HELSINKI — The critical importance placed by Finnish and Swedish forces on sharpening their land and amphibious combat readiness was underlined by their participation in the NATO-led BALTOPS 2015 exercises focused on defending strategic positions and territories in the Baltic region.
BALTOPS gave Finnish and Swedish ground and amphibious units the opportunity to test equipment and hone mission skills as part of larger-scale forces that included units from nearby NATO states Denmark, Norway, Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
The combined land and amphibious operations were concentrated along the coastlines of Sweden and Poland, including locations in the northern and southern areas of the Baltic Sea, with several exercises taking place close to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, the gulf area sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania.
BALTOPS, which included a large US multibranch force among the 5,600 troops and 17 nations participating, carried a special significance for Finland and Sweden against a backdrop of unceasing tensions in the region ignited by Moscow's intervention in Ukraine.
Harassment by Russian forces in the region has also increased, including mock missile attacks and suspected submarine incursions to test the readiness of Finland's and Sweden's armed forces.
A more unpredictable Kremlin, coupled with the changed security situation, has culminated in a Swedish plan to refortify Gotland, Sweden's most forward-situated island in the Baltic Sea. Gotland is regarded as Sweden's first line of defense against a future attack from the east.
With this possible threat in mind, the Swedish government is examining ways to stretch the military's budget to potentially acquire long-range anti-ship missiles, battle tanks, heavy landing craft for amphibious forces, a modern long-range air-defense system and a bigger stock of NH-90 type anti-submarine warfare helicopters.
Moreover, the loss of Gotland in a coordinated invasion by enemy forces, and the placement there of long-range air-defense and anti-ship missile systems, would seriously inhibit US-led NATO air and naval forces from entering the Baltic Sea to aid NATO Baltic states under attack.
A captured and fortified Gotland, which holds a central location, could effectively deny NATO warships access to the Baltic Sea through the Danish Straits, while NATO aircraft would find it difficult to reach the Baltic-rim states.
The loss of Gotland would enable an enemy to virtually dominate all of Sweden using anti-air, anti-ship and tactical missiles, conceivably forcing Swedish warships to stay in port while grounding Swedish fighters and attack helicopters.
The refortified garrison on Gotland is expected to comprise at least one mechanized infantry unit equipped with CV-90 tracked infantry fighting vehicles, as well as tank, reconnaissance, UAV, artillery, anti-aircraft defense, logistics, engineering and amphibious companies.
In collaboration with NATO forces, Finland and Sweden are planning to use large-scale exercises, such as BALTOPS and Northern Coast, to battle-test and strengthen amphibious equipment and capabilities.
Finland hosted the Northern Coast 2014 exercises, which was jointly run by NATO and the European Union, while Sweden co-hosted BALTOPS 2015.
Sweden's decision to station an initial company-size garrison on Gotland comes in direct response to the heightened security threat in the Baltic Sea region. The continuing unease is elevated by mock attack operations by Russia, which are viewed as targeting Gotland to determine Swedish readiness and response times, particularly by Swedish fighter aircraft.
The latest incident, on Aug. 31, resulted in Sweden's Armed Forces Command scrambling JAS Gripen interceptors to identify and track two Russian Tu-22 fighter planes escorted by Su-27 aircraft, which flew to the east of Gotland.
"This was not a violation of our airspace, but we considered the aircraft to be of interest to us," command spokesman Jesper Tengroth said.
Swedish Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist had earlier noted the increased near-neighborhood military activity by Russian forces. Sweden, he said, is engaged in boosting the readiness and deployability of core units at a time when Russia is expanding the "content and scope" of exercises run out of Kaliningrad in the Baltic Sea and also in the Arctic High North.
Closer Swedish-Finn ties are expected to increase joint exercises by the existing Swedish-Finnish Amphibious Task Unit (SWEFIN-ATU), which comprises the Swedish 1st Amphibious Regiment and the Finnish Uusimaa Brigade Amphibious Task Unit.
SWEFIN-ATU was established to bolster amphibious strike capabilities while facilitating the deployment, if required, of a large-scale Swedish-Finnish force for crisis response.
There also is a proposal to establish a mission-based, modular type Swedish-Finnish Naval Task Group (SFNTG) for similar crisis response operations. The SFNTG would be able to conduct Arctic operations backed by logistics support units trained to operate in extreme climates.
It is envisaged that the SFNTG, which is expected to achieve initial operational capability in 2017, would conduct sea surveillance, exercises and include combined units. It would share infrastructure and be able to transfer operational control of units between the Swedish and Finnish navies.
A Swedish-Finnish Naval Task Group would also be able to operate together with SWEFIN-ATU and the Surveillance Cooperation Finland-Sweden joint collaboration vehicle. Established in 2006, it enables the Finnish and Swedish navies to share the maritime picture of defined areas in the northern Baltic Sea, including the Gulf of Finland.
The SWEFIN-ATU's organization and structure could be the basis to develop a Nordic-Baltic amphibious task force, a possibility being considered by Nordic and Baltic governments.
A Nordic-Baltic amphibious task force was first advanced as part of a military collaboration report presented by former Norwegian Defence Minister Thorvald Stoltenberg to Nordic governments in 2009.
Stoltenberg argued that a collective Nordic amphibious force would provide a more effective joint response to crisis situations regionally and internationally.
"It would meet the Nordic countries' own needs and also make them more attractive as cooperation partners in international operations. It would be essential for the unit to have an Arctic capability and logistic support adapted to Arctic conditions," Stoltenberg said.
Sweden's 1st Amphibious Regiment and Finland's Uusimaa Brigade Amphibious Task Unit were prominent in both BALTOPS and Northern Coast 2014 exercises.
The battle capability and readiness of both units, which are already assigned to the NATO Response Force, are regularly tested in large-scale interoperability exercises with NATO forces, including airborne and special forces units.
Joint amphibious operations with NATO are also serving to enhance interoperability of equipment, including the Uusimaa brigade's JEHU (U-700) landing craft and the 1st Amphibious Regiment's CB-90 fast assault combat craft.