Strategic depth and Alliances

“American newspaper – the concept of strategic depth: Finland could withdraw to Sweden if attacked”

That is the headline chosen by Finnish news source Verkkouutiset when retelling Jane’s Defence Weekly’s recent story that the Swedish Air Force has been working on a concept of enabling Finnish fighters to operate from Swedish bases in times of crises. The idea is both extremely radical, and blatantly obvious, a combination uncomfortably common in Finnish national security.

In short, the interviewed officer was colonel Magnus Liljegren, responsible for the production of Swedish air units and equipment at the Swedish Defence Forces’ general staff (designated C PROD FLYG in the Swedish Defence Forces). The colonel stated that “Finland is absolutely our top priority partner right now […] they are looking to us in order to increase their operational depth. If they need to withdraw they can move into our country and use our bases.” (full article over at JDW).

Three different fighters from three different countries of the NORDEFCO (Nordic defense cooperation) overflying Turku airport. Source: Own picture

From a strictly military perspective, this is an obvious solution. With the increased range of modern air defence and surveillance systems the Finnish air space is more or less contested throughout from the start of a conflict. There are significant benefits coming from operating from Kallax compared to Oulunsalo, not to mention Kuopio-Rissala.

Side note: if Finnish fighters were planning to use Swedish bases, there’s really only one contender that makes sense for HX. The  benefits of deploying to a base that already has everything you need to operate your aircraft in combat compared to having to bring your logistics train with you is huge. I haven’t seen any indication this would have been a marketing stunt (and I don’t believe it is), but we really should sort this out before 2021 if there’s a chance we would like to run along with the concept.

At the same time, it would be an unprecedented political step. I highly doubt there is a Finnish politician ready to sign the paper saying we would join in the fray if Russian troops suddenly appeared on Gotland. Likewise, if we are supposed to use Swedish bases when attacked, that would mean that Sweden would join in a conflict they might not (yet) be part of.

While that might be a hard sell to the voters, it would in fact make sense. If Finland would react to a Crimea-like coup aimed towards Gotland by mobilising the reserve and dispatching air and sea units to throw out the attackers by force and protect shipping around the island, there is in my opinion a higher likelihood that the conflict would stay local and limited in time. The reasoning behind this is the markedly higher deterrence value of the Finnish Defence Forces once mobilised and dispersed compared to their peacetime stance, as well as the increased striking power of the combined Finnish-Swedish forces. For Sweden, the situation is similar. In effect, Finland shields the northern part of Sweden from direct aggression, allowing the numerically small Swedish Army to concentrate their two brigades in the southern parts of the country, something that would also provide Finland with a measure of flanking support. The strength of the defence forces operating together is also larger than the sum of them individually, as the relatively small sizes of both countries means that some capabilities are found only in one of them, and that their combined size can reach quantitative thresholds (‘critical mass’) in areas where this would not be possible individually, both geographic and capability wise.

What is interesting is that the whole issue has been completely overshadowed by the rather similar quarrel over Finland’s response if Estonia was to be attacked. The whole thing started when Finnish tabloid Iltalehti published a long report stating that a major split had developed between the president (and government) and the parliament. President Sauli Niinistö (yes, we have three different Niinistös in Finnish politics, all representing different parties) of the centre-right National Coalition Party (fi. Kokoomus sv. Samlingspartiet) represents the more “allowing” line, found in the recent Government Defence Report published in February:

“Finland will actively and extensively strengthen its international defence cooperation and other networking as well as develop the abilities to provide and receive international assistance.

[…]

Finland, as a Member State of the European Union, could not remain an outsider should threats to security emerge in its vicinity or elsewhere in Europe. […] Finland will not allow the use of its territory for hostile purposes against other states. On the basis of the Government Report on Finnish Foreign and Security Policy this does not limit Finland’s prospects to provide and receive international assistance or to intensify defence cooperation.”

This is not an uncontroversial view in Finnish politics. Former foreign minister Erkki Tuomioja has apparently been able to gather enough support to get a majority of the parliament behind a strongly worded statement arguing for a reduction in Finnish participation in NATO-exercises and a ban on any Finnish military aid to Estonia in case the country would be attacked. Tuomioja represents the left flank of the Finnish Social Democrat Party, and the veteran politician has not only been able to enlist the support of his party (currently the largest opposition party), but also of the Left Alliance (fi. Vasemmistoliitto sv. Vänsterförbundet) and part of the MP’s from the ruling Centre Party (fi. Keskusta sv. Centerpartiet). The rebellion has deep roots in Finnish post-war history, when the Centre Party was the ideological home of Finlandisation, and the party has still a significant amount of people longing for the ‘good old days’ when we enjoyed a special relationship with the Soviet Union (i.e. not being able to have an independent foreign policy despite not being occupied or a Soviet satellite). While the situation during the Cold War might have called for some careful maneuvering, it surpasses my understanding why Finland in today’s world would strive to stand on the edge between western democracies and a Russian autocracy. This is especially strange considering that both Russia and our European allies consider us an integral part of the ‘West’, NATO-membership or not.

The report in Iltalehti caused considerable buzz. Niinistö and Tuomioja sternly denied there being any open issues between the two, while Yle in turn reported that the argument wasn’t as much between the president and the parliament, as it was between the government and the parliament. Anyhow, Finland has once again managed to make a complete mess of what our current policy vis-a-vis helping Estonia would be, and our southern brothers only made the embarrassment worse when Estonian MoD Margus Tsahkna went to the press (and Twitter) to assure us that we need not worry, Estonia will come to Finland’s aid in case we need help…

The youth organisation of the Finns Party (fi. Perussuomalaiset, sv. Sannfinländarna) in turn took the opportunity to suggest a joint Finnish-Estonian volunteer corps, ready to come to the aid of whichever country would be attacked (original presser in Finnish, blog post on the issue in English). While wordings such as “Failure to provide assistance would be a cold statement to our brothers and sisters. Finnish-Ugrian culture is best defended by the Finno-Ugric peoples themselves” are not necessarily ones I personally would use, the contrast to the careful language found amongst the more pro-Russian politicians is stark. While there to a certain extent do exist a left-right fault line in Finnish politics when it comes to Russia, there are also significant inner-party fault lines, as well as a difference between different generations.

The presser also highlights the difference between the staunchly anti-Kremlin line of the Finns Party, and the pro-Kremlin narrative of many of Europe’s populist parties. This was painstakingly obvious when one of the leading national security voices of the Swedish Democrat’s party started advocating for Sweden to declare their intention not to give assistance to the Baltic countries, using an imaginary Finnish “decision not to help” as justification.

Daniel Vikström: So when Russia threatens and invades its neighbors to secure its geostrategic interests, we should be humble about this?
Mikael Jansson: Finland has declared that it cannot assist the Baltic countries if they are attacked, Sweden should do the same. That is NATO’s task #defencepolicy

Added to this all, Finland ratified the Treaty of Lisbon nine years ago. The Treaty famously include clause 42.7, the so called solidarity clause.

If a Member State is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other Member States shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power, in accordance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.

That an “obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power” would include direct military contribution would seem a no-brainer, not to mention the current talking point of whether NATO fighters could use Finnish airspace to defend Estonia in case the country was attacked.

The range of a number of modern Russian weapons systems if based in Tallinn. Courtesy of Petri Mäkelä

To sum it up, even if we skip any moral responsibility to help our neighbours, Finland has a number of self-serving reasons to intervene, or at least allow other countries to intervene (we don’t really want invading smaller countries to be an accepted part of international politics, and Russian weapons stationed on Gotland or in Estonia would be really bad for us). In addition, we have actually signed an international agreement promising to do so. That the prime minister apparently has seen a covert rebellion in his party over this is deeply worrying.

The Finnish Investigation

One of last week’s major stories was the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) presenting their ‘interim results’, again confirming what has been seen as the most likely explanation since the immediate aftermath of the 2014 tragedy: that MH17 was brought down by a Russian-supplied Buk-M1 surface-to-air missile. I won’t discuss the details here, as they have been given in a number of different forums, including by Bellingcat as well the earlier investigative report and now the JIT. Suffice to say, the amount of evidence found in both open and non-open source has reached such levels that the question of whether a Russian supplied Buk shot down MH17 can now be considered a litmus test for whether you are under the influence of Russian propaganda or not.

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Finnish Buk-M1 TELAR with missiles mounted. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Finnish Defence Forces
For Finland, the interesting part came when Dutch newspaper Telegraaf broke the story that Finland had provided data and performed secret tests on our Buk-missiles, which are of the same M1-version as the TELAR used for downing MH17. To begin with, this ‘important contribution’ by the Finnish authorities was cheered by Finnish media (#Suomimainittu), but the party was cut short by the announcement that JIT had in fact not been allowed by Finnish authorities to see the evidence. This in turn caused a minor uproar that was rapidly shaping into a political storm when the Finnish President called a press conference on the issue.

But first, let’s rewind to how the by now infamous SAM-system ended up in Finland. By the end of the Cold War, the Soviet economy was in a very poor shape. This was also seen on the clearing accounts which formed the basis for Finnish-Soviet trade. Under this system, anything exported by Finland was ‘cleared’ from the account when items to a corresponding value were imported by Finland from the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, the Soviet balance sheet was squarely in the red, i.e. the Soviets owed Finland goods. During the years since, this has gradually been paid off as goods, services, and cash payments, until the last payment was made three years ago.

One of the early payments was the Buk-system, which arrived in Finland in the mid-90’s and replaced the earlier (and outdated) Soviet-made S-125 ‘Neva’ (SA-3 GOA), local designation ItO 79. The Buk-M1 was introduced under the ItO 96-designation (now ITO 96), and served for roughly a decade until concerns over its vulnerability to countermeasures caused its gradual withdrawal in favour of the medium-ranged NASAMS II (ITO 12). The last batch of conscripts trained on the system in 2005, but the system was scheduled to remain in service at least for a further ten years.

Fast forward to 2014, when the Dutch prosecutor’s office contacted Finnish authorities and asked for technical assistance as part of the criminal investigation into the fate of the MH17. Exactly which Finnish authority received the request is unclear, but eventually a small circle of top politicians were the ones who made the decision on whether to answer the call or not. The decision was made to collaborate with the Dutch prosecutor’s office in full,  and to keep the cooperation secret from the general public. The last part was due to the Dutch authorities requesting that this would be the case, and was not seen as anything unusual given the circumstances. Evidence gathering is a tricky matter even in a ‘normal’ case, and as such it was understood that the cooperation would not be disclosed until during the eventual trial, at the earliest.

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The third arrival of the bodies of MH 17 victims. The coffins were transported from Kharkov to the Eindhoven Air Base. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Hille Hillenga – defensie.nl

All this was revealed during the press conference, where the President stressed that the decision was not taken lightly. The acquisition document of the Buk, which isn’t public, forbids the disclosure of information concerning the system to third parties. This was then weighted against the UN Security Council Resolution calling upon all parties to provide any requested assistance to the investigation(s). During the investigation a number of requests have been made, with the most ‘special’ one probably being the request to detonate a warhead and collect part of the shrapnel (contrary to some reports, no missile firings seems to have taken place). This was done in an undisclosed location in Finland by the Finnish Defence Forces in the presence of Dutch officials, and the requested shrapnel was handed over to the Dutch authorities.

Key to the story is that throughout it was the Dutch prosecutor’s office that was in contact with the Finnish authorities. According to president Niinistö, Finland has handed over all information requested by the Dutch authorities, and at no single point have the investigators expressed any kind of disappointment that the data wouldn’t have been thorough enough. The current issue came about as a result of the Dutch prosecutor asking permission that the evidence be handed over to JIT. The letter which requested this did not include any time frame for when the answer was needed, and as such it was decided to send a small committee over to the Netherlands to discuss how this change had come about, and exactly which part of the evidence was needed (the president confirmed that it was preferred and legally more straightforward to cooperate with the prosecutor’s office rather than the JIT). Before the Finnish administration had had time to put their plan into action, the JIT published their interim report and the fact that Finland was involved was leaked.

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President Niinistö and Foreign Minister Soini at the MH17 press conference. Source & copyright: Matti Porre/Tasavallan presidentin kanslia
The President was clearly not happy with how the Finnish actions had been portrayed in the media, or with the fact that the Dutch had leaked the info after being the ones who originally requested secrecy.

Enter the follow-up discussion on what the press conference meant, and how Finland’s reactions should be seen (especially in the light of our relations vis-a-vis Russia).

Some have been quick to argue that there are traces of Finlandisation all over the handling of the issue. The simple fact that the decision to supply the evidence was taken by the political leadership and not by the officials normally handling these kinds of requests point in this direction, as do the continued emphasise on how hard the decision was due to the acquisition document forbidding this kind of information sharing. The critics also point to the fact that Finland did inform the Russian authorities of the request for evidence and that we were going to collaborate with the Dutch investigation. ‘We told no-one, except the Kremlin’, does indeed have a somewhat bad ring to it.

On the other hand, there are also a number of issues here that point directly in the opposite direction, perhaps the main point being that Finland decided to inform Russia that we were going to disclose technical details of their SAM system to an investigation that quite likely was going to result in Russian citizens being charged. The key word here is ‘informed’, the government never asked for permission, something the president clearly stated had been decided against when asked about the issue. The investigation has also spanned over the latest set of parliamentary elections, showing that there is broad support for it to continue.

(A third point of view was the pro-Russian trolls who now argued that this shows that the JIT isn’t trustworthy and that the ‘true source’ of the bow tie-shaped fragments now has been revealed. As noted, the disinformation campaign on the MH17 has long since lost all its credibility.)

I am personally a bit torn over the issue, and felt the beginning of the presser emphasised how hard the decision was a bit too much considering the nature of the issue. On the other hand, I find it hard to be too shocked over the fact that the request for assistance wasn’t dealt with as a run-of-the-mill case. It should be noted that as the original acquisition deal for the Buk-missiles was handled through the government-to-government discussions on the clearing account, the ban on publishing the information is not a buyer-supplier NDA, but most likely part of a government-to-government agreement. Pointing to this is also the fact that it indeed was the president and the Foreign Minister who hosted the press conference, showing that this was dealt with as a matter of foreign policy and not one of a strictly legislative nature.

There has also been discussions regarding if the information handed over to the Dutch actually included such data that was covered by the ban in the first place. This is all pure speculation, as no-one in the public has seen neither the acquisition document nor the details on what information has been requested. However, my personal opinion is that if the information was indeed of such a nature that the Dutch prosecutor needed to get it from an operator of the system, it is also likely to be covered by the secrecy clauses.

In the end, while the exact pattern of decision making might or might not have followed the letter of the law to the point, the whole issue was probably best described by FIIA’s Mika Aaltola who noted that the whole issue is a “storm in a teacup”. This has been further confirmed by the Dutch Foreign Minister Koenders apologising to FM Soini for the leaks, as well as by the chair of the JIT, Gerrit Thiry, who clarified that it certainly wasn’t his intention to criticise the Finnish authorities, but that it was an unfortunate misunderstanding between the Finnish journalist and the Dutch police making the statement. Thiry is extremely satisfied with the assistance provided by the Finnish authorities, and as such everything is back to normal.

International Exercises and a Storm in a Teacup

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.

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Cross-border training formation at Turku Air Show 2015. Source: Author

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.

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Two F-15C Eagles from Oregon ANG. Source: Wikimedia Commons/TSgt. Michael Ammons, USAF

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.

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A Stryker from the scout platoon of 3rd Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment training with the Latvian military in Adazi, Latvia, in Jan. 27, 2016. Source: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Army photo by Capt. Jennifer Cruz

And like a number of people have pointed out, it is certainly not a tank, but an armoured personnel carrier.

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.

Summing Up

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…?