Guest Post: Additional thoughts regarding the strategic depth issue

Professor Forss has for several decades been one of the leading authorities on Finnish defence and national security policy. For me personally his writings in Finnish daily Hufvudstadsbladet were one of very few sources on Finnish security and defence policy available in the pre-#turpo age. It is a great honour for me to be able to publish the post below where he examines the idea of the Finnish Air Force using foreign bases in greater detail.

Corporal Frisk addresses the Finnish – Swedish issue about strategic depth, which started from the by now well-known Jane’s article.

The picture that Jane’s paints, isn’t, however, very new. The idea of using a common strategic depth as an item to be introduced in Finnish-Swedish air force cooperation is actually more than twenty years old. The first to float it was – as far as former colleagues and friends now recall – the eminent Swedish air warfare analyst Bengt Andersson at the Swedish Defence Research Establishment FOA, now known as FOI.

His thinking started from the premise that the Swedish Jas 39 Gripen and the Finnish F-18 Hornet shared enough common features, that Hornets operating from Swedish air bases was a realistic idea worth developing. The Gripen’s engine, Volvo RM 12 was developed from the General Electric F404-400 engine. The Hornet’s GE F404-GE-402 engine was similar enough to use the same fuel as Gripen at least temporarily and both aircraft also carried the same AIM-9 Sidewinder and AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles.

As for the Nordic defense co-operation project NORDEFCO, Col. Pekka Holopainen and myself described it in detail in our monograph Breaking the Nordic Defense Deadlock which U.S. Army War College Press published in February 2015.

At that time, the air forces of Finland, Sweden and Norway had already conducted mutual Cross Border Training together for some time in the air space of the three countries. The air forces continue to exercise in this mode on a weekly basis and are already able to operate fairly seamlessly.

20150311_jimcro01_nordefco_dsc1303
The Nordic ministers of defence visiting Swedish Kallax AFB during an exercise back in 2015. In the background a Finnish F/A-18C Hornet stands next to a Swedish JAS 39C Gripen. Source: Jimmy Croona/Försvarsmakten

The particular issue of strategic depth is indeed not new. There is a major practical problem, however, from a Finnish viewpoint. In the late 1990s Sweden had a marvelous dispersed air base system all over Sweden. It was called Air Base 90 and it consisted of 88 individual prepared road bases with full infrastructure, shelters, electricity, fuel and weapons storage facilities. The whole system was built upon the premise that the air force should be able to operate in a nuclear and CW environment.

Then eternal peace broke out in Europe and this magnificent system was dismantled, except for two bases at Jokkmokk in Lapland and Hagshult in Småland in the south. Restoring Base 90 is impossible, but the Swedes are now trying to bring back something. With the Base 90 intact, strategic depth would have carried a lot more substance, seen from our Finnish perspective.

A foreign friend also offered the following thoughts. In his opinion, it seems, there was no particular reason for euphoria regarding the strategic depth issue: “There is a bit of negative that should be added. Why would Finland send aircraft to Sweden when it still would be in the threat ring of bad stuff and would be looking for support from bases with un-like aircraft?

Why wouldn’t Finland want to deploy to NATO bases outside the immediate threat ring where there would be more like-systems and more munitions to carry on the fight? Levels of conventional munitions stocks are classified, but I am guessing that the US has more pre-positioned in Europe than Sweden.”

Be it as it may, it’s no exaggeration to say that the air forces of Finland, Sweden and Norway have

come very far in their efforts to be able to integrate fully should a political decision to do that be adopted.

Norway is in the process of introducing the first Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lightning-II combat aircraft of the 52 ordered. Sweden is committed to 60-70 domestically produced Saab Jas 39 E/F Gripen aircraft. Ideas of keeping ‘surplus’ Jas 39 C/D Gripens operative have been floated. One leading Swedish security policy analyst Dr. Robert Dalsjö pleaded in August that 97 almost new C/D Gripens should be retained. Another senior Swedish defense analyst, Krister Andrén describes the Swedish needs for the 2030s as eight air combat divisions with 200 aircraft.

ilmave_hnmlu2_2015_09_30
Finnish F/A-18C Hornet in MLU 2 configuration. Source: FiAF

The Finnish Air Force has now concluded its second midlife update of its fleet of 62 Boeing F/A-18 C/D Hornet aircraft and is at present regarded as perhaps the strongest Nordic air force. Two Finnish Hornets plus pilots and support personnel are in the U.S. training to use the advanced JASSM long-range stand-off missile, which will be operationally introduced in the FiAF next year.

At the same time the acquisition process to replace the Hornets has begun. Offers from five manufacturers of the next combat aircraft have been requested, and the planes considered include F-35A Lightning-II, F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet, Jas 39 E/F Gripen, Eurofighter Typhoon and Rafale. Final decision is to be made in 2021 and operational introduction of the new air craft beginning in about 2025.

We are now four years from that decision. A whole lot of familiarization with both F-35 and the new Gripen will have been acquired by then in the routine Cross Border Training. Depending on how the integration process between the air forces proceeds, it may impact the final Finnish decision. Given that Sweden and Norway have decided on the aircraft for their fleets, the Finnish choice is the only open parameter left and it will of course play a role for the other partners too.

The optimum Finnish choice isn’t necessarily the same if you look at things only from a Finnish national perspective or from the perspective of a combined Nordic air force. The planes that will fly in our common airspace the next 3 4 decades have their individual strengths but also weaknesses. For example, air-to-surface firepower is not one of the strengths of the small Gripen or the F-35 flying in stealth mode with weapons carried only internally.

So, what plane will Finland eventually buy? It is of course impossible to tell. The purchase of the Hornet in the early 1990s proved to be a tremendous success and the Finnish Air Force enjoys respect wherever you go.

Even more important has the security political dimension proved to be. Security political relations between Finland and USA then took a quantum leap. That is something Finland will not easily abandon, although there still are political factions in Finland which try to sabotage our relations with the U.S. the best they can.

Stefan Forss

Professor

Adjunct Professor, Finnish National Defence University

Views presented are solely those of the author.

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