Squadron 2020 – Made for the Finnish Coastline

laivue2020_uusi_logoThe acquisition of four multi-purpose corvettes by the Finnish Navy as part of the Squadron 2020 (fi. Laivue 2020) program received some serious flak by BGen (ret.) Lauri Kiianlinna in Helsingin Sanomat last Friday, of exactly the kind I warned would become widespread due to the Navy’s somewhat lacking marketing of the project. While I agree with Kiianlinnas assessment that the Army need further funds and that the ground based air defence needs to be fleshed out, many of the points raised in opposition of the project are either based on misunderstanding or in some instances flat-out wrong. As noted, this is partly a failure on the part of the Navy, who in today’s economy more than ever has to explain not only what they need, but also why. A simple “Trust us, we’ve checked the issue” (while correct) is no longer enough to the public or the other cash-strapped branches of the defence forces.

Finland is for all practical purposes an island, and the only way we will keep our supply lines open for any extended time is through cargo vessels that enter the Baltic Sea in the Danish Straits, before sailing up the length of the Swedish coast until arriving in Finnish ports. This means that while the navy cannot win any wars for Finland, it can certainly lose them.

As such, Finland will need a navy to escort our merchant vessels at the very least until they reach Swedish waters. Currently this is done by a number of smaller vessels operating together to perform different individual roles:

  • The Hämeenmaa-class minelayers are operating as the squadron leader/flagship, while having a limited ASW- and anti-air capability
  • The Hamina-class FAC provide anti-ship missiles and a limited anti-air capability
  • The Rauma-class FAC provide ASW-capability in the form of the only dedicated submarine-hunting sensor in the Finnish Navy as well as featuring limited ASW-weaponry. If the towed array is left home, it can instead use anti-ship missiles

It should be noted that a three-ship squadron like this faces a number of tough choices:

  • A total of no more than 16 ITO 04 (‘Umkhonto’) surface-to-air missiles featuring a short 14 km range are available for air cover
  • For the Rauma to find a submarine it needs to listen for it, meaning that it would prefer to keep some distance to the other ships. However, doing so lessens the protection offered by the short-range ITO 04 mounted on the other vessels
  • None of the vessels sport any torpedoes, so If a submarine is found the vessels will attack it by driving towards it well within torpedo range while firing ASW-mortars

These ships, especially the Haminas, are very potent for their class. However, there is only so much equipment that can be fitted into the limited hull sizes available. Both of the FAC-classes also lack the ability to operate in ice, due to their light (and vulnerable) aluminium hulls. Their small size also seriously hamper their endurance, forcing them to return to port at short intervals. For a navy in which hiding in the cluttered archipelago is a central part of the doctrine, having to frequently return to fixed points to bunker up on fuel, supplies, and weapons, is far from ideal.

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The Finnish idea regarding how to kill a submarine is drive towards it at speed, fire of a salvo of these at 400 meters, and hope the submarine doesn’t figure out a firing solution for their  18+ km ranged torpedoes. Saab Elma ASW-600 on a Rauma-class FAC. Source: own picture

The need for bigger hulls

The size is not a product of the urge to venture further into the Southern Baltic Sea or on international missions, but of the need to provide vessels that are able to operate in Finnish waters year-round, able to handle the varied threats they may encounter.

This is where the main problems of the opinion piece are. The new ships will not further strain the limited air defence resources available, they will not be sitting ducks, and they will not be restricted by ice. On the contrary, they will be able to hide better than the current fleet due to being less reliant on visiting known locations, they will carry their own air defence, and their big steel hulls will offer them ice-going capability as well as better resistance in the face of battle damage.

Of great interest is the vertical launch system (VLS) seen on the render pictures released by the navy. I have discussed these in greater detail on the blog earlier, but the conclusion is that they would bring a marked increase in the air defence of not only the ship themselves, but also of the general area of operations. In fact, in the best of world’s we might even get to see the Aster 30 onboard the corvettes, which would finally give the (southern parts of the) country a measure of protection against ballistic missiles. As such, the claim that these would tie up valuable air defence resources is wrong, and instead they might actually free up army units.

The discussion regarding the range of the weaponry is somewhat simplified. The max practical range is nowadays rarely reliant on what the sales material claim the missiles are capable of. Instead, the main question is how far out the enemy can be accurately located. Another issue that one rarely want to fire all missiles straight at the enemy, because A) it makes it easier to defend against compared to if the salvo is routed to come in from different angles at the same time, and B) it gives the enemy a vector to follow back to the location of our firing battery. To sum it up, the Navy wont fire anti-ship missiles, either from trucks or naval vessels, to Gotland any time soon, regardless of how the range rings look on the map.

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One of the concept renders presented by the navy. Note hatch for towed array at stern(?) and VLS-array at the front. Source: Finnish Navy

When it comes to anti-submarine weapons, it seems like we will finally get a ship armed with torpedoes and proper sensors, which will make it possible to locate and fight off one of the most elusive threats our shipping lanes currently face. This is especially important as we currently lack any kind of airborne ASW-capability, and the only way to find submarines lurking outside of our archipelago is through the use of ships.

The other possibility is to assume that we can keep our waters protected without own ships, which is an interesting concept on paper. By employing shore-based anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles we would be able to ward off any intruders, or so the theory goes. However, by the very nature of these systems, they lack the operational mobility to keep up with merchant vessels moving in Finnish waters along the coast, and as such need to be pre-positioned so that they can cover the expected enemy attack vectors. They then need to be fed target data, and feature a redundancy in both firing units and sensors, so that the enemy isn’t able to create a gap in our defences where they can strike at our lifeline with impunity simply by knocking out a battery or two.

This can all be done, but to be fair it is highly doubtful if this advanced network of mutually supporting coastal sensors, truck-mounted anti-ship batteries, submarine hunting helicopters, and surface-to-air missiles, would be any cheaper than the corvettes. Crucially, the system would lack the flexibility offered by a surface squadron of multirole vessels, which are able to move with the merchant convoys, carrying their own sensors as well as weapons to fend of air, surface, and sub-surface threats. The similarities to the discussions regarding ground based air defences contra getting new fighters are striking. This isn’t a case of “either/or”, but rather that a strong defence will have to be made up of multiple layers of different systems with their own strengths and weaknesses working in unison, and I fully expect the Navy to start looking into replacing the truck-mounted MTO 85M at some point in the future.

When it comes to coastal defence, I would like to see Squadron 2020 and ground units being networked with our HX-fighters, to let the fighters provide accurate target data through the use of a modern data link while letting the others act as silent ‘shooters’ with their radars turned off.  This is a concept which for example Saab already has as an option for which includes both their air units and naval command and control systems, and one would assume that there is a requirement for HX and Squadron 2020 to be able to communicate with each other.

It isn’t about the Navy against the Army or the Air Force. At the end of the day, we’re all in this together.

Epilogue: The Panssarilaivat – White Elephants of the 1930’s

The Väinämöinen-class of two coastal defence ships (fi. Panssarilaivat) has long been regarded as the schoolbook example of wasted money. Being expensive and manpower intensive, they took almost no part in the Second World War, and the navy still managed to lose one of them with a large loss of men during one of their few wartime sorties.

However, while I agree that it was a strange decision to invest in major surface units when the army lacked anti-tank weaponry and artillery shells, the other side of the story is often forgotten. The war did play out in an extremely surprising way. The Winter War was fought almost entirely while the sea was frozen, and when the Continuation War broke out it didn’t take long until the Germans had occupied the whole southern coast of the Baltic Sea from the Danish Straits up to the outskirts of Leningrad. This made the relatively strong and modern Baltic Fleet trapped in their bases around the city until the end of the Continuation War. The exception was the submarine fleet, which every summer broke out to try and wreak havoc amongst Finnish and German shipping in the face of Finnish and German subchasers and submarines (until the Germans and Finns installed two nets over the entire Gulf of Finland!).

If things would have played out differently, and Finland would have had to stand alone, two floating coastal fortresses could suddenly have proved to be rather useful after all.

MTA 2020 – Bigger Hulls and Added Capabilities

While the growth in size from the current fast attack craft to the upcoming MTA 2020 has been noted by many, there seems to be a lack of appreciation for the added possibilities that comes with this.

Background

Currently, the two Finnish classes of fast attack crafts have different secondary roles, where the Rauma-class has the possibility to equip a towed array for hunting submarines, and the Hamina-class sports (a very limited number of) Umkhonto surface-to-air missiles. In practice, this means that any task force, either a pure naval squadron or one escorting a convoy of merchant shipping, will have to feature at least one vessel from each class in order to have even a theoretical capability of meeting both threats. However, even in that case, the possibility of offering any kind of mutual protection remains limited, as the Rauma-class preferably would have to scout in front of the task force to be able to notice submarines laying in ambush (and this means a distance measured in kilometres to get a noise-free environment for its towed array), while the rather limited 12 km range of the Umkhonto means that any venturing subhunter or larger convoy will have an air defence cover only in their immediate vicinity. The limited number of missiles also means that it is entirely possible for a single Hamina to expand all its missiles trying to fend off just one or two airstrikes, after which the sole air defence weapon left is the 57 mm Bofors gun with proximity or time fused shells.

In practice, at least two vessels with Umkhontos are needed to provide any sort of air defence umbrella, either Hamina-class FAC’s or the far larger Hämeenmaa-class minelayers which also feature a similar eight-round launcher. This is both due to the low number of missiles and to get better coverage. This means that we would need to employ a third of all vessels featuring air defence capability for any given task force. A similar situation arises in the case of the ASW-capable Rauma-class.

The bottom line is that currently the Finnish Navy can’t be expected create more than two effective task forces at any given time, and even then, their effective endurance in combat will be limited by the relatively small supply of on-board weapons. Their ability to stay at sea for any prolonged time (i.e. longer than a few days) is also limited due to the small size of the crews. The fast attack craft also lack the capability to operate in ice, which is a significant drawback given the fact that the sea is often frozen over for at least four months each year.

Squadron 2020

It is to remedy these deficits that the new Laivue 2020 (Finnish for Sqaudron 2020) will be made up of corvettes, and not fast attack craft. This is a shift in a long-standing tradition of employing light vessels to deliver shoot-and-scoot style attacks on enemy fleets, but also gives the Finnish Navy serious new capabilities that will heighten the total effect of not only the navy, but the Finnish Defence Forces as a whole.

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Concept render of MTA 2020 in front of Suomenlinna. Source: Ministry of Defence/Merivoimat
To begin with, the employment of larger steel hulls, gives the ability to operate a serious naval task force in ice for the first time in decades. This in itself is a major shift, though not necessarily a game changer, as it can be assumed that enemy fleet movements will also be drastically reduced during the winter.

Of far greater importance is the fact that the navy can now create a task force also for mission that require extended stays at sea, such as escorting friendly shipping or hunting submarines further out at in the Baltic Sea (currently, the Finnish ASW-strategy is that our chains of underwater listening posts will detect any intruders, after which our units on call will rush to the scene and either drive away the intruder or sink it), before they can take up positions outside of our main ports. While it is easy to dismiss the need for extended operations with the swift nature of most newer conventional wars, such as Georgia and Crimea, the capability could come in handy in prolonged times of heightened tensions, where solid intelligence is a must for the political decision makers. This endurance is heavily tied to having larger crews, as well as larger supplies of fuel, food, munitions, and other basic goods.

VLS – The Big Deal

The upgraded armament is of huge importance. The numbers below is based on the concept shown to the general public at last week’s press release, and is to be taken as an early draft (this is emphasized by the Navy). Still, while the details of the armament can and probably will differ when the vessels are launched, the general capability will probably be as shown.

The number of anti-shipping missiles is set double compared to the Hamina and Rauma-classes, which gives some added tactical opportunities. Also, while the thought of hunting submarines with depth charges and rockets/mortars is optimistic at best and suicidal at worst, the likely reintroduction of torpedoes into the arsenal of the navy would provide a much needed boost to the Finnish anti-submarine capability. However, most importantly, the vessels are set to feature a vertical launch system, VLS, in the bow.

The VLS-system in the picture seems to be around 4-5 meter in width and around 2-3 meters in length. This corresponds to two Sylver VLS-cells. The Sylver VLS is a French system, in use with a number of navies around the world. The basic layout is that each cell consists of eight tubes, and is available in four different lengths. The lengths provide rooms for progressively longer (obviously) and more complex missiles, so that while the shortest Sylver A35 only holds “traditional” short- to medium-range surface-to-air missiles, the full-length A70 already offers land-attack capability through the SCALP N and BGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missiles. The A70 is however too large for a corvette, and I have a hard time seeing cruise missiles being a priority for the navy (especially as some modern anti-shipping missiles, such as the Saab RBS15 Mk III, has a secondary land-attack capability). The interesting versions are the midsize A43 and A50, which provide the ability to employ the Aster 15 and Aster 30 (A50 only).

Royal Navy Type 45 destroyer HMS Diamond firing a Aster (Sea Viper) surface-to-air missile for the first time. The missile leaves the Sylver silo at three times the speed of sound. Source: Wikimedia Commons/ Ben Sutton – Defence Imagery
The Aster missile has been offered to the Finnish Defence Forces before. Some ten years ago, the Finnish Army sought a new surface-to-air missile to replace the Buk. Eventually, the NASAMS II was chosen, with the runner up being the SAMP/T-system (fr. Sol-Air Moyenne Portée Terrestre), featuring the Aster missile mounted on a transporter erector launcher coupled with a mobile Arabel-radar and assorted control and guidance systems. Unlike the NASAMS, the Aster 30 provides the ability to intercept and destroy ballistic missiles such as the (in)famous Iskander, and then Chief of Defence Admiral Juhani Kaskeala was clear about the reasoning behind the choice of NASAMS over Aster:

“Instead of one Cadillac, we bought 4 Volvos. Now we are getting more missiles than with the other option.”

The NASAMS is a very good medium-ranged system, and the increased number of batteries compared to the SAMP/T was very much needed for a country the size of Finland. Still, the fact that Finland completely lacks any kind of even theoretical defence against ballistic missiles left something of a bad taste. With the announcement by Rear Admiral Takanen that Laivue 2020 will be able to provide area defence with the use of their surface-to-air missiles, one can ask if the defence forces are about to get the highly anticipated anti-ballistic missile capability after all? The modular nature of the Sylver means that with a “small” extra cost, the flexibility of the system increases drastically. A brief recollection of the missiles available to the Sylver:

The A35 can employ the following missiles:

  • VT1: French IR-seeking short-range missile for self-defence. The corresponding ground-based version of the Crotale missile is in use with the Finnish Army (ITO90M), so would provide some degree of commonality (although it can be discussed if it gives any synergy effects worth mentioning). The unique aspect of the VT1 is that no less than four missiles can be crammed into a single Sylver launching tube, providing ample supply of close-range missiles,
  • Umkhonto: South African IR-seeking short-range missile for self-defence (a radar-guided version with slightly longer range is also available). In use with the Finnish Navy as ITO04,
  • CAMM: IR-seeking short-range missile for self-defence, based on the British ASRAAM air-to-air missile,
  • MICA: The MICA is a medium-range missile with an active-radar seeker. In its air-to-air versions it is performing much the same role on the Rafale and Mirage 2000 as the AMRAAM is on our Hornets.

In addition to the above, the A43 can employ:

  • Aster 15: An advanced medium-range missile, providing local area defence at somewhat longer ranges than the MICA.

In addition to the above, the A50 can employ:

  • Aster 30: Similar to the Aster 15, but featuring a much larger booster, providing longer range and an anti-ballistic missile capability. The capabilities of the Aster 30 is currently being expanded upon through the new Block 1NT and Block 2 missiles, which will provide significantly better anti-ballistic missile performance.

An SM-2ER in the magazine area onboard USS Mahan (DDG-42) showing the size of the missile. Source: Wikimedia Commons/US Navy
In addition to the above, the A70 can employ:

  • SM-2ER Block IV: The Standard Missile-2 Extended Range is an American long-range surface-to-air missile, which also has a terminal phase ballistic missile defence and secondary anti-shipping ability,
  • SCALP N: The SCALP N is a ship-launched cruise missile for attacking ground targets at long (over 1,000 km) range. It is based on the air-launched Storm Shadow/SCALP,
  • TLAM: The Tomahawk Land Attack Missile is a US ship-launched cruise missile for attacking ground targets at long (over 1,000 km) range.

The nice thing with a VLS-system like Sylver, or the larger US Mk 41 VLS for that matter, are their versatility. When traditional launchers have often been weapon specific, leaving little room for variety based on tactical needs, the loadout of the VLS-cells can be tailored to suite the expected threat scenario of individual missions. And if Laivue 2020 get (even a limited) anti-ballistic missile capability, this would plug what is perhaps the largest single capability gap in the current order of battle of the Finnish Defence Forces. As said, the A70 is likely out of reach for a vessel this size (though one should never underestimate the Navy that put four 10’’ guns on a 3,900 ton ship), but the A50 just might fit in.

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With that said, it would certainly be great if suddenly an additional billion appeared, that we could replace the ships on a 1:1 basis…

A Ground-based Air Defence System for Finland

There has been quite some debate about what fighter is best for the Finnish HX-project, aimed at replacing the capabilities of the Finnish F-18C/D Hornet-fleet. As stated in my earlier post, in principle, the same capabilities could be provided by acquiring a large ground-based air defence network, a number of surface-to-surface missiles, as well as a small fleet of light fighter aircraft which would provide QRA in peacetime. This would in a stroke be the most radical realignment of the Finnish Defence Forces since at least the signing of the Paris Peace Treaty in 1948, and as such I find it highly unlikely. One of the reasons is that the cost would probably be on par or higher compared to getting a new fighter. To explain this in further detail, here comes a short mathematical exercise:

A ground-based air defence system for Finland

A thought to begin with: when dealing with given ranges, these are always to be taken with a grain of salt, as at maximum range the lower altitudes are most likely not seen on radar, while the higher altitudes require a longer traveling distance due to the added vertical distance. Still, SAM’s does two things: 1) they kill stuff, and, 2) they force aircraft to adjust their tactics, i.e. fly lower, carry less ordnance, spend time searching for the enemy anti-air batteries, and so forth. This means that even if no kills are scored, their presence alone might mean that they are doing their job.

Coverage of four SM-6 batteries. Source. Google maps (background)/author
Coverage of four SM-6 batteries. Source. Google maps (background)/author

The new SM-6 provides the long-range anti-air cover for the US Navy, as well for a number of close US allies in the Pacific area. It has a range of roughly 240 km. Above is a picture showing four batteries grouped in Hanko, Joensuu, Kajaani, and Rovaniemi. They cover the better part of Finnish airspace, as well as quite a bit of Estonia’s and some Russian and Latvian too. The downside: they have a fly-away cost of 3,5 million Euros per missile. I haven’t found the cost for a ground-based launcher, but from the French numbers for the SAMP/T, 10 launchers + 575 Aster 30/15 missiles cost 4,1 billion Euros, we can make a rough estimate that its launchers cost around 300 million Euros per battery, with the SM-6 probably not cheaper.

Coverage of 12 NASAMS 2 batteries. Sou
Coverage of 12 NASAMS 2 batteries. Source. Google maps (background)/author

The SM-6 would force enemy aircraft down to lower altitudes, were a system such as the ASTER or the NASAMS 2 (known as ItO 12 in Finnish service) could then shoot them down. The NASAMS 2 have a maximum range of around 15-20 km, of which Finland currently operates 24 firing units bought for 366 million Euros. To this, the cost of missiles will have to be added, and these comes in at a price of 1,45 million Euros each. The firing units can then be networked into batteries, so the total number of batteries is harder to give, but a quick look at the map says that around 12 batteries would be needed to protect key cities, harbours, and the four SM-6 batteries. To this would then have to be added the number of batteries needed to protect the major military units out in the field, as well as some key points in the direction of the battlefield, such as railway lines and bridges.

To these then comes the short-ranged shoulder launched missiles. Stinger missiles for everybody, right? Well, the latest deal included ‘hundreds’ of missiles which Finland bought from ex-US Army stocks, for the price of 90 million Euros. However, for new missiles the price is quite something else, as the earlier Finnish request for 600 Stinger FIM-92C RMP missiles with related equipment and support showed. This whole deal was valued at 265 million Euros, or 440 000 per missile.

Range of 10 SAMP/T launchers with Aster 30 missiles. Source. Google maps (background)/author
Coverage of 10 SAMP/T launchers with Aster 30 missiles. Source. Google maps (background)/author

The estimated 6 billion Euro program for replacing the Hornets with new fighters suddenly doesn’t look as expensive as it used to. We could buy the French SAMP/T-package with ten batteries and a few hundred missiles, and to this then add 1500-2000 Stinger missiles, for a grand total of around 5 billion Euros. We’d then have approximately 1 billion Euro left to buy a handful of cheap fighters for QRA, as well as cruise missiles and recce UAV’s to be able to attack pinpoint targets deep behind enemy lines, by which time we would be in a rather tight spot not go over the original cost.

Naturally, this is a thought experiment simplified to the extreme. The need for anti-air missiles or unmanned reconnaissance vehicles does not go away if we acquire a new fighter. It can also be debated whether ten SAMP/T really would provide the same level of protection that the more mobile fighters would. A third argument is the difference in life-cycle costs in peacetime, training flights with fighters are extremely expensive compared to a SAM-battery driving out into the woods and setting up camp for a week or two. Still, even this basic calculation shows the simple fact that SAM’s are not the dirt cheap solution to our air defence needs they sometimes are portrayed to be.

Comment on the US Assessment of the Downing of Flight MH17

The following is the complete text of the statement published on the homepage of the US embassy in Kyiv, with my comments in italics. Original text here.

United States Assessment of the Downing of Flight MH17 and its Aftermath

We assess that Flight MH17 was likely downed by a SA-11 surface-to-air missile from separatist-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine. We base this judgment on several factors.

The SA-11 designation corresponds to the versions 9K37 Buk and 9K37M Buk-M1.

Over the past month, we have detected an increasing amount of heavy weaponry to separatist fighters crossing the border from Russia into Ukraine. Last weekend, Russia sent a convoy of military equipment with up to 150 vehicles including tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery, and multiple rocket launchers to the separatist. We also have information indicating that Russia is providing training to separatist fighters at a facility in southwest Russia, and this effort included training on air defense systems.

Note the difference in wording: the US have “detected” the vehicles coming into Ukraine, meaning that they have observed this happening (likely either by satellite, UAV, or boots on the ground). However, they have only “information indicating” the presence of a training facility where air defence systems are taught, signaling a lower degree of certainty. The specific mention of anti-air training given by the Russians to separatists adds credibility to the charges that the Buk-M1 is indeed Russian supplied (and possibly crewed), as opposed to stemming from captured Ukrainian stocks.

Pro-Russian separatist fighters have demonstrated proficiency with surface-to-air missile systems and have downed more than a dozen aircraft over the past few months, including two large transport aircraft.

This is not necessarily relevant. As far as I know, one single transport has been downed at height, the other aircraft and helicopters all having been shot down at low altitude and/or during take-off or landing. The single Antonov An-26 is the sole plane shot down at a height which rules out the use of MANPADS, and it is better described as a medium-sized transport.

At the time that flight MH17 dropped out of contact, we detected a surface-to-air missile (SAM) launch from a separatist-controlled area in southeastern Ukraine. We believe this missile was an SA-11.

This is the core evidence of the statement. The US has detected the launch of a missile from separatist-controlled area happening at the same time the MH17 was downed. It is unclear what kind of intelligence indicates (note the word “believe”) that it indeed was a Buk, but it is still a very strong piece of evidence.

Intercepts of separatist communications posted on YouTube by the Ukrainian government indicate the separatists were in possession of a SA-11 system as early as Monday July 14th. In the intercepts, the separatists made repeated references to having and repositioning Buk (SA-11) systems.

Having perhaps the world’s best intelligence network, and then using easily faked videos of separatist communications posted on YouTube as evidence sure has a degree of ridicule attached to it, but is also an inidcation that US intelligence believes at least some of these transcripts are real.

Social media postings on Thursday show an SA-11 system traveling through the separatist-controlled towns of Torez and Snizhne, near the crash site and assessed location of the SAM launch. From this location, the SA-11 has the range and altitude capability to have shot down flight MH17.

See the earlier post where I discuss some of the OSINT evidence available.

Ukraine also operates SA-11 systems, but we are confident no Ukrainian air defense systems were within range of the crash. Ukrainian forces have also not fired a single surface-to-air missile during the conflict, despite often complaining about violations of their airspace by Russian military aircraft.

Yet another indication that the US is closely monitoring the Ukrainian crises, probably through the use of recce satellites as well as SBIRS. This raises questions about what kind of intelligence the US has on the claimed use of BM-21 Grad MLRS by both the separatists, Ukrainian armed forces, and from Russian territory, as well as the alleged civilian targets these were used against.

Shortly after the crash, separatists – including the self-proclaimed “Defense Minister” of the Donetsk People’s Republic Igor Strelkov – claimed responsibility for shooting down a military transport plane on social media.

In an intercepted conversation that has been widely posted on the internet, a known-separatist leader tells another person that a separatist faction downed the aircraft. After it became evident that the plane was a civilian airliner, separatists deleted social media posts boasting about shooting down a plane and possessing a Buk (SA-11) SAM system.

This is nothing new, but has been openly available since the day of the downing.

Audio data provided to the press by the Ukrainian security service was evaluated by Intelligence Community analysts who confirmed these were authentic conversations between known separatist leaders, based on comparing the Ukraine-released internet audio to recordings of known separatists.

Compared to the brief mentioning of YouTube-videos above, here it is explicitly said that the Intelligence Community have evaluated the videos, and believes these are real.

Video posted on social media yesterday show an SA-11 on a transporter traveling through the Krasnodon are back to Russia. The video indicated the system was missing at least one missile, suggesting it had conducted a launch.

The video is found on my earlier post. Note that in this statement the location of Krasnodon is not doubted, but seen as confirmed.

Events on the ground at the crash site clearly demonstrate that separatists are in full control of the area.

This comes as no surprise for anyone. In itself, it is not evidence of the missile stemming from separatist held territory, the missile has a range of roughly 30-35 km, and the plane didn’t not fall straight down when hit. However, taken into consideration with the other evidence presented here, it does strengthen the case against the Russian-backed separatists.

In conclusion: The US authorities seem sure that the missile was launched by the separatists, but so far lacks hard proof that they were trained in Russia, or that the crew would indeed have been made up of Russian regulars or volunteers.

The Buk and MH17

The shooting down of Malaysian Airline’s MH17 turned yet another page in the Ukrainian crisis. To begin with, I want to assure that although this text will focus on the technical side of the shoot-down, my heartfelt sympathies are with the next of kin of those onboard the flight.

To shoot down an airliner flying at its cruise altitude, in this case somewhere around 33 000 feet (~10 060 meters), requires at the very least a medium-ranged surface to air missile system, with some kind of radar for target data. There has been much use of the word “advanced” in reference to these systems, but this is somewhat misleading. Already the crude “flying telephone poles” of the S-75 Dvina (SA-2 Guideline) had a high enough ceiling to be able to down Gary Power’s U-2 in the famous incident in 1960. A quite large number of different systems could be used to down an airliner flying straight and level in a low-noise environment. However, what they all share in common, is the fact that an untrained person (or, rather “persons”, as these usually aren’t crewed by a single operator) will not be able to get a missile of, let alone actually hit anything.

S-75 Dvina launcher and missile in Egyptian service. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Note that “untrained” is a relative word. As James Mashiri notes, to be able to fire at a “soft” target the operator needs relatively little training (a few hours of seeing the system in action and getting some answers to the “why did you push that button?”-type of questions).

The prime suspect in this case is the Soviet-made Buk-system. This was created as a successor to the earlier 2K12 Kub (SA-6 Gainful), which had proved to be a serious threat to aircrafts operating at high and medium altitude during the Yom Kippur War of 1973. What was noteworthy with the Kub compared to the earlier S-125 Neva (SA-3 Goa) in that it was carried on a tracked transporter erector launcher (TEL), giving it the ability to rapidly change firing positions, making it harder to destroy. Still, the weak link was that the launchers relied on the 1S91 radar vehicle accompanying each battery, meaning that if the radar was taken out or malfunctioned, the whole battery went blind.

To solve this issue, the 9K37 Buk (SA-11 Gadfly) was normally mounted on a TELAR, which not only transported and fired the missiles, but also held a 9S35/9S35M1 (Fire Dome) tracking and engagement radar. The radar is not meant for acquiring targets, notably it lacks the 360o field needed to do this properly, but gives the launcher a degree of autonomy in the event that the 9S18/9S18M1 (Tube Arm/Snow Drift) target acquisition radar of the Buk battery is knocked out.

9A310M1 Buk-M1 TELAR in Finnish service. Radar in dome to the right in picture. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Buk is a widespread system, being found both as regular exports and in a number of former Soviet states. The 9K37M Buk-M1 is also found in Finnish service as the ItO 96, but is expected to be phased out in the near future. Another noted user is the Georgian armed forces, which used the Buk-M1 to down a single Tu-22M and possibly up to three Su-25 during the 2008 war. The Ukrainian armed forces operate at least the M1-version, but it is unclear to me what other versions might be in their arsenal.

A number of pictures and videos have surfaced, purportedly shot in the area of the downing of MH17. A reminder is needed: the conflict in Ukraine has seen both purely photoshopped pictures, pictures from e.g. Syria, and pictures taken out of context, which allegedly show different events which might or might not have happened at all.

This video claims to show the downing of the Ukrainian air force An-26 that took place on July the 14th prior to the downing of MH17. It has also been claimed to show the downing of MH17, which is false, as the plane in the video isn’t a Boeing 777. It obviously might be from somewhere else, but the language and vegetation fits Ukraine this time of the year.

The downing of the Antonov is not contested, and was admitted by both the separatists and the Ukrainian government as it happened. Of interest is the fact that according to the Ukrainian government the plane was flying at 6 500 meters (21 300 feet), meaning it was outside the target envelope of handheld systems like the 9K38/9K338 Igla/Igla-S (SA-18 Grouse/SA-24 Grinch). If the stated altitude is correct, this in itself proves the existence of a medium-altitude system in the area around Krasnodon in the middle of July. The crash sites of the two aircraft are separated by a roughly 150 km long trip by road from each other.

As a side-note: it is open to speculation why the airspace above 32 000 feet was deemed safe on July the 17th, as the Antonov proved that 21 000 feet wasn’t. I for one can’t come up with a system with a ceiling between these two values.

On his blog Cornucopia?, Lars Wilderäng has listed a few pictures and videos claimed to show the movement of a single 9A310M1 Buk-M1 TELAR along Ukrainian roads in the area. The two most interesting are found here and here. Both seems to be authentic, and fits the description of the situation.

A video that surfaced after the downing of the plane shows a single TELAR (the same?) being transported by a civilian truck. Note the fact that only two out of the normal load of four missiles are visible, and that using white civilian trucks to transport (unmarked?) TELAR’s is not standard operating procedure (at least not in Finland). A still frame from the video is shown below.

9A310M1 Buk-M1 TELAR transported on civilian truck.
9A310M1 Buk-M1 TELAR transported on civilian truck. Source: Video linked above

All in all, there seems to be enough evidence to indicate the existence of a single 9A310M1 Buk-M1 TELAR in the area of the crash site of MH17. If the TELAR operated independently, target acquisition would have been somewhat problematic. As said, the system has a limited capability in this field. However, using the radar requires fuel for the gas turbine as well as emitting radiation which can be picked up by Ukrainian ELINT-planes. Another possibility is that the target was first picked up visually by a spotter (in the crudest version by a crew member standing outside the TELAR), who relayed an approximate position to the operators. These then proceeded to shoot down the plane, most probably believing it was a military transport. On the juridical part of this, see James Mashiri’s detailed analysis.

Of interest is also the evidence in the case. Although currently most facts seem to indicate it was the separatists who shot down the plane, hard evidence is so far lacking. The US almost immediately pointed finger on the separatists (and Russia). The interesting part is that the US very well could have the proof for these charges, namely by being able to pinpoint the launch site through the satellite based SBIRS and/or by ELINT-measures based in nearby NATO-countries (e.g. planes orbiting over Romania). Here SBIRS seems to be the most likely case, but it is possible the US withholds the form of the evidence as not to show the exact capabilities of one of their major strategic defence systems. The less than proper handling of the crash site by the separatists on the other hand, seems to indicate that they are either covering up something and/or are simply worthless at public relations management.