This is the latest in a series of regular columns by Robbin Laird, where he will address current defense issues through the lens of more than 45 years of defense expertise in the United States and abroad. The purpose of these chronicles: to revisit how issues and perspectives from the past should inform decisions made today.
For years there has been little room for the argument that Finland is focused on how to defend its territory. Finns have a long history of living with Russians, including a century of belonging to the Russian Empire itself (1809-1917). Knowing the Russians as well as them, they are organized to prepare when necessary to defend their nation against their big neighbor when a crisis arises.
Unlike others in Europe, Finland never embraced the idea of a lasting East-West peace after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Indeed, only a few months after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Finns signed a $3 billion deal purchase 64 F-18 fighters – a major investment at the time, even as the world seemed poised to embrace a post-Cold War era.
The purchase of F-18s was a decision that ensured the strengthening of Finnish sovereignty, while establishing a key link with NATO interoperability, even as Helsinki threaded the needle between Russia and the United States. NATO for decades. This legacy was carried forward when Finland announced its decision to purchase the F-35 on December 10, 2021; choosing the F-35 (and not the offer of a close neighbor and a militarily neutral partner, Sweden) clearly took into account the advantages of working more closely with key strategic allies to deflect the efforts of the Russian leader Vladimir Putin to return to a world in which finlandization was a word.
While Finland’s formal entry into NATO still has some way to go, alliance members have already begun planning how to incorporate Finnish airpower into its strategies to counter Russia. There is a knowledge base to work from: Finland has been cross-border air power training for several years with Norway and Sweden. Now Finland will be fully integrated with other F-35 partners in the region – Norway, Denmark, Poland, the Netherlands and Belgium – as well as other F-35 operators in the United States, United Kingdom and Germany. .
This means that when the Finns fly their aircraft, they will be part of a large Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) belt that examines Russian areas of interest in depth and can provide C2 liaisons to create a response of more integrated force, depending on national decisions. . As I’ve been writing for years, the F-35 is not a traditional fighter aircraft; it’s a flying combat system whose capabilities grow as the F-35s fly. (As a result, the United States and European F-35 partners must move more quickly to work the F-35 as an integrated force and its ability to deliver longer-range strikes against Russian targets in the event of conflict. .)
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This means that Putin now faces a much more integrated and lethal force that can engage across the full spectrum of conflict. Ironically, the Russians have skillfully generated Nordic defense collaboration and much closer working relationships with the Baltics and Poland as well.
Given its location, Finland is truly a key state that affects how Russians play the geopolitical game along its border with NATO countries. My travels to Finland and my continuous discussions with the Finns have taught me a lot about how they view the evolving strategic situation. Their perspective and approach to defense modernization was well articulated by Jukka Juusti, Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence, in an interview conducted during a visit to Helsinki in February 2018.
Finland has a clear focus on mobilization and security of supply as essential foundations of national defence. And as military transformation unfolds, these core capabilities become increasingly important to address the central challenge identified in Finland’s defense policy document released in 2017: “The threshold for the use of military force is more lower and shorter response time.
According to Juusti, quoted in The return of direct defense in Europe: meeting the challenge of the authoritarian powers of the 21st century by myself and Murielle Delaporte: “If you look at the map of Finland, it’s not an island but in practice we are an island. The vast majority of our trade is done by ship. In that sense we are an island and that means we have always taken security of supply very seriously. It is in the nature of Finland that we believe that we must be able to take care of some of the most vital things ourselves. This is why, for example, security of supply is so important to us. For example, when it comes to ammunition and those kinds of supplies, we have a lot of stocks here in Finland. Of course, when it comes to some equipment, we will never have enough of it in our own resources.
“Security of supply also has another respect, which is the civil side of the aspect. We have a security of supply agency, which is extremely important for us and which takes care of the civil part of security of supply For example, electricity and telecommunications are vital for the survival of the nation, and there must be security of supply in these areas.
“The supply security agency collects the money in such a way that it is financially protected. Every time we buy gasoline, they collect a portion of that purchase for security of supply funds. It’s organized like that. We are constantly investing in security of supply for the civil sector. And we think largely of civil defense as part of our mobilization strategy. That is why we were still building shelters for civilians, both to maintain the infrastructure in times of crisis and for the protection of civilians as well.
Adopting such a perspective means that Finns are hardly shocked by current Russian actions and behavior. But Finland’s entry into NATO, given such a realistic Finnish view of the nature of the defense challenge, should cause other NATO countries – including the United States – to become realistic about the scale of the defense challenge posed by Russia and China and how significant the changes must be to shape a realistic approach to defense in the future.
Indeed, the prospect of an integrated Nordic defense following their enhanced cooperation of recent years may provide a significant impetus to change both the way the United States approaches European defense as well as Finland’s European allies. . I will focus on this perspective in my next article.