Scandinavian military security must be seen as a whole where all countries concerned, Norway, Sweden and Finland are heavily dependent on each other in case of a war in the region. A fact quite seldom discussed or analysed in depth. Something that is quite surprising as it has implications not just for the Scandinavian countries but also for NATO´s possibilities to defend Europe.
The current debate is mostly narrowly concentrated on the problems connected with NATO´s possibilities to defend the Baltic States, focusing on the Baltic Sea and nearby territories. This obscuring the problems connected with the defence of Norway and Finland, and how that might influence operations in the whole region.
That Sweden will be affected by Russian military actions in connection with an armed conflict in the Baltic States is self-evident. NATO has to use Swedish air space to defend its alliance members Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. To have access also to Swedish land and sea territory would give further advantages. For example basing antisubmarine assets or long range air defence systems on Swedish territory to reduce Russian freedom of action in the Baltic Sea. Russian planners are of course aware of this and would do whatever needed to prevent this. One obvious option is to “borrow” Swedish territory to deploy long range anti air and anti-ship missiles. Thereby making it difficult for NATO operate in and over the Baltic Sea. In reality creating a “wall” cutting off the Baltic States from the west, except the narrow corridor between Poland and Lithuania, which can be closed by Russian forces deployed in the Kaliningrad exclave.
Despite Finland not being a member of NATO it probably would be dragged it into a war where NATO has to defend the Baltic States. Due to its geographic location it acts as a flank guard for both Norway and Sweden, to a large extent blocking Russian possibilities to conduct operations against northern Norway and the northern half of Sweden. Thus making it a common interest for both countries and NATO, to support Finnish defence efforts.
Finland having substantial military assets on its own, an army consisting of some 280 000 soldiers plus large reserves of trained personnel, an air force consisting of 60 fighter aircraft and a navy well suited for operations in the Finnish archipelago, will not be a walk over for Russia. Nevertheless Finland will be dependent on outside support to be able to sustain a prolonged war effort. In some areas, as advanced munitions, support probably will be needed quite early. If NATO could render support with weapons systems as combat helicopters and advanced drones, systems that the Finnish armed forces doesn´t have in its own inventory, that would probably also be most welcome.
Although Finland has a well organised “economic defence” with stockpiles of food and other vital necessities a modern society will have great problems if its industry is cut off from the outside world. This leads to perhaps Finland´s greatest vulnerability – its dependence on reasonably safe lines of communications, by sea, air and land. If there is an armed conflict in the Baltic Sea region it is very probable that more or less all shipping to and from Finland will cease. Thereby affecting approximately 80 % of Finland´s trade. Finland would become totally dependent on what could be transported through Sweden or in Swedish airspace.
This interdependence; Finland protecting the northern half of Sweden and Sweden keeping lines of communication open to Finland unfortunately hasn´t been given enough consideration in Swedish defence planning. This of course also has great implications for Finland´s possibilities to receive help from NATO.
In the nineteen-thirties, there were plans to support Finland by sending Swedish forces and weapons to Finland in case it was attacked by the Soviet Union. The plans to support Finland with ground troops were never implemented, a fact that still to some degree plays a role in discussions regarding Finnish-Swedish military cooperation. Regardless of not wanting to participate in a war when the Soviet Union attacked Finland in 1939 it was not just out of solidarity with a small neighbour that Sweden in 1939/40 provided Finland with 25 fighter planes (every fourth plane in the Swedish air force), 144 pieces of artillery, 135 000 rifles and 51 million cartridges. Finland´s role as a “flank guard” for Sweden was fully understood. During the Cold War the plans were less ambitious but it was still very clear to the Swedish government, as well as in Finland, that the defence of Finland also was a part of the defence of Sweden, and that it was in the interest of both countries to support each other. In the sixties and seventies when both countries operated the same type of jet fighters, the SAAB 35 Draken, Sweden kept a number of Drakens, officially a part of the Swedish air force, in store that could be transferred to Finland on short notice. At the same time Finland had a larger number of trained pilots than necessary just to fly the then existing Finnish planes (at the time Finland was forbidden to have more than 60 fighter aircraft according to the Finnish- Soviet peace treaty of 1947). Such options don´t exist anymore. Sweden has nothing to spare if there would be a serious crisis or a war in the region.
The scope of the problem today can be illustrated by some of the challenges Sweden faces if also the needs of Finland would be incorporated in Swedish defence planning. To keep sea lanes to the Swedish west coast, Gothenburg (see map above) and other harbours, is not just a necessity for Sweden to be able to export and import goods or receive military help for purely national reasons, it also becomes a part of protecting its northern flank by helping Finland to sustain its war effort without being dependent on sea lanes in the Baltic. Presently Swedish capabilities to keep sea lanes and harbours open on its west coast are very limited. The naval resources for mine hunting and anti-submarine warfare needed don´t exist, if you are not prepared to move the few existing assets from the Baltic to the west coast. Leaving the east coast (the Baltic) devoid of naval capabilities. The reserve alternative if the Swedish west coast can´t be reached for one reason or other, for instance that the narrow sea lanes through the archipelago have been mined, is the Norwegian harbour Trondheim.
The next step, regardless if the goods comes by sea to Gothenburg or Trondheim, is land transport across Sweden, either to harbours in the Gulf of Bothnia or across the Swedish-Finnish land border in the far north. In the first case, sea transport across the Gulf of Bothnia, both harbours and sea lanes have to be protected for the goods to reach Finland. Here the Aaland Islands, between Finland and Sweden, play a crucial role. Whoever can deploy forces there, will be in control of the inlets to the Gulf of Bothnia.
When it comes to getting goods across the Finnish-Swedish land border isn´t just a question of long and vulnerable land transports, the distance from Gothenburg on the Swedish west coast to the border crossing at Haparanda in northern Sweden is 1366 kilometres. It also a question of being able to defend the northern parts of both Finland and Sweden, exactly those parts of both countries that Russia would like to use to be able to operate against NATO forces and installations in Norway.
Apart from mainly military capabilities needed it is also clear that Swedish war time planning when comes to plan for the capacity and sustainability of the Swedish transport system, bridges, roads and railways etc. it has to take Finnish needs in to consideration, not only Swedish national needs
Equally important as securing sea and land communications also air corridors over Sweden have to be kept open. Although the amount of goods that can be transported by air is limited, compared with sea transports, it is a crucial component as it makes it possible to provide vital, especially military, goods to Finland very fast. It is also a way to facilitate NATO air operations in support of Finland by reducing the need for NATO to allocate resources to protect its air assets when overflying Sweden. A strong air Swedish air defence is therefore also a vital Finnish (and NATO) interest. Here one has to take Swedish geography in to consideration. Sweden is, in a European context, a very long country. The distance from its northern tip to its southernmost parts is approximately the distance between Copenhagen and Rome, some 1600 kilometres. Unfortunately the two areas most likely to be attacked are in the opposite ends of the country. The southern part of Sweden in connection with Russian operations in the Baltic States, northern Sweden in connection with Russian operations aiming at northern Norway. Existing Swedish air defence assets, fighters and ground based air defence systems, might be just enough to handle one of these directions, definitely not both simultaneously. Making it very doubtful if any air corridors to Finland can be kept open without neglecting other vital tasks.
The main reason why northern Norway is of such great importance is the strategic role of Russian assets based on the Kola Peninsula. Apart from being the home of Russia´s ballistic missile submarines forming a crucial part of Russia´s second strike capability, it is also the staging area for conventional operations in the Norwegian Sea and the Atlantic.
In the first case, the strategic ballistic submarines, Russia might have an interest in increasing the depth of the defence zone around the Kola peninsula by deploying air defence systems as far west as possible, in case of a crisis or a war. By deploying such systems for example in northern Sweden the depth would increase by some 500 kilometres. Such a move would affect NATO´s air operations in the far north, both when it comes to using bases in northern Norway but also put restrictions on how to use airspace. This would also affect NATO´s possibilities to support naval operations aiming at keeping track of the Russian ballistic submarines in the Barents Sea and the Norwegian Sea.
The second reason for Russia to try to influence, if possible stop, NATO´s air and sea operations from bases in northern Norway is equally important. During the Cold War one of the main tasks of the submarines and long-range aircraft based on the Kola Peninsula was to try to cut the sea lanes across the Atlantic, thereby making it impossible to ship reinforcements from the US to Europe, REFORGER (REturn of FOrces to GERmany). After the Cold war this concept was abandoned by NATO as war planning for a conflict in Europe was seen as irrelevant. The breakup of the Soviet Union and Russia´s economic problems also forced Russia to drastically reduce its assets for such operations. Northern Norway lost much its strategic importance. Today that has changed again.
NATO is again planning for shipping reinforcements across the Atlantic and Russia has partly rebuilt, and continues to increase, it its capability to act in the Atlantic. This makes the defence of northern Norway not just a problem for the Scandinavian countries but for Europe as a whole. It is no coincidence that both the UK and Norway are buying new P-8A Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft, nine respectively five, to patrol the Norwegian Sea and the northern Atlantic.
From Scandinavian or Nordic point of view these increased Russian capabilities and their strategic importance is quite alarming. Not just that it creates strong motives for Russia to attack NATO facilities in northern Norway, it also threatens the whole regions connections with the outside world. Even if Russia might encounter problems attacking ships and planes moving across the Atlantic it is obvious that isolating the Scandinavian Peninsula would be a quite easy task if NATO could not operate from bases in northern Norway. Just as in the case of Finland, both Norway and Sweden, are dependent on secure sea lanes for export and import of vital goods and for receiving military help. Both countries, as well as Finland to some extent, build their war planning on help from NATO, in reality from the US.
The defence of Norway, especially northern Norway, therefore is a vital common interest for all the Scandinavian countries as well as for NATO.
Taken together we see a situation where Norway and Sweden are dependent on Finland´s ability to defend its own territory, which makes Finland dependent on Swedish capabilities to provide safe communications to Finland. We also see that, Sweden´s ability to defend its own territory, depends on Sweden and Finland helping Norway to defend its territory, thereby making it possible for NATO to safeguard air and sea communications to Scandinavia.
The question then arises, what does the situation look like today. To begin with Finland.
As already mentioned, Sweden´s ability to keep sea lanes to its west coast open is limited. The Swedish navy consisting of seven surface combatants, four submarines and five mine countermeasures ships, will have to choose if to deploy in the Baltic or on the west coast. In reality it means a choice between defending Swedish territory against a Russian attack aiming at deploying long range air defence systems on Swedish soil or trying to keep sea lanes to the outside world open. A very tricky choice as defending Swedish territory would be in the interest of not just Sweden but also for NATO, as it would facilitate NATO operations in defence of the Baltic States. At the same time both Sweden and Finland are dependent on goods reaching Swedish harbours.
When it comes to secure safe transports through Sweden to Finland that would depend on two components, the ability of the Swedish air defence to protect the transport system against attacks and resources to repair damaged infrastructure. Regarding air defence there is an obvious lack when it comes to defence against cruise missiles or similar long-range systems, now becoming a “standard threat” against fixed targets. There are no preparations made to repair infrastructure on a scale that would be needed in war time.
This said, both Sweden and Finland have recognised the need for closer military cooperation between the two countries. During the last years a number of initiatives have been taken to increase the ability of the armed forces of both countries to cooperate in case of a serious crisis or war. The air forces and the navies train together more or less on a routine basis. Army units regularly participate in each other’s exercises. There is an exchange of staff officers between ministries of defence and headquarters. On the political level it has been stated that there will be (is) common operational planning for situations beyond peace. This cooperation does, however, not mean that the countries will send substantial resources to help each other, such resources just don´t exist. The real advantage will be that it will complicate Russian planning. Will it have to meet an enemy that can and will conduct joint operations or not? The level of deterrence will increase and more contingencies will have to be taken in to consideration during a campaign. The weak spot in this Swedish-Finnish concept is the uncertainty of how much can you trust your partner going to war on your behalf. Will Finland go to war against Russia to help Sweden to defend Gotland, if it sees a possibility to keep out of a war in the Baltic Sea region? Even if it means that Sweden will not be able to secure Finland´s communications with the outside world? Will Sweden go to war against Russia if there is a Russian attempt to increase the security zone around the bases on the Kola Peninsula by occupying some Finnish territory?
As long as there is no binding defence treaty between the two countries, something that is very unlikely, this will be a great obstacle to deeper cooperation. Neither country will take the risk to make itself dependent on the other when it comes basic war fighting capabilities, like air defence, logistics etc.
The problem of defending the far north is equally complicated. Here it is a question of coordinating the actions of three countries, Finland, Sweden, Norway and NATO. Although the defence of northern Norway and keeping land connections to Sweden is of great importance to Finland its ability to fight a war depends on the defence of southern Finland where the vast majority of people live and where most of its civilian resources are located. With a land border of 1300 kilometres with Russia it will have to choose where to concentrate its military efforts, it will not be in the north.
The Swedish situation is somewhat different having the Baltic Sea as an obstacle that Russia has to cross before reaching Swedish territory. But in principle it has great similarities with Finland´s situation. The southern part of the country is most densely populated and holds most of the resources needed to fight a war. It is also that part of Sweden that has to be defended to facilitate NATO operations in support of the Baltic States. Perhaps also a prerequisite for Sweden to receive help from NATO. Making it worthwhile helping Sweden but also making it possible. The infrastructure needed to receive help is situated mainly in southern Sweden. At the same time northern Sweden has to be defended to protect NATO´s operations in the Norwegian Sea and the Barents Sea.
During the Cold War, with the then quite large war time establishment, this dual task was solved by planning to repel an invasion across the Baltic Sea in the south and fighting a prolonged campaign in the north, several months. In southern Sweden strong air defence and anti-ship capabilities, some 400 fighter aircraft and 30 surface combatants plus 12 submarines, backed up by a land component consisting of five divisions that would counterattack wherever an enemy managed to land on Swedish soil. In the north three divisions, supported by local defence forces, were prepared to delay a Soviet attack towards Norway. Sweden was the shield behind which NATO could operate from Norway.
Today the situation is drastically different. The Swedish armed forces consisting of all together two brigades, some ninety aircraft, seven surface combatants and four submarines are mainly concentrated in southern Sweden. To meet an enemy advancing through northern Sweden there would be a few, very few, battalions on the ground, and some fighter squadrons. Not much considering that the area where an enemy has to be delayed on the ground and where he must be denied freedom of action in the air. The area of operations, the northern one third of Sweden (app 150 000 km2), is just slightly smaller than all the three Baltic States combined (app 175 000 km2). Today there is no shield protecting the back of northern Norway.
This might have been acceptable if Norway had had resources on its own to stop, or at least seriously influence, Russian operations aimed at NATO facilities in northern Norway. The sole brigade presently deployed in the north will not be sufficient. What more, even if Norway increased its capabilities in the north it would still not solve the problem if operations could not be conducted in close cooperation with Sweden. The distance from the Swedish border to the Norwegian Sea in the Narvik-area is just 16 kilometres. Not leaving much room for manoeuvre. Russian long-range weapons systems on Swedish territory would reach far in to Norway.
The American brigade combat group that has its equipment prepositioned in Trondheim in central Norway, could be an important component when it comes to meet a threat on the ground in northern Scandinavia if deployed there. But the distance between Trondheim and Narvik in the north is a bit more than 600 kilometres as the bird flies. The land distance on Norwegian territory is some 900 kilometres along one vulnerable road with several tunnels and a ferry connection. Another, safer, route is via northern Sweden making the marching distance 1200 kilometres. Although the defence of northern Norway is a very strong common Scandinavian, and NATO, interest the high north is a glaring security gap.
Considering the dependencies and the vulnerabilities that have been described, what ought to be done? Some actions have already been taken. Norway is redirecting its thinking and its preparations towards Article 5 operations. Sweden and Finland have concluded Host Nation Support agreements with NATO. They have also signed bilateral agreements with the US and the UK regarding enhanced cooperation in areas as sharing and developing military technology and joint training. Both countries are also participating in NATO exercises as Trident Juncture 2018 in northern Norway engaging some 45 000 personnel from more than 30 countries. Regarding what should to be done on a national level, in general terms it ought to be: Sweden should increase its capabilities to secure Finland´s communications with the outside world and increase its ability to protect Norway´s back, Finland and Sweden together should increase their common capabilities to protect the Aaland Islands and sea lanes across the Gulf of Bothnia, Norway should allocate still more resources to anti-submarine warfare and air defence in the high north.
Although Finland and Norway could and should do a bit more in the areas mentioned above the great culprit at the moment is Sweden. Geographically being the hub in the region on which the security of other countries depend it is not taking on the responsibilities it should, thereby jeopardising not just its own security but also the security of its neighbours. At the moment (2017) Sweden spends just 1 % of GDP on defence, Norway spends 1,6 % and Finland 1,4. Both Norway and Finland are planning to increase defence spending in the coming years. Although there is a political consensus in Sweden that spending on defence should increase, at the moment there are no political decisions that point at any substantial additions to the defence budget. This might change with the long-term defence plan that is to be presented in May 2019.
Apart from strengthen their own defence capabilities, one other measure that would drastically increase Nordic security, and take cooperation between the Scandinavian countries to much higher level, would be Finland and Sweden joining NATO. It would not just solve the problem with an isolated attack against those countries which would put NATO in a very precarious situation when it comes to defend the Baltic States or northern Norway in a later stage, it would also make it possible to coordinate plans and operations between the Scandinavian countries. Making it possible to get more joint fighting power of the money spent on defence. It would also open up for “work sharing” where each country could take on a more specialised role. Just to take one example. Must the sea lanes to the Swedish west coast have to be a Swedish problem or could it be something that NATO as an alliance could handle? What more, any Russian attempt to seize territory in Scandinavia will probably come in the form of a surprise attack. In such a situation a swift and coordinated reaction will be crucial. It will be too late to start discussions on who should do what, sort out command arrangements etc.
What more, neither country has the economic resources, regardless how much they are prepared to spend on defence, to pay for all advanced weapons systems needed in a modern war. The prime example at the moment perhaps being missile defence. If all systems needed, satellite sensors, long range radars, communications etc. to create a credible “umbrella” are taken in to account the costs are staggering. Such systems have to be developed and acquired together with others.
Another, possibly crucial, question would also be solved with Finland and Sweden joining NATO. Nuclear blackmail or nuclear response. At the moment both Finland and Sweden are obvious candidates for nuclear blackmail, giving Russia the option to “borrow” strategically important parts of the territory of both states by threatening them with a nuclear attack, and if needed by staging a nuclear demonstration in either of the countries. This without running the risk of a nuclear response.
The question then arises, why haven´t Sweden and Finland already joined NATO? The old reasons, perhaps valid during the Cold War have little significance today. The idea of trying to stay neutral in a war between the then Warsaw-pact and NATO has become an unrealistic option. In the Swedish case it is closing your eyes to strategic realities regarding the operational needs of Swedish territory by both NATO and Russia. The Finnish case is a bit more complicated as there might be a slight chance for Finland to stand aside in a conflict in the Baltic Sea region, but not if the high north becomes an area of military operations. Which is quite likely. What more, the possibility to stand neutral in a conflict where EU-members are attacked disappeared when Sweden and Finland joined the European Union in 1994. Although Article 42.7 in the Lisbon-treaty doesn´t specifically demand military assistance to a member that has been attacked the neutrality option doesn´t exist.
The reluctance to join NATO in both Sweden and Finland is mainly based on historic nostalgia. In the Swedish case also a deep-rooted anti-Americanism among left-leaning groups and a fear to lose national sovereignty among some ultra-nationalistic groups play an important role. Both groups are fond of referring to that Sweden has managed to keep out of wars for more than two hundred years by pursuing a neutrality policy, an argument that has quite strong appeal among ordinary citizens. In Finland, the nostalgia-factor based mainly of Finland´s experience fighting the Soviet Union during the Second World War should not be underestimated. The near death experience has to a large extent been forgotten. What is remembered is that Finland more or less on its own managed to preserve its independence fighting a great power. The successful balancing act between Germany and the Soviet Union when withdrawing from the war is also regarded as a lesson showing “be careful not losing your freedom of action by tying to close knots with a great power”.
To conclude, all the Scandinavian countries, especially Sweden, have good reasons to consider how their own defence capabilities affect their neighbours, and adapt their planning and defence structures accordingly. Something that will not come cheap. Probably we are speaking of defence budgets of at least 2 % of GDP. Although such measures would raise the threshold for Russian military adventures in the region and increase their ability to fight a war in, they would still have limited value as long as not all Scandinavian countries are members of NATO.
 SIPRI database https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/3_Data%20for%20all%20countries%20from%201988–2017%20as%20a%20share%20of%20GDP.pdf