around. However, the world’s largest surface combatant, Pyotr Velikiy (‘099’), travelled together with the submarine. In addition, the cruiser Marshal Ustinov (‘055’) and destroyer Vice-Admiral Kulakov (‘626’) both travelled to the Baltic Sea to join in the festivities from the Northern Fleet, with the frigate Admiral Makarov (‘799’) joining from the Black Sea Fleet. These surface combatants stood for the real increase in firepower, and deserve a closer look:

Note hatches for vertically launched weapons on foredeck. Source: FLVFOT, Flyvevåbnets Taktiske Stab

Pyotr Velikiy: at 251 meter long and 24,300 tons standard displacement, she is a huge vessel by any standard. Often referred to as a battlecruiser, because she packs significant firepower but lacks the armour associated with ‘real’ battleships. The Kirov-class was launched in the 80’s, with the goal of intercepting and destroying the carrier task forces of the US Navy by unleashing a barrage of P-700 Granit missiles. Originally named Yuri Andropov, she is currently the only vessel of the class in operational service. Powered by two KN-3 nuclear reactors supplemented by oil-fired boilers.

Source: via Wikimedia Commons

Marshal Ustinov: the Slava-class of cruisers are the little sisters (186 m and 9,380 tons) of the Velikiy, and are made to perform the same missions of targeting enemy surface vessels (with the P-500 Bazalt) and functioning as flagships. The Ustinov was launched in 1982, making it seven years older than the Velikiy.

Source: Brian Burnell via Wikimedia Commons

Vice-Admiral Kulakov: the Udaloy-class are specialised anti-submarine destroyers with secondary air defence and anti-ship capabilities. While the destroyer is significantly smaller (163 m and 6,930 tons) and somewhat older (launched 1980) than the cruisers, she still represents a vessel of the same size as the current flagship of the Baltic Fleet, the air defence destroyer Nastoychivyy.

Source: via Wikimedia Commons

Admiral Makarov: The odd bird out, Makarov not only comes from Sevastopol instead of Murmansk, she is also one of the few really modern warships of the Russian Navy. While the frigate is the lightest of the kvartet (125 m and 3,300 tons), she packs a considerable punch for her size with moderns sensors and weaponry (including the long-range Kalibr-cruise missile), and also feature some amount of signature reduction.

Notable is that Granit, Bazalt, and Kalibr all can come equipped either with conventional or nuclear warheads.

As noted, the current flagship of the Russian Baltic Fleet is the Sovremennyy-class destroyer Nastoychivyy, which is the sole operational destroyer of any country permanently stationed in the Baltic Sea. In addition, her sister Bespokoynyy is in reserve/long-term storage. It is hard to overstate the boost the four vessels dispatched brought to Russia’s Baltic Fleet, traditionally one of the smaller fleets in the Soviet/Russian Navy. While all except Makarov are starting to show their age, they brought significant increases to the air defences available. Ustinov feature both the medium ranged Osa-MA and the long-range S-300F Fort surface-to-air missile systems, which are naval derivatives of the 9K33 Osa and the S-300. The Fort employs the original semi-active 5V55 missiles, while the Veliky in turn feature the upgrade S-300FM Fort-M system, which is longer ranged and sporting the newer 48N6E and 48N6E2 missiles. The Veliky also has the medium-range 3K95 Kinzhal (a naval derivative of the 9K330 Tor) and the Kashtan close-in weapons systems with autocannons and short-range missiles (easiest described as 2K22 Tunguska derivatives). The Kinzhal is found on the Kulakov as well. Makarov in turn has the Kashtan for short-range work and the Shtil-1, which in essence consists of Buk-M1 missiles in vertical launch tubes, for medium-range work.

In short: that is a serious amount of different air defence systems, and should have been of note for anyone interesting in drawing A2/AD-bubbles on maps.

The open-water anti-submarine capability was also given a considerable increase by Kulakov and Makarov. Up until now, the main sub-hunting force has been the six coastal ASW-corvettes of the Parchim-class, with open water capability largely resting on the shoulders of the fleet’s sole submarine Vyborg (an early Project 877 ‘Kilo’-class sub from the early 80’s) and the four Steregushchiy-class (light) frigates. This is a relatively small force, considering that the Baltic Sea is home to two of the world’s most modern AIP-submarine forces: the Swedish (Gotland– and Södermanland-classes) and the German (Type 212) submarine squadrons.

The escorts

The vessels arrived well in time before the parade, and the small squadron of Donskoy, Veliky, and the tug Nikolay Chiker was followed closely by both defence forces and media. NATO-vessels escorted the vessels throughout their journey, with the Norwegian Coast Guard shadowing them along the Norwegian coast, and then handing over to HDMS Diana and the Royal Danish Navy. The Danish Defence Forces had earlier stated that the passage of the vessels was business as usual, and that they would dispatch an escort. In hindsight it might not have been quite as usual, as the passage under the Great Belt bridge was escorted by no less than three Diana-class patrol vessels and a single standby vessel positioned just south of the bridge.

After this, the Russians got the attention of, well, everyone. The German Elbe-class tender Main followed them for a while, before the Poles showed up with landing craft/minelayer ORP Gniezno. The Swedes then tried to get the price for most creative solution, by having the Naval Reserve’s Hoburg (ex-ASW hunter Krickan of the Ejdern-class) intercept the formation (granted, there was probably a submarine lurking somewhere for more serious intelligence work). The Estonian’s in turn sent the joint flagship of the border guards and the police force, the Kindral Kurvits.

The Finnish reaction, or rather, the fact that there didn’t seem to be one, caused some people to voice opinions about Finlandisation and the Navy sleeping on their stations. While I am usually quick to argue for clear signalling rather than anything resembling Finlandisation (due to the risk of misinterpretation given our history), I do feel that this is uncalled for. On the contrary: it is painstakingly clear that the appearance of the Donskoy in particular was a PR-stunt, and the considerable buzz caused was quite likely an end in itself. The measured Finnish response was in my opinion a balanced way to acknowledge their existence, without giving them undue attention.

It is perfectly possible to maintain watch over surface vessels in the Gulf of Finland without venturing out to sea (especially in peacetime conditions when no one is targeting or jamming your sensors), and this is particularly true for a vessel with the radar cross section of the Velikiy. So the Finnish Navy seems to have decided that the squadron was not interesting enough to receive an escort.

Note however that the Navy did venture out to sea to get picture of the vessels, and not only that: the Finnish vessel has circled around to a position south of the Russian units (I have gotten confirmation that the pictures are taken from a Finnish naval vessel, and aren’t from Estonian sources). In my opinion, this measured response was likely the best one available. The Navy showed that they knew where the Russian units where, and that they weren’t afraid of maneuvering around in their vicinity to get the best pictures, without showing too much attention (easily interpreted as fear in the face of the Russian show of force).

Exit… Stage Left

The vessels again caused something of a buzz when the question was raised how many of them actually had left the Baltic Sea. According to Russian sources, all Northern Fleet vessels had headed North again, but the pictures used to show this were actually Finnish press photos from the Gulf of Finland. Eventually it became clear that Veliky and Donskoy had left (hat tip to Cornucopia?/Lars Wilderäng), and were indeed northbound. The Kulakov, however, was intercepted by Belgian and British forces while heading south, and no one seems to know where the cruiser Ustinov and the frigate Makarov have went (no one who is ready to tell, that is, I fully expect the defence forces of the countries bordering the Baltic Sea to have proper info on the movement of what might be the strongest vessels currently deployed to our pond). As is well known, the Baltic Fleet has received some significant reinforcements from the Black Sea Fleet earlier as well, and while unlikely, a (semi-)permanent deployment here can’t be ruled out.

Guest Post: A Picture in Moscow

The following post was originally posted by Swedish blogger Jägarchefen on his excellent blog. As the topic is highly relevant for but rarely discussed here in Finland, I asked for and got permission to translate it. The below translation is not a word for word one, but instead I have included some explanatory comments on issues which are assumed to be known to Swedish readers but which might not be immediately obvious to foreigners, as well as diving deeper into how this all affects Finland.

Valery Gerasimov, the Russian Chief of the General Staff, held a speech at the annual security conference in Moscow 26 to 27 April. The speech included how the actions and preparations of NATO aimed at providing the basis for a rapid surge of reinforcements to NATO’s eastern flank would affect Russian security. In one of the pictures he showed both Swedish and Finnish territory were marked as part of NATO’s preparatory actions. This indicates that Russia sees Finnish and Swedish territory as an extension of NATO territory, though whether they are seen as an integrated part is better left unsaid. What is clear is that in the Russian strategic military doctrine from 2014 and in the national security strategy from 2015 NATO is described as a threat to Russian security.

Regarding Sweden this isn’t news. Based on a number of books published during the last two decades it is clear that the Soviet Union during the better part of the Cold War regarded Sweden as an unofficial NATO member, making the current Russian view of Sweden as a part of NATO less than surprising. In addition to the historical case, this is also based on Sweden being one of five states with the possibility of deeper cooperation (the famous ‘Gold Card’) and the recently signed Host Nation Support Agreement.

More surprising is the view that Finland would constitute an extension of NATO. Granted, Finland, like Sweden, has signed the HNS agreement and received the ‘Gold Card’, but Finland and Russia still make occasional statement about the special relationship that prevail between the countries. From that point of view, the statement by the Russian Chief of Staff is somewhat out of sync, as it indirectly labels Finland as a threat. It is also interesting to see the raging debate about the nature of Finnish support in case of a conflict in the region in context with Gerasimov’s picture.

What then did the picture show? It showed four geographical areas, as well as a possible continuous  support or staging area. On Swedish territory, it appeared to show Varberg or Halmstad port as a possible staging ground for naval assets. On the Swedish east coast it appeared to show the port of Gävle as a staging ground for naval assets. It also seemed to indicate Sundsvall as a supporting area for air operations (in other words Midlanda airport). Finally, on Finnish territory it seemed to show Vasa as a supporting area for naval assets and Kauhava as a supporting area for air operations. The continuous supporting/staging area seemingly consisting of Gävle – Sundsvall – Vasa – Kauhava.

Map courtesy of Jägarchefen

To some extent this is strategic signalling. The Russian leadership is showing their unhappiness with the current Swedish and Finnish defence cooperation with NATO, and this could be a way of trying to pressure Finland and Sweden diminish or even stop the cooperation. Another alternative is that Russia is trying to send a message: “We know what you are preparing and we want you to know that”. The aim then would be to make preparations and/or cooperation more difficult.

Starting with the Swedish west coast, it is clear that it is vital for Sweden in peace as well as in war. This comes both from its role in the influx of crucial goods, as well as from its use as the gateway for any reinforcements brought in from the west. The main focus has been on the port of Gothenburg, which in peacetime handles almost 30% of Swedish imports, is ice-free year-round, and has a significant rail network enabling efficient distribution of goods to other parts of Sweden. One possibility is obviously that the location of the marker is wrong, and that the real intention was to highlight Gothenburg and not Varberg or Halmstad. However, the other possibility is that the military units would stay out of the crowded port, and instead choose a less busy civilian port for bringing in reinforcements and basing naval vessels.

Sundsvall/Midlanda airport. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Felix Wikström

Even more interesting is Gävle and the Sundsvall – Vasa – Kauhava area. The reasoning behind Gävle might be its use as the port of departure for the forward-deployed US Marine Corps Brigade that is currently found in the caves of Trøndelag, in central Norway. From Gävle, the unit could then be shipped out to the Baltic states in case of a grave security crises. Gävle could also be used as a base for naval units from Finland and/or NATO countries for operations in the northern Baltic Sea. The use of Midlanda (Sundsvall) airport likely refers to its use as a base for fighter and strike aircraft. In case of transport of personnel the US forces would likely directly use the airports in Trøndelag instead. Another possibility is that the base would be used to provide strategic depth for Finnish fighters.

The most curious aspect is Vasa as a naval base or staging area, as well as Kauhava as a base for airborne assets. It is possible that Vasa would be part of a protected staging area for naval vessels operating in the northern parts of the Baltic Sea as well as in the Gulf of Finland. Notably however, no airports in southern or central parts of Sweden, nor the naval base in Karlskrona, are included in the picture. In the by now rather well-known RAND study of how a Russian attack on the Baltics could look, the use of air bases in central Sweden is highlighted as being of crucial importance to NATO.

It could be that Russia feels it has the ability to interfere with operations in southern and central Sweden to the extent that the area is not seen as a threat in case NATO would base forces there. In this case Gerasimov’s picture would indicate that the marked areas would not be as affected by the Russian actions, and as such would be more of a threat.

This makes the transfer of two Buyan-M class corvettes from the Black Sea Fleet to the Baltic Fleet during the autumn of 2016 especially interesting, as it provides the opportunity for Russia to target the Swedish west coast with Kalibr long-range cruise missiles without these overflying the territory of other nations, which would have been the case if the missiles would have been fired from the North Fleet.


Added to this the Swedish broadcasting corporation’s radio earlier this year reported that some unknown entity seems to try and map out people working for the regional council in Jämtland, including those that play a role in upholding comprehensive security in the region. There are no information on the situation in Västernorrland county, but it can be assumed to be similar, as these two constitute a continuous geographical area of operations due to the forward-deployed storages in Trøndelag.

These two counties, together making up the region of Mellersta Norrland (literally ‘Middle Norrland’), seems to be an area of great military strategic interest for Russia, indirectly making them an area of strategic military interest for Sweden as well. This is in addition to the five areas identified earlier, which include:

  • Southern Scania, which controls the waterways between the Baltic Sea and the North Sea
  • Gotland, which could be employed as a basing area for long-range weapon systems
  • Gothenburg/the west coast, discussed above
  • Stockholm, the national capital
  • Northern Norrland, as a transit area for flanking operations during any battle between Norwegian and Russian forces

With a sixth area added to these, it is clear that the Swedish Defence Forces lacks the quantity needed to defend all of these at the same time.

It should be noted that the highlighting of Mellersta Norrland is in line with earlier posts on Jägarchefen’s blog, where during the last two year several indications have been reported which point to Mellersta Norrland being strategically more important that generally assumed. This can now be seen as confirmed by the Russian general staff.

Own comments:

For Finland, the situation is somewhat similar. Traditionally, the main strategic areas have been identified as the southern parts of the country, where the capital of Helsinki and the major cities of Turku and Tampere are found, as well as the northern parts of the country which would be important in case of a major conflict where Finnish territory could be used for flanking maneuvers in the battles for Murmansk and northern Norway. A third possible axis of attack would be the Kajaani – Oulu axis, which was attempted in the Winter War as a way of cutting Finland in half.

Southern Ostrobothnia has traditionally not been seen as a primary target. Kauhava has a long history as an air force base, and would likely be used for dispersed basing in case of war. From a NATO point of view, its value is more limited, as bases in northern Sweden would likely be a better choice for basing fighters due to the strategic depth they offer, while for air transport several other civilian airports hold similar facilities and at least equal road and rail connections (and in some cases local ports can be used as a complement).

Swedish corvette HSwMS Sundsvall (K24) entering the civilian port of Kokkola during a joint exercise in 2010. Source: Own picture


One possibility is that the designation of Vasa as a port of interest does portray a more general concept of using civilian ports as naval bases. Finland has a notoriously high number of ports along the coast, and the Ostrobothnian shore is no exception. While no ‘true’ naval bases are found in the area, there are a number of differently sized ports which could be used for refuelling and replenishment, in effect a dispersed basing concept for naval vessels. From the relative protection of the Gulf of Bothnia the vessels could then sortie out to strike against enemy movements in the northern Baltic Sea, before again withdrawing back to safety.

The conclusions drawn by Jägarchefen are the following:

  1. As Russia sees NATO as a threat to their national security, and as they see Finnish and Swedish territory as being potential areas supporting NATO operations, Russia does see Finland and Sweden as well as threats to their security. This has (or rather, should have) a significant impact on the discussions on Finland’s role in case of war in the Baltics.
  2. This has now been clearly communicated at the highest military level, making it also a political signal as well to Finland and Sweden.
  3. Mellersta Norrland must be seen as an area of strategic military importance. In Finland, this goes for Southern Ostrobothnia as well.
  4. This must lead to a discussion at the political level about the importance of this area. Currently, the area feature more or less the same security vacuum Gotland enjoyed before the island became home for permanently stationed troops again. While Finland stresses that peacetime garrisons should not be seen as indicative of where any given unit would fight, it is very much open (as it should be) if current defence planning recognises the importance of this area, and how e.g. the Local Voluntary Units (Maakuntajoukot) tasked with defending the area has been briefed and equipped to meet this increased threat level.

Have a good one! // Jägarchefen

Under Scottish Skies – Air Superiority

While the Typhoon so far has seen combat solely in the air-to-ground role, there is no mistaking in that the primary role of RAF Lossiemouth lies elsewhere. The base is the northern of RAF’s two quick-reaction alert bases, abbreviated as QRA(N). As such, a pair of armed Typhoons stand guard around the clock, year round. These are airborne within ten minutes of the scramble, often with time to spare. While the usual ‘bogey’ for QRA(S) down at RAF Coningsby is an airliner gone silent (usually due to having the wrong radio frequency), RAF Lossiemouth handles the classic North Sea intercept of any Russian bombers coming down round Norway. This includes “Bears in different versions”, presumably meaning that both the Tu-95 bomber version and the Tu-142 maritime patrol versions has been sighted, as well as the Tu-160 Blackjack. The latter is something of a newcomer in the area, starting to make appearances only post-Crimea. By the time any bomber approaches the British isles, they are always escorted by Norwegian F-16s, which hand over the mission to the Typhoons. Notably, the Typhoons has been on station and escorted the Tu-160 during the strikes in Syria which have been flown along the western route, circumnavigating the UK.

Scottish mountains

“Deliver QRA(I)N and prepare for global operations”
RAF Lossiemouth mission statement

All QRA flights are armed with a mix of four ASRAAM short-range IR-missiles and four AMRAAM medium-range missiles, of which two ASRAAM would be traded for another two AMRAAM in case of a ‘wartime load’. In addition, the aircraft are sporting two supersonic drop tanks and a full load of 27 mm ammunition for the internal Mauser gun. While RAF’s QRA flights haven’t had to open fire upon intercepted aircrafts in modern times, the risk is always there. And nowhere is this more evident than in the Baltics, where the Typhoon face the most modern fighters that Russia has to offer.

Wing Commander Billy Cooper is the officer commanding 6 Squadron, and an experienced fighter pilot who has logged over 1,300 hours on the Typhoon after transitioning to it from the Tornado F.3, RAF’s earlier QRA jet. Before joining the Lossiemouth based squadron, he took part in a Baltic Air Policing tour with the Coningsby based 3(F) Squadron, being deployed to Šiauliai in Lithuania. The detachment brought some interesting challenges to the RAF, as the facilities of the old Soviet base were overcrowded. A number of portable cabins were shipped out for the personnel to live in, while the Typhoons were allocated unheated soft-skin hangars throughout the stay. While these did offer a measure of protection from the wind and precipitation, this still meant that all maintenance work on the planes were performed in whatever the outside temperature happened to be. While the detachment had “relatively small issues with the climate”, as Cooper put it, a more unexpected issue appeared. Soon after arrival, the British airmen spotted a “large, elk-like creature” towards the far end of the base. Large mammals was not something that RAF was used to operating around, but with the proper procedures in place, air operations could continue.

If the QRA(N) gets scrambled once every few months, BAP is another issue completely. The latest tour by 2(AC) Squadron to Ämari air base in Estonia resulted in 42 intercepted aircraft during their 4 month long stay. In addition to the normal weaponry a targeting pod was often carried, being particularly useful in the identification of ships. Some targets are trickier than others, with Cooper mentioning one of his personal highlights being the intercept of a Kamov Ka-27 helicopter launched from a Russian frigate. After he had intercepted the helicopter, the Finnish Air Force also appeared and closed in to take a look on it.


“We were briefed quite closely to not interact with them too much”

The behavior of the Russian pilots varied widely, and while the British pilots where briefed to maintain their cool, Cooper was under the impression that their Russian colleagues were more free to engage their adversaries as they saw fit. This included aggressively turning against any intercepting fighters trying to take pictures of them, and while no-one tries to cause a mid-air collision, the short distances between the aircrafts (Typhoons often closing to within 65 meters of their targets) meant that the risk certainly was there. This kind of behavior was more common if the Russian fighters were flying escort for transport or attack/bomber aircraft, and apparently also depended on the personal style of the pilots. “Sometimes you closed in and thought for yourself ‘isn’t that the one from last week’, and sure enough he starts doing the same kind of things this time around as well,” Cooper explained. When asked whether he had experienced the kind of aggressive flare dumping described by the Swedish Air Force, he commented that he hadn’t personally seen it, “but it wouldn’t surprise me”. Both sides carry flares on a regular basis, and in addition to being defensive countermeasures, their purpose does include (stern) signalling. Some Russian pilots did use other means of less-than-friendly communication, while RAF’s pilots stuck to smiles and occasional waves.

Cooperation with the Finnish Air Force is not uncommon for the BAP, with Finnish Air Force and BAP sharing a common recognised air picture and sharing data over Link 16. During intercepts over the Gulf of Finland, it was not uncommon to have a pair of BAP fighters shadowing a Russian target from the south, with a pair of Finnish F/A-18C Hornets doing the same from the north. Operating together in this manner is no problem, as both the RAF and Finnish Air Force share the same doctrine and has the ability to use the same data link. “It is the same as operating with a NATO-country”, Cooper sums up. In addition to chance encounters on intercepts, the two air forces regularly do schedule joint training missions.

Cooper and media

“You need something that can fight long-range and dominate short-range”

The nature of aerial combat also was also something which came up. With the advent of a new generation of long-range missiles and sensors, many have concluded that the classic within-visual-range dogfight is (finally) dead. Cooper wasn’t as sure, noting that he could see quite a few scenarios where a fighter would find itself uncomfortably close to its target before being able to open fire. The main question was to what extent the rules of engagement would allow for firing at targets beyond visual range, or if a visual confirmation will be required first. In any case, RAF has taken their Typhoons on exercises against both Indian Sukhoi Su-30MKI and Malaysian Su-30MKM, and contrary to some Indian reports, the “Typhoon did extremely well” against the Su-30MKI at close range, while long range engagements were a matter of “clubbing seals” (an expression BAE was quick to explain is fighter pilot jargon for easy air-to-air kills, in case someone would have misunderstood its use…). In the end, “the Indians weren’t happy”, despite their pilots spending much of their time practicing within visual range combat according to Cooper.

It is no secret that while the Finnish Air Force is looking for a fighter able to handle a range of missions in a full-scale conventional war, the main mission during peacetime is QRA and air policing in the crowded airspace over the Baltic Sea. This is also a point which BAE likes to push, and certainly one of the better selling points of the Typhoon. That isn’t to say that BAE is trying to sell the fighter with its peacetime mission as the argument (arguably not a great idea…), as they are clear with that they think the Typhoon is a great multirole fighter all around. It just happens to be very good at what the Finnish Air Force does in their everyday line of work. At least according to the sales pitch.

The speed is well-known, with the Eurofighter being able to supercruise (though the exact prestanda in supercruise mode is somewhat controversial, with anything between Mach 1.1 to 1.5 being quoted depending on the source and load conditions), but Cooper was also keen to point out the range of the aircraft. Operating alongside the Polish MiG-29’s in BAP, the importance of endurance quickly became evident. While Cooper noted that the Polish Air Force pilots were professional and eager to do a good job, at the same time they did suffer problems due to the notorious short range of their aircraft. At the time these were early production MiG-29 9.12 from ex-DDR stocks, while the Polish detachment which took up the BAP-mission this week is flying F-16’s instead of MiG-29’s. The Typhoon, usually operating with twin supersonic drop tanks, were able to stay on target, despite what appeared to be efforts to shake them off. “Sometimes when the Russian flight came to Kaliningrad, instead of landing they just turned around and headed back north, probably thinking we would have to break off,” Cooper remembered. “We didn’t.”

Review: Ryska elitförband och specialvapen

Unless you have stumbled upon this blog by pure coincidence, chances are you have an idea about what spetsnaz is. But how much do you really know about their history and current status, not to mention the different units which at one time or another have been described by the word? A Swedish book by historians Joakim von Braun and Lars Gyllenhaal clear up the picture, and tell the story of Russian (and Soviet) elite units from the birth of the Soviet Union to the present day.

Ryska elitförband och specialvapen (Russian elite units and special weapons) first came out a few years ago, but was rather quickly followed by a significantly revised and expanded second edition which was published by Fischer & Co in 2016. It is this edition which is the subject of this review.

J v. Braun & L Gyllenhaal: “Ryska elitförband och specialvapen”. Second edition published in 2016, 231 pages in hardcover. Swedish.

As the name implies, the book covers the whole spectrum of Russian military and paramilitary forces, stretching from the naval OMRP combat divers and the Vityaz of the MVD, to larger specialised forces such as the airborne VDV and naval infantry.

The book follows a roughly chronological order, starting with two pages dedicated to pre-1917 units such as oprichnina and the korvolant, before moving on to the main focus of the book with a chapter on the earliest Soviet special units. To cover the bewildering array of different units that has passed through the ranks during the last hundred years, the book mixes big and small stories, featuring smaller anecdotes and case studies in between the major developments. In part this is also due to the secretive nature of the topic, there are cases where there simply aren’t much information available!

One example of the latter is the spetsnaz units operating on the republican side in the Spanish Civil War. However, this chapter also provide an example of the unique nature of the book: by combining the sparse Russian and German sources available with interviews made with the relatively large number of Swedish volunteers who served in the units, a picture can be made of a largely forgotten part of the Spanish conflict. The sabotage missions behind enemy lines are also interesting in that they provide insight into the way communist sabotage rings were expected to operate in other countries as well, an example being the rather large operation that was active in Sweden during WWII.

As can be expected from a Swedish book, much attention is given to Swedish individuals serving in Soviet units, as well as to Soviet (and DDR!) units operating in Sweden. While these at times fail to spike my interest as a non-Swede, the use of Swedish sources does add significant value especially to the chapters dealing with developments around the Baltic Sea and the aforementioned Spanish Civil War chapter. Underwater incursions into Swedish waters and their role in Soviet military planning also gets covered in depth, and reading the chapters on these raises interesting questions with regards to Finnish Cold War history.

But back to the book. As VDV and different special forces were the preferred tools of trade in any interventions abroad, the book also deals with the Soviet foreign adventures of the Cold War. Some of these are largely forgotten today, like the Soviet-led Ethiopian operation that turned the tide of the Ogaden War by airlanding large amounts of light armour behind Somali lines. Others are well-known operations, but the role played by elite units in these might be overlooked. This is the case with Operation Danube, the invasion of Czechoslovakia 1968. The case-study of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is especially interesting, showing that little-green men is far from a new phenomenon.

Speaking of little green men, the book goes right up til early 2016 in Ukraine and Syria. Though to be fair, if your interest is the use of Russian special forces in these two conflicts in particular, you are better served elsewhere.

Where this book does shine then, is by providing a bird’s-eye view of more or less all Russian and Soviet elite units post-1917. Without getting caught up in minute details, you get a good overview of not only what kind of units have been created over the years, but also their use, equipment, and further developments. In some cases I wish there were more details given, but considering the sheer number of units raised by the armed forces, intelligence services, borders guards, and ministry of internal affairs, covering everything in depth in a 200-page book is simply impossible. In general I think the amount of time spent on each topic is fairly well balanced, though this naturally varies with taste. While the book can be read cover-to-cover, something I enjoyed doing as part of this review, this really is one of those books you want to have in your bookshelf to be able to pull out and use as a reference when encountering yet another Russian acronymed unit. The chapters are clearly defined and structured in a way that if you want to know the difference between the different combat divers of the navy or get an overview of the presidential guard, you can quickly skip to that chapter and get the answers you need. Some of the more interesting units presented include not only the brief history of the sole Soviet unit to feature jaegers (created by two Finns), but also a close look at the secretive deep-water research agency GUGI and its hydronauts. From a Finnish point of view, the fact that GUGI (like other underwater spetsnaz) extensively trains and performs evaluations and developments projects in the Baltic Sea and Lake Ladoga is of special interest.

The shifted signature. Unfortunate, but not bad enough that I personally would consider it a deal-breaker.

Edit: Having heard of my issue with the binding, the publisher contacted me and expressed their surprise at the issue. According to them, this was very rare, and they offered to ship a replacement at no cost. The new book has now come, and I am happy to report that as far as I can tell there are no issues whatsoever with the quality of this one.

One unfortunate issue I had was that the quality of the binding left to be desired, and already during the first reading I noticed that one of the signatures had started to shift. It still holds together, and doesn’t seem about to loosen further. Naturally, I can’t say if this is representative of the edition as a whole, or if I was just unlucky (or if one of my kids somehow managed to have a stab at it without me noticing…).

What else is there to say? The book is well illustrated, largely in colour, and features both a timeline and an extensive source list (though, as always, I would have loved to see end-notes). As the title indicates, the special weaponry used is also covered, including some exotic pieces of gear like underwater grenade launchers. I dare say that some of the info included, especially those parts that are based on Swedish and/or untranslated Russian sources, is previously unpublished material not only in Swedish, but in the west as a whole. If you are able to read Swedish and interested in Russian (or Soviet) armed forces, this is the book for you.

Highly recommended.

Starting now I will be posting reviews every first Friday of the month. The book in this case was kindly provided for review by Fischer & Co. And Lars, wouldn’t a revised and expanded edition of Elitförband i Norden be an excellent companion to this one?

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?

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.

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.

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.