What Would Finland Bring to the Table for NATO?
Finland doesn’t often make it into international headlines. When it does, it is usually because of the country’s world-renowned education system or for yet again being named the happiest country in the world. Even rarer are international discussions over Finnish security issues. That changed when Russia invaded Ukraine (again) and Europe’s security landscape transformed overnight. Suddenly, Finland and its possible NATO membership is a hot topic around the world. Finland will likely make a decision on whether to apply for NATO membership on May 12, and many are understandably wondering what kind of ally it would be. We offer some answers by looking at the state of Finnish security and defense politics, its armed forces, and Helsinki’s place in the world.
Finland has always assumed a pragmatic, hands-on approach to national defense. When the Cold War ended, most European countries shifted their focus to expeditionary operations, reduced their defense spending, and developed smaller but highly professional and specialized military forces. Finland chose a different path — not least because of its 800-mile border with Russia. Helsinki maintained a strong national defense posture, the cornerstones of which are conscription and a large, well-trained reserve. The relatively cheap conscription system and having a large reserve instead of a large active-duty force allowed Finland to maintain a credible defense even when the share of GDP spent on defense was lower than desirable. In the late Cold War, Finland spent approximately 1.6 percent of its GDP on defense, and in the early 1990s this figure saw a rapid increase to 1.9 percent due to the purchase of 64 F-18s from the United States in 1992. After that Finnish defense budgets kept declining and were at their lowest in 2001 (1.1 percent of GDP). Since then, defense spending began to rise until 2012, when the Finnish military began a three-year period of reform that included defense budget cuts from 1.4 percent to 1.2 percent of GDP and the dissolution of several military bases, resulting in significant gaps in readiness that need patching up.
Still, while other countries sold their military equipment, Finland purchased new systems and updated existing capabilities. Along with the F-18s, other major purchases include AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles from the United States (2012), Multiple Launch Rocket Systems and Leopard 2A6 main battle tanks from the Netherlands (2014), K9 armored howitzers from South Korea (2017), and most recently F-35 fighter jets from the United States (2021). The navy modernized its Hamina-class vessels a few years ago, and underwater warfare capabilities were improved with the integration of the Variable Depth Sonar system and torpedoes. Currently, Finland is in the process of replacing several older vessels with four modern multi-role corvettes, capable of effectively conducting a range of tasks at sea all year round. Along with the defense of national territory and airspace, maintaining a capable navy (in close cooperation with Sweden) is particularly important for Finland, whose trade and security of supply depend on the open sea lines of the Baltic Sea.
Finland has based its security on strong national defense and international cooperation. The Finnish Defence Forces have four main tasks: the military defense of Finland, supporting other national authorities, taking part in international activities, and taking part in international military crisis management. Out of these, the most important task is naturally the defense of the country. The cornerstone of a strong national defense posture is capable, well-trained armed forces. The military defense of Finland is arranged through conscription — an anomaly that many European countries, including Sweden, abolished or deactivated during the post-Cold War years. Conscription and the reserve are regarded as the only cost-efficient ways to maintain a credible national defense in a country that is large in territory but small in population. According to the Finnish constitution, every Finnish citizen is obligated to participate in national defense but only men aged 18 to 60 are liable for military service. Women can apply on a voluntary basis. Depending on the role that the conscripts are trained for, their service lasts for six, nine, or 12 months, followed by rehearsals during the years after service. The Finnish military trains approximately 22,000 conscripts every year, which is about two thirds of each age group. There is a wide support for conscription among the Finnish public, alongside pressure to modernize the system — for example, many young Finns want to see conscription made more gender-equal.
The number of active military personnel in the Finnish Defence Forces is small: about 19,000 plus the roughly 3,000-strong paramilitary Border Guard, which upon mobilization would be wholly or partly incorporated into the Defence Force. Due to the conscription system, however, the reserve is large. The fully mobilized field army is sized at 280,000, with several hundred thousand more reservists available to fill losses. Units can be roughly divided into three main categories: the best-trained and equipped operational units, regional forces, and local units (some of which train frequently and maintain high readiness). The air force and navy operate higher-tech equipment, such as Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles, Gabriel anti-ship missiles, and RIM-162 Sea Sparrow missiles, and are traditionally more operationally ready. Still, all air force and navy enablers (and, in the case of the navy, much of a ship’s rotating personnel) are conscripts or reservists.
As a comparison, Sweden, which has double the population of Finland, has active personnel of approximately 24,000 soldiers and a reserve of 31,800. NATO ally Norway, which is the same size as Finland in terms of population, trains approximately 10,000 conscripts a year and has 16,000 active personnel. As a response to the war in Ukraine and the deteriorating security situation in Europe, the Finnish Defence Forces recently announced an increase in the number of reservists called to rehearsals from 19,300 to 28,300 annually.
Maintaining a strong and credible national defense, even in a conscription-based system, is costly. This year’s Finnish defense budget is set at 5.1 billion euros —1.9 percent of GDP. Only two years earlier, defense’s share of GDP was 1.3 percent. This rapid increase can be explained by the purchase of new F-35 fighter aircraft, but the war in Ukraine has prompted demands to further increase the budget. The military will get additional funding of 700 million euros in 2022 and 788 million euros in 2023, bringing its budget up to 2.2 percent of GDP. The readiness and capabilities of the Finnish military have been strengthened in all operational domains. Finland already has one of the strongest artilleries in Europe (1500 systems). The war in Ukraine has showed that even in the 21st century, properly maintaining strong conventional forces remains the key factor in credible deterrence for a non-nuclear state. Still, governments need to find the budget to develop readiness and capabilities in new operational domains too, including the cyber, space, and information domains. Finland is no exception. International cooperation is particularly important in responding to hybrid threats, cyber operations, and information warfare.
A competitive defense industry is another important piece in the national defense puzzle. Finland’s defense industry is highly specialized, which is why the country procures a great deal of materiel and equipment from abroad and is actively involved in procurement cooperation with other Nordic and European partners. The Finnish defense industry plays a crucial role in supplying and maintaining the Finnish military, but about 40 to 60 percent of its products are exported, including communication systems, vehicle systems, vessels, and protective equipment. In 2020 the export volume was 43 percent. The defense industry consists predominantly of small and medium-sized privately owned companies, with total turnover within the defense, aerospace, and security sectors of 1.84 billion euros in 2020. With a few exceptions such as Patria, producer of the Armored Modular Vehicle and NEMO mortar system, there are no large industrial players.
Sufficient budgets, well-trained troops, and modern equipment form the basis for strong national defense, along with an internationally competitive defense industry. But as we have seen in Ukraine, the willingness to defend one’s country is equally important and should not be underestimated. This will is something that Finns have plenty of. In a poll from December 2021, 84 percent of respondents said that they would be ready to defend their country to the best of their ability. In another poll from March 2022, 75 percent of Finns said that Finland should defend itself militarily even if the outcome were uncertain. These numbers are some of the highest in Europe and such views are deeply rooted in Finnish society. After Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the demand for national defense courses saw an unprecedented increase and the National Defence Training Association of Finland reported 700 registrations per day to its courses, up from a previous daily average of 150.
Equally importantly, a number of factors in Finnish society have led to a policy concept of comprehensive security, a uniquely Finnish guideline for security and preparedness activities in different sectors. Comprehensive security aims to safeguard the vital functions of society through cooperation between authorities, business operators, organizations, and citizens. This inclusive perspective on security fosters resilience in the face of diverse security threats. Fresh experiences from COVID-19 and increasingly tense relations with Russia indicate that comprehensive security strengthens Finnish society and makes the country a harder target against hostile hybrid influence.
An International Player
Although military defense is its main task, the Finnish Defence Forces have taken an active role in international crisis management too. Being an active and cooperative partner is of course important, but ultimately the underlying reason for participating in international operations is to ensure Finland’s safety. Finland currently has a total of 300 crisis management and peacekeeping troops deployed in Lebanon, Kosovo, Iraq, Mali, Somalia, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East. By participating in international operations since the 1950s, Finland has proved its willingness to play its part in international security. Moreover, the experience gained in such operations has had a positive impact on Finnish forces’ ability to cooperate with partner countries even in demanding environments.
As Finland has thus far chosen to remain outside of NATO, it has looked for other forms of defense cooperation, the most important of which is the bilateral relationship with its western neighbor Sweden. Finland and Sweden have no mutual defense obligations but have agreed on cooperation in areas ranging from host-nation support to combined joint military operations, and from the common use of resources to territorial surveillance. Trilateral cooperation with Sweden and Norway is also gaining new significance. Strong Nordic defense cooperation is advantageous for NATO too. Should Finland and Sweden join the alliance, not only would NATO’s presence in Baltic Sea region be strengthened, but alsothe same would be true in the Arctic.
Finland takes part in several framework-nation cooperation forums, such as the Joint Expeditionary Force, European Intervention Initiative, and Framework Nation Concept. Again, cooperation with likeminded partner countries is valuable on many levels, but for Finland the main advantage is to maintain peace and stability in the Baltic Sea region and to guarantee Finland’s capability to defend its sovereignty. In practice, defense cooperation allows better training opportunities, material cooperation, information exchange, and collaboration in research and development — all very valuable advantages for a small country with limited resources.
The Remnants of Non-Alignment?
When discussing Finland’s role in European security, one cannot escape the topic of whether Finland is still a neutral or militarily non-aligned country, or neither. It is safe to say that Finland has not been a neutral country for over 30 years. Finland and Sweden joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace program in 1994 and the European Union in 1995, which tied them to the Western community once and for all. Still, in political rhetoric throughout the 1990s and early 2000s Finland maintained its role as a militarily non-aligned country.
As Finland’s cooperation with NATO deepened and the European Union assumed new roles in security and defense, Finland’s position as a militarily non-aligned country was questioned both nationally and internationally. Finland is one of NATO’s Enhanced Opportunity partners and it has engaged extensively in the NATO Planning and Review Process since 1995, aiming to promote the development of forces and capabilities by partners who are best able to cooperate with NATO allies. Moreover, Finland has taken part in several NATO-led crisis management operations, and is regularly invited to NATO meetings, particularly since the beginning of the Russo-Ukrainian war. In February 2022, Finland took part in NATO’s Cold Response exercise in Norway with 680 personnel, of whom 470 were conscripts. As for the European Union, Finland has been one of the most active member states in the development of the Common Security and Defence Policy in recent years and has stressed the Union’s responsibilities as a security community, reminding fellow member states that they have agreed on mutual defense (Treaty on European Union, Article 42.7).
Never Again Alone
The idea that Finland needs to be able defend itself is deeply rooted in Finnish society and strategic culture. Cooperation with other countries is extremely valuable, but ultimately the defense of the country lies in the hands of the Finns. National defense is not something that can be outsourced.
Finland has been on NATO’s threshold for a long time, and it is often said that Finland is as close to NATO as a country can be without being an actual member. Still, Finland has not thought it necessary to take the final step to seek alliance membership, until now. The speed at which public opinion towards NATO changed after the Russian attack on Ukraine is unprecedented. Equally impressive is the rapidity with which the Finnish government has responded to this change of heart — something that has also been criticized, especially among the minority opposing Finnish NATO membership.
The current NATO debate in Finland manifests the scale of the geopolitical tremor that Russia’s aggressiveness and unpredictability have unleashed: nobody can make it alone anymore. This is particularly true of small countries like Finland. Resources are scarce and, particularly after the COVID-19 pandemic, the health and social sector will continue to swallow a major part of the national budget. Moreover, demographics are not in Finland’s favor as the population ages and the armed forces need to make do with a shrinking pool of recruits. Relying on international cooperation is not a panacea to these challenges, but it will make the hit a little softer. Cooperation is, of course, not a one-way street. It enhances the safety of Finland, but Finns like to see themselves as reliable partners and providers of security and stability too. Once made, the assumed responsibilities are taken seriously, both in national defense and international cooperation.
Heljä Ossa is a researcher and doctoral student at the Department of Warfare in the Finnish National Defence University. In her doctoral dissertation, she focuses on European security and defense politics and how European strategic autonomy has been perceived by the United States. She is a co-author of NATO’s Burden-Sharing Disputes: Past, Present and Future Prospects (Palgrave 2022), written with Tommi Koivula.
Tommi Koivula Ph.D. works as professor of strategic and defense studies at the Finnish National Defence University. His current research areas include NATO, E.U. security and defense policy, and international relations theory. He is a frequent commentator in the Finnish broadcast media.
The views expressed here are those of the authors alone.
Image: Finnish Defence Forces