Su-24 Down in Syria

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

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

Overflight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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United we stand?

Things are moving fast with regards to the national security policy of Finland (and Sweden). Late yesterday came the first reports that Hollande actually planned on activating article 42.7 of the Lisbon Treaty, requesting “other Member States shall [come to the] aid and assistance by all the means in their power”.

Article 42.7 is probably one of the most debated and studied of all EU treaties, as it includes a very strong first sentence, followed by what feels like an apologizing statement:

If a Member State is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other Member States shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power, in accordance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. This shall not prejudice the specific character of the security and defence policy of certain Member States.

Commitments and cooperation in this area shall be consistent with commitments under the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, which, for those States which are members of it, remains the foundation of their collective defence and the forum for its implementation.

Now, exactly what the second sentence means is very much open for debate. For Finland, it has often been quoted as an example of why we won’t stand alone if attacked, even if we continue to stay outside of NATO. At the same time, no one in the higher political echelons seems to have been really interested in discussing what kind of a commitment it really is.

When it now suddenly is activated, it apparently took the Finnish leading politicians by surprise. Minister of Defence Jussi Niinistö (PS) declined to comment at first, but 9 o’clock Finnish time (GMT+2) he tweeted out that Finland supports France, and that now he was off to see what France requested.

Prime Minister Juha Sipilä (K) was even more elusive, having caught the cold, and therefore taken a sick day. In the meantime, state media Yle, who had run the French request as their main story since late Sunday evening, had managed to get former Minister of Foreign Affairs and current head of the government’s defence committee Ilkka Kanerva (Kok) to comment on the issue. He reminded the journalists that Finland according to current laws can’t provide military help, an issue with was raised in a report titled Report of the working group on needs for legislative amendments related to crisis management and other international co-operation, 2014, which recommended that:

The working group also assessed the needs for legislative amendments related to the granting of and requests for international assistance, especially in applying the solidarity clause and the mutual assistance clause of the European Union. The group analysed different options that would, if necessary, be applicable to decisions on granting and requesting assistance also in other situations of international co-operation.

Finnish law does not feature a Japanese style explicit ban on military operations abroad. Instead there is an unclear situation, in which the current consensus amongst politicians is that Finland can’t directly provide support. The issue has been discussed since at least 2008, and got a new urgency last autumn, when it was suggested that the Finnish Navy would help Sweden in their search for the midget submarine that intruded on their waters, to which the Minister of Defence answered that it was not possible. A change of the laws to remove this problem and harmonise Finnish national laws with the Lisbon Treaty is in the works, and is set to be finished early next year.

It should be noted that while this consensus seems unchallenged amongst high-ranking politicians, it is not a clear-cut case, and it is hard to see that it couldn’t be worked around, if the political will to do so was there…

Around 1 o’clock, Prime Minister Sipilä eventually made his voice heard through Twitter, saying that:

Before that, however, Mogherini had already came out of the EU Defence Ministers’ meeting declaring that all countries had confirmed that article 42.7 was now in use, so any other message from the PM would have been remarkable to say the least.

Later in the afternoon, it was the President’s turn to speak, and President Sauli Niinistö held a short speech and answered a few questions for the gathered press. Given the short notice, the amount of journalists present was impressive (at least in the eyes of a layman). On the whole, the continuous stream of article and interviews that Finnish media provided throughout the day was in stark contrast to the almost complete silence of their Swedish colleagues. This is especially interesting, given that Sweden is not only bound by the EU treaties, but also by their unilateral declaration of solidarity.

The President’s speech not only repeated what Kanerva, Sipilä, and Niinistö had said, but also emphasised that Finland from the beginning had said that we support France, and that any other answer had never been thought of. Still, when faced with a direct question, he admitted that it was somewhat embarrassing that seven years into the Lisbon Treaty Finland still couldn’t provide military help to our EU allies, due to a legal technicality. He also mentioned the migrant crisis, and Russia’s role in defeating ISIS and bringing back peace to Syria. Comparing the resolve of both Hollande and Putin when they had promised to go after those who were behind the Paris Attack and the bombing of the Metrojet airliner, he was hopeful that west and Russia in cooperation perhaps could bring an end to the conflict, although he added that this might as well lead to nothing.

Regarding the prospect of Finnish help, Niinistö found it unlikely that France would request soldiers or policemen, but noted that we can provide intelligence. I find this view somewhat bothering. As the Lisbon Treaty is an important part of Finland’s national security strategy, it would be important that we go beyond the bare minimum requested. If military power is out of the question, we could either provide policemen or border guards. The Finnish border guards are trained and equipped to basically the same standard as the regular army, but is organised under the Ministry of Interior in peace time, and as such would provide an option. Of special interest could be the Erikoisrajajääkärit, the special forces of the border guards. A unit of these sent to assist French border police would send a strong message to anyone doubting Finland’s commitment to EU’s common security.

Niinistö seems to have completely forgotten (or chose not to bring up…) the simple fact that most Syrian refugees are trying to escape Assad and not ISIS, the very same Assad who with Russian air and artillery support is wreaking havoc on non-ISIS rebels in Syria. Even if Russia could be brought on-board to seriously fight ISIS, it is hard to see how this would stop the migrant streams, especially considering that the majority of people coming to the EU through Turkey are from Iraq and Afghanistan…

Speaking of Russia, they seems to finally have launched some serious strikes on ISIS, this time bringing in cruise missiles from the Mediterranean, indicating the use of submarines as launch platforms, as well as reportedly employing all three strategic bomber types in use, the Tu-22M3, Tu-95MS, and Tu-160, in strikes. It is hard to see any tactical need for these types of platforms in this kind of a conflict, so the emphasis is probably on politics. In a video released that purportedly shows the air raids carried out by the Tu-22M3’s, two planes in level flight at altitude drop a large number of relatively small unguided (so called ‘dumb’) bombs. This is a tactic known from the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and is very safe for the planes against an opponent lacking proper air defence systems, but also woefully inaccurate and good for little else than levelling small villages or city blocks.

And finally, a quote that pretty well sums up my view on today’s twists and turns…

Is Finland About to Betray the Baltic States?

During last week, a speech by the President of Finland, Sauli Niinistö, has received a considerable amount of press and social media coverage. “Finland won’t fight for it Baltic neighbours” the headlines have screamed, with even normally cool-headed people asking what he means, and why he would have gone and said so something like that. Is he trying to say that Finland wants to stay out of a possible war between NATO and Russia?

It seems apparent that most people have only read the quote itself, and not the speech as a whole. To give a bit of background, the speech was held to a gathering of ambassadors, which is a yearly event in Finland, and is available in Finnish and Swedish on the official homepage (note that the Swedish version include some slightly strange translations in key passages), and is too long for me to translate in its full length here. However, a short recap is in order:

The Second World War ended 70 years ago, and the Cold War that followed was a conflict, but at least it over time developed its own set of rules. The times after that promised eternal summer (although he notes that we Finns never really trusted that promise), which proved to be wrong. Today, the international community is being reshaped, and the current day is marked by towering threats and great uncertainty.

After this, he moves on to Ukraine, Russia, the Middle East, the migrant crises, Greece, the Euro, and nationalism, until he eventually comes to the Finnish philosopher J.V. Snellman. Snellman represents a realist view on foreign politics, and in the quote used by Niininstö, he notes that while young people dream of nations working for the good of humanity, in  reality all nations first and foremost look after themselves. This, the President notes, does not mean that we should strive towards non-alignment or nationalistic narrow-mindedness, but accept reality and plan according to it.

Towards the end, he notes that our security rests on four pillars: national defence, Finland’s integration into the geopolitical West, bilateral relations to Russia, and the international order. The strength of each of these differs with time, and currently we are seeing that three of the pillars are getting weaker.

President Niinistö argues that we have to strengthen all pillars we can, and deeper cooperation in the fields of defence and security with Sweden and our partners in NATO is one of his core points.

Still, he says, while sometimes it is argued that Finland has a share in the responsibility of defending the Baltic countries, this is not the case:

“I have had to be rather precise in this question. For the simple reason that Finland is not in a position where we can provide to others such military security guarantees, which we don’t have ourselves. We are not a superpower that has spare ‘ammunition’ to hand out.”

Own translation.

This question, he notes, is directly connected to the military security guarantees of the European Union (through the Treaty of Lisbon). Some say this is a dead letter, while others say that it makes it our responsibly to defend other EU countries, including the Baltic countries.

“One shouldn’t unnecessarily inflate the importance of the EU military security guarantees. But this does not mean that one shouldn’t try and strengthen them.”

What then does the Treaty of Lisbon say in its (in)famous 42nd article? Paragraph 7 is the passage in question:

“7. If a Member State is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other Member States shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power, in accordance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. This shall not prejudice the specific character of the security and defence policy of certain Member States.

Commitments and cooperation in this area shall be consistent with commitments under the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, which, for those States which are members of it, remains the foundation of their collective defence and the forum for its implementation.”

Article 51 of the UN Charter in turn says.

“Article 51

Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.“

In other words: The Treaty of Lisbon states that if a member is attacked, the other states shall aid and assist “by all means in their power”, and shall report to the UN Security Council what actions have been taken.

What President Niinistö has said, is that if Russia was to invade a Baltic country, it is not in our power to participate militarily in its defence. This boils down to some straightforward facts: Finland is a large country (64th largest in the world), with a small population (114th most populous), meaning we are one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world (201st in population density). We also have a land border with Russia that is longer than the current border between NATO-countries and Russia taken together. To defend ourselves, we will need more or less all of the 230,000 soldiers we plan to mobilize in case of war. As we can’t be sure of foreign assistance, we can’t promise to come to the aid of others.

However, Niinistö does not state that Finland won’t aid our neighbours, if we have the opportunity to do so. This might include supplies, vehicles, materials, or even troops, but it is all dependent on how the situation would develop. In the case of a NATO-Russian conflict that Finland gets dragged into, Finnish naval and air units would almost certainly be integrated into the NATO+1 alliance’s grander schemes, and receive missions aimed at safeguarding Estonia and parts of Latvia, while the Norwegian Air Force would help secure our northern flank.

Noteworthy here is the reaction from the Baltic countries themselves, which have been rather unspectacular. Estonia’s permanent representative to the North Atlantic Council, Ambassador Lauri Lepik, is apparently also a follower of the realist school of foreign politics, and commented the news on twitter:

The only other high-ranking politician from any of the Baltic countries I’ve seen commenting on the issue is Lithuanian Minister of Defence, Juozas Olekas, who in a radio show said that Lithuania, in turn, has no direct obligation to defend Finland, but if something was to happen, he believed Lithuania and the other NATO countries would try to assist in some way.

“With Finland, Sweden, and other non-NATO countries, especially the other EU countries, we are developing our military co-operation, but we have no direct defense commitment. I think we would try to support Finland in some way, where it is relevant. But it is not part of our direct defensive commitment.”

This interview was then naturally turned into a Sputnik propaganda-piece, under the headline: “Tiny Baltic State Takes Offense at Finland Over Much-Feared Russian Threat”

The bottom line is that it seems that it is mostly non-Baltic western media that has taken offense. In the Finnish defence debate the concensus seems to be that most agree on the issue, but opinions differ about whether the President should express it publicly. In my personal opinion, the speech, and especially the passage about the Baltic States, is somewhat muddled, and not one of Niininstö’s best. Still, there is nothing new to get excited over, which is also seen in the way the Baltic States have acknowledged the statement.

Ending note: the Finnish stance on a responsibility to defend its neighbours is different compared to Sweden’s, which unilaterally has declared that they will come to the aid of others, and expect others to come to their aid (point 4.4).

The Navies of the Baltic Sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…And Wikipedia, of course.

Spy Ships and Naval Intelligence

During the height of the Cold War, the ’Soviet Trawler’ was an expression in naval circles. Solitary Soviet flagged trawlers had a tendency of appearing on the scene of almost every major NATO naval exercise, and then idly throttling around in the general area until the end of the exercise.

Soviet trawler Gidrofon and the USS Abnaki ‘ATF 96’ in 1967. Picture apparently taken from the carrier USS Ranger ‘CVA-61’. Source: USN/Wikimedia Commons.

The reality was that these were thinly veiled intelligence gathering vessels, or spy ships as they are generally known. While the Soviet Union could, and did, use regular naval vessels, such as destroyers, to perform the intelligence gathering mission, the converted deep-sea trawler offered several notable benefits. The basic designs were created for extended stays at sea, offering the small crews at least a minimum level of comfort for their sometimes long missions. The vessels also featured large enough hulls to be fitted with the necessary intelligence gathering equipment. Chasing away ‘civilian’ vessels always held a risk of creating bad publicity if something went wrong, and being unarmed they had a far greater choice of ports when it came to bunkering. They were also far cheaper to operate compared to major surface combatants.

Considering all factors, it is no surprise that the trawlers became the instrument of choice for various kinds of operations. Their methods of intelligence gathering included both visual, i.e. guys with cameras and binoculars documenting what the NATO ships were doing, as well as electronic and signal intelligence, i.e. antennas recording radio communications and signals sent out by radars and other systems onboard the ships.

Now, with the highly political joint Finnish-Swedish-US air exercise to be conducted outside of the Finnish coast, suddenly a Panama-flagged, Russian-owned, seismic research ship has arrived in the exercise area.

What then, you might ask, is a seismic research ship?

Seismic research is conducted when ships try to figure out what is under the seabed. Normally, they do this to look for oil and gas deposits, which is the reason why there are quite a number of these highly specialized ships operating around the world. In practice, the ships tow a number of streamers in an orderly pattern behind the boat. These can be up to 10-20 km long, and are equipped with either emitters or receivers. The emitters send out a signal, the echo of which is received by the receivers. Based on the received signal, a computer then processes the data and draws a picture of what is underneath the bottom of the ocean, a bit like the use of sonography by medical professionals.

The principle of seismic mapping by ship. Source: U.S. Geological Survey

Why on the earth the vessel suddenly has appeared in these decidedly oil-less waters is a matter of speculation, but noteworthy is the fact that mapping of the seafloor in Finnish waters requires a permit. It is also unclear if the seismic measuring equipment is onboard, or if something else occupies the area normally reserved for 100+ km of seismic streamers.

Let’s just say, coincidences does happen, but I wouldn’t count on this being one of them.

Russian Air Traffic Identification Guide

Due to the popularity of the Tu-95 ”Bear” post, and by popular demand, here comes a write-up over the rest of the planes that have figured over the Baltic Sea and in the news recently, including the Il-20 involved in the near-miss with a civilian airliner.

Antonov An-12

Antonov An-12 of the Russian Air Force, producing a considerable amount of smoke during take-off and landing practices. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Igor Dvurekov.

The Antonov An-12 “Cub” is a heavy transport aircraft designed in the 50’s for transporting general cargo as well as dropping paratroopers. The general layout is very similar to that of the western Lockheed C-130, but the An-12 is quite a bit larger. In spite of its replacement, the Il-76 (see below), entering service already in 1974, the sturdy An-12 have proved to be a durable design, and a large number still flies for both civilian and military users. Civilian aircrafts are regularly seen at Helsinki-Vantaa airport, and are easily told from military transports by the fact that they aren’t fitted with twin 23 mm cannons in their tail. Interestingly enough, the former Antonov Design Bureau/current Antonov State Company is situated in Ukraine.

Antonov An-26

Antonov An-26 of the Russian Air Force. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Igor Dvurekov.

The Antonov An-26 “Curl” was developed from the earlier An-24 as a medium transport for the Russian Air Force, and was in turn further developed into the An-30 and -32. Over 1,400 An-26’s were produced during an almost 20 year long production run that started in the late 60’s. The aircraft is still in use in many air forces around the world, and while most of the aircrafts are general transports, a number of minor variants are also in use, such as the An-26RTR electronic warfare variant and the fire-fighting An-26P.

Antonov An-72

The Antonov An-72 that flew into Finnish airspace on 28th of August. Note the unusual placement of the engines above the wings. Source: Finnish Defence Sources/Mil.fi.
The Antonov An-72 that flew into Finnish airspace on 28th of August. Note the unusual placement of the engines above the wings. Source: Finnish Defence Sources/Mil.fi.

The Antonov An-72 “Coaler” is a medium transport easily identified by being one of very aircrafts that have their engines mounted above the wings. This gives the aircraft both the ability to take off from and land on short runways, as well as its nickname Cheburashka, from the big-eared animated character.

The plane is used mainly for general transports, and is operated in some numbers by both civilian airlines and the Russian armed forces. A special version for use in Arctic conditions is named An-74.

Ilyushin Il-20

Il-20M taking off. The pod under the belly of the aircraft houses the side-looking radar (SLAR), with other “humps” housing different intelligence gathering equipment. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Kirill Naumenko.

The Ilyushin Il-20M (“Coot-A”) is based on the by now largely retired Il-18 airliner. The Il-20 is fitted with an array of different sensors to perform intelligence gathering operations by flying close to enemy territory and “listening” to different signals, e.g. active radars and radio traffic. It is also equipped with cameras and side-looking radar used when searching for ships and ground targets. However, as noted by Swedish defence blogger and air force officer Wiseman, it is not capable of looking out for other aircraft, a deficit that apparently played an important part in a number of near-misses with civilian aircrafts over the Baltic Sea.

Ilyushin Il-76

Il-76MD, showing of the heavy-duty landing gear and “glass nose”. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Aleksander Markin.

Il-76 “Candid”, is the go-to-plane for most of the transport needs of the Russian Armed Forces. The plane is a large four-engined jet-transport, and is certified to operate from rough and unpaved landing strips. The large rear cargo ramp is used for loading/off-loading cargo, as well as for unloading paratroopers and their vehicles either in mid-air or on the ground. Aside from the standard transport versions, the most important variants are the dedicated air-to-air refueling variant named Il-78/Il-78MD and the Beriev A-50 AWACS plane, both of which are also regular visitors over the Baltic Sea.

Mikoyan MiG-31

MiG-31 heavy interceptor. Note the small windows of the navigator behind the pilot. Source: Wikimedia Commons/
MiG-31 heavy interceptor. Note the small windows of the navigator seated behind the pilot. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Dmitriy Pichugin.

The Mikoyan MiG-31 (“Foxhound”) is one of the most specialized fighters/interceptors in the world. It is a large aircraft, being as long and high as a World War II-era Boeing B-17, the famous “Flying Fortress”. The reason for this are its missions, it is designed to have the reach (and hence the fuel load) to operate far out over the Arctic and northern edge of the Pacific, where it is to intercept American strategic bombers before they can release their cruise missiles, and to escort own Tu-95MS strategic bombers so that they can safely attack North American targets with their cruise missiles. As such, it is not maneuverable enough to fight modern fighters such as the F-18C Hornet on equal terms, but over the Arctic enemy fighters should be few and far between. The planes currently in service are mainly of the upgraded MiG-31M/BM-versions, but particularly in the eastern parts of the country the older baseline MiG-31 sans suffix is still in service.

The equipment it carries is also tailored for this mission. It has one of the largest radars ever fitted to a fighter, and carries some of the longest ranged missiles produced in the form of the R-33 and the upgraded R-37 (MiG-31M/BM only). The ranges of these are quoted as far above 100 km, potentially over 300 km for the R-37 (to be taken with a grain of salt). The radar also makes it possible for the aircraft to share data with the A-50 airborne command aircraft, or to act as a mini-AWACS itself, by having the navigator/weapons officer of the MiG-31 direct other fighters within range. Of note is that the navigator has very limited vision of the outside world, as his job is mainly to operate different sensors and weapons.

Note for non-aviation geeks: “MiG” is spelled with upper case “M” and “G”, and lower case “i”, as there were two designers leading the original design bureau. This is opposed to more or less all other Soviet/Russian designations, where only the first letter is capitalised.

Sukhoi Su-24

Su-24M with the wings in the forward (low-speed) configuration. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Alexander Mishin.

The Su-24 “Fencer” is a heavy attack/strike aircraft that became operational in the early 70’s. Like the Tu-22M of the same vintage, it features variable geometry wings, being able to sweep the wings back for better high-speed performance. Also in common with its bigger cousin is the fact that it is in use both by the Russian Air Force and by naval air units. The Su-24 can employ a vast range of weapons, ranging from an internal 6-barrelled 23 mm gun to rockets, bombs, and missiles. It can also employ short-ranged air-to-air missiles for self-defence, but in practice it would fare poorly against enemy fighters due to poor maneuverability. The current version in service is the second generation Su-24M, but the plane is starting to show its age, and is about to be replaced by the Su-34 (see below), a process that will take several years.

Sukhoi Su-27

Russian Air Force Su-27 intercepted over the Baltic Sea on the 17th June 2014. The intercepting Typhoons of RAF’s 3 (F) Squadron operated as part of NATO’s ongoing mission to Baltic Air Policing. Source: Wikimedia Commons/RAF.

The Sukhoi Su-27 “Flanker” marked the start of a family of fighters and fighter-bombers that eventually would dethrone Mikoyan-Gurevich’s design bureau as the leading manufacturer of Soviet/Russian fighters. The plane itself is known for its long range and large weapons load, as well as its extreme maneuverability. The original baseline Su-27 has since been developed into a bewildering range of different one- and two-seater variants, some of which are pure fighters while others have a multi-role tasking that also includes strike missions. The different designations include Su-30/33/34 (see below)/35/37 (prototype only), as well as the Chinese unlicensed copies designated J-11/15/16. The latest version is the Su-35S, and deliveries to the Russian Air Force are ongoing. A naval variant named Su-33 is used onboard the Russian Navy’s sole aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov.

With its large radar, and a large weapons load including highly-maneuverable heat-seeking missiles, the Su-27 would be a though adversary for most fighter aircrafts currently in service. This is not to say that for example the F-18C Hornets of the Finnish Air Force couldn’t defeat it in combat, but depending on the version of the Su-27/30/35 they could find themselves being the underdog.

Sukhoi Su-34

Two Sukhoi Su-34 intercepted by Finnish QRA over the Gulf of Finland. The planes are armed with heat-seeking missiles for self-defence and light "dumb" bombs. Insert picture of the characteristic nose-profile with side-by-side seating of the pilot and navigator/weapons officer. Source: Puolustuvoimat (main picture) and Wikimedia Commons/Vitlay Kuzmin (insert).
Two Sukhoi Su-34 intercepted by Finnish QRA over the Gulf of Finland. The planes are armed with heat-seeking missiles for self-defence and light “dumb” bombs. Insert: The characteristic “flat” profile of the forward fuselage with side-by-side seating of the pilot and navigator/weapons officer. Source: Puolustuvoimat (main picture) and Wikimedia Commons/Vitlay Kuzmin (insert).

The Sukhoi Su-34 “Fullback” (unofficially also “Hellduck”, due to its beak-like nose) is one of the newer acquaintances for the Finnish Quick Reaction Alert, having only started to appear on a regular basis over the Baltic Sea during the last year. Unlike the Su-24 it slowly replaces, the Su-34 is able to meet most fighters on near equal terms, meaning that the need for a dedicated fighter escort is much lower. The sensors and weapons are also markedly more modern. The large cockpit with the pilot and navigator/weapons officer seated side-by-side is very large for an aircraft of its size, making it possible for the crews to move around during long missions, and featurs both a toilette and a small galley.

Of interest is that the pictures released by the Finnish Air Force are taken from slightly below the Russian aircraft, and as such they show the load-out of the planes. The planes seem to have been armed with two Vympel R-73/74 (“AA-11 Archer”) advanced heat-seeking air-to-air missiles, as well as two light free-fall bombs. The later may be inert practice rounds, while the missiles seem to be live rounds. This load-out is not something that would be used in case of war, and is probably exercise related.

The plane has also been associated with the designations Su-27IB and Su-32, as these were given to different prototypes of the Su-34.

Tupolev Tu-22M

A pair of Tupolev Tu-22M3 intercepted by Finnish Air Force F-18C Hornets over the Gulf of Finland.
A pair of Tupolev Tu-22M3 intercepted by Finnish Air Force F-18C Hornets over the Gulf of Finland. Source: Puolustusvoimat.

The title Tu-22 is a bit misleading, as the original Tu-22 “Blinder” was the Soviet Union’s first supersonic bomber. A late 50’s design, it was featured a sleek design, engines mounted on top of the rear fuselage, a short range due to the inefficiency early jet engines, and an extremely high accident-rate, due to its high landing speed. All these Tu-22B/R/P/K/U have been retired.

The Tu-22M “Backfire” is the successor to this plane, and started life as a completely new design under the designation Tu-26, but as it was easier to “sell” the politicians a new version of an old airplane as opposed to a completely new one, the designation was changed. The Tu-22M entered service in the early 70’s, and also saw combat with the Soviet Air Force in Afghanistan.

Like its predecessor, the Tu-22M was designed to be blistering fast, and the main tactic is to approach a target at low level, relying on its speed to avoid interception by enemy fighters. It then employs cruise missiles to take out individual targets with great accuracy from outside the range of enemy air defences. This kind of attacks were practiced against Sweden during the Eastern of 2013 (the so called “Ryska Påsken”-incident), as well as against Denmark this summer. During the later incident the aircrafts involved actually carried live missiles. The aircraft also has a maritime strike role, being used hunt down enemy ships, and especially aircraft carriers in case of war.

Tupolev Tu-134

Tupolev Tu-134UB-L, with the pointed nose housing the radar equipment used to train bomber pilots with. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Igor Dvurekov.

Tu-134 “Crusty” started its life as a short-range passenger plane in the mid 60’s, and was widely used throughout Eastern Europe. A number of the early versions were equipped with glass noses, to aid the navigator when navigating by traditional use of map and basic flight data. A devastating accident in 2011 sped up the plans to retire the aircraft due to safety concerns, meaning that today almost no civilian Tu-134’s are in use. The Russian Air Force, however, uses a number of modified aircraft for training bomber pilots. These have the same radar and instrumentation as the Tu-22M3 and Tu-160, and are easily identified by their long pointed noses. These are sometimes known by the nickname Buratino, from the Pinocchio-like figure created by Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy. It was a civilian Tu-134 that was hijacked and flown to Helsinki in July 1977.

Revisting Red October – Confirmed Midget Submarine

The events surrounding the Red October-incident took a rather surprising turn this week, with the Swedish Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, and Commander-in-Chief holding a press conference, in which they declared that the analysis of the information collected by both the Swedish Defence Forces as well as civilians during the intelligence operation in the archipelago of Stockholm revealed that there indeed had been at least one foreign military midget submarine deep inside Swedish territorial waters.

Fresh tracks left by the submarine in the bottom. Source: Försvarsmakten.se
Fresh tracks left by the submarine in the bottom. Source: Försvarsmakten.se

When saying that this came as a surprise to me (but not to some others), what I felt was surprising was not that there had been an incursion, but that the Swedish Defence Forces had manage to secure the amount of evidence that they actually would go out and call it confirmed. As had been seen during the operation itself, the phrasing used in discussing the foreign underwater activity is very strict, with no officials at any time during the operation going so far as to confirm the existence of any kind of underwater activity. The language used by both the Prime Minister as well as the CinC, makes it very clear that this is an extremely serious incident. In a rather long and winding way, the Prime Minister went as far as to:

“…remind [the ones behind the incursion] that the Defence Forces have all the authority needed, so that they in a critical situation can prevent a foreign vessel from escaping, as a last resort with military use of force.”

Whole speech by Prime Minister Löfven is found here. Of interest is that Miljöpartiet, the other party in the current Swedish government, as far as I have found have not in any way commented on this new information so far.

The rules of engagement and general conduct of the Defence Forces in the case of violations of Swedish territory is found in regulation 1982:756: Förordning om Försvarsmaktens ingripanden vid kränkningar av Sveriges territorium under fred och neutralitet, m.m., better known as the IKFN-regulation. An official explanatory guide of this legal text is found in the form of Handbok IKFN. This document presents in a clear manner what kinds of “military force” Löfven is talking about.

Page in "Handbok IKFN" dealing with submerged submarines in internal waters. Note also the end of previous chapter, dealing with the firing of warning shots. Source: Handbok IKFN
Page in “Handbok IKFN” dealing with submerged submarines in internal waters. Note also the end of previous chapter, dealing with the firing of warning shots. Source: Handbok IKFN

If a submarine is found submerged inside the internal waters, Director of Operations (C INS) is authorized to decide on the use of weapons that might sink the submarine. These may be used without prior warning, unless Commander Maritime Component Command (MTCH, subordinated to C INS) decides against it due to such an order endangering friendly submarines. In an earlier chapter, “Submarines inside the Territorial Waters”, we find the guidelines for warning shots against submarines. Here, weapons of choice are discussed, as well as the important principle of waiting at least five minutes after the warning shots until proceeding with live weapons.

However, at 19:30 into the press conference, the CinC (accidentally?) let an important piece of the ROE for the operation slip, namely that they were not allowed to use weapons “without prior warning”. If the decision to employ warning shots before the use of live ammunitions was made by politicians or high-ranking officers (in which case it most likely would have been either the CinC or C INS) remains an open question. In any case, at some point in the chain of command, it had been decided against employing the full range of alternatives available to the military. This makes Löfven’s reminder an important part of the speech, as it could mean that next time this will not be the case.

With regards to the Finnish-Swedish relation, Löfven took care to name Finland individually first in the line of spheres of cooperation for Sweden, before proceeding with NORDEFCO, the EU, and NATO. In Finland, Finnish Foreign Minister Tuomioja stated that he had thought the presence of an intruder likely since the start of the operation, and that this removes every shadow of a doubt, while Defence Minister Haglund, who earlier had called for more openness on the part of the Swedish Defence Forces, was quick to praise the decision to present the evidence available.

Summing up the operation, it can only be described as a tactical success. As Captain Jonas Wikström (C INS) expressed it, the goal of the operation was to determine whether “foreign underwater activity is or has been conducted in the area”, something which now has been done successfully. On the strategic and diplomatic level, the relative success or failure is harder to judge, but the fact that the Swedish Navy managed to secure evidence of such a high quality shows that no shadow should fall on the men and women directly involved in the conduct of the operation.

The incident also yet again brought home the point that while it might easily be forgotten in the friendly chatter on Twitter and blogs, the discussion on defence and security can go from theory to practice in a surprisingly short time. The one single tweet that I personally remember best from the whole incident was posted by Johan Wiktorin, and featured LtCdr. Niklas “Skipper” Wiklund in action. It was a sobering experience to see a person one interact with on a regular basis participating in an operation many saw as more or less purely hypothetical only a year ago (except for Wiktorin himself, who wrote about a similar scenario last year in his short novel “Korridoren till Kaliningrad“).

Behind the immediate front line two persons in particular rose above the crowd in my opinion: Air Force (!) Maj Carl “Wiseman” Bergqvist showed in a number of instances in traditional media that he is an adept ASW-expert, while retired naval officer and sub-hunter Göran Frisk provided an enjoyable mix of serious insights, one-liners, and straight talk, to the extent that he now has a Facebook Fan-page with over 4,500 likes. Both of them, together with countless of others, did a valuable job in the face of Russian Psy Ops by spreading correct information about ASW-operations, the state of the Swedish Navy, and the role of Russia in the Baltic Sea-area.

The Göran - Inte som fia med knuff. Source: Göran Frisk Fan Page.
The Göran – Inte som fia med knuff. Source: Göran Frisk Fan Page.

Thanks to Wiseman, Erik Lagersten, Anders Gardberg, and the others who helped me with understanding the roles and terminology of C INS and MTCH.