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Why the Swedish and Finnish Air Forces are a powerful add to NATO

Michael Peck   

Why the Swedish and Finnish Air Forces are a powerful add to NATO
  • Finland and Sweden bring a fighter force roughly the size of the UK's to the NATO alliance.
  • Finland flies F/A-18 Hornets and has order a large number of F-35 stealth fighters.

Russia's decision to invade Ukraine has had an unintended consequence: a boost to NATO airpower.

Fearful of being Russia's next target, Finland joined NATO in 2023, followed by Sweden this March. This means the alliance will be augmented by their advanced aircraft and strategically located airbases.

"Finland and Sweden increase NATO's high-end airpower capacity," wrote RAND. Corp researchers Paul Cormarie and John Hoehn in a recent essay for the Modern War Institute at West Point.

In terms of numbers of aircraft, the new Nordic members would bring a considerable addition to NATO airpower in a conflict with Russia. Sweden currently has about a hundred Gripen jet fighters, while Finland has 62 American-made F/A-18 Hornets. That makes the combined Finnish/Swedish fighter contingent roughly equal to the combat jets of the UK's Royal Air Force and about is only one-third less than the roughly 200 fighter jets apiece flown by France and Germany.

The new allies bring numerous other advantages to European defense. When former Warsaw Pact states such as Poland joined NATO in the late 1990s, they were equipped with older Soviet jets, such as the MiG-29, that were of limited utility and interoperability to Western air forces. However, Sweden's JAS-39 Gripen is a capable fourth-generation fighter — roughly on a par with models like the F-16 — that fits comfortably with NATO technical standards and doctrine. The rugged Gripen is designed to take off and land from highways if airfields are knocked out and "has modern electric warfare capabilities and high readiness that can perform expeditionary operations — limiting Russia's ability to target aircraft on the ground," the essay said.

Finland's F/A-18 Hornets — which used to be the US Navy's standard fighter — are already compatible with NATO air forces. But Finland will soon field an extraordinarily potent air force for a nation of less than 6 million people. It has ordered 64 American-made F-35 stealth fighters, the second-largest F-35 acquisition in Europe, after Britain's. This puts several squadrons of stealth fighters on Russia's northern border, with the potential to penetrate and suppress Russian air defenses, and hit vital targets.

Sweden and Finland also help NATO simply by the existing. They border Russia and are close to the Baltic States, the small countries likely under the greatest Russian threat. Sweden is also on the Baltic Sea, while Norway borders the Barents, Norwegian and North Seas.

"Geography matters," Cormarie and Hoehn wrote. "Both Finland's and Sweden's proximity allows NATO air forces to stage closer to the Baltics. This reduces logistical constraints and better enables the alliance to sustain air operations, while also increasing aircraft persistence."

Sweden also possesses a defense-industrial base that can build sophisticated jets. With American and European defense firms struggling to meet surging demand, Sweden's additional manufacturing capacity is a significant boost to NATO's ability to replace losses. "Few other NATO nations have active production lines capable of producing modern fighter aircraft," the essay said.

"Of course, this industrial infrastructure is potentially vulnerable to Russian attack in the event of a conflict. But from a Russian perspective, that poses an enhanced dilemma, as commanders must select from a wider range of targets in any initial salvo."

Cormarie and Hoehn contrast NATO's situation today with a 2016 RAND wargame — before Sweden and Finland joined the alliance — that concluded Russia could conquer the Baltic States in less than three days. There are questions about whether the game overestimated the Russian military in light of its poor performance in Ukraine. But the simulation did illustrate the difficulty that NATO would face in assembling enough troops and aircraft to defeat an invasion of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which are NATO members.

Sweden and Finland's NATO status complicates a Russian effort to conquer the Balitcs. "Finland's accession imposes a dilemma on Russian military planners, forcing them to consider balancing offensive plans in, say, Estonia while considering defensive operations to protect their own borders," Cormarie and Hoehn wrote. Similarly, Sweden's Gotland island — located almost midway in the Baltic, about 60 miles from the Swedish mainland and 80 miles from the Baltic States — provides NATO with an advanced outpost.

Interestingly, Cormarie and Hoehn see the benefits of Swedish and Finnish airpower as helping to alleviate the strain on U.S. resources now split between the European and Pacific theaters. "The United States would not have to flow its own airpower capabilities — many of which are based back in the United States — into theater as quickly and enables it to deter aggression elsewhere in the world."

"Less ambiguity in the Baltic region allows US air forces to commit some capability to deter adversaries from aggression in other theaters—like an opportunistic invasion of Taiwan," the essay said.

The new northern European members also allow NATO to project more power into the Arctic, a region that has become increasingly coveted as melting polar icecaps uncover mineral riches and new shipping routes. "This might be an opportunity for NATO to be looking more into the Arctic," Cormarie told Business Insider. "Both Sweden and Finland have forces capable of sustaining the very harsh conditions and maintainers adapted to the weather. Their air forces are vital for this Nordic push, and will become very useful to further deter and defend the increasingly contested arctic space with Russia."

Ultimately, Swedish and Finnish airpower give NATO a lot more flexibility to handle a variety of looming scenarios, from a Russian invasion of the Baltic states, to Western intervention in the Ukraine war, to NATO's biggest member — the United States — confronting China over Taiwan.

"In what matters the most in a coalition fighting a contingency, Finland plus Sweden bring together a lot of fighting capability," Cormarie said.

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds an MA in political science from Rutgers Univ. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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