In 2007 I did my conscript service with the Finnish marines of the Nyland Brigade. As a conscript, I didn’t see overly much of our battalion commander, though I do remember him holding a lecture on national security and defence as well as him beginning his answer to my post-lecture question with a content “Well, seems at least someone was paying attention”. Last week I again had the opportunity to meet him, though this time we met in a North Karelian forested bog which had been my home for the last few nights. Far from the archipelago in the archetypical sissi-terrain, the now-brigadier general noted with the same smile he had shown back in the days that it’s a small world. But how did I end up in this decidedly non-naval setting? Let’s back up a bit, because the story is a good example of how the Finnish Defence Forces goes about training their reservists and setting up a capable wartime force.
The majority of the FDF wartime force is based on reservists, and that include sizeable numbers of officers and NCOs in the reserve. The path to any (uniformed) role in the FDF (or the Finnish Border Guard for that matter) starts with conscript service. Annually around 21,000 conscripts are trained for a host of different roles, including NCO and officer training. The first six weeks is basic recruit training, followed by six week of general service branch training. Approximately ten weeks into the conscript service those destined for leadership roles get chosen, and once the general service branch training is over after twelve weeks the first NCO course kicks off – no prices for guessing this is also a six week period. This course, designated AU1 or AUK1, is common for all leaders, after which soon-to-be reserve officers are sent to Reserve Officer School for a fourteen week course while those destined for NCO-training take part in another six week course – AU2 or AUK2.
The beauty of the system is that as the FDF take conscripts onboard twice annually – early January and early July – the AU2 course finishes at the same time as the next group of conscripts enter the building. As such, the newly minted corporals will be responsible for the training of the enlisted soldiers over the next 165 days, with the reserve officer candidates joining the fun two months later in the middle stages of the general service branch training. The general service branch training for enlisted conscripts is followed by specialisation for six weeks, and then finally six weeks of honing your skills in working together as a unit. To translate this into an example, a conscript picked for infantry does six weeks of general infantry training, followed by six weeks of training to become e.g. a machine gunner, followed by six weeks of practicing what it means to function as a machine gunner in their wartime unit. The trained unit made up of enlisted, NCOs, and reserve officers, is then sent home into the reserve, and in case of being mobilised the majority of faces around you would likely be recognisable from your time as a conscript. Obviously, this would be fleshed out with professional officers and NCOs (who have also started their career as military leaders with AU1 and AU2 or RUK before applying to the National Defence University once out in the reserve), but in general you wouldn’t expect to see many professionals (outside of highly technical roles) in positions outside of headquarters. For a quick back of the envelope example using Janes’ numbers: the Army is sporting roughly 3,500 full-time personnel, while the wartime mobilised strength is approximately 160,000, i.e. less than 2.5 % of the mobilised force would be professionals. Take that ratio, and in a 300-strong company you are looking at less than eight professional officers and NCOs.
The example above is purposefully crude in the extreme – we are not going to start discussing classified details on wartime OOBs of the FDF here – but gives a hint on the importance of the trained wartime leaders in the reserve.
Personally I had my sights set on the landing craft skipper role when I first passed through the doors of the old czarist-era buildings of the brigade, but I would certainly have liked to combine that with the NCO course as well (combining skipper and reserve officer training is not an option available, at least back then). Unfortunately, I was not picked for one of the two slots then reserved for skippers on the marine NCO-course, which meant that after a year of service I went into the reserve with the rank of private and an experience that eventually would prove highly useful in getting a foot through the door into the workboat industry.
However, the overall wartime order of battle for the FDF is obviously a living creature. As a general rule of thumb, a decade can be thought of as a rough lifespan for any unit once transferred into the reserve. Within that lifespan, life happens for the individual reservists. People get educated or acquire life experience that can prove highly valuable, they can get positions in the civilian life where they have an important role in keeping society turning, or they get sick/hurt/die which means they no longer can fulfil their original roles. All of this means that people are regularly transferred between wartime roles, either due to changes in the unit they are placed in or due to changes in their own skill set. Dedicate all your free time to long-range shooting and sniper competitions, and suddenly you might find yourself a wartime sniper rather truck driver.
This obviously raises an issue for the FDF, as what do you do with people who served as enlisted when nineteen year old, but suddenly have invested enough time in voluntary defence or acquired civilian skill sets that would now make them suitable for leadership roles? Or with reservist NCOs that have acquired enough experience to warrant a shift to reserve officer service?
The answer for well over a decade has been complementary reservist courses, where every second year approximately 35 enlisted volunteers are hand-picked to undergo training to NCO, and every second year approximately 35 volunteering reservist NCOs are picked to undergo training to qualify as reserve officers.
And now we are getting back to why I was standing around in swamp in North Karelia.
The people handpicked to the courses are done so based on the needs of the FDF. “I want to get promoted” might work as an internal driver, but the opportunity is exclusive enough that the FDF has taken a strict line on the purpose of the course being to serve the needs of the service and not necessarily those of individual applicants. The stated aim is to train reservists so that they can be placed in more demanding wartime positions according to the needs of the FDF. As such, any application kicks off with having a suitable wartime duty and/or reservist “career path”, and getting letters of recommendation from your wartime superiors is certainly a benefit when applying.
In my case, having applied and failed to get accepted to the 2020 NCO course, a second try led to me getting accepted late last year to this year’s edition of the course, MIEHAU22.
The course has been handled by the Kainuu Brigade for some time already, and each course include three refresher exercises spread out over the year as well as a number of remote learning activities which included writing memos and preparing training checkpoints for the other students (as noted, the Finnish model means that any wartime leader is expected to be able to both train their unit and lead it into battle). The first exercise period also included a 12 minute running test (walking test for the older participants) to ensure an adequate level of fitness. ‘Adequate’ is the key word, as the limit for being allowed to take part in the course was 2,300 meters in 12 minutes. The focus on the course was decidedly not on building up the physical fitness, as while a number of physical tests did play a role in the final grading and a certain basic level of fitness is required to get through the course, the relatively sparse time available was dedicated to tasks more difficult to take care of in your (civilian) spare time.
The important part to understand here is that once you are out in the reserve with the NCO-label stamped next to your name in the FDF database, there will be no difference in the minds of the Defence Forces as to whether you went the conscript or reservist NCO-track. As such, there is the requirement to pack twelve weeks of conscript training into a significantly more compact package. There is also no unique “Reservist-NCO”-course, but the curriculum is that of the standard infantry one. This means that exams and grading are lifted straight out of the conscript course, and the days on the brigade are optimised to provide both ample training and leadership opportunities as well as theoretical lectures. It also means that include is not only the NCO-part of things, but also learning how the Finnish infantry platoon fights, as whoever pulls out your personal file and looks at the note ‘NCO – infantry’ has to be able to trust that you can execute on everything that designation holds – including both the ‘Infantry’ and the ‘NCO’ part of the job. The service branch training included not only theory and a written exam, but also taking part in a major exercise hosted by the Kainuu Brigade – METSO 22 – where the students got to put theory into practice both when it comes to leadership and infantry skills.
And it was in the midst of this that the general decided to come and take a look at our tent.
A few days later I then officially graduated together with another 30 students of our group, and is now qualified as infantry NCOs within the FDF. Notable is that for both conscript- and reservist-trained NCOs the NCO-qualification is the big thing, and in case the FDF want you to do something else as an NCO they will just throw in an appropriate mode of retraining. Whether or not you are an NCO is however a deal-breaker for many postings and work opportunities within the FDF.
So how was the experience? As said, it was a rather intensive one. But perhaps the most significant impression was that of being acutely aware of being in a room full of hand-picked individuals determined to make the most out of what is a rather unique opportunity. This not only was a strong motivation for me on a personal level, but also fed into an excellent esprit de corps where everyone was helping each other and wishing each other on. This was also evident in what became our unofficial motto – “It’s always possible to give up” (“Cedere Semper Potest”, according to people with more Latin skills than I possess). Taking part in a volunteer course, no-one will force you to go through with it. At the end of the day, you just have to decide whether you will carry on or just give up and go home. And we carried on.
I must also mention that the Kainuu Brigade really did an excellent job and put some serious effort and resources into the course, with us having a surprising number of officers teaching our motley crew the ropes when it came to leadership, training, and infantry skills. It was evident that having run the course several times already, they knew what worked and what didn’t. Getting to see my ‘local’ brigade and learning how they plan to fight in the harsh conditions of the North (which keen readers know is a topic of interest to me) was an added bonus on a personal level.
For those thinking about signing up, I certainly can recommend it. There are planned changes up ahead with MPK taking a larger role, something possibly leading to more spots opening up and changes to the structure, so keep your eyes open. Ensuring you got the fitness to run the required distance is a no-brainer, and while there wasn’t any single obvious factor determining who had been accepted, getting the reference letters from one’s wartime superior(s) does seem to help. And as mentioned the first step is getting a wartime NCO/officer posting, so start with trying to get that part sorted out before dropping off your application!
The Finnish NCO-corps in the reserve has a proud history, and following the course I’m not only proud and humble to be part of that chain, but also happy to say my trust in the quality of the lower echelons of our military leadership is strong. The heritage obligates.
(and as a side-note, it’s always nice when a general compliments how well your squad has managed to camouflage your tent)