What about us innocents? – Maritime Defence Day 2019

A year has passed, and for the 19th time the Finnish Navy and Naval Reserve invited a number of stakeholders to come together and discuss all matters related to questions of maritime defence. This year over 80 persons met up at the Naval Academy in Suomenlinna on a rainy Saturday to ponder over questions such as the current state and the future of both the professional and reserve parts of Finnish naval defences, what’s the deal with Russia, and whether the security situation in the Baltic Sea region really has deteriorated?

The 18th century fortress of Suomenlinna outside of Helsinki is home to the Finnish Naval Academy. Source: Own picture

The answer to the last question was easy, at least if one compare to the post-Cold War world of the 90’s or early 00’s – yes, we are worse off than we were back then. At the same time, ensuring security of supply has never been more important. The answer to this multifaceted challenge is the Pohjanmaa-class, which together with the completely revamped Hamina-class provide the Navy with the ability to operate in two directions simultaneously, and also represents something of the sought after baseline when shipowners judge if they can take the risk of sending their merchant vessels into a high-risk region.

If the Maritime Defence Day earlier years have seen significant discussion on ongoing and upcoming vessel and equipment projects, these were relegated to a secondary role this year. There was a general feeling in the air that the question of “what” has been at least partly solved with the signing of the Pohjanmaa-class contracts and the roll-out of FNS Tornio, and with laws and doctrines providing the “why”, the focus is now on the “how”. The scope of the modernisation the Navy will undergo over the next few years is significant, with e.g. the PTO 2020 (Gabriel) providing a significant increase in capability over the current MTO 85M (RBS 15), and it is clear that the Navy will have to change their ways of operating to get the full benefit of their new capabilities. However, this is not only the case for the individual systems, but the change is even more radical when zooming out and looking at the capabilities on a vessel- or squadron-level. Importantly, the question was raised if the officer corps in general, and the cadets about to enter training in particular, will receive training for the world as it looks today or for the battlefield of 2030? The obvious answer is that there is a need to prepare for the future, but unlearning old habits that once held true but have now turned if not obsolete then at least suboptimal can prove difficult. In the end, all involved need to look themselves in the mirror and ask if they really are preparing for the crisis of tomorrow, or if they just keep doing what they have always done while cruising forward on autopilot.

Coming from the corporate world, I could not help but feel like the concept of Lean is entering the Navy. The Navy has a clear-cut mission, the surveillance of our waters, repelling territorial violations and maritime attacks, and protecting sea lines of communication. Anything that isn’t related to this core mission is a waste of time and precious resources, and this thinking needs to cascade down throughout not only the Navy but the reserve organisations as well. The operational planning needs to drive readiness planning, which in turn needs to drive the plans for unit production, which in turn dictates the exercises held. Gone are the days of voluntary reservists just “going somewhere and doing something”. This also need to take into account local and regional differences, as well as differences between units. If we train the same way in the southern border region as we do in the Archipelago Sea or in the Gulf of Bothnia, we are likely doing something wrong.

“The nation should trust only in itself” – illustrative of the Finnish policy of trying to secure allies but always planning for being able to go alone, this decidedly realist slogan decorate the walls of a fortress made possible by foreign subsidies. Source: Own picture

However, while there obviously is waste (to use lean-terminology), there is also much that is good in the system. This includes both the grassroots operations of the L-series of boats by the Naval Reserve and the National Defence Training Association, as well as the high-level refresher exercises. The evacuation of ‘wounded’ by the reservists of the Nyland Brigade was described as an example of the latter, with the scenario apparently running in accordance with the real deal all the way from the battlefield to the field hospital, with the exception of the surgeon not starting to cut into the simulated casualty. “You might imagine the surprise of the wounded when they were asked for permission to practice application of intravenous lines, and in the cases where this was granted they quickly where hooked up to peripheral lines in both hands before they were carried aboard the vessel that took them to the field hospital.” Being married to a physician, I can sympathise (though I’ve never actually had IV-lines)…

Janne “Rysky” Riiheläinen, recognised national security authority and communications professional, was back after a few years away from the Maritime Defence Day to discuss security threats in the Baltic Sea region. Source: Own Picture

But what about Russia? Russia is the driver behind much of the instability in the Baltic Sea region. Much of this is apparently driven not only by a desire to recreate any historical grandness or regain superpower status (the latter of which Putin actually has more or less succeeded with despite the poor hand he was dealt), but also by a desire to maintain freedom to maneuver by effectively blocking Western attempts at boxing in Russia (i.e. getting Russia to adhere to international rules and human rights). This takes many forms, including wars in the information and cyber spaces, and relies heavily on the ability of the authoritarian state to take rapid ad hoc-actions to maintain the initiative. The west has tried to answer, but it is unclear to what extent the deterrence work bears fruit, especially as strong political voices are calling for appeasement.

The Baltic Sea is the new divided Germany

With the liberation of Central and Eastern Europe from the Soviet Union, the Baltic Sea region has become the fault line and a stage for provocations. This include issues such as the harassment of merchant shipping, further highlighting the potential vulnerabilities of the supply lines traversing the narrow sea. With the three Baltic countries safely inside NATO, there is always a risk that the countries in the grey zone, Finland and Sweden, will have to provide the real estate for a more or less serious Russian provocation. This naturally raises uncomfortable questions, including the role of the major islands in the Baltic Sea, as well as the vulnerability of the sea-based trade to different kinds of hybrid actions. The issue with Gotland-scenarios (either at Gotland or at another location such as Bornholm or the Åland Islands) have been discussed at great length elsewhere, but suffice to say they can play both a political role as well as provide additional range for the somewhat overhyped Russian A2/AD-bubble (yes, everyone’s favourite FOI-report was mentioned).

For the hybrid scenarios, an emphasis was placed on the use of the market forces to deal serious damage to a country’s maritime infrastructure. Granted you can sink a small freighter in a suitably narrow strategic sea lane, but you can also simply pay the vessels to go somewhere else. If there’s a market demand that pays better than sending your vessels to the Baltic Sea, suddenly the Finnish waters might face a serious shortage of tonnage, even if the supply lines notionally stays open. Globalised ownership patterns also makes questions such as how many vessels fly Finnish flags largely irrelevant, as a foreign owner might quickly change flag if it is felt that operating under Finnish rules might be less than optimal. A similar issue can be seen when it comes to port infrastructure, where key pieces of equipment (including large systems such as cranes), can be owned by stevedoring companies and not the port itself. With these companies then possibly being under international ownership and able to ship out their machinery in a matter of days if they feel they can get more money somewhere else, ownership of the port itself can quickly become a secondary question if the “port” turns out to be just a plot of land with quays and empty warehouses, void of any loading/unloading equipment. In short, cash is still king, and the invisible hand is susceptible to bribery.

The Maritime Defence Day is also a day for recognising individuals who have worked for the benefit of maritime defence in different ways, and this year I found myself among those who received the Naval Reserve Medal of Merit. The medal was also awarded to Ari Caselius of Traficom and Visa Jokelainen of Pelikaanikilta ry. The Naval Reserve Cross of Merit was awarded to Kare Vartiainen of Rannikkotykistökerho Johtorengas ry and Antti Jäntti of Helsingin Reservimeriupseerit ry. Source: Robin Elfving

However, while a crisis below the threshold of war is the more likely scenario if tensions were to flare up in the Baltic Sea region, a full-scale war in the Baltic cannot be ruled out. In that case Sweden would be involved due to it’s strategic location right on the US reinforcement route to the Baltic states. The Finnish situation is less certain, as while Finland sees the 1,300 km border with Russia largely as a liability from a defence point of view, the same is likely the case for Russia, with Kremlin’s appetite for having to divert forces to conduct offensive operations (or even just to hold the line) north of the Gulf of Finland likely being limited. On the other hand, wars have a tendency to escalate according to their own logic, and it is safe to say that a large conflict in the region would have a seriously deteriorating effect on Finnish national security, regardless of whether Finland would be able to stay out of the firing line or not (it can even be argued that trying to stay out of the firing line at any cost might be suboptimal in certain cases). For the Navy, being prepared for all contingencies is paramount, and this is something that clearly is top of mind of the service. Currently the situation is described as “satisfactory”, and with the equipment now being acquired and training being adjusted to meet the demands of the future, it seems set to continue that way.