27 May 2022

James Hackett
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The starting gun appears to have been fired in a process that will see Finland and Sweden joining NATO, as the leaders of Finland declared on 12 May that they wish their country to become a member ‘without delay’. Russia’s 2022 assault on Ukraine has driven this forward. There may be hurdles ahead, but both Finland and Sweden had already started sharpening their focus on defence following Russia’s initial 2014 invasion of Ukraine. In recent years both have increased their international defence cooperation, including with NATO and its member states. However, taking this further major step towards NATO membership will see increased focus on the two countries’ defence capabilities, how they will develop, and how they could integrate into the Alliance structure.

Strengthening ties Finland and Sweden's already close bilateral defence ties have grown even stronger. A memorandum of understanding on defence cooperation was signed in 2018. The intent was to lay the foundation for military cooperation and combined operations. According to a defence ministerial joint statement in March 2022, both countries ‘are prepared to act together in peacetime and beyond it. We have bilateral operation plans and contingency measures, enabling us to coordinate our actions in times of crisis and war.’

Defence cooperation with other states has also increased. NORDEFCO (comprising Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden) is a key forum for improving defence cooperation in the Nordic region. Under NORDEFCO’s ‘Vision 2025’ document, cooperation should apply not just in peacetime but also in time of crisis or conflict. There have also been a number of statements of intent aimed at deepening defence ties between Nordic states, as well as between Finland, Sweden and the United States in 2018, and a series of bilateral defence agreements, including between both nations and the US. Nordic and Baltic states are also members of the United Kingdom-led Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF). The JEF countries worked together in 2021 in Sweden during Exercise Joint Protector 2021, and further exercises are planned in 2022 and 2023. The UK has also just signed ‘mutual security’ pacts with both Finland and Sweden.

There is already close cooperation with NATO in several areas. Both Finland and Sweden are Enhanced Opportunity Partners and have signed host nation support agreements with NATO. They joined the Partnership for Peace programme in 1994 and have contributed to Alliance-led operations and numerous exercises. There have also been procurement ties with NATO members.

Capability enhancements Equipment procurement collaboration has hitherto been limited to certain high value capabilities, with Finland buying more from abroad than Sweden, given the latter’s traditional defence-manufacturing base. However, this changed after Russia’s actions in 2014: like political-military ties, defence equipment cooperation is now developing in multiple areas.

In Finland, for instance, defence equipment ties with the US have long existed, not least because of the air force’s use since the 1990s of McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) F/A-18C/D Hornet combat aircraft. But the government’s decision to acquire 64 Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II combat aircraft to meet the air force’s HX combat aircraft procurement takes these ties and, potentially, interoperability with the US as well as other key European F-35 operators to a new level. At the same time, the defence ministry’s other main procurement, to meet the Squadron 2020 project for a new class of four multi-role corvettes intended to replace four Rauma-class guided-missile patrol boats and two Hämeenmaa-class minelayers, has been delayed. The Swedish Navy, meanwhile, is grappling with decisions on upgrades to its existing small fleet, including the Visby-class corvettes and possible follow-on platforms. These processes could be influenced by the new prism of NATO membership, for example the need to consider not just local naval defence but also potentially wider sea lines of communication.

Russia’s long-range weapons have focused political and military minds in Finland and Sweden and, long before talk of closer alignment with NATO, have spurred capability procurements designed to address these threats. Finland has in recent years fitted its Hornets with the Lockheed Martin AGM-158 JASSM stand-off land-attack missile. If these are integrated onto its F-35s, the country’s strike capabilities will be further improved. So too will the acquisition from the US of Extended-range Guided Multiple Launch Rocket Systems. In Sweden, meanwhile, the integration of the MBDA Meteor long-range air-to-air missile significantly boosted the operational capacity of the air force’s Gripen aircraft, which are themselves being upgraded to the new E variant, while mooted plans to also develop an air-launched cruise missile would deliver an additional long-range strike dimension to Sweden’s air capability. Sweden is also involved in the UK-led Tempest programme to develop a new combat aircraft and associated air systems.

There is also greater focus on air and missile defence. In late October 2020 Finnish authorities sent invitations to tender to five firms for a project to develop a high-altitude air-defence system; two Israeli firms are still in the running, with a decision to be made in 2023. In November 2021, Sweden received the Patriot air-defence system, and is due to test this with NATO states in Exercise Ramstein Legacy in June 2022.

Alliance integration Debate and negotiation over Finland and Sweden’s integration into NATO will likely now only intensify. This may to some extent affect the two states’ integration with each other. Finland is already spending 2% of its national income on defence, while Sweden is aiming to do so, and may accelerate this. Clearly, both will bring some valuable capabilities into the NATO mix, albeit in relatively small numbers when it comes to equipment.

There will undoubtedly be discussions on how they link into Alliance commitments like regional air policing, enhanced forward presence and multinational battle groups, and NATO standing naval groups, as well as how all this might affect some future procurement choices. These will be issues for national defence planners in Finland and Sweden as well as NATO planners. Key considerations are the substantial additional territorial defence commitment that this new enlargement will involve for the Alliance, but also what kind of NATO actors Finland and Sweden will be and how their membership will affect the strategic balance of the increasingly joined up and significant region of the Baltic, the north-west European flank, and the High North.

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