Europe without neutrals: U.S. F-16s, Marines engage in Arctic war games with Finnish, Swedish allies
Rick Rozoff

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This year’s iteration of the biennial Arctic Challenge military exercise is occurring from June 2-18 and is being led by Norway as part of a rotating arrangement with Finland and Sweden. Arctic Challenge exercises have been held since 2013, but this is the first since the defense ministers of the three above nations met at the Porsangmoen Base in the Arctic region of Norway last year to sign a trilateral military cooperation agreement. Norway, a founding member of NATO, will mentor its Scandinavian neighbors on their way to full NATO membership.

Ahead of the drills U.S. Air Force deployed F-16s and over 300 airmen from the 52nd Fighter Wing at Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany to the Kallax Air Base in Sweden. In addition to warplanes and personnel from the U.S., Finland, Norway and Sweden, others are provided by Britain, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands.

U.S. Marine Corps is also supplying 250 troops manning F/A-18 Hornet multirole fighter jets and KC-130 tanker and transport aircraft at the Rissala Air Base in Finland. The Hornets will practice air combat and air-to-air refueling with their Finnish counterparts. The Marine deployment is part of expanding U.S.-Finnish military cooperation. A U.S. Air Force officer said of this year’s Arctic Challenge, “The end goal of this exercise is to get good integration both with our Nordic allies and our NATO allies.”

In January of this year Finnish Defense Minister Antti Kaikkonen issued a statement which included the following information:

  • The security situation in Northern Europe is unstable and difficult to predict
  • Relations between great powers are in flux and the rules-based international system is under pressure
  • Finland maintains a strong national defense capability…for defending the nation against external threats
  • Finland continues to participate in international defense cooperation
  • The trilateral statement of intent between Finland, Sweden and the United States from 2018 complements the bilateral relations between the three countries
  • The U.S. is among Finland’s closest and most important partners
  • “We value NATO’s role in advancing trans-Atlantic and European security. In the past years, our NATO cooperation has also deepened”

In fact Finland and Sweden were among the first nations to be granted NATO’s Enhanced Opportunity Partners status. So thoroughly have Finland and Sweden been integrated into NATO’s global military structure that both have contributed troops for NATO operations in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. The two nations ran NATO’s Provincial Reconstruction Team Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan, where troops from both countries engaged in combat and suffered combat deaths; in Finland’s case for the first time since World War II; in Sweden’s case for the first time in two centuries. In 2011 Sweden provided NATO with eight JAS 39 Gripen fighter jets for its war against Libya.

For all that Finland has portrayed itself a neutal nation since World War II and Sweden for much longer, in the post-Cold War period they, like the rest of Europe, have become supple, compliant vassals to the Pentagon and NATO. If in the past twenty or so years that fealty has been proven in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, in the past few years it has been directed against Russia. Arctic Challenge 2021 unequivocally and exclusively targets Russia.

An earlier account of the exercise bears the title USAF to Continue Large Exercise, Increase Training With Five Arctic Nations. That is, the U.S. (through Alaska) and the four Scandinavian nations: Denmark (through Greenland), Finland, Norway and Sweden. The other Arctic claimant in Europe is of course Russia. The above account is based on a letter by Acting Air Force Secretary John Roth from February, one which also “expands on Air Force’s first-ever Arctic Strategy, released last summer,” and was released as “the Air Force deploy[ed] B-1B bombers to Norway for the first time.”

The nations of Scandinavia mainly avoided being dragged into European armed conflicts from the Napoleonic Wars to World War II. But all indications are that they will be on the front line of the next one.