Kokkola 20 – Local defence in action

Twice each year, the Finnish Defence Forces kicks off several simultaneous local defence exercises. In accordance with their names, these are local in their nature, and “will develop local defence readiness and combat capability, as well as inter-authority cooperation in rapidly evolving situations” according to the latest presser. General Timo Kivinen, Chief of the Finnish Defence Forces, described the trends that led to the local exercises becoming a staple of the FDF’s calendar as follows:

The threat scenarios of today’s world are really multifaceted […] and when the set of available tools is wide, no single authority can handle all of them by themselves […] and for this we need inter-authority cooperation to take care of these threat pictures, and that is what we are practising here. The exercise is built with cases, and each case has one lead agency which the others then support.

The latest round featured Kokkola 20, centered around my hometown that also lent its name to the exercise. With large-scale military exercises being a rarity in Ostrobothnia these days, I naturally was determined to see what the fuss was all about.

Different authorities meet up during one of the cases taking place at the local airport. Source: Pori Brigade FB

The preparations have been going on for a few years already, with not only the FDF playing a key part, but also the local Police, other emergency services, the Finnish Border Guard, and the city itself all being among the main players. The chief executive officer of the Central Ostrobothnia and Pietarsaari Region Emergency Services Department, Jaakko Pukkinen, went as far as to describe it as the “Broadest inter-authority exercise the region has seen.” The elephant in the room was obviously the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought some additional challenges. “We train for exceptional times during exceptional times” the representative for the local police, chief inspector Vesa Toivanen, wryly noted. He was using the Finnish term “poikkeusolot”, which both describe exceptional times generally but also hold the specific legal meaning of a declared state of emergency. The sentiment was echoed by the city’s chief executive, Stina Mattila, who noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has again showed that you can never be too prepared. The third major authority sorting under the Ministry of Interior was the Finnish Border Guard. The FBG also include the coast guard as an integral part, with the latter obviously being the focus of the FBG’s presence in the region. The FBG has a set of military missions as well, and here their part of the exercise was leaning towards their “military” mission set.

The military forces taking part in the exercise in effect were made up of three different components: conscript military police units (mainly from the Pori Brigade), mobilised reserve military police units on a refresher exercise, and the local defence units (Fi. Paikallisjoukot). The Pori Brigade, being one of the country’s most important peacetime units and the “local” unit for a large part of Western Finland including Kokkola, served as the host unit responsible for the exercise.

Kokkola and this region does not constitute some kind of a military vacuum.

That’s how colonel Riku Suikkanen, second in command of the Pori Brigade and exercise lead, put it during the media event leading up to the exercise. A key part of the exercise include it being a high-visibility one, making sure that the population still feel that the FDF is there despite the drawdown in peacetime bases and training locations around the country. And as the colonel noted, the soldiers descending upon the town are no strangers.

Our daughters, sons, sisters, and brothers are those out training.

As the exact duties and setup of military police units varies with country, it can be good to shortly describe the Finnish military police force. This was done well in a recent podcast by the FDF’s own podcast series, Radio Kipinä, so those with a working knowledge of Finnish are recommended to check that out. In short, a Finnish military police is an infantry soldier that has received additional training in security and guard duty. This include a host of different skills, ranging from non-lethal ways to stop and capture an intruder to understanding the legal framework that the FDF work with when it comes to protecting its infrastructure, people, and activities. The exact skill sets vary between peacetime garrisons, all of which sport some kind of military police unit on their premises, but in general it can be noted that military police travel relatively light, prioritising operational mobility over protection, and that they often (but not always) have a better understanding of and training for combat in an urban environment thanks to their focus on infrastructure protection (the obvious outlier is the Guard Jaeger Regiment, with the whole mother unit being the FDF’s prime urban warfare centre means that their military police units are also the most highly specialised urban warriors compared to other military police conscripts). In wartime, military police units can function as part of a larger formation, in which case they would fill a light infantry role. A more traditional role that is closely related to that of security and protection duty is counter-special forces. To some extent all military police units can perform the mission, though some receive additional training in the field. For the Pori Brigade, the most notable unique feature of their military police units is that they offer dog handler training to conscripts, something that no other Finnish unit does.

Port Tower, gateway to the port area, became a centre for military activity in the first days of September. Source: Own picture

Back to Kokkola 20. With the military police playing main fiddle together with the local defence units, it meant that military part of the exercise was rather infantry heavy compared to some of the others which sported a more combined arms approach. Besides this, the question obviously arose why Kokkola was chosen to host the exercise. As such, I headed over to Port Tower, the gateway to the local Port of Kokkola, where I got to sit down together with a few other representatives of local media to ask general Kivinen some questions about the exercise. Entering the parking lot of the titanium zinc clad tower where I’ve eaten lunch numerous times, the flurry of exercise activity was immediately obvious. In the treeline (ironically enough the former grounds of the FDF’s gunsmith school) trucks and tents were set up, with small groups of soldiers having taken position at set locations to keep a watchful eye on the heavy traffic heading to and from the port. Entering the building yet more uniforms were visible, and a quick glance around confirmed that they included all FDF categories taking part in the exercise – conscripts, professionals, local and non-local reservists.

With earlier exercises having taken place in nearby Vaasa and Seinäjoki, coming to Kokkola serves dual purposes in that it both lets a significant number of FDF personnel familiarise themselves with local conditions, but it also ensure that the locals get to familiarise themselves with FDF. As could be guessed from the location of the interview, much of the discussion centred around the port. The port is able to handle capesize vessels, and is the most important port in Finland when it comes to bulk cargo as well as rail- and transit cargo, as well as the third largest general cargo port. Without discussing the details of threat scenario in the exercise, there was no hiding the fact that the port was of great interest.

In general when you think about ports they are key nodes in the logistics chain, and as such their importance in case of a serious crisis or in a terrorism related case they would be potential locations where the Finnish authorities would need a readiness to be able to react.

The general also noted that a crisis in the Baltic Sea proper would lead to an increased importance for the ports in the Gulf of Bothnia. As such, it is of interest to ensure that the different authorities can not only communicate with each other, but that they are able to share a common situational picture and coordinate their activities in case of a major crisis. The general noted that in the case of Central Ostrobothnia, the last two issues seems to be the challenging part, as while the other authorities are well-known to each other and have exercised together earlier, FDF is quite new to the region.

General Kivinen sharing a final chat with the media about local conditions after the presser had ended. Source: Own picture

This is also the reason behind the lack of heavier units, as Kivinen is happy to explain. “The Army leads the overall situation, and the Army Command have given the units responsible directions regarding the local defence exercises, and it is true that they differ from each other. There are good reasons for this, and they also might vary according to when and how we have last exercised interagency cooperation in any given area,” general Kivinen explained when I questioned about how the different scenarios are chosen. In this case, the scenario was well below the threshold of war.

In this exercise we don’t have a scenario where Finland would be facing a clear threat of a war breaking out, but there are scenarios in which military capabilities are used to support other agencies.

However, that doesn’t mean there’s a lack of bad people running around wreaking havoc. Or at least trying to.

A suspected bad guy has been brought down next to the railway line in the port area. Source: Pori Brigade FB

One of the key people involved was a long-term active reservist and instructor, who had earlier experience of red team-activities as well. Without going into details, he was happy to discuss his general role in the exercise.

The red team was tasked partly with following a realistic manuscript, but also to find areas of improvement, e.g. when it comes to how the blue forces train and how they performed. Details and nuances could be discussed later, and talking afterwards is always easy, but I have to admit that KPMAAKK [the Local Defence Company of Central Ostrobothnia] and the military police reservists from the Pori Brigade were darn good.

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