How Sweden and Finland Can Bolster NATO
When the USS Kearsarge anchored in central Stockholm, it was a mighty sight to behold. Thousands of locals and tourists looked with awe as the ship dominated the surrounding city landscape. It served as a grand visual illustration of the huge shift that has taken place in Swedish security policy since Russia launched its illegal and unprovoked full-scale invasion of Ukraine. When both Sweden and Finland eventually become NATO members, it will open hitherto unreachable opportunities for Nordic defense cooperation. This will in turn offer both wider and deeper options for strengthened deterrence and security in Northern Europe. It could also serve as a template for other smaller states to follow on how to work together to maximize their military potential.
Based mainly on their different experiences during World War II, the Nordic countries had for a long time chosen different ways to deal with their perceived security challenges. Denmark, Iceland, and Norway have been part of NATO since the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949. Sweden and Finland for various reasons remained outside of any military alliances.
There were indeed Swedish-led efforts to launch a Nordic Defense Pact shortly after World War II, but this was turned down by Denmark, Iceland, and Norway as being insufficient to guarantee their security. Meanwhile, Finland had few options in the aftermath of fighting two wars with the Soviet Union. It had survived World War II with its independence intact, but its freedom of maneuver in foreign and security policy was severely restricted. Because of the settlement after the war, there were strict limits on the size and structure of the Finnish armed forces, although these were loosened with time. Sweden, on the other hand, had with great difficulty managed to stay outside of World War II and saw a Nordic Defense Pact as the best option for the Nordic states in the new great power confrontation. When this initiative failed, Sweden decided to maintain a policy of military non-alignment, with the intent to declare neutrality in case of a conflict between NATO and the Soviet Union. A decisive factor in this decision was to discourage the Soviet Union from making further encroachments on Finnish sovereignty. The idea being that if this were to happen, Sweden would find it necessary to move closer politically and militarily to NATO.
Regardless of the aforementioned chosen security doctrines among the Nordic countries, they still managed to develop strong relations in the field of defense, especially after the Cold War. This was helped by Sweden and Finland both becoming members of the European Union (1995) as well as NATO’s Partnership for Peace initiative (1994). The most thorough attempt to deepen relations was taken through the creation of the Nordic Defence Cooperation. It was started in 2010 based on a Swedish-Norwegian initiative and built on existing structures and forms of cooperation between the Nordic countries in international crisis management. The initial level of ambition was largely about resource efficiency through merged activities and various attempts at so-called pooling and sharing, i.e. joint management of certain capabilities and attempts to find mutual defense economic synergies and collaborations. However, there was a constant need for maneuvering around the fundamental differences in terms of security policy, i.e. basically the issue of membership and non-membership of NATO. The extensive changes in the security policy agenda that took place in 2014 with Russia’s illegal seizure of Crimea and the war in Eastern Ukraine deepened cooperation between the Nordic countries even further. In 2018, the Nordic defense ministers adopted a common new vision for 2025, where a central point consists of cooperation in peace, crisis, and conflict. That is a completely new level of ambition compared with before. Consequently, regardless of the differences between each country’s security doctrine, there is already well-functioning Nordic defense and security cooperation. This reflects a common view on the threats we face, as well as the values, interests, and interdependencies we share. It is important to note that the geostrategic starting points for Nordic military planning intertwine when it comes to issues such as terrain, infrastructure, and airspace. In these areas, a large part of the collaboration is carried out within the framework of Nordic Defence Cooperation.
However, Nordic defense and security cooperation has not been limited to this framework. It also exists various bi- and trilateral structures. For Sweden, the most far-reaching of these collaborations is with Finland. There are now common Swedish-Finnish military strategic and operational concepts, joint operational planning, and even the development of a Swedish-Finnish amphibious task group. There are constant exercises between our two countries’ defense forces and commanders know each other on a first-name basis from the strategic to the tactical unit level. In a short time and based on common interests, a kind of “interoperability of minds” has developed. Both Sweden and Finland have for a long time participated in NATO exercises, such as the biannual Cold Response exercise in Norway. In addition, Sweden, Finland, and the United States are working on issues of common interest. Recently, a new Swedish-Finnish-Norwegian framework for cooperation has also emerged where the objectives have clear military-strategic links. This deepened trilateral cooperation is based on a joint declaration of intent from September 2020. Worth mentioning is also an emerging cooperation between Denmark, Norway, and Sweden as well as the fact that all Nordic nations are also taking active part in the U.K.-led Joint Expeditionary Force.
Russia’s illegal, unprovoked, and brutal full-scale invasion of Ukraine has led to fundamental reassessments of defense and security policies in both Sweden and Finland. This culminated in synchronized applications to join NATO in May, which were recognized by the alliance at the Madrid Summit in June. It should be noted as well that Denmark, as a direct consequence of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, has opened up for deeper bilateral defense cooperation with the United States and has opted in to the European Union’s defense and security policies, which is also a major shift in the Nordic region. If all 30 legislatures of the NATO allies decide to ratify Sweden’s and Finland’s applications to join the alliance, enormous potential in expanding defense and security cooperation between the Nordic countries will emerge, which would benefit the security of the alliance and Europe as a whole.
There have been some critical voices pointing at the vast Swedish and Finnish landmass that will have to be covered by the North Atlantic Treaty. This is of course true, but pointing at the geostrategic realities of the Nordic region, a joint and combined foundation built on NATO membership would offer a credible and coherent basis for effective joint operational planning. This would also enable realistic logistical planning as well as numerous options for a coordinated approach on, for example, the reception, staging, onward movement, and integration of multinational forces. Both the Swedish and Finnish Armed Forces are already today designed and developed for taking full responsibility for their own security and defense. Through NATO membership they will offer possibilities to optimize plans for the defense of the Nordic-Baltic region.
With Sweden and Finland in NATO, the previous barriers to joint planning would be lifted and it would allow the Nordic armed forces to bring a coherent input to NATO’s operational planning, as well as to plan for ”sub-Article 5” activities and operations with each other and also non-Nordic allies. There are several strategic areas that compose the Nordic-Baltic theater of operations: the High North, the passages into the Baltic Sea, the island of Gotland, and the Northern Sea with the sea lines to and from the Swedish west coast.
Looking at the geostrategic realities of the Nordic region, one can easily see that it interlinks the Arctic and the North Atlantic with the Baltic Sea region. Thus they have to be perceived as one coherent strategic entity regardless of the security policy preferences of the respective countries. Narrowing down to issues of more operational character, one should, for example, take a look at the infrastructure on the North Calotte to realize the interdependencies between Finland, Norway, and Sweden in the context of joint operations in sub Arctic conditions. Moreover, the security and trafficability of the well-known Baltic approaches to and from the North Sea as well as in and out of the Baltic Sea through the Danish Straits, require close coordination between Denmark, Norway, and Sweden in both the maritime and air domains. Open sea lines of communication to the Swedish West Coast including the harbor of Gothenburg (which by far is the harbor of the Nordic region with the biggest capacity), is of extremely high relevance for the whole Nordic-Baltic area, both for military purposes as well as for the security of supply and flow of goods to and from the whole of the Nordic-Baltic region. Each of these are critical and concern all Nordic states. This would be of immense benefit for NATO in ensuring the provision of goods, services, and equipment as well as the transport of troops to the Baltic Sea region. In all these areas, Swedish and Finnish NATO membership will enable much deeper planning and preparations to deal with any contingencies.
The Nordic countries all have very capable defense industries as well as a strong innovative culture based on high educational standards as well as permissive conditions for start-up companies. For example, Sweden produces high-end systems such as the JAS Gripen fighter aircraft, while Norway is the developer of the F-35’s Joint Strike Missile. Now, when it comes to Nordic cooperation on capability development, there is certainly a need for a good dose of humility and realism. For example, problems within Norwegian-Swedish military cooperation that have historically arisen have generally been linked to extensive materiel projects. In these contexts, a certain naivety and lack of understanding regarding each country’s national starting points and interests have tended to create some tensions when the aforementioned projects have failed to deliver. But there are more positive (albeit modest) stories as well, such as with the ongoing Swedish-Finnish joint procurement of small arms.
The shared security policy foundation that would follow with Swedish and Finnish membership in NATO might help to foster a more coherent Nordic approach on capability development, as well as with coordinating policy positions in different international settings. Future Nordic capability development can be done through joint industrial projects, further niche specializations, and sharing of resources to create both operational and economies-of-scale effects, for example with exercising and training of forces. This would mean that some of the earliest ambitions of modern Nordic defense cooperation could become more realistic. One of the biggest gains could perhaps be found in areas related to new and emerging technologies. In these areas, it is possible that there are not yet any entrenched national interests that would conflict with each other, unlike with more advanced platforms and systems. This will of course all likely have to be harmonized with developments on both the European and global markets for defense and security related products.
A More Secure Transatlantic Community
We have noted questions whether Swedish and Finnish accession to NATO would lessen the focus on security in other geographic areas of concern to the alliance. These are legitimate concerns that we would like to address. It is true that first and foremost the contributions from a Swedish perspective would be towards collective defense in the Baltic Sea region and the High North. This is a simple fact of geography. But it also aligns with clear NATO priorities since the 2014 Wales Summit and onwards. Both Sweden’s and Finland’s accession to the alliance, would (as we have argued) make operational planning and preparations for collective defense scenarios easier, which in turn would enhance deterrence.
This does not mean, though, that Sweden should be viewed as being oblivious to the threats and security challenges in other parts of the alliance nor that Sweden or any other Nordic state is disinterested in the development of European capabilities. For example, all Nordic countries hold a strong record for commitment to international peace and security through the United Nations, NATO, the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, as well as coalitions of the willing. Just recently Sweden contributed with a substantial special forces contingent to the French-led Task Force Takuba in the Sahel. Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden are all members of the European Intervention Initiative and, as previously noted, the Danish electorate just voted to end Denmark’s opt-out from E.U. defense and security policy. It is safe to say then that as a NATO member Sweden would take its responsibilities and duties towards all of its allies seriously. This includes subscribing to the importance of nuclear deterrence as a core part of NATO’s doctrines, concepts, and policies.
The Nordic states have previously been highlighted as a role model for other subregions in how to deepen cooperation in the defense and security realm. With a Swedish and Finnish accession to NATO, there will be even greater opportunities to harmonize, coordinate, and even integrate defense policies and maximize the aggregate collective military potential of the Nordic states. This could both be a strategic bulwark in Northern Europe and a template for other U.S. allies to replicate. The Nordic states can help in showing that cooperation between smaller states who share a similar cultural, political, and economic heritage can be a force multiplier, which would be a win for the United States and NATO as a whole. Even without identical security allegiances, the Nordic states have come far in working together, and if all five are in NATO, the future is promising.
Lt. Gen. Michael Claesson is the chief of joint operations of the Swedish Armed Forces. He has previously served as chief of the policy and plans department in the Defense Staff, military adviser in the foreign and defense ministries, and commanding officer of the Swedish military contingent in Afghanistan. He is also a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of War Science. He is a co-author of the book Strategic Choices — The Future of Swedish Security. He was recently appointed by the Swedish government to become chief of the Defence Staff at the start of 2023.
Zebulon Carlander is the program manager for Security Policy at the non-governmental organization Society & Defense. He has previously co-edited a book on Swedish defense policy and also serves as an infantry squad leader in the Swedish Army Reserves. He is a co-author of the book Strategic Choices — The Future of Swedish Security and he is currently working on a new book about the role of nuclear weapons in international security policy.