Making Allies: The crisis in Ukraine has added urgency to Finland's efforts to strengthen defense cooperation, said Defense Minister Carl Haglund. (BART MAAT/AFP)
HELSINKI — Finland’s surprise decision to move toward a historic defense pact with NATO is expected to bolster the country’s interest in acquiring F-35 aircraft to replace the F/A-18 Hornets in 2025-30.
Yet the government here is playing down local speculation that the April 22 memorandum of understanding (MoU) with NATO marks the beginning of a process toward membership within 10 years.
The MoU represents a landmark shift in Finland’s traditional defense policy of non-alignment and self-reliance. The proposed pact is to include a guarantee of NATO military support should Finnish territory be attacked.
Under the proposal, Finland would invest in a NATO-centered military organization able to interact with NATO militaries and conduct maintenance on NATO ships and aircraft, and provide facilities for fuel and equipment maintenance for land forces.
The Russian-instigated crisis in Ukraine adds urgency to Finland’s need to strengthen regional defense partnerships, said Finnish Defense Minister Carl Haglund.
“The [Ukraine] crisis will motivate many European countries, as well as EU states, to spend more on defense and raise their level of defense cooperation,” he said at a news conference here May 6.
Haglund said the MoU would not compel Finland to join NATO, but would establish a military interoperability agreement to deepen its relationship with the alliance beyond the existing Partnership for Peace cooperation pact.
“The peacetime element will focus on training exercises between our armed forces,” Haglund said. “It will mean, in principle, that in times of crisis we are better equipped to receive support from others, including NATO, the European Union and Nordic countries.”
Finland’s planned defense-enhancement pact with Sweden, the basis for which was agreed at a May 6 meeting here of Finnish and Swedish defense officials, adds a further dimension to its defense strengthening program.
The neighboring states will produce an interim joint investigation report by October identifying practical ways to pool defense resources and share tasks. A final report is due in January.
“We have agreed to a new framework to establish how best we can develop defense cooperation between the two countries,” Swedish Defense Minister Karin Enström said at the May 6 news conference. “There is a lot to look at, and a lot of potential exists to build a closer defense relationship.”
The investigation will examine nine core areas for closer collaboration, including common equipment procurement and joint multibranch exercises. The study also will examine creating joint air and naval units, as well as jointly purchasing corvettes or frigates.
A joint unit capability would enable Finland and Sweden to more effectively deploy troops with a common capability standard to participate in United Nations, EU or NATO-led crisis management operations, Haglund said.
“Although crisis management operations would be a primary role, common units would also provide the preconditions for joint action based on own independent decisions in relation to nearby crises,” he said.
Finland’s deepening defense pact with Sweden, which will be run under bilateral agreements and the general platform of Nordic defense cooperation, will not automatically boost interest in buying Saab Gripen-E combat jets, Haglund said.
“The Finnish Air Force must get the best equipment we can afford,” he said. “Our collaboration with Sweden must entail rational projects. This is not a question of industrial policy but of defense policy. While I advocate cooperation with Sweden, I do not see why we should buy Gripen fighters when we could acquire American F-35 stealth fighters for approximately the same price. Performance must take precedence in this investment.”
The MoD has not decided how many aircraft to buy, but special funding will be required and the replacement budget is expected to be set at a minimum of $7 billion.
Eero Heinäluoma, speaker of the Finnish Parliament, supports a Gripen buy. “That is not to say that there are no other contenders, but acquiring the Gripen would also provide substantial opportunities from Sweden on the industrial side,” Heinäluoma said.
The MoD defense-partnership initiative with NATO has divided opinion inside and outside government.
“We still do not know what precisely the pact under discussion will involve,” said Paavo Arhinmäki, leader of the Left Alliance party. “It was not openly discussed at Cabinet level during my time in government, or in the parliamentary Foreign and Security Committee where I was a member. We were left in the dark, and I was very surprised to learn of this NATO pact.”
The crisis in Ukraine is a “game-changing situation” that “has made a Finland-NATO pact more urgent,” said Pirkko Ruohonen-Lerner, chairman of the Finns Party’s Parliamentary Group. “Our armed forces already use a large amount of NATO-compatible equipment. A NATO pact will provide Finland with a life insurance policy if it finds itself in a tight spot.” ■