Elections will change the NATO debate
By Max Jakobson
Finland is not joining NATO - so goes the message of a recent gallup poll. There are many explanations, but at the core of the public's opinion on the matter is a belief in traditional national defence: only our own soldiers are truly reliable.
There are other countries in Europe that have also chosen to remain outside NATO: Switzerland, Austria, Ireland - all of them geographically set apart from the former Soviet Union. And of course there is Sweden, which has remained neutral for nearly 200 years, safe behind Finland.
The number called up annually for conscription in Sweden has been reduced to just 15 per cent, whereas the yearly intake for national service in Finland is of the order of 80 per cent of the eligibile male cohort, together with a further 300 or so female volunteers. This means a total of roughly 25,000 new reservists a year.
But aren't the days of military service behind us? Is it not high time to switch to a professional army?
These questions have been asked of Finns by people in other European countries. Conscription is generally regarded as an outmoded system.
Of course, the national service stint represents only the initial stages of the making of a Finnish soldier. The secondary training is crucial: the troops of the Finnish Defence Forces will be compiled if need be from trained reservists who are liable for military duty.
Admiral Juhani Kaskeala, the Chief of Defence since 2001, has commented that "the Finnish soldier who can lean on a good educational grounding and the ability to absorb new things quickly, who has a professional or degree-level qualification, and who has honed his military skills in one or two reservist training exercises, is at a very high level relative to those recruited by professional armies. His abilities are built on the combination of skills derived from a civilian occupation, the military training he has received from the Defence Forces, and also on a powerful motivation that is backed by the reservist sense of group identity nurtured already at the conscript stage".
Reservists are called for service as and when the situation or their specific tasks require it, when they can represent as much as 90 per cent of the entire troop strength. As weapons systems are these days in a constant state of development, it is necessary to have reservists with the right professional skills.
As new defence equipment becomes increasingly expensive, the leadership of the FDF is planning reductions in overall troop-numbers, down perhaps to 250,000 from the present 350,000 who can be called to arms.
The new equipment can be concentrated in the hands of the most important troops, crack units of the land, sea, and air arms whose strength would probably decline to around 100,000 soldiers.
At the same time the Finnish Defence Forces are taking part in the nation's technological development; this is something that occurs thus far in only a relatively few countries.
One product of the pooling of know-how among the Defence Forces, Finnish industry, and academic research is the so-called Tietovuo (or "Data Link") systems used for instance in the Air Force's F-18 Hornets. These provide an electronic situation report link between the aircraft and the command and control personnel on the ground, and also between individual aircraft. The procedures have indicated a marked improvement in the effectiveness of fighter-interceptor operations.
In order to develop Finland's regional defence readiness, development is in progress on creating a so-called network defence capability. This means that a nationwide intelligence and command & control system can generate a common real-time situation report to all units in the field and to all levels in the command structure. This system has emerged from Finland's advanced IT sector.
The high level of ongoing development within the Defence Forces leaves quite an impression on the layman.
However, there are difficult problems ahead, and in the not very distant future. The costs of defence materials will double in the next 7 to 10 years. Admiral Kaskeala is already warning of this.
New acquisitions will oblige cuts elsewhere, reducing the equipment and training of key units.
This sets up the question: are we to stay non-allied, or do we join NATO? The party leaders would prefer not to discuss this issue before the Parliamentary elections, which are to be held in March next year.
In the fall of 1994, a referendum resulted in 57 per cent of those taking part giving their approval for Finnish EU membership. At the beginning of that year, the United States President had surprisingly proposed the expansion of the NATO alliance. This move prompted a lively discussion both in the U.S. and in Western Europe, and that year people in Finland did not believe that the enlargement of NATO had anything to do with our country.
Rather later, when ten countries set about negotiating entry to both NATO and the EU, Finland did not belong in the same category - former Soviet satellite states.
If Sweden and Switzerland had decided before then to join NATO, Finland would have gone with them, but such a situation has never arisen.
Regardless of NATO membership, the Finnish military has established close relationships with the United States, Britain, Germany, and of course with Sweden. Finnish units are taking part in NATO-led crisis management operations, such as those in Afghanistan and the Middle East.
If the Finnish military establishment is to continue in its current form, the costs will rise: people are already accustoming themselves to this fact.
On the other hand, joining NATO will create opportunities to concentrate on primary tasks as seen from our perspective, and to agree on common tasks and responsibilities with other member-states.
After the elections in March, the discussion - the debate - over the international role of our defence forces will change decisively.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 20.11.2006
Previously in HS International Edition:
NATO membership could still hinge on money (Editorial, 7.11.2006)
Minister Kääriäinen: Finland must spend more on defence, or join NATO (2.11.2006)