HELSINKI — Finland's Ministry of Defence is blocking direct lobbying efforts by companies vying for its fighter replacement contract to add greater transparency to the selection and decision-making process.

The block mechanism will effectively curtail direct approaches by aircraft manufacturers, or lobbyists hired to represent them on their behalf, in connection with all forms of marketing efforts linked to the Finnish Air Force's HX Fighter Replacement Program, or HX-FRP.

All contenders for the fighter program contract, including Boeing (F/A-18), BAE Systems (Eurofighter Typhoon), Saab (JAS Gripen), Dassault Aviation (Rafale) and Lockheed Martin (F-35), have recruited Finland-based specialist lobbying and public relations agencies to represent their special interests.

Moreover, the five European and U.S. fighter aircraft suppliers have contracted former senior Finnish military officers to help them develop sales strategies and add energy to their separate marketing efforts.

Finnish Defence Minister Jussi Niinistö said the MoD's position on direct lobbying adds more transparency to the overall tendering and competition process.

"The defense minister does not take meetings with lobbyists. The reasons are well understood by them. The ministry's staff may have contact with manufacturing representatives but solely as a normal part of their duties," Niinistö said.

Depending on the aircraft type and number of units acquired, the HX-FRP could carry an estimated project value of between $15 billion and $20 billion. This estimate includes the purchase of primary weapons systems and 30-year aircraft life cycle costs. 

The HX-FRP sets out to replace the operational capability of the Air Force's F/A-18 aircraft. The service plans to phase out its fleet of 60 F/A-18 Hornets from 2025. A call for tender is scheduled to be dispatched by the MoD during the first half of 2018. The MoD is expected to deliver a procurement decision in 2021.

Finnish security 'has taken a turn for the worse'

The MoD will employ a similar lobbying block on procurement programs connected to the modernization of the Finnish Defence Forces.

The Defence Forces' modernization drive gained momentum Feb. 16 when the MoD presented a defense policy report that flagged a plan to scale up Finland's total wartime end strength from 230,000 to 280,000 troops.

The report outlined a Defence Forces plan to develop a national military organization with integrated cross-service rapid reaction offensive units.

"The increase is about 20 percent of the existing wartime strength level. We already have the basic equipment for these extra troops," Niinistö said.

The Finnish government is primed to make spending decisions exceeding $20 billion in relation to key, large-scale procurement programs over the next five years. These include the HX project and the modernization of the Navy's surface warfare fleet.

Despite public finance constraints, Finland will find the money to modernize its armed forces and build a credible defense infrastructure, said Finance Minister Petteri Orpo.

"The world is unfortunately in a situation that forces us to improve our security. Finland's security situation has taken a turn for the worse and we need to respond to ensure that we have the right levels of capability," Orpo said.

The Navy's $2 billion modernization plan will include the replacement of its Rauma-class missile boats and Hämeenmaa-class minelayers. Much of the Navy's present surface fleet is set to be decommissioned from 2025.

Finland's defense policy report also discusses its intention to deepen its defense cooperation with the U.S., NATO, the European Union and its closest Nordic neighbor, Sweden. Finnish cooperation with NATO is based on a nonaligned military policy.

Finland's deepening of military collaboration with international partners is taking place against a backdrop of general unease in the region over Russia's growing unpredictability and the Kremlin's continued muscle-flexing in the High North and Baltic Sea areas.

"Finland's defense system will be developed in such a manner as not to create any practical impediments to possible membership in a military alliance," Niinistö said.

Although the door to possible membership of NATO will remain open, the Finnish government is unlikely to move in this direction without majority public support and the holding of a referendum to decide the membership issue.

In respect of Nordic defense, Finland will not set predetermined limits on deepening bilateral military cooperation with Sweden. According to the defense policy report, collaboration with Sweden could potentially extend to "collective self-defense."

The latest popular poll on NATO, released Feb. 15, found that 51 percent of Finns remain opposed to joining the alliance, with 21 percent favoring membership. Twenty-eight percent expressed no opinion.

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