As a nonaligned NATO partner that shares roughly 830 miles of border with Russia, Finland is keenly aware of the need to keep its national defense in top shape. It also has held the rotating presidency of the European Union for the last six months, with a focus on security issues, including artificial intelligence.

During a recent visit to Washington — his first to America since taking over as Finnish defense minister — Antti Kaikkonen talked with Defense News about keeping Finland in the know on cutting-edge military technology.

Finland has used the EU presidency to host discussions on artificial intelligence development, both technically and ethically. How important is AI for the Finnish Ministry of Defence?

First of all, it’s something that is still more or less rising on our agenda, an issue for the whole of Europe, the whole world as well. We have to put focus on these issues, and perhaps discuss the ethics of AI, for example, some kind of regulation in this area.

These are not simple questions at all but something that should be discussed and try to find a common consensus. We are putting quite a lot of resources to cyber, and I see AI as part of cyber. We are hiring about 200 experts in cyber in the near future. Some of them are already there, but [it’s] about that [number].

How do you balance traditional defense investments with new technologies?

This is always something that’s difficult to separate, [saying] these are high-tech, cyber, these are traditional, where we invest. We invest [a lot] on new fighters, they are quite high-tech. We have quite strong artillery as well, and when upgrading this it is also a question of high tech. This cyber program we have will invest about 200 personnel and about €200 million (U.S. $222 million) for this, so a rather big investment for us. Of course, we try to use our monies wisely.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, center, welcomes Finnish Defence Minister Antti Kaikkonen, right, and Swedish Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist at the Pentagon on Dec. 10, 2019. (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, center, welcomes Finnish Defence Minister Antti Kaikkonen, right, and Swedish Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist at the Pentagon on Dec. 10, 2019. (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

A decision on your next-generation fighter is expected in 2021. The government recently emphasized to industry that the budget targets are actually harder budget requirements. What was the thinking there?

That was the plan from the beginning, to work on this process like this so everybody knows approximately how much we are ready to invest. And we’ll see what kind of package we get from each of these fighter producers. It’s not only the planes, it’s the whole system which will be included here, and then we are going to [be] deliberate: Which is the best offer for us for this price? They have different packages and systems. We have 62 F-18 hornets, so it’s interesting to see how many planes we will get with this amount of money. What is the total they can afford? We feel we have good cooperation with all the five [competitors], and everyone is taking the process seriously. We have five good, but different, options here.

The EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation defense project initiative is roughly 2 years old. What lessons have you learned so far?

We’ve found it useful. We are not in so many projects, about 10, and some of those were observers. We are not at the top, but not at the bottom, if you compare other European countries in terms of PESCO projects. These are quite new, but looking forward to this cooperation. I think there will be use of these projects, this cooperation. We’re looking at a new project based on space capabilities. Military mobility is a good example of cooperation, with good results.

Obviously NATO and the EU are the big entities, but it seems there a bunch of regional defense agreements — whether regional, as in looking southward or to the Arctic — or smaller multinational agreements, like the trilateral agreement between the U.S., Finland and Sweden. Are you worried about a splintering of regional focus for European defense?

It’s more a natural reaction [to the state of the world]. Indeed there are different groups, and we’ll see which of those strengthens. Perhaps some of those will disappear or fade in the future. There are activities in many different defense policy organizations.

At the same we have more and more discussions on the EU defense policy, more resources coming to that also. It has been said many times that Europe should take more responsibility of its defense, and we do that in Europe, but at the same time we need that trans-Atlantic link in the future. So it is beneficial for both parties here. I don’t see any rapid, major changes in European defense policy, but we are going forward.

In the Baltic Sea, what are you seeing in terms of it being a war-fighting theater? Is it just status quo? And is Finland positioned well enough to deal with potential issues in the region?

I wouldn’t estimate any rapid changes, but as you know the world has become very difficult to foresee. There are tensions, more than before, more than 2014. But lately I would say no rapid changes in the region. In that sense, it’s stable at the moment.

We try to be ready for many kind of different situations. In that sense, yes, but of course Finland’s main task is to take care of Finland’s own security. But we have different security structures, and everything is connected, more or less, to each other. We are more ready than in past years.