There is a requirement for more robust capabilities in the period preceding large-scale conventional war, as well as for the development of a military capable of truly joint operations.
Finland needs to engage in defence reform if it is to maintain a military capability that is relevant in the 21st century. Large, logistics-heavy units that cannot easily coordinate with others and that are armed with analogue-era weapons and communications systems will not deter an adversary; in the worst case, reliance on such units could lead to a miscalculation of the utility of military force.
Events in Ukraine have confirmed that Finland’s focus on territorial defence is correct – as it was for Georgia in 2008. Neither Georgia nor Ukraine had a credible conventional deterrent, either because of a lack of numbers (of troops) or a complete reliance on large, easily-mobilised reserves; both also suffered from less-than-unified domestic support for the use of the military. Events in Ukraine also confirmed that the reform of Russia’s armed forces has proceeded quickly during the past few years. The Russian military can now rapidly concentrate large numbers of capable forces, complete preparations for their deployment, and maintain the forces in the field for some time. The performance of these units and those supporting them is likely to improve during the next decade.
Moreover, the regional security equilibrium around the Baltic Sea has shifted during the past half-decade, partly as a result of Sweden’s catastrophically-reduced national defence capacity as well as Russia’s above-mentioned reforms. These two trends increase unpredictability and instability. Finland needs a “Defence Force for the 21st century” (Uuden Vuosisadan Puolustusvoimat) – independent of its overall security policy choices.
The Finnish Defence Forces (FDF) are in the midst of the most significant reorganisation since the end of the Second World War. The goal has been to balance structures with funding, and operations at the cost of necessary and planned procurements.
Until the past few years, when multiple budget cuts required rapid shifts in priorities, approximately a third of the €2.4-billion Finnish defence budget (1.4% of GDP) has gone to operations, personnel, and procurement. The conscription-based system sees more than 20,000 men and a few hundred women complete anywhere from 6 months to 12 months of training each year, resulting in a reserve of around 230,000 soldiers, at a cost much lower than for an all-volunteer force of similar size. Combined with an efficient procurement planning process, this has allowed Finland to acquire world-class capabilities during the past two decades.
Finland’s 60-plus F/A-18 Hornets have recently been upgraded and are now equal to any fighter in the region. The addition of American AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles (JASSM)–which only Australia and Finland have so far been allowed to purchase—further increases the contribution the Finnish Air Force now makes to the country’s defence. The Finnish Navy is small but currently composed of two highly modern ship classes, the Katanpää mine-clearance vessels and the small Hamina-class missile boats, as well as multiple other ship classes from large minelayers to small high-speed coastal troop transports.
Despite these significant reforms, some critical areas have been left untouched, partly because they require political support. The two most important components of the remaining needed reform are: (1) to increase the capability, especially of the Army, during the “grey stages” of a conflict before national emergency laws are put into effect and implemented; and (2) to create a truly joint Force, that is, one that is capable of continuous joint operations throughout Finnish territory.
Creating and maintaining forces which are truly joint requires changes in many spheres. At its most fundamental level, “joint” means that all forces – be they land, air, or naval, special operations forces, electronic warfare units, etc. – can work together at all times. This means that commanders can direct the use of all forces within their areas of responsibility, allowing them to change how a given problem is addressed in real time – for example by ordering jet fighters to destroy a different target in mid-flight, because the Navy ship originally tasked with the job now has to support infantry elsewhere, while electronic warfare capabilities are focused on supporting special forces operations.
While difficult to achieve, the ability to operate jointly is a fundamental requirement in any potential scenario in which Finland is called upon to use military force to defend itself. As a small country with limited resources, the different components of the Finnish military have historically had to cooperate to a far greater degree than those of larger countries’ armed forces. However, in modern warfare the ability to operate in a truly joint fashion greatly increases the effectiveness of defensive efforts while enabling greater flexibility in using forces across vast distances and changing terrain. The FDF cannot currently operate jointly. In the future they must be able to.
Creating the capability to operate in a joint fashion requires far more training than the current reserve force receives. Some argue that a reserve force cannot train enough to achieve “jointness.” Considering Finnish realities, it is possible to imagine a compromise in which a standing force and a smaller group of frequently trained reservists are combined with the larger, invasion-deterring reserve.
As the conflict in and around Ukraine shows, there is a need to have well-trained troops available prior to the escalation of a crisis into open warfare. The opaqueness of this “grey stage” of a conflict may make it difficult for politicians to activate emergency laws early enough. Prior to doing so, depending on Army training cycles, the Finnish government may have as few as a hundred trained ground troops to deploy within a 48-hour period. While by contrast the Finnish Air Force and Navy—which are primarily staffed by permanent personnel—can increase their activity levels, but only at a cost.
One possible solution to increase flexibility and lay the groundwork for a joint force is to slightly increase permanent staffing within the FDF, and to upgrade the status and capabilities of existing volunteer regional defence units (maakuntakomppaniat). A 10 percent increase in the permanent FDF staff, predominantly non-commissioned officers (NCOs), would enable the development of a permanent operational battalion. This force could credibly stop brigade-sized airborne or rapid-insertion units of a potential opponent.
In addition to this, the existing volunteer companies (each comprised of approximately. 170–180 soldiers) would see their training and capabilities increase significantly. Soldiers would train one day per week, with non-weapons gear being pre-distributed and weapons being located in centralised stores in city centres. The units could be activated by SMS or phone calls, with monthly drills to ensure that the process can be completed within a few hours. Notably, the standing force battalion and the significantly-upgraded volunteer companies could all be activated prior to government decisions on emergency laws.
Engaging in a defence reform programme with the goal of building a joint force that has robust capabilities during the “grey stages” of a conflict would significantly increase Finland’s capabilities in spheres that are relevant to 21st-century inter-state conflict. Based on recent events in the region, it is clear that such forces are needed and much more likely to be used than the full current 230,000-strong reserve. These events should increase the urgency of creating the “Defence Force for the 21st century”.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.