I recently wrote an article over at Swedish defence website “Militär Debatt” discussing which Swedish capabilities would be of greatest interest to Finland. To the surprise of some, instead of fancy systems such as submarines and AEW&C aircraft, the capability I picked above the rest was the possibility of getting the Swedish mechanized brigade built around the units trained by the peacetime I 19 Norrbottens regemente (the Norrbotten regiment) in Boden, which would be a significant addition to the defence of the vast and sparsely populated northern Finland. While how many Finnish units would mobilised in the region during wartime as well as how many units would be deployed there during different scenarios is obviously a secret, it is safe to assume that in most cases the number of units would be rather limited as the larger part of the Finnish Army would be used to defend the Finnish population and industrial centras in the south and central parts of the country.
In the Finnish north there are two army units spread over three garrisons: Kainuun prikaati (KAIPR, the Kajani brigade) in Kajani, and Jääkäriprikaati (JPR, the Jaeger brigade) in Sodankylä and Rovaniemi. Of these, KAIPR sits just south of the classic Raate – Suomussalmi – Oulu line of advance, while JPR is further north. As geography changes slowly, the strategic value of the east-west axis of advance aimed at Oulu and cutting through Finland at its narrowest point remains, meaning that a significant proportion of the Finnish forces trained in the subarctic wilderness likely will be concentrated on the Kuusamo-Suomussalmi-Kuhmo line, leaving fewer troops to cover the roughly 250 km from Salla to Vätsäri. As such, it is easy to imagine that a Swedish mechanised brigade would at least double the amount of troops capable of conducting high-end offensive operations in the area north of Kuusamo.
However, as we all know, Finland and Sweden won’t be the only countries in Sápmi that are NATO-members (as soon as the Turkey-situation is dealt with), and any defence planning will be conducted jointly with Norway. Any defence planning will also be conducted within the broader scope of NATO, and as is well-known while NATO obviously doesn’t dictate how the individual countries handle their defence, the alliance isn’t shy of asking and in general has stated that it “needs, now more than ever, modern, robust, and capable forces at high readiness […] in order to meet current and future challenges”, as the 64. paragraph of the Wales Summit Declaration expressed it. That doesn’t mean that all forces need to be fully mobilised here and now, but it will provide some food for thought for the Finnish strategic culture.
…which leads us to an interesting idea: what NATO really needs is a tri-national standing division in the high north.
I will admit that whenever I see the words ‘standing unit’ and ‘Finnish Army’ in the same sentence, the first reaction is to try and explain how the Finnish conscript-reservist system works. However, new times calls for new measures, and as we will have units from three nations fighting side-by-side in the area – which is a single geographical theatre of operations as I have earlier noted – this calls for close cooperation and joint training already in peacetime. Few things would raise the combat capability as much as having at least a number of the units in place already during peacetime. As such, I present to you my very rough concept for the 6. Division, a tri-national mechanised unit for the defence of the high North.
I picked the name 6. Division, as it has a historical connection to some of the region’s most notable military formations in the case of all three armies.
While the German attack on Norway in 1940 for the most part was a huge success for the attackers, the one major allied victory was the liberation of Narvik. The city had been captured in the initial assault, but was retaken by a joint French – UK – Norwegian – Polish attack in May. The key Norwegian unit of the battle was the 6. divisjon. The unit was disbanded following the Allied retreat, but was reformed post-war and stationed in northern Norway from 1954 until it was disbanded again this side of the millenium.
The Swedish VI. armé-fördelningen was first created in Östersund in 1893, were it spent the next 34 years until the northern Swedish division was renamed as the Norra arméfördelningen, only to change to II. armé-fördelningen in 1937. At the same time, the Boden garrison had set up their own division as XV. arméfördelningen, which remained as such until the two units where merged in 1994 with Boden taking lead and renumbering as the 6. armé-fördelning, keeping this until disbandment in 2000.
The Finnish 6. divisioona was set up in 1941 with soldiers from the northern districts. The unit enjoyed a somewhat spotty history, including taking part in the failed Unternehmen Polarfuchs with the Nazi-German forces and having soldiers robbing the Kajaani liqueur store under riot-like forms in 1942, until it turned up at Ihantala in 1944 and formed a key part in what was one of the crucial battles of the summer of 1944. After this, the unit went north to fight their former German allies, a campaign which saw them liberate Rovaniemi.
The key Norwegian unit is the Brigade Nord (Brigade North), which is a fully mechanised unit made up of three mechanised battalions, the Telemark Bataljon, the 2. Bataljon, and the Panserbataljon, as well as supporting units. Of these, the Telemark battalion is stationed further south as the name implies, and is the only fully contracted battalion, the rest including conscripts in their manning. The Telemark and Panser (armoured) battalion include both tanks and CV 9030 infantry fighting vehicles among their numbers, while the 2. battalion lack tanks and only has CV 9030-vehicles (and in fact is only now undergoing transition from light infantry to mechanised, a process which will be ready by 2023). Among the supporting units there are e.g. artillery (K9 Thunder) and engineering battalions, meaning that the brigade has all the organic capabilities needed.
I 19 in Sweden has up until now been responsible for the creation of a number of units which can be pieced together according to need under the command of the Tredje brigadstaben, an independent brigade HQ set up by the regiment. However, the wartime forces set up by the unit is now undergoing transformation into a fixed brigade structure, under which the 19. Mekaniserade norrlandsbrigaden (NMekB 19, also known as Norrbottensbrigaden) will see some important changes. This new wartime unit will reach full operational capability in 2026. Like their Norwegian brethren, the two main combat systems are the Leopard 2 and the CV 90 – though Sweden has a newer Leopard (Strv 122/Leo 2A5 compared to Leo 2A4) and an older CV 90 (Strf 9040 compared to CV 9030 Mk I and III). The current two wartime combat battlions are the 191:a and 192:a mekaniserade bataljonen, och which the former sport both full-time and part-time serving soldiers while the latter is made up of soldiers serving part-time. Note that the Swedish mechanised battalions are tank heavy, sporting two tank and two mechanised companies each, actually making them armoured rather than mechanised battalions, something which also is evident in at least one of the plans on the table which would see a wartime NMekB 19 made up of 191. pansarbataljonen as a standing unit and 192. pansarbataljonen and 193. mekaniserade bataljonen as part-time units (also note the inability of the Swedish Armed Forces to decide upon a single way of writing numbers before units, causing headaches to innocent bloggers).
The key Finnish unit as mentioned is the Jääkäriprikaati which is specialised in (sub)arctic conditions and air defence. While air defence units are nice, the interesting part here is the Sodankylä garrison and the Lapin jääkäripataljoona which with a focus on light infantry is responsible for an unknown number of units to be mobilised in wartime. However, for our standing 6. division there is the post-Crimean detail of the Finnish Army’s new standing units created under the designation Valmiusyksikkö or readiness unit – manned by a combination of longer-serving conscripts and contracted soldiers, NCOs, and officers. The readiness battalion of JPR is most likely currently not ideal for high-intensity warfare, but it certainly provide a baseline for how a Finnish standing unit could be created without breaking the bank.
Note here that I am not arguing for trashing the conscript system or other similar complete overhauls. It is notable that of the Norwegian battalions two out of three are manned by conscripts, while two out of three Swedish battalions would also need mobilisation from part-time soldiers. Finland could well offer a brigade with a single standing battalion and two reserve ones, where in line with the current structure the standing battalion would be made up of conscripts volunteering for an additional six months of service, after which the unit rotate into reserve and takes up the place of one of the two reserve battalions. It is however clear that if the standing battalion is supposed to be able to conduct joint operations within the scope of a multinational brigade, the training for the first six months will have to include high-end international training within that frame of reference.
So that is the current situation, how could this patchwork of units and capabilities, almost all of which are currently in the process of being reformed, be brought together for a functioning division?
To begin with a common divisional HQ is created, which is staffed and up and running already in peacetime, is obviously needed. Exactly where it is located is an open question, though I’d imagine for example either Boden or Rovaniemi could be suitable locations, depending on where there are suitable office spaces without windows. With regards to the three brigades, Brigade Nord will likely fit in more or less as is, especially once the current reforms are finished. While it is unfortunate that the Telemark battalion is deployed so far south, it is also part of the Norwegian Army’s rapid reaction forces (HRS), and as such it should be able to deploy quickly if need be. Neither Sweden nor Finland likely have the budget to keep their whole brigades standing – as unlike Norway their armed forces include several wartime brigades – so the solution is to have at least some units immediately ready. This would include the brigade headquarters and the 191. armoured for NMekB 19 as well as an arctic infantry battalion built around the current JPR readiness unit, with 192. armoured and two Finnish infantry battalions being manned by part-timers/reservists and mobilised if and when need be. While the infantry battalions obviously lack the offensive firepower of their mechanised brethren, infantry certainly has a role to play in the wilderness of the region. However, it needs to be emphasised that even if the infantry units are trained to fight dismounted they will need the mobility (and protection during transports) to be able to keep up with the other brigades. Winter war-nostalgia will only take you as far during modern combat.
To compensate for setting up a lighter (and cheaper) brigade, Finland which is known to sport an impressive number of artillery pieces and whose territory include the largest part of the immediate operating area of the division could be expected to provide a disproportionate number of division level-assets. This includes indirect fires, air defences, engineering, and logistics resources. This obviously would put pressure on the current Finnish force structure, as in essence there would need to be supporting arms for two more brigades than is currently found in the Finnish force structure (which, again, is secret, but it does seem a safe guess that there isn’t surplus artillery and bridging vehicles gathering dust in some warehouse). More K9 Thunder as well as potentially a modern rocket artillery unit would certainly do wonders to aid the artillery situation, and while the wartime needs of the other supporting units is more open, more engineering vehicles (including bridges, it’s a wet region) and air defences are a safe bet. A potential order of battle could in other words look like this.
While this is all largely a thought experiment spun from an interesting Twitter-discussion, I do feel it is a valuable and (very hands-on) example of what it actually means that our defence planning will no longer be just about ourselves. It also highlights the fact that while the current general ways of operating are expected to remain in place, even the “small” adjustments needed will cost money or alternatively pull units and capabilities from other places in the wartime force structure, in both cases leading to tough choices. If the upcoming changes for the FDF in the North takes the form of 6. division or something else is another question, but don’t be surprised if the NATO structure plans suddenly start calling for a more fixed structure when it comes to how the northern flank is supposed to be defended.