Sweden, Finland, and NATO's First-Class Airpower Upgrade

commentary

Apr 19, 2024

(l-r) Flags of NATO, Sweden, and Finland at an event in Espoo, Finland, March 26, 2024, photo by STT-Lehtikuva/Sipa USA via Reuters Connect

(l-r) Flags of NATO, Sweden, and Finland at an event in Espoo, Finland, March 26, 2024

Photo by STT-Lehtikuva/Sipa USA via Reuters Connect

This commentary originally appeared on Modern War Institute (West Point) on April 19, 2024.

In 2016, RAND ran a series of wargames examining a contingency in the Baltics. NATO did not do well. Russia often gained control of the Baltic states before NATO could respond, creating a fait accompli and dealing a severe blow to the alliance.

At the time, U.S. forces in Europe had atrophied. Both ground and air forces had been drawn down to respond to threats elsewhere. U.S. forces were still largely postured in Germany, a relic of the Cold War. This posed vulnerabilities to NATO's new borders in both the northeast and the southeast. While under the NATO deterrence umbrella, the Baltic states in particular were viewed as defenseless to Russian aggression. Though NATO began to improve its posture with a tripwire force, it remained far from completely deterring Russian forces.

Russia's 2022 invasion of Ukraine fundamentally changed Europe's security environment. Finland and Sweden—both longtime neutral states—decided to join NATO. This in turn drastically changed Europe's airpower from its mid-2010s levels. What do these new alliance members bring to the air fight, and how does this impact the wargame scenario in the Baltics?

Russia's 2022 invasion of Ukraine fundamentally changed Europe's security environment. Finland and Sweden—both longtime neutral states—decided to join NATO.

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New NATO Capabilities

The accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO brings significant additional airpower contributions. In the case of Finland, those contributions are a function of its fleet of aircraft. Finland has ordered sixty-four F-35s, the largest order in Europe after the United Kingdom. These orders represent the equivalent of multiple squadrons, either fighter or electronic attack—capabilities that offer a significant contribution for penetrating and rolling back Russian air defenses.

In Sweden's case, NATO also gains valuable airpower in the form of its operational aircraft. Swedish forces operate around seventy-five JAS 39 Gripens. The Gripen has modern electric warfare capabilities and high readiness that can perform expeditionary operations—limiting Russia's ability to target aircraft on the ground. Moreover, Sweden has an active defense aerospace industrial base. Few other NATO nations have active production lines capable of producing modern fighter aircraft.

And in both cases, geography matters. 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.

Implications for NATO and U.S. Forces

To better defend the Baltics after the wargames, RAND proposed a series of initiatives (PDF). NATO air forces would serve as the hammer to counter Russian advances, while ground forces would be the anvil to regain territory. The issue was amassing sufficient aircraft and armor in time for NATO to respond. These new allies, however, help to address that issue in two ways.

First, Finland and Sweden increase NATO's high-end airpower capacity. This means that 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. Finland's F-35s allow it reach into Russian-defended airspace from the outset of hostilities, while Sweden's Gripen fleet can quickly support ground forces by performing strike missions.

Second, Finish and Swedish bases are closer to the Baltics than most other NATO bases from which aircraft would operate in the event of a conflict, offering shorter transit times and more time to support ground forces. For instance, 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. Sweden, on the other hand, offers expeditionary basing options on Gotland Island; though it was assumed as available to NATO forces during the wargame, its certain participation in the fight today allows military planners a greater set of choices. Together, both nations also provide valuable transit routes for NATO aircraft to reinforce the battlespace, while avoiding Kaliningrad's air defenses. Forward basing also reduces the reliance on NATO tankers—which proved a limiting factor in wargames—while increasing on-station time, thus allowing additional time to counterattack adversary forces.

Should a protracted conflict emerge, Sweden's industrial capacity would be critical for NATO to recapitalize attrition. 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. Sweden's industrial capacity also becomes an important bedrock for aircraft regeneration, which Russia would need to attack to sustain its Baltic offensive. Saab's increasing footprint in U.S. and European markets allows it to seamlessly integrate with NATO forces.

Nordic Checkmate Against Russia?

New basing, increased capacity, and improved industrial resiliency all improve NATO and U.S. military's planners' options in response to a Russian contingency.

New basing, increased capacity, and improved industrial resiliency all improve NATO and U.S. military's planners' options in response to a Russian contingency.

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More flexibility to the West's response is a game-changer not just in the Baltics but overall planning in airpower. Less ambiguity in the Baltic region allows U.S. air forces to commit some capability to deter adversaries from aggression in other theaters—like an opportunistic invasion of Taiwan. These new members also bring NATO closer to the fight and make it better able to support ground forces. And integrating industrial capacity into the alliance—like Saab's entry into the NATO market—also allows more options and competition in Europe's defense industrial base, generating new opportunities for collaboration.

Thanks to its renewed airpower, NATO's hammer can further deter Russia from going on the offensive. This, combined with more flexible NATO defenses, leaves Moscow with few good options in the Baltics.


Paul Cormarie is a policy analyst at nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND and a former researcher with the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. John Hoehn is an associate policy researcher at RAND and former military analyst with the Congressional Research Service.