Russia effectively began blockading Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov earlier today when sealing the Kerch Strait by placing a merchant vessel across the sea lane passing under the Kerch Strait bridge and forcing a small convoy of Ukrainian vessels to head back. The incident included vessels of the two sides making contact with limited damage. However, pictures have surfaced of another Russian Border Guard vessel with damage apparently from a collision, and it is unclear if more vessels than originally reported were involved, if the incident is unrelated, or if the pictures are old.
However, a while ago reports started coming in that a firefight have taken place. Apparently the first casualty was Ukrainian patrol craft (gun) Berdyansk (pennant U175) which reportedly lost propulsion. After that Russian forces tried boarding the vessel, with Berdyansk returning fire.
Exactly what has taken place since is even more unclear, but it should be remembered that the closing of the strait lead to a significant number of civilian vessels being stuck in the area waiting for things to clear up that they could continue their journeys. There is a very real risk for these, including both Russian and Ukrainian ones, being caught in crossfire. Significant air activity was also observed throughout the day, including Su-25 attack aircraft and armed Ka-52 attack helicopters. One report stated that following the exchange of fire both Berdyansk, sister Nikopol, and a naval tug has been captured by Russian forces, but currently the word is that six Ukranians are wounded, two vessels are under tow by friendlies, and one vessel is held by Russian forces.
Unconfirmed reports have stated that the Ukrainian Navy has left its base in Odessa, but it is very unclear if this indeed has happened, what vessels are at sea, and if there is some battleplan. The Russian Black Sea Fleet together with air and ground units will have no problem stopping the Ukrainian Navy if they try to force passage through the strait. The sole major surface combatant of the Ukrainian Navy is the Krivak III-class frigate Hetman Sahaydachniy (U130). It should be noted that the Krivak III was the coast guard-version of the class, and while very heavily armed for a coast guard vessel, it still lacks any kind of anti-ship missiles. The Ukrainian Navy has a number of older fast attack craft as well, but their operational status is unclear. If this motley flotilla is supposed to survive, let alone do any damage to their Russian counterparts, it will need some serious air support.
Both Ukraine and Russia have large numbers of aircraft in the region, including Su-24M which while old still can do serious damage to surface units, especially as the target vessels in many cases are old as well with limited air defences (though it should be noted that the Russian Black Sea Fleet include a number of modern corvettes and frigates which likely will eat Su-24s for breakfast). For Ukraine the question is where any potential battle would take place, as the Kerch Strait is ‘behind’ occupied Crimea. If Ukraine is to secure even limited air superiority, the battle will likely have to take place somewhere else, which might require the Russian Navy cooperating. Another question is if things could now deescalate as it seems the active battle at the strait has died down following the Russian capture of one of the vessels involved? There is no longer an urgency on the part of the Ukrainian to rush headlong into the waiting Russian forces.
On the other hand, the wheels might already be in motion, and a serious question is at what level command currently rests on both sides? If the politicians have transferred operational decisions to the military things could keep on escalating. In the same way, decisions by local commanders in the field can have outsized impacts upon the continued developments on the Russo-Ukrainian War as a whole. This would not be the first time that politicians have had to come to grips with the fact that measured escalation is difficult.
In the end, a conflict over Russia blockading the strait has been one of the scenarios discussed numerous times since 2014, and as predicted it shows signs of escalating easily. A crucial factor regarding the timing is that Europe is focused upon Brexit, diminishing the potential of EU to work as a stabilising factor. At the same time, it should be remembered that early reports seldom are to be trusted, and by tomorrow morning we should all be wiser.
For the second time since the start of the Syrian Civil War, a reconnaissance aircraft was shot down over the Mediterranean by the Syrian air defences this week. However, unlike the last time when it was a Turkish RF-4E Phantom, this time it was Russian Il-20M (NATO codename ‘COOT-A’) which was brought down. The friendly fire incident caused quite a stir, and the fallout is yet to settle.
An Il-20M similar to the aircraft downed in Syria, here photographed when it kept an eye on western ships during exercise BALTOPS 14. Source: PO(Phot) Si Ethell/MOD via Wikimedia Commons
The loss of the Il-20 is by far the most serious aircraft loss suffered by the Russian forces in Syria. This is regarding both the highly specialised aircraft as well as the large crew of intelligence specialists (likely 10 out of 15 killed). The single Il-20 arrived at the very beginning of the Russian operation in Syria. The exact mission in Syria is unclear, but likely includes eavesdropping on enemy ground forces as well as signal gathering from NATO ships in the Med and unfriendly air assets in Syria. It seems a single Il-20 has been on strength throughout the operation. It was e.g. caught on satellite pictures back in March 2017, and is visible on Google Maps.
However, recently a total of three similarly looking aircraft has been spotted at the base, though these likely include the Il-38 (NATO codename ‘MAY’) anti-submarine aircraft which have been deployed to Khmeimim, and are based on the same Il-18 passenger aircraft. Much have been made of the fact that the Il-20 is based on an airliner that first flew in 1957, making it an ancient design by aircraft standards. However, it should be noted that this is not rare when it comes to larger specialised airframes, with the corresponding US type, the P-3 Orion, being based on the Lockheed L-188 Electra which first flew the same year. The C-135 family still in widespread western use is based on the Boeing 707, which made its debut the following year.
Russian Air Force at Hmeymim airbase in Latakia with 8 Su-24, 4 Su-34 and 4 Su-35 on 29 Aug 2018. an A-50, 2 An-26/30 and 3 Il-20/22 on the eastern apron. still working on aircraft shelters and refurbishing the western runway pic.twitter.com/B6kf5NKF0l
The exact target of the Israeli raid is unclear. Israel has earlier indicated that there is an Iranian missile factory being built in Baniyas, around 30 km south of Khmeimim. Iranian long-range weapon systems, including rockets as well as surface-to-surface and anti-ship missiles, have always been one of Israel’s prime worries, and the transfer of these to Hezbollah has been a policy red-line. It now seems that Israel suspected Iran of dismantling the whole or parts of the production line in Baniyas and shipping it to Hezbollah. Israel has not made any further details public, but the Russian MoD in their presentation of the raid stated that four Israeli F-16 approached at low level, used the Il-20M as cover, and released GBU-39’s at three different targets, including a military base, a fuel depot, and an aluminium plant. A Syrian S-200 battery then shot down the Il-20M while trying to hit the F-16s (or the GBU-39s).
It is quite clear that not all factors add up in the Russian story. The GBU-39 is an unpowered glide-bomb, also known as the SDB for Small-Diameter Bomb. This means that the range is highly dependent on the altitude at which the weapon is released, meaning an Israeli low-level raid would have had to get very close to the target, largely defeating the idea of using the GBU-39 with its pop-out wings. It also seems that a single target, a large warehouse in Latakia, was hit by the raid. Interestingly, this was the same modus operandi used by Israel in a raid that leveled a warehouse close to Aleppo airport in July (the weapon was identified by pieces left behind). The GBU-39 packs a small warhead, and is generally not used against buildings. However, the small diameter of the weapons allow large numbers to be carried by a single aircraft, enabling this Israeli ‘death by papercuts’-approach. As such, it is entirely possible that the Russians identified the weapon used correctly (either based on the number of weapons released or by pieces found in the ruins of the building hit).
With regards to the friendly fire incident, it is highly unlikely that the Israeli fighters would have ‘masked’ behind the aircraft in any meaningful way. To begin with it would have brought the Israeli aircraft closer to the Syrian air defences, and it would also have put the Russian aircraft at risk, something which Israel has so far been unwilling to do due to political considerations. It is also notable that the S-200 is a semi-active radar-homing system, meaning that it will only home in on a target that is locked by the 5N62-radar. As such, this was not a case of a runaway missile switching target after launch, but of the Syrian crew misidentifying the Il-20M. They hit what they aimed for, they simply aimed at the wrong aircraft. Crucially, Russian MoD has afterwards stated that Syrian forces doesn’t have access to IFF-equipment to identify Russian aircrafts as own forces. Once the Il-20 was lit up by the 5N62 it stood no chance, as the aircraft completely lack self-defence equipment. A modernised version designated Il-20MS has been in the works for a few years, and feature both UV-missile approach warning and decoy launchers. However, the program does not seem to have moved beyond a single prototype, leaving the operational Il-20M defenceless.
The Russian reaction was interesting. The first suspect was the French frigate Auvergne (D654) which would have fired a missile in the area at the time. Then it was changed to that the Auvergne had fired a cruise missile (France has sternly denied the Auvergne releasing any kind of weapon at the time), which had confused the Syrian air defence crew. Then the Russian MoD came out all guns firing, and declared that while it was a Syrian S-200 that brought the plane down, it was the reckless and calculated Israeli provocation that placed the Il-20 in the lane of fire. Russia would also respond in force.
Granted, from the outset it is clear that Russia would not respond in force to the “Israeli aggression”. Russia is very much playing the away-game if they would launch raids on Israeli targets, and while the small force of jets assembled in Syria together with naval assets and the long-range bomber force is plenty enough to make an impression on any Syrian rebels, the Israelis vastly outnumber them in the region. The Israeli Air Force is also on another level when it comes to quality, both regarding aircrafts, support, and training, and while things definitely would get ugly, there’s little doubt that it would end with a serious Russian defeat. Luckily for all involved, neither Putin nor Netanyahu was interested in escalating the whole thing, and crucially Putin shifted the Russian narrative to describe the situation as a series of unfortunate events leading to the accident. The very active Israeli communication, including the Israeli Air Force CinC major general Nokin visiting Moscow to present a report on the Israeli findings, is contrasted to what seems like a very low-key and late Syrian response to get their version of events out. All in all, it does seem like the risk for further Israeli-Russian escalation is low for the time being.
The big question is what happens now? Putin indicated that he would respond by strong measures to ensure better protection of the Russian servicemen in Syria. It isn’t hard to envision this including the deployment of further Russian SAM-batteries, though truth be told when it is your allies that are the greatest threat it naturally won’t do much good. The Syrian air defences, especially those in areas where Russian aircrafts regularly operate, will likely come under closer Russian command, something which likely won’t be appreciated by Damascus or the Syrian forces. Syria could potentially use the incident to renew requests for delivery of more modern air defence systems, as the more modern user interface of a system like the S-300 would likely significantly reduce the risk of blue-on-blue incidents. However, I have not seen any indication that this would happen, and considering that Putin seems to more or less agree with the Israeli narrative this is unlikely to happen.
If Russia chooses to up their game, one possible way to communicate intent would be to send the modern Tu-214R to Syria as a replacement. This would signal determination without escalating things. The aircraft has made a short visit to the region earlier, and nothing says it couldn’t come back. The major issue is that while the number of operational Il-20M is likely down to single digits following this, there are a grand total of two Tu-214R in service. Another option is the earlier mentioned Il-20MS prototype, which would offer continued ELINT/SIGINT operations with a level of protection.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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: Mil.ru 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Location of Jämtland (left) and Västernorrland (right), likely transit areas of the forward-deployed USMC brigade if the port of Gävle is to be used.
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.
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).
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:
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.
This has now been clearly communicated at the highest military level, making it also a political signal as well to Finland and Sweden.
Mellersta Norrland must be seen as an area of strategic military importance. In Finland, this goes for Southern Ostrobothnia as well.
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.
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.
“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”
WING COMMANDER BILLY COOPER, OFFICER COMMANDING 6 SQUADRON
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.
“You need something that can fight long-range and dominate short-range”
WING COMMANDER BILLY COOPER, OFFICER COMMANDING 6 SQUADRON
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.”