Gotland – the other Crimea
May 20, 2014 § 13 Comments
Few, if any, military or political observers saw Russia’s swift occupation and annexation of Crimea coming. Reeling from the shock of slaughter on Institutskaya Street and struggling to interpret the political vacuum in the aftermath of Maidan, all the while searching for a fugitive ex-president and fretting over large Russian troop movements toward the Ukrainian border, members of the press and official onlookers were diverted from disquieting events in Crimea. Once set in motion, opposed only by a demonstrably non-violent Ukrainian resistance to ”self-defence militias” and ”polite green men”, there was little to stop Russia’s slow-motion conquest.
The annexation of Crimea was a lot of things, but first and foremost it was testament to Vladimir Putin’s ability for drastic and game-changing action.
In holding Crimea, Vladimir Putin puts the validity of the May 25 election in question since Ukraine and the international community rightly regard the peninsula as part of sovereign Ukraine – and, under Russian rule, no election can be held there. On the other hand, for Putin to question the validity, he must concede that Crimea is part of Ukraine – something that he is unlikely to do after formally annexing it into Russia and forcibly assimilating its inhabitants as Russian subjects. Even so, an unsolved territorial dispute makes it virtually impossible for Ukraine to join either EU or NATO.
A dead end
Seen purely from a strategic and geopolitical perspective, Crimea is a cul-de-sac. While the peninsula has some value as a bargaining chip in the struggle over Ukrainian hegemony and rather a lot of value as source of petroleum products, its value as military strongpoint is debatable. On the other hand, holding Crimea means that a westward-leaning Ukraine cannot use it, on her own or by way of NATO installations, as a base for airpower and missile canopies aimed like a dagger straight at the Russian heartland. In holding Crimea, and keeping Ukraine off-balance, Russia ensures her own national security.
The drawbacks of holding Crimea are manifold: it is isolated and difficult to supply without access to road and rail traffic across the Kherson and Chongar isthmuses; ownership and maintenance constitutes a great drain on the already ailing Russian economy; it invites international sanction against Russia until such time as she withdraws; and, it requires Russia to maintain a significant portion of her armed forces (and state police) at readiness against multiple threats.
Further costs and trajectories
Crimea, however, is merely an intermediate stop on a long journey that, depending on your outlook, has either barely begun or has been ongoing since 1917. To consummate the annexation of Crimea, Russia must perforce establish an overland link by conquest of southern Ukraine or by the construction of a 100-billion ruble road and rail bridge over the Kerch strait. The latter option has been advertised and tenders are already flowing in, according to Russian news agency Itar-Tass. The project, if realized, will stand ready by 2018. Until then, and unless other developments precede it, Crimea will remain forcibly isolated. Further conquest of southern Ukraine, tentatively begun by destabilization of the Donbass region, will almost certainly come at a high premium of international condemnation, sanction and perhaps even full-scale war.
However, let us leave Crimea, south Ukraine and Transnistria for a moment and speculate on what Putin may do next, elsewhere. Given Putin’s preponderance for strategic surprise, he may well switch his interest further north while the international community is busy trying to salvage Ukraine.
The pendulum swings again
The Baltic States is a given target for further expansion of Putin’s Eurasian ambition. However, since Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia are all NATO members, it would be suicidal for Russia to engage in a head-on approach here. NATO is already busy strengthening its presence in the Baltics and it is convenient to assume that non-military measures are also initiated in strengthening the countries’ resilience against Russia’s ”new” assymetric strategy of conquest. Whereas the latter – by way of infiltration, subversion, ethnic pressure, propaganda and outright sabotage – is likely, Putin could well take a more roundabout route in his bid to isolate the Baltic States. Enter Gotland.
An unsinkable aircraft carrier, gift-wrapped
The Swedish island of Gotland is an unsinkable aircraft carrier in the middle of the Baltic Sea, situated right across the shipping and air routes required for a speedy reinforcement of the Baltic States. The island is virtually undefended by the Swedish armed forces: its sole defence consists of less than 200 homeguardsmen, a smattering of police constables, four hastily deployed JAS Gripen fighters, fourteen tanks and other armored combat vehicles conveniently stored in a shed. The crews, however, must first assemble and journey to Gotland before the hardware can be taken out of storage, fueled, readied for combat, deployed and, eventually, used. There are no SAM defences, no artillery, no pre-stored munitions, no marine forces, no helicopters, indeed, there’s virtually nothing available to impede, much less stop, an invader from walking all over the place.
Gotland makes a perfect ”new Crimea” inasmuch Sweden, like Ukraine, is not a NATO member state. Given a few busloads of “polite tourists” and a handful of Spetsnaz troopers, Russia can quickly and easily establish a military presence on Gotland without fear of NATO retaliation. Sweden is of course aware of this considerable strategic weakness but does precious little to ameliorate the situation. Instead of turning Gotland, its most valuable asset par excellence, into a bastion of military and political security, Sweden wilfully allows it to drift alone and gift-wrapped in a sea of hostility. It must surely rank as the greatest military and political blunder of our generation.
Incompetence is at least as dangerous as ill-intent.
– Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, et al
Russian S-300 and S-400 batteries deployed to Kaliningrad, Belorussia and on Russian territory near the Baltic borders effectively prohibit NATO air assets from operating over its member states. In case of war these batteries are primary first-strike targets for NATO, lest the alliance cedes air superiority in the Baltics without a fight – which would make any fight on the ground a thoroughly losing proposition.
A few S-300 and/or S-400 batteries operating from Swedish territory, augmented by ship-borne SAM systems and the whole gamut of short-to-mid range air defence assets on the ground and in the air, would, on the other hand, completely block NATO air and ship assets from operating in the region – because NATO cannot attack a non-combatant nation. The only instance where NATO might consider an attack against Russian missiles on Swedish territory would be if Article 5 had been invoked by enemy action in any of the Baltic States, and even so it would be a marginal, non-prioritized proposition.
This leaves Sweden, floundering politically and scrambling militarily, to react, alone, to the very situation its armed forces have been practicing for twenty years. Sweden must now mobilize and counter-invade Gotland from a position of extreme disadvantage.
The practicalities and associated difficulties of mobilizing, transporting and deploying a variety of military assets for a counterstroke against Gotland are as numerous as embarrassing. For an extended background, have a look at this blog (in Swedish). That aside, and considering that the enemy is already well emplanted on Gotland, AND considering that a counter-invasion of Gotland can only hope to be successful in an environment of friendly air superiority, AND considering that this requires neutralization of Russian long-to-medium range air-defence capability, what would a Swedish airforce response entail?
Let’s get hypothetical
In a hypothetical scenario where Russia has deployed 2-3 long-range missile batteries to Gotland and secure them with an array of naval, aerial and ground-based systems, Sweden would have to employ the bulk of its airforce to render these batteries inoperable – with a minimal chance of success, bought at the cost of losing the majority of its platforms together with their unlucky operators. Here is a short breakdown:
As of January 2014, Sweden operates with an establishment of 88 JAS-39-C/D Gripen. The stated aim for the next few years is to operate 70 aircraft upgraded to the latest E/F standard. Given that a certain percentage is always unavailable due to upgrades, repair and overhaul, it is fair to reckon with a grand total of 60 mission-capable aircraft.
Of these 60, any sane commander will keep half, or at the least 24 aircraft, in reserve. Some of these are utilized for training and baseline interception/reconnaissance missions. That leaves 36 aircraft distributed between three wings, two of them based in the south of Sweden. The northernmost, F21 in Luleå, safeguards the desolate northern hemisphere and is effectively out of the reckoning. Thus, the two wings of F7 and F17 will bear the brunt of any combat mission to Gotland, in this scenario deploying all of its non-reserve strength to attack three Russian missile sites near the invasion port of Slite: 32 aircraft in total. This assumes that the full establishment is fully operational, which, of course, it is not. An operational ratio of 80-86 % is considered normal, but in this case we will assume that the shortfall is made good by raiding the reserve.
Next, battle plans and deployment for combat: this is a separate chapter in itself in which we must reckon with considerable difficulties and delays in assembling a strike package with its multiple supporting missions, difficulties comprising enemy disruption, enemy air-defence capability and enemy interception enroute, just to pick a few. If we plan from a best-case perspective, such as the Swedish airforce does, the difficulties of timing and sequencing of missions are considerable enough even for a daytime, blue-sky scenario. I will leave the more intricate details out of this narrative and concentrate on the numbers; for a single strike against three dimensionally separate target areas, each comprising multiple targets, we will need the following:
Reconnaissance and surveillance
Realtime surveillance, monitoring and intelligence is provided by two SAAB Erieye AEW&C covered by two pairs of JAS 39s each, loaned from F21 or from the ready reserve. An additional 4 Gripens accompany the strike force in recon mode with the double mission of serving as decoy to divert enemy attention and capability while the main force attacks.
CAP and TARCAP
Paving the way for the strike force, one division of eight aircraft operating in four pairs perform Combat Air Patrol and Target Combat Air Patrol against enemy airborne assets. They will have their hands full as the Russian airforce based in Kaliningrad, Belorussia and Russia proper outnumber them by a wide margin. Nevertheless, they forge ahead, for better or for worse.
SEAD – Suppression of Enemy Air Defences
Arriving on the heels of the CAP force, two pairs of Gripens scoot in at wavetop altitude to deliver their GBU-12 or GBU-49 laser-guided 250 kg Paveway bombs against the most critical targets: Russian short-medium range SAM systems covering the grand prize. There are several SA-20 and SA-21 installations already in place, two batteries of short-range SA-22 Pantsirs and too many handheld ”Igla” MANPADs to count. The four Gripens, packing two bombs each, make a short zoom and lob their ”gifts” before ducking down and out. The bombs are guided down to their targets by special forces operatives on the ground, pointing laser designators at individual targets. This operation alone requires a week’s worth of preparation, infiltration and target selection. Without JTAC operatives on the ground, this mission is suicidal.
Strike and Escort
The main strike package comprising one full division of eight Gripens motor in from high to medium altitude (15,000–20,000 ft) at full speed to minimize their stay in the enemy SAM envelope, lightly covered by an additional eight Gripens in the A2A configuration, operating in pairs. These eight Gripens and their sixteen laser-guided bombs must close to within 8 nautical miles (14 km) of their intended targets, which, given a dispersed deployment on the ground, requires the strike division to separate in pairs.
Thus the main strike force can go after no more than four ground targets in total, and, assuming that each pair is assigned one target each with the wingman operating as back-up, the whole enterprise relies on accurate laser-designation (provided by the wingman) and the delivery of eight bombs. Remember also that this attack is delivered against the full gamut of SAM and AAA defences, i.e. every conceivable type of missile and barrel at the enemy disposal – because Sweden does not possess a stand-off air-to-ground missile that allows delivery from a survivable range.
That is the sum total of what the mighty Swedish airforce can deliver in the face of normal-to-stiff enemy defences, on a bright and sunny day with 10/10ths visibility. Yet, to deliver these bombs accurately, the wingman designating the target – and he must paint a perfect picture lest the bomb is off by thirty yards or more – must fly a straight and level track during target identification and target designation up to the point of impact, while hostile SAMs are being launched against him. A challenging 30 to 60 seconds indeed, requiring a charmed life or an enemy defence fast asleep. Even in the best case the strike would stand to lose 12-14 aircraft, or nearly half of its complement. Needless to say, no airforce can operate for more than a day or two at such a forbidding rate of attrition.
Again, this little scenario assumes that the Swedish airforce operates at peak capacity and that the enemy response is weak to middling. This is actually the crux of the matter: judging by open sources such as the [arguably dated] Defence Research Institute (FOI) investigative report on ground attack and airforce PR, I strongly suspect that Swedish airforce planners, and pilots, habitually practice and make their plans from a very optimistic best-friendly/worst-enemy perspective. Only those in the know can tell to what extent friction, interference, faulty or lack of intelligence, combat loss and suboptimal weather conditions factor in during airforce planning and exercises.
As if that was not enough, the Swedish airforce does not practice low altitude ingress and weapons delivery anywhere close to requisite levels of building or maintaining pilot experience. This particular item on the curricullum has taken a back seat, for years, mainly due to budget cuts but also to divergent priorities.
To conclude this rambling account of what may or, hopefully, may not come to pass, Sweden has, today, virtually NO defence of Gotland and, arguably, ONE shot at plinking the windshield of a medium-to-sizeable Russian missile installation on the island. After this one shot, I submit that the Swedish airforce is more or less spent. Pray that it will never have to come to this. And arm up for the eventuality!
This treatise was inspired by the following posts:
[Edit] Correction: SAF will take delivery of its first few Gripen-E/F in 2018, and deploy 6 airframes by 2121. In the above scenario, the strike would likely employ a mix of Paveways and RB 15 (AGM-65 Maverick). RB 15 cannot be carried by Gripen-E, only by the current Gripen-C, and is anyway an aging weapon in process of being phased out. Delivery parameters are somewhat more forbidding for the Maverick compared to the Paveway: the pilot must slew and zoom the missile camera and lock on to the target (looking intently down at a miniscule monitor in the cockpit) prior to launch, all the while engaged in evasive maneuvers against multiple SAM and AAM threats. Initial delivery range is about the same ≈ 20-25 km on the proviso of daylight and a clearly identifiable target. Under normal conditions and against a small, camouflaged target, the pilot must likely close to within 10 km and below 20,000 ft for accuracy. The small payload of the Maverick requires a direct hit. It is unsuitable for hardened targets.