For the 20th time stakeholders within Finnish maritime defence have gathered to discuss current events and trends in the field, and as usual there was lot to talk about.
The elephant in the room was obviously COVID-19. Not only has it affected the Navy, but it struck at a time when major changes to how voluntary defence exercises are organised was just being rolled out. For the Navy, while the creation of bubbles within the regular conscript training has been the most talked about move, the force has been doing quite a bit more. The key was identifying which are the capabilities that are absolutely crucial to maintain at any given time, and ensuring that these are kept running (lets face it: the FDF could survive a short break in the training of conscripts without any major long-term issues, but the fleet needs to be combat capable and able to sail 24/7 to ensure the integrity of Finnish waters). I leave it as an exercise to the reader to figure out what this might have entailed in practice.
The headline message was that things have worked out. “The Navy is extremely flexible”, as it was expressed, and everyone from the top down to the individual conscripts have understood the size of the challenge, and embraced it. An interesting detail is that the polling of the conscripts transferring to reserve actually shows higher grades when evaluating their services compared to earlier years, a trend visible both in the Navy as well as in the FDF as a whole.
However, even in the midst of the pandemic the sight is set on the future. The leadership of the Navy has taken a number of steps to ensure that the Navy maintains its combat capability and ability to perform the missions it has received into the coming decades. At the core of everything is the missions – anything that does not advance the missions won’t be accepted under the current leadership. This goes for both training as well as developing doctrines fit for the battlefield of the future as well as for the equipment the Navy will bring to it. As an obvious example, the new Gabriel V (PTO 2020) won’t just be a drop-in replacement to the RBS 15 (MTO 85M), as the capabilities of the new missiles are significantly improved and dictates changes to the tactics and concepts of operations to get the best effect out of it. The goal is that in 2032 the Navy will fight according to four core principles:
- A good situational picture, with both the tools used to create it and the command structure employing it able to withstand the demands of combat,
- Decentralised operations, with concentrated effect,
- Mobile operational forces with great firepower and well-trained local forces, both of which are able to withstand the demands of combat,
- National and international connectivity allowing for common operations.
None of these ideas are exactly new, but on the other hand there isn’t a need to reinvent the wheel. What is new is the realisation that all services – including the Navy – will need organic capability to take the fight to all domains, including not only the traditional three of air, land, sea, but also the information domain and cyber. Another is connecting the Arctic to the Baltic Sea as one operational theatre, in which anything that happens in one will reflect upon the other.
The aggressive attitude present in the principles above are also expressed in the Navy’s desire to maintain the initiative through an active conduct on the battlefield, ensuring that the Navy stays proactive instead of reactive and gets the most out of its resources. This obviously require a highly trained force, and one of the key questions is how to ensure that the force gets an inflow of competent and motivated personnel and conscripts. The challenge is in part a common issue for the FDF as a whole as the number of suitable conscripts is in decline as part of more general societal trends, but the Navy has a special twist to it as it in large parts of the country the least-known of the services.
Which in turn means you have to make sure that the ones you get become – and stay – top-notch.
As the Finnish Naval Reserve and the Navy co-host the event, much of the focus was obviously on the reserve component. The Navy expects the field of reserve organisations to play a key part in ensuring that the capacity of the individual reservists are upheld, and not only in the physical sense, but as important is maintaining the mental and ethical game. Side-note: while FDF has talked about the importance of the first two a number of times, it is refreshing to see the Navy stating the importance of ethical behaviour by their soldiers and sailors, as recent events have shown that even amongst some of the world’s most elite forces when you promote an aggressive can-do attitude and a willingness to take initiative and judge the situation out in the field – extremely valuable traits in any combat unit – there comes a very real risk of not just pushing up to the line, but actually stepping over it.
The other side of what the Navy expects help with is:
Maintaining a naval espirit the corps and a healthy pride
Which sounds jolly nice.
The plan is also to develop further the local forces and their provincial components, to get these further involved in the everyday action as well as in the strategic signalling (the ability to send messages through a show of force without causing an escalation was by the way also mentioned as a crucial capability, and one that places high demands on the flexibility of the naval capabilities and a political willingness to employ these). To allow for this and ensure a motivated reserve force a number of steps are being taken to create interesting positions for reservists within the naval force structure and creating associated training programs to ensure that the know-how continues to grow within the reserve. This include for example looking into the ability to open up training events scheduled for full-time personnel also to reservists. Much of this, like the mantra of being better at taking into account the “civilian” knowledge of the reserve, are things that have been discussed for years, but I did leave the seminar with a feeling that it might indeed be different this time around and that things are really moving forward.