While waiting for Finland and Sweden to finalize their NATO accession, the Nordic countries have already started to update regional cooperation agreements and further develop operational integration of their armed forces.
But there’s a problem. Despite years of work between the Nordic nations, NATO is not currently structured to exploit this to the full. The current command structure does not serve the needs of the new Northern Flank, as the Nordics are currently divided into two Joint Force Commands: Finland and Denmark under Brunssum in the Netherlands, and Norway under Norfolk in Virginia.
Finland and Sweden’s NATO accession is nothing short of a revolution for Northern Europe’s security, as the two countries bridge what was a gap in alliance territory between Norway in the Arctic, and Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in the Baltic Sea.
Sweden is a major connecting link between Finland and Norway in the north, and to continental Europe in the South through Denmark. Uniting all the Nordics in the same alliance unlocks an unprecedented level of strategic cohesion, making it possible to plan regional defense from the Baltic Sea to the North Atlantic and the Arctic.
However, the public information available about NATO’s new regional defense plans suggests that the region will be divided between the European Arctic and the Atlantic on the one hand, and the Baltic and Central Europe on the other. If implemented, it would be bad news for Finland and Sweden. Both countries are essential for their contribution to the defense of the Baltic region, but equally so for the Arctic. Any division of the two into different defense plans would disrupt the close bilateral cooperation and other existing Nordic defense arrangements. It would be a sad reversal of the very considerable strengths of Finland and Sweden if NATO now separates them.
The risk is that good work already underway — some of it dating back decades— will be lost.
In March for example, the air forces of Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland signed a letter of intent to develop a Nordic air operations concept, with four focus areas: integrated command and control, operations planning and execution; flexible and resilient joint deployment of the air forces; shared situational awareness and airspace surveillance; and joint training and exercises.
While creating a single Nordic air force is not the goal, the ambition is nevertheless to operationally integrate the national fleets. Close cooperation in the air domain has a long-standing precedent: the air forces of Finland, Sweden, and Norway have been exercising on an almost weekly basis since 2009 in the trilateral Cross Border Training Framework. Together they represent an increasingly formidable force — the combined Nordic fleet comprises approximately 250 combat aircraft – 143 of them F-35s when Finland and Denmark receive their 64 and 27, respectively, in the latter half of the 2020s, in addition to Norway’s 52 jets. Iceland, with a population of less than 400,000, does not have its own armed forces.
A logical next step would be a similar agreement among the Nordic navies. Finland and Sweden already have a joint operational amphibious unit and exercise together constantly, with both countries’ troops operating under an alternating single command. Since the September 2022 sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic Sea near the Danish island of Bornholm, there is an increasing need to counter Russia’s potential interference with underwater energy infrastructure. The public broadcasters of the Nordic countries recently conducted a joint investigation on the topic, increasing threat awareness across the region. Protection of maritime infrastructure is an area that requires international cooperation — and that comes naturally to the Nordics.
The need for joint action was recognized long ago. In 2009, the Nordic Defense Cooperation (NORDEFCO) was established in the wake of the global financial crisis as the Nordic countries hoped to profit from joint procurement schemes, although this has been one the least successful parts of the organization. Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea transformed Nordic cooperation, inducing swift alignment of threat perceptions. Since then, cooperation has been increasingly focused on intensifying interoperability. In the past 10 years, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway have all been subject to frequent Russian intimidation through airspace violations, interference with undersea cables, and even simulated nuclear attacks during exercises.
It is not just the Russian threat that brings the Nordics closer: they have also been united in their strong support for Ukraine after the full-scale invasion in 2022, and each of the countries (except Iceland) has surpassed €1bn ($1.1bn) in military aid to Ukraine. Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy’s visit to Helsinki during a Nordic summit in May and the Nordic-US meeting during President Biden’s visit to Helsinki in July underlined the fact that the Nordics are perceived as a coherent group.
Currently, Finland, Sweden, and Norway are crystallizing as the core of NORDEFCO, and the countries updated their trilateral statement of intent on enhanced operational cooperation in November 2022 – especially focusing on the northern areas of their countries. Denmark has been slower to draw conclusions from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but Nordic military cooperation has been identified as a core focus in its 2023 foreign and security policy strategy. All four are also members of the UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF), a 10-nation group that focuses on Northern Europe.
Finland, Sweden, and Norway are sparsely populated, particularly so in their northern regions. This poses a challenge in terms of connectivity: the region lacks infrastructure connecting Finland, through Sweden, to Norway’s Atlantic coast — a crucial supply line. But the issue is recognized, and current railway improvement works between Northern Finland and Sweden will contribute to military mobility. Furthermore, Finland is investing in its Arctic air base to ready it for F-35 and allied needs, while Sweden and Norway are investing in new submarines.
Taken together, the Nordic countries are uniquely suited to achieve unprecedented levels of military integration, building on their mutual trust and understanding. A coherent and capable Northern Flank will make the whole alliance stronger.
But NATO must ensure this potential is not wasted, so that Russia faces a united and formidably armed Nordic front from the Baltic to the High North. Done right, this will greatly narrow Russia’s room to maneuver.
Minna Ålander is a research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA) in Helsinki. Her research topics are Northern European security and Nordic defense cooperation, as well as German and Finnish foreign and security policy.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.