On 8 May 2018, the Finnish and Swedish Ministers of Defense, Jussi Niinistö and Peter Hultqvist, met with U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis at the Pentagon.
There, after a full honor greeting with a 19 gun salute welcoming the two Nordic Ministers, the three defense leaders signed a Trilateral Statement of Intent (SOI) to improve and solidify the defense cooperation between the three countries.
The SOI, in the words of the press release from the Pentagon, “will enhance the defense relationship in seven areas including defense policy dialogue, policy military-level interoperability, expanded regional situational awareness, strengthened capabilities and posture, combined multinational operations, strategic communications, and U.S.-NATO-EU cooperation.” The SOI is also meant to deepen and expand on the bilateral defense agreements signed between Finland and Sweden in 2014, Sweden and the United States in 2016, and Finland and the United States also in 2016.
It should be noted that the SOI is not a legally binding commitment between the United States, Finland, and Sweden under international or national law. However, the three co-signers believe that the deepened defense relationships are promoting security in the Baltic Sea region by “reinforcing transatlantic linkages, strengthening stability in northern Europe, and building interoperability between the United States and two of its most capable and likeminded partners”.
To achieve those objectives, the U.S. DoD and the MODs of Finland and Sweden intend to conduct cooperative activities including, but not limited to: “regular trilateral meetings on all levels, including study groups; exchanges of information at all levels; increasing practical cooperation between our respective armed forces; coordinated participation in training and exercises; shaping exercise design to reflect trilateral cooperation priorities where appropriate; development of cooperation in multinational operations; coordination of strategic communication concerning incidents and activities as appropriate; and the enhancement of the EU-NATO strategic partnership.”
It is important to recognize that the existing bilateral agreements have already allowed close cooperation in arranging military exercises in land, air, and sea. For example, at the very same time that the SOI was signed in Washington, DC, there was an offensive Finnish armored troops exercise codenamed Arrow 18 being carried out in the Niinisalo training grounds in Western Finland, consisting of more than 3200 Finnish, U.S., and Norwegian soldiers. It was the first time ever the M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks were exercising in Finland.
As to the future military exercises, the Finnish Air Force has announced that a Finnish contingent will be participating in the Red Flag 2018 exercise this October at Nellis Air Base in Nevada – another first – and Finnish Defense Minister Niinistö is on record declaring that a major exercise will be taking place in Finland in early 2020’s, perhaps in 2021, similar to the Swedish exercise Aurora 2017 with its almost 20 000 participants.
The technical arrangements needed for these exercises have been produced through the provision of the Host Nation Support (HNS) Memorandum of Understanding. The new SOI just brings together the substance of the earlier agreements and aims to ensure that there are no overlapping activities and that competitive situations are avoided in international training exercises.
In a seminar arranged by the Swedish Embassy after the SOI signing ceremony, Secretary Mattis praised Finland and Sweden for “providing a steady anchor of stability in a region more tense as a result of Russia’s unfortunate, unproductive and destabilizing choices from Ukraine to Syria”, and the Finnish and Swedish defense leaders lauded “the increased stability through a heightened U.S. military presence in Northern Europe”.
Alexander Vershbow, former Deputy Secretary-General of NATO, recognized the high praise amply due to the three countries for their efforts at stabilizing the Baltic Sea region, but quipped: “Wouldn’t it all be far simpler if Finland and Sweden were members of NATO?”