On Tuesday, April 4, Finland joined NATO, making it the transatlantic alliance’s 31st member and the first new member since North Macedonia in 2020. Finnish membership will bring a modern force to the alliance, better able to deter Russian attacks along their shared 835-mile border.
Finland’s accession has been in the making for about a year when the country’s voters and politicians were forced to abandon their neutrality in the aftermath of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. However, cooperation with NATO has always it has been important.
Made to fight Russia
Finland has an annual military budget of about $6 billion for standing armed forces of about 23,000 strong. But the country’s universal male conscription system allows Helsinki to expand its armed forces to some 280,000 in wartime, thanks to 900,000 reservists conducting regular training exercises.
Finnish troops have relatively recent combat experience, as a small number have served as part of the Western coalition in Afghanistan.
In 2014, Finland spent just over 2% of its GDP on defense, which was the NATO target for Member States. However, with tensions escalating with Moscow, this percentage may need to be increased.
Russia is the cornerstone of Finland’s ideology and military system. Defending the 800-mile forested and swampy border is the priority. The threat is not lost on Finland’s 5.6 million inhabitants; the country was invaded by Russia and the Soviet Union multiple times during the 20th century.
The Global Firepower Index ranks the Finnish army as the 51st most powerful in the world. However, Finland’s unique doctrine and position allow it to strike a blow beyond its means, focusing on the use of devastating mobile artillery – Finland has more artillery than Germany and France combined – and the use of small, highly-skilled units To wreak havoc on a much larger invading force.
A senior fellow at Finland’s Institute of International Affairs, Matti Pesu, told Newsweek, “Finland is quite capable in its overall capacity, but also by providing territory to NATO, Finland’s accession will facilitate the better defense of the entire region.”
Pesu elaborated that the Finnish Army and Land Forces would serve as the alliance’s “backbone.”
Tanks and Artillery
About 239 main battle tanks (MBTs) are in Finland’s possession, with an estimated 179 of those being operational. Some 100 Leopard 2A4s and Leopard 2A6s, both manufactured in Germany, are among the supplies being shipped to Ukraine to support Kyiv’s spring counter-offensive.
More than a hundred CV-90 infantry combat vehicles, produced in Sweden and widely regarded as among the world’s most potent IFVs, are among the thousands of extra armored vehicles being supplied to Ukraine.
Helsinki excels in artillery firepower. Finland has more than 100 self-propelled artillery pieces, including 39 South Korean-made K9 Thunder, one of the most desired guns on the market. Finland also has 29 tracked M270 Multiple Launch Rocket Systems, which – along with their more mobile, wheeled cousin HIMARS – have helped devastate Russian forces in Ukraine.
“We have a significant defensive capability to fight the kind of war that is taking place now in Ukraine,” General Timo Kivinen, Finland’s top commander, said in an interview in December. “On a per capita basis, we have probably the greatest firepower in Europe.”
Air and Sea
Along with Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, Finland is now part of NATO’s front line with Russia. Helsinki’s fleet of 55 F/A-18 Hornets, made in the US and armed with advanced US munitions such as the AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missile and the AGM-158 JASSM air-to-surface cruise missile, will fly over the northeast border alliance.
Finnish F/A-18s will begin to be replaced by 64 US fifth-generation F-35 fighters in 2026, with full delivery scheduled to end in 2030. The Finnish region of Lapland also now offers NATO the largest area of Europe air combat training.
The modernization of Helsinki’s air force, especially when combined with that of its Nordic NATO neighbors, will represent “a formidable combined capability in the north,” Pesu said.
Finland has 2,760 miles of coastline on the Baltic Sea, which with the accession of Helsinki and Sweden’s membership proposal, can now be considered a ‘NATO lake.’ Finland has the 12th largest navy in the world, and its fleet includes eight missile boats and 10 minesweepers.
“It’s very focused on the immediate borders and the archipelago,” Pesu said of the Finnish navy. “But even so, it is well equipped for the northern part of the Baltic Sea.”
Finnish NATO bases
The Finnish army will have to abandon its neutrality and self-sufficiency for several generations.
“It will be crucial from the beginning to involve more allied troops in Finland’s national exercises,” Pesu said. “Learning to wage war in the harsh conditions of Northern Europe will be vital. And from day one, Finland needs to rehearse and train how to receive allied forces, how to provide so-called ‘host nation support.'”
Politicians in Helsinki – where a change of power took place this weekend following Prime Minister Sanna Marin’s electoral defeat at the hands of conservative hopeful Petteri Orpo – will have to decide what they want from the new alliance.
“The Finns are confident in themselves, but they are also aware of potential shortcomings,” Pesu said, adding that Helsinki is likely to seek NATO help in air defense capabilities and protection of vital Baltic sea lanes.
“There is a reason why Finland is joining NATO,” he said. “There has been a growing realization within the country that although Finland has full-spectrum and capable forces, we may lack volume simply because Finland is small.
And we need a larger pool of military capabilities that Finland could draw on.”
The Finns, although they are in favor of joining NATO, are divided regarding the permanent bases of the alliance in their country. One solution could consist of small temporary deployments, similar to the multinational Reinforced Forward Presence formations deployed in the Baltics.
“I think Finland has to really think about what its immediate priorities are, how much political capital it has, and then just prioritize,” Pesu said. “But I think in the long term, we may see some kind of NATO presence here in Finland, either with pre-positioned military equipment and capabilities from the United States, or a smaller headquarters, or something similar.
“But I think it is unlikely that Finland will host a significant NATO contingent or a significant NATO presence in the first few years of its integration into the alliance.”