International Exercises and a Storm in a Teacup

Two international exercises to be held in Finnish territory later this spring, Arrow-16 and a yet unnamed air defence exercise, has caused quite a stir in Finnish media. The reason is the participation of US units, a Stryker infantry battalion in the former and an F-15C squadron in the latter.

The hullabaloo in Finnish politics has largely been about when and how the lawmakers where informed, with a number of key (leftist opposition) politicians saying they got the information through media, which was countered by the defence administration saying that the information was available in certain documents, which the opposition in turn stated where unclear for laymen to read.

It is hard to see this as nothing but (in the best case) the left’s continued reflex of shying away from anything American, or (in the worst case) a populistic attempt to score political points. After all, Finland has for the last two decades steadily deepened our cooperation in the field of defence and security politics with a number of western countries, both as part of larger groups (primarily NATO and the largely overlapping number of EU-countries) as well as bilaterally. This has not only included participating in a low-intensity conflict in Afghanistan, but also extended to a number of international exercises held both in Finland as well as abroad. The best example is the Finnish Air Force, who on an almost weekly basis flies cross-border training missions with their Swedish and Norwegian counterparts, but also the Navy and Army have surprisingly diverse exercise programs, including e.g. the annual BALTOPS exercises for the navy and the Northern Griffin/Cold Blade-series of exercises honing cold weather skills of special forces and helicopters respectively. The latter is currently ongoing and includes a German component, bringing two huge CH-53 transport helicopters to Lapland.

There is a certain need to train with foreign partners, both stemming from the requirement to be interoperable when operating as part of the same team on international missions (something the Finnish Defence Force is required to by law), as well from a pure selfish urge to be as good as one can. As sport enthusiasts know, you can only learn so much by practicing against a given number of adversaries, at some point you will need to look beyond your normal training partners in order to develop further. In a military environment this translates into practicing with and against units from other armed forces, featuring different equipment, tactics, and doctrines. Meeting these on the field will not only give an honest measure of your own ability, but it also forces you to question and re-evaluate your own ideas and ways of operating.

Cross-border training formation at Turku Air Show 2015. Source: Author

This is particularly evident in the field of aviation, where they even have a term for it: Dissimilar Air Combat Training (DACT). Units and often even whole air forces usually fly the same kind of aircraft, leading to situations where pilots might have a hard time fighting other aircrafts with other strengths and weaknesses than their own. To counter this, air forces want to train against opponents in other kinds of aircrafts (the most famous example being the US Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program, or TOPGUN), and one of the reasons the Finnish-Swedish-Norwegian cross-border training regime is valued so highly is the fact that all three air forces fly different fighters, with the Finnish F/A-18 Hornets meeting F-16’s and JAS 39 Gripens.

The bottom line is that international exercises are a more or less everyday part of the training routines of the Finnish Defence Forces, and even training with forces from the US is not uncommon.

The Finer Details of the Message

A number of comments have been made that the increase in US presence close to the Russia border is aimed at sending Kremlin a message. However, I have not seen any attempt at discussing in further detail what this message is, as the choice of units involved certainly seems to have been though through.

Two F-15C Eagles from Oregon ANG. Source: Wikimedia Commons/TSgt. Michael Ammons, USAF

The F-15C Eagle is unique in the US arsenal as it is the last ‘pure’ air superiority fighter, not having any secondary air to ground role (unless you ask the Israelis). As such, it cannot be used offensively in any surprise strike on enemy installations. However, it is one of the greatest fighters ever built, and having a crew training on a single mission offers obvious benefits in heightening their proficiency. The idea to use single-role fighters to send a message of deterrence to potential war startershave been aroundat least since the F-106 Delta Dart, another single-role interceptor which was regarded as amongst the best of its day (and which had the added benefit of carrying its weapons internally, meaning that the opponents never knew whether it flew armed or not). Interestingly enough, the USAF sends a unit over from Oregon, namely from the Oregon Air National Guard’s 173rd Fighter Wing (a region where thousands of Finnish immigrants found a home a century ago). This despite the fact that USAFE already has both a mixed F-15C/E unit (the ‘E’ being the multi-role Strike Eagle) at RAF Lakenheath, UK, as well as F-16 units at both Aviano, Italy, and Spangdahlem, Germany. Of these, the Aviano based F-16’s have been in the area earlier, both for exercises and by taking part in air shows such as last year’s air show in Turku, and the light single-engined F-16 is also markedly cheaper to operate than the big twin-engined Eagle. Sending over additional state-of-the-art air superiority fighters despite the cost this causes gives the US forces in the region added strength when it comes to countering enemy air attacks without increasing the amount of aircraft capable of attacking enemy territory or ground units. As such, the decision to send F-15C’s from the CONUS seems to have been made with the purpose of showing that the US is serious about supporting Europe in the face of armed aggression from Russia, while at the same time not employing weapon systems that can be seen as offensive or provocative close to the Russian border in a non-NATO country, the latter obviously being a situation that would have allowed Russian state-sponsored propaganda an easy spin and potentially caused an uproar in Finland.

Granted, both of those things seem to happen regardless, based on the general publics (understandably) poor understanding of how different fighters work. What is more worrying is the fact that the lawmakers involved seemingly hasn’t cared (or been able?) to explain this.

The Stryker battalion is made up of infantry moving around in wheeled vehicles with a small amount of armour protection, not unlike our Finnish Pasi (Sisu XA)-series of vehicles. This description fits a number of Finnish units as well, including some that are trained by the Pori Brigade, which will host Arrow 16. The unit is a light mechanised/heavy motorised infantry unit, made to be air transportable with relative ease (unlike the heavier Armoured Brigade Combat Teams) while still offering an amount of tactical mobility on the battlefield (unlike the lighter Infantry Brigade Combat Teams travelling around in unprotected vehicles). Still, compared to true mechanised units, the Stryker is offering little in the form of protection, the armour being able to withstand shrapnel and heavy machine gun fire but nothing more, and even less in the form of firepower, the standard M1126 Infantry Carrier Vehicle being armed with a single light or heavy machine in a remote weapon station, meaning that, while it offers a slight increase in firepower compared to an infantry machine gun team by featuring better sighting optics, it does so at the price of being far harder to conceal.

3-2 CAV conducts reconnaissance training in Latvia
A Stryker from the scout platoon of 3rd Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment training with the Latvian military in Adazi, Latvia, in Jan. 27, 2016. Source: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Army photo by Capt. Jennifer Cruz

And like a number of people have pointed out, it is certainly not a tank, but an armoured personnel carrier.

This might sound like I’m writing off the Stryker as useless, something which I certainly don’t. It has its uses, but high-intensity Fulda Gap-style mechanised combat isn’t one of them. Like all compromises one should be aware of its strengths and weaknesses, and the benefit of the wheeled armoured vehicle is that they can be deployed quickly (which means that they would be amongst the first reinforcements to reach the battlefield in case of a Russian attack), and on international missions they are comparatively cheap to employ and causes very little damage to civilian infrastructure (compared to their tracked counterparts such as the Bradley or CV90).

In other words, the unit coming to Satakunta is not the kind the US would use to spearhead an offensive operation, but they are the kind that would be sent to Finland’s aid if we were a NATO member and if Russia would attack us. It is also a unit operating in a similar role and configuration to the Finnish units (including our Rapid Deployment Force based in Pori, reservists of which form the core of most of our international/peacekeeping missions) it will train with, offering opportunities to compare and contrast our equipment, training, and ways of operating.

Summing Up

To sum it up: both exercises seem to be tailored to be neither provocative from a Russian standpoint, nor out of the ordinary in any way with regards to how the Finnish Defence Forces regularly train. That they despite this have caused this kind of dispute is just another sign of the sad fact that Finlandisation is alive and well in parts of Finnish society.

Honestly, if you really wanted to feel provoked by our joint exercises, wouldn’t it just be better to ask why a central European country wants their helicopters to practice cooperation with special forces in subarctic conditions…?

Korean Sabre Rattling

It has probably escaped no-one that things are heating up along the 38th parallel in Korea. All began when earlier this month (04.08.2015) two South Korean soldiers were wounded by landmines placed by the Democratic People’s Republic of (North) Korea (which certainly doesn’t warrant any of those titles, except ‘Korea’). Last Thursday (20.08) the DPRK fired artillery over the demilitarised zone, DMZ for short, aiming on propaganda loudspeakers set up by the Republic of (South) Korea, which promptly answered with a few salvos of 155 mm long range artillery. This evening (24.08) there seems to have been some sort of agreement reached, but the situation remains tense. This warrants a few observations.

North Korea is quite possibly the most militarised country on the planet. A large part of its equipment, including vehicles and weapons, are old bordering on antique. This includes fighter jets developed in the 50’s and apparently tanks that saw service in WWII (if rumours about T-34’s and Su-100’s still being active are correct). Still, while the main force would rely on numbers more than quality in any renewal of fighting, there are a couple of branches that may make things nasty for the South.

170 mm Koksan self-propelled gun. This is an ex-Irani gun captured first by Iraq in the 80’s and later by US forces. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Albert F. Hunt, U.S. Marine Corps

The first is the North Korean artillery. The number of artillery pieces, calibres ranging from 3’’/76.2 mm up to 170 mm, are unknown, but is measured in thousands, possibly up to 10,000. Some of these are stationed in hardened shelters dug into the mountains along the DMZ, reportedly with pre-determined targets on the Southern side of the border, including Seoul in the case of the mighty (but slow-firing) 170 mm Koksan self-propelled gun. Added to these are a few thousand (4-5,000?) multiple rocket launchers, as well as thousands of light, medium, and heavy mortars. The lethality of these are somewhat overrated, with graphic descriptions of Seoul being levelled by a wall of fire during the first hour of a possible conflict. In practice, only the heaviest systems, 200 mm rocket launchers and the 170 mm guns, have the range to reach Seoul, and due to their size they have a very long reload time. Also, the use of fixed positions makes them easy targets for the sizeable air force and artillery units operated by South Korea and the US forces on the peninsula, the main mission of the latter being counter-battery fire. However, the sheer number and protection of these gun emplacements mean that their destruction will take time, and while a Dresden-style complete destruction of Seoul is out of the question, they will still cause considerable damage during their short life spans.

Another much reported arm of the DPRK forces is the submarine fleet, which is one of the oldest and largest in the world. It is mainly made up of old Chinese copies of the obsolete Soviet Project 633 ‘Romeo’-class diesel-electric submarines, around 20 of which are currently in service. These are then backed up by a plethora of smaller vessels of the Sang-O/Sang-O II, Yugo, and Yono-classes, which are either used for insertion of Special Forces or for “traditional” ship-hunting missions. The latter was demonstrated when a Yono-class submarine fired a torpedo that sunk the South Korean corvette Cheonan back in 2010, becoming only the third submarine to have sunk a surface vessel since the Second World War. The US Naval Institute claims that as many as 90 of these smaller vessels might be in service, but also notes that serviceability is poor and many vessels are in reserve. Yesterday (24.08.2015) South Korean sources reported that 50 submarines of unspecified classes have gone to sea in an unprecedented move, and that these make up 70% of the entire submarine force (i.e. the ROK places the number of active submarines at 71 compared to USNI’s ~110). In response, South Korea has stepped up its air patrols to try and locate the submarines.

Sang-O class submarine which ran aground while attempting to insert commands into South Korea in 1996. Source: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Forces Korea

While the submarine force is severely outdated, the Romeo is largely based on a hull-design pioneered by the Germans during WWII in the form of their Type XXI coupled with early-Cold War Soviet technology, they should not be underestimated. Diesel-electric submarines are extremely quiet, and as such hard to detect. If the submarines are able to take up positions before a conflict erupts, as their sheer number means that it is impossible for South Koreas 16 anti-submarine aircraft to keep track of them all. Even many of the lighter submarines feature heavy 533 mm torpedo tubes, being able to load a number of different Chinese and indigenous torpedoes, including wake-homing and passive/active seekers, making them extremely deadly if they can lie silently in ambush and wait for a target to pass by, as was evident in the case of the sinking of the Cheonan.

All in all however, the South Korean armed forces should be able to make up for their smaller size by vastly more modern equipment and training. There are uncertainties, such as the morale of the conscripts serving long times in remote (and unpopular) locations, and the whole system of conscription has been questioned. Still, in a fight for the survival of the country, one would assume that morale would not be an issue.

The big problem with Korea is that it is next door to China. And that there are a considerable number of US troops in the country. As was evident in 1950, while China might not be overjoyed by the seemingly dicey behaviour of their neighbours in Pyongyang, they vastly prefer it to having an US ally on the border. In fact, the response during the Korean War was so strong, it was one of the very few instances since the Second World War in which an US force have been decisively beaten on the battlefield. Still today, it is hard to imagine Beijing letting Pyongyang fall, no matter their opinions of Kim Jong-un and his regime.

Obviously, there is also the issue of North Korean nuclear weapons. They don’t have many, but even a single warhead aimed at Seoul, or any other target on the peninsula for that matter, would in a stroke transform the conflict. Some have stated that the treat of the US nuclear arsenal and a retaliatory attack by Washington makes this option unlikely, but I am less than certain. To begin with, Obama has so far proved to be a leader that likes to err on the side of caution in matters of foreign policy. Also, whether there would be a popular opinion in the US supporting even a defensive nuclear war on the Korean peninsula is highly dubious, especially with the possibility of the Chinese being dragged into it with their nuclear arsenal.

It might however be that Washington has no choice. With the amount of US troops in the area, there is a very real risk that they will be dragged into the fighting, and suffer casualties, before Obama even has time to gather his aides to discuss the war.

There are also a couple of interesting developments in the general area, none of which are by themselves really worrying, but they deserve to be taken into consideration:

  • China has apparently moved PTZ-89 tank destroyers to the border. These are specialised vehicle, featuring light armour but powerful guns, meant to take out massed tank units,
  • China and Russia are conducting a joint marine/naval exercise in the area, the highlight of which will be a joint amphibious and air landing,
  • The US Seventh Fleet, based in Japan, normally features the sole US aircraft carrier to be permanently forward based, i.e. having a non-US homeport. Currently, we are in the short window of time where no such carrier is in place, as the USS Georg Washington (CVN-73) which has been homeported in Yokosuka since 2008, has left Japan for San Diego. She arrived in the US two weeks ago (10.08), and her replacement, USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) has yet to leave for Japan. In other words, the US forces that rapidly could take part in a conflict in Korea is missing the equivalent of a decently sized (larger than Finland’s) air force,
  • An explosion occurred late yesterday at the US Army base close to Yokosuka, Camp Zama. While the reason behind this latest incident is unclear, a suspected attack on the base by Japanese extreme-leftist was investigated earlier this year. This incident also places further strain on the relations between local Japanese authorities and the US forces in Japan,
  • This was followed by a huge fire at a nearby steel plant, which closed Tokyo’s Haneda Airport.

The Pacific Narrative

After the latest round of G7 talks, the leaders of the countries in this exclusive club declared that lifting the sanctions imposed upon Russia won’t happen unless Russia exits Ukraine, and that they are ready “to strengthen sanctions if the situation makes that necessary” [Guardian].

Sanctions are West’s preferred weapon to combat an increasingly aggressive Russia, while making sure that they won’t do anything that could escalate the situation into all-out war. Thus, we should all be able to sleep soundly in our beds, with the exception of the Ukrainians (and possibly Moldavians), right?

The war in the Pacific is far less known than it deserves to be here in the Northern Europe, and the narrative usually starts with a sudden Japanese strike on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor. Seldom is the Japanese reasoning behind why they decided to launch an all-out war with a global power developed. In light of recent development in Europe, I think a short recap of the events involving Japan stretching a further ten years back is in order1.

In 1931 a large number of incidents of various severities took place in China (which was rapidly disintegrating in what we today would call a failed state), culminating in what was effectively a Japanese occupation of Manchuria. Japan then declared Manchuria independent as the puppet state of Manchukuo.

Japan entered into the Anti-Comintern Pact in 1936, the fear of communism being one of the main reasons why Japan ventured into China to begin with. Another step towards more hostile relations with the west was the Japanese withdrawal from naval limitation treaties in the same year, and in particular the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, which many in Japan had felt was a “humiliation” by the USA and the United Kingdom, given that it only allowed Japan a ratio of 3:5 in capital ships and tonnage compared to the British Royal Navy and the US Navy (it should be noted though that both Italy and France had accepted a yet smaller ratio of capital ships of 1.75:5 compared to the RN and USN).

With Japanese-US relations in a slow but steady decline, the accidental (?) bombing of the US gunboat USS Panay in 1937 only made things worse. The same year the Japanese army had launched a full-scale invasion into China, and the US administration was not happy about it. For their part, the Japanese did not appreciate western aid to Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang.

Things then took another turn for the worse in 1938 when Japan concluded the occupation of Eastern China, and followed it up by declaring a “New Order in East Asia” (東亜新秩序 Tōa Shin Chitsujo). The major western powers of the day, USA, the United Kingdom, and France, all declared their opposition to this new order. In response to the aggressive Japanese foreign politics in general and towards China in particular, the US withdrew from a number of bilateral US-Japanese trade agreements in the summer of 1939. This came as a surprise and a serious bow for Japan, which with limited amounts of raw materials was reliant on foreign trade for its prosperity.

Still, this did not deter the Japanese, as events in Europe forced Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands to focus their attention closer to home. Thus, in June 1940, the Japanese Foreign Minister Arita declared the need for a “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” (大東亞共榮圏 Dai-tō-a Kyōeiken), and then Japan moved to implement it by invading French Indochina the same autumn in what was one of the least bloody wars South East Asia would experience during the 20th century.

Now things started to escalate quickly. In July 1941 USA declared an embargo on exports of scrap metal and oil, which lead to vocal Japanese protests. Unrelenting, Washington moved on, freezing Japanese assets in the country. A series of more or less sincere negotiations followed, in which Washington demanded that Japan withdraw from conquered territories, while the Japanese standpoint was that for an agreement to be reached, USA needed to “show understanding” regarding the national needs of Japan, and “see the realities” of the region such as they were. In November, USA officially demanded that Japan withdraw to the borders prior to the invasion of Manchuria ten years earlier (at least that was the Japanese interpretation, whether or not Washington meant Manchukuo to be included is debatable). Giving up ten years of land grabs was not on the Japanese agenda, and by that time a large force from the Imperial Japanese Navy had already set sail for Hawaii.

1The following account is largely based upon Albert Axell & Hideaki Kase: “Kamikaze – Japan’s Suicide Gods”, which is a book I’d not recommend in itself. It seems to be largely written to defend Japanese behaviour prior to and during the war in general and Kamikaze-tactics in particular, something it tries to do by e.g. comparing Kamikaze pilots with British CAM-pilots. Still, despite these less than impressive arguments, the book can provide some valuable insights.

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.