Back in Control

This morning the Swedish Commander in Chief surprised the better part of the Nordic defence community by announcing that the mechanised company recently deployed to Gotland as part of a readiness check won’t go back to Skövde where its parent unit, P4 Skaraborg Regiment, is based. Instead, active as of 0700 this morning, it is stationed on Gotland in defence of the island.

This is a drastic move. The new 18. Battlegroup, a mechanised battalion with a mechanised and an armoured company plus support units, is already in training on the Swedish mainland. However, it was planned to become active in 2018. This has now been changed to mid-2017, which together with the decision to transfer one of the existing companies to the island to cover part of the interim year is a major step (the company won’t have to cover the whole time alone, but the duty will be transferred to another unit at some point). Not only is there an economic issue at stake, with already the original Battlegroup Gotland putting added strain on an already stretched defence force, but also the personnel factor. Soldiers and officers with their homes and families in Skövde woke up to the news that they will be staying on the island until further notice. In a time when the defence forces has had a hard time filling its personnel needs, this is certainly not a decision taken lightly.

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The already classic picture of Swedish SOG operators running towards their Blackhawk helicopter taken during last year’s major exercise held in Gotland. Source: Jimmy Croona/Försvarsmakten

The unit has been laughed at, including being called “The Kamikaze Company” on behalf of its small size (150 persons), and Russian propaganda noting with poorly hidden contempt that the soldiers aren’t yet allowed to use the local firing range.

However, the situation isn’t as desperate as it seems at first glance. For anyone planning to invade the island, there is a huge difference having to meet no active soldiers at all, or having to do with mechanised infantry including their CV 9040’s. These modern infantry fighting vehicles come equipped with the classic 40 mm Bofors sporting a mix of modern APDS and HE ammunition. In effect, it is no longer enough to land an airliner full of paras on Visby airport, but the invaders need to bring more men and heavier weaponry. This means further preparations involving more people, leading to a lower likelihood of achieving surprise, in turn allowing the defenders greater notice and the possibility to further strengthen their defences with more units. Even in the face of a full-blown amphibious invasion, the unit together with the local Home Guard should be able to conduct a fighting retreat towards Visby, making sure the harbour is in Swedish hands long enough to allow the rest of the regiment time to arrive.

What is worrying, however, is the fact that the temperature around the Baltic Sea seems to have dropped drastically in just a few weeks. Swedish blogger Jägarchefen notes that the last three weeks have featured a number of stern statements by both Swedish, US, and Russian officials. This has now culminated in the Swedish decision not to stand down after a readiness exercise. What exactly has caused this development is not publicly known, but at the same time US vice-president Biden gave Sweden some form of security guarantees in the face of Russian aggression, Swedish officials have quietly upgraded the risk of an “isolated attack on Sweden” from “improbable” to “low”. Rumours are also circulating that the recent Russian exercise caused the Swedish Defence Force to very nearly raise their readiness, something which has not happened since the Russian invasion of Crimea. From the Finnish viewpoint, there is a natural question that deserves to be asked:

What does the Swedish Commander-in-Chief know, that our politicians pretend they don’t?

Exercises and (a lack of) confidence building measures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Case Study: Exercise Tahrir-41 becomes Operation Badr

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

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

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

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

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

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

Estonia Leads the Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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