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.
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.
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.
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.
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…?