This seventh part of my series on the Finnish NATO debate concludes this discussion and points the way towards a subject of greater importance, one that is even harder than NATO and plagued by dogma.
The NATO debate has clearly picked up both pace and quality as a result of the Ukraine crisis. Some myths have been discussed and busted, while some arguments remain elusive or unclear. I have discussed opponent arguments in part 5 and proponent arguments in part 6. Please refer to these if you should find this post lacking. Heikki Hakala did a very good fact check on 10 commonly heard assertions on NATO (in Finnish).
Defence spending would increase dramatically if Finland were to become a member.
Commentary: This myth is finally busted. The recommendation of a defence spending of at least two (2) percent of GDP has been thoroughly reviewed. We know that only four or five members plan to reach that level this year, and that NATO hasn’t been that keen on forcing any members to adhere to this recommendation. Concern was expressed for Latvia’s spending by NATO staff, but there was ample reason as the expenditure had dropped well below the one (1) percent mark.
Our defence minister, Carl Haglund, has very clearly pointed out that the expenditure to follow is the share of the defence budget allocated to procurement of defence materiel. This is where Finland excels, with nearly a third quarter (and in the past years a third) spent on materiel.
The cost of a NATO membership is estimated to land at some 50 million, equalling two percent of the current defence budget, with roughly half going to ”membership fees” and the other half going to cost of officers at NATO staff. This is where the debate siderailed. Our defence minister labelled this as getting valuable international experience. I beg to differ. Officers in the NATO component commands and joint HQs won’t just get experience. They’d be deeply involved in defence planning for the alliance. Some would serve as subject matter experts in commands and centres not that heavily involved in operational planning (ACT and COEs), but the extra cost for most would only be the difference between overseas salary and domestic salary.
Member or not, Finland will still have to invest in a fully capable independent defence.
While this has a nice ring to it and sounds very resolute and powerful, it is a question which can only be answered in agreement with other members. It’s been said that nothing is as expensive as a fully independent credible defence. Not all NATO countries maintain full capabilities in all services. Notoriously, the Baltic States are ”infantry and schools only”, to put it bluntly. They rely on NATO to bring the air and maritime power. Finland is no ”biggie” on maritime or air power either. Any addition to those capabilities during a crisis would be most welcome, as I argued in part 6. As a member we couldn’t vacate the ”eastern front” any more than we can today, but on some capabilities too expensive for a small country, we could rely on sharing the burden with other members. One good example is the long range strike capability that is being sought for JAS by Sweden. This is an example of a capability that already proved too expensive for us as we cancelled the order of the MGM-140 ATACMS Tactical Missile System. Now that Sweden is building a long range air-to-ground capability (KEPD 350 Taurus is my guess)
We should go for NATO instead of an alliance with Sweden.
These aren’t mutually exclusive. An alliance with Sweden will happen anyway if both countries apply for membership, as most politicians say it would and should happen. In NATO the two neighbours, with Norway and the Baltic countries, would be quite a natural working group or syndicate in defence planning. NATO means a de facto alliance with Sweden, so taking this first step should be quite easy. This is also politically true as the proposal enjoys great popular support. An alliance with Sweden is a no-brainer – our military capabilities differ somewhat and are actually complementary. Any mutual defence plans would enhance deterrence and work well within a NATO framework.
The way ahead
The debate has successfully brought to public attention the crux of the Finnish credible defence. It’s economics. The very core of this debate lies in understanding what capabilities are, how they are built and the time frame of acquiring capabilities. The clue to enlightenment, instead of calling for more money and more weapons – a popular and vote-winning rhetoric, but always unfinanced, is understanding how lack of materiel affects the defence system in the long term.
Sweden serves as a warning. While most information on the Swedish defence reform was public and the end state was there for all to see, the political debate was filled with flowery words like ”strengthening the defence” and ”building new capabilities for ‘complex’, ‘unpredictable’ and ‘borderless’ threats.” This idealization led to decisions further emphasizing capabilities for international peace missions in a changing security environment that ultimately called for increased focus on national defence.
The next step in the Finnish debate should be a stark, sober and very public discussion on the credibility and capabilities of our defence in the mid and long terms.