Finland and New Combat Aircraft: Looking Back at the Hornet Acquisition


2018-02-16 By Robbin Laird

Helsinki, Finland

The Finnish government is set to acquire 64 new fighter jets for its air force.

This is occurring as Nordic defense is being reworked, and the Northern European states are sorting out how to deal with what the Finnish Defense Minister Jussi Niinistö has referred to as the “new normal” in Russian behavior.

“It’s important that our armed forces have the equipment that they need to fulfill all of their fundamental roles,” said Niinistö.

Niinistö has described Russia’s more unpredictable behavior in the greater Baltic Sea region, particularly in the areas of political influencing methods and security policies, as the “new normal”.

“Changes in the security environment and the multi-purpose use or threat of power have become a new normal. Russia has shown in Ukraine and Syria that it possesses both the capacity and the will to use military power to push its goals,”

The new combat aircraft will be part of an integrated Finnish defense force in the evolving strategic environment of the 2020’s.

It is important to remember that the last major acquisition also occurred in a significant period of change for Finland in its strategic neighborhood.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the dynamics of change in the new Russian republic, Finland was able to negotiate its way out of the Cold War agreement with Russia in which Finland was committed to cooperate with Russia militarily in the case that an aggressor was threatening to use Finnish territory to attack the Soviet Union.

The agreement required mutual affirmation of the threat and the engagement but nonetheless was a major curb on Finnish military independence.

With the end of this agreement, and then the unification of Germany, and the opening of a new chapter in the development the European Union, Finland positioned itself for membership in the European Union in 1995.

The EU treaty contains a mutual security agreement for all of the members as well.

It was in this period of dynamic change, that Finland acquired new fighters for its air force, F-18 Hornet aircraft.

A Finnish Air Force F/A-18 Hornet conducts an aerial refueling mission over Finland with a U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker assigned to RAF Mildenhall, England, May 25, 2017. Both aircraft participated in Arctic Challenge 2017, a multinational exercise encompassing 11 nations and more than 100 aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. David Dobrydney)

In 1992, the Finnish government placed an order for 64 McDonnell Douglas aircraft.

And at the time of the sale a Finnish diplomat explained the deal this way:

“Until now, Finland’s neutrality made defense procurement difficult. But from now on, Finland will defend herself by her own means.”

In other words, much like new fighter aircraft will be purchased in a new strategic context of the 2020’s, the first big modernization of the Finnish Air Force in the post cold war period occurred in a period of significant strategic change.

Buying fighter aircraft for Finland is a challenge but clearly connected to a broader strategic context.

This was well summed up by the distinguished Finnish historian, Henrik Meinander, in his 2013 book on the history of Finland as follows:

“The government emphatically denied that there were any security policy considerations behind the purchase of the Hornet, but everything points to the contrary.

“The acquisition of modern defense technology has always had a political dimension, since the supply and maintenance of equipment necessities continuing collaboration with the foreign manufacturer.

“This aircraft meant that Finland’s air defenses became compatible with NATO’s almost immediately.

“It was only two months earlier that Finland had submitted its application to the EC/EUU, and it was doing all that it could to show that it was a country whose defense and security policy would not be a burden for the EU.

“The pilots were sent to the USA for training, and the first jet planes were flown across the Atlantic in 1995.

“Cooperation increased in the period 1996-2000 as 56 of the jets were assembled in Finland and gradually connected to the NATO satellite system and other technical infrastructure.”[ref]Henrik Meinander, A History of Finland (Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 195.[/ref]

During my visit to Helsinki in February 2018, this is what one Finnish analyst had to say about the challenge in acquiring the Hornets, but also the significance of the acquisition:

“It was a very bold move in the early 1990s.

“With the collapse of the Soviet Union, we lost a significant market and we had a huge recession with unemployment rising significantly.

“Timing was everything.

“If the decision had been delayed, it would not have been made.

“The purchase of the Hornets expanded dramatically the cooperation with the United States and other members of NATO and allowed cooperation to become real.

“At first, there was skepticism about the potential quality of the Finnish pilots but soon the US realized that Finnish pilots are first rate.

“And this also laid the foundation in the United States, that Finland is a credible regional partner.

“We do what we promise and by providing advanced weapon systems to Finland, it’s a stabilizing factor for the region as well.”

In short, understanding how the Finns see the evolving strategic situation is crucial to understand how they will address not only defense modernization, but integration of their forces nationally and with core coalition partners.

Editor’s Note: In late 2015, the initial report on replacing the Hornet was released by the Finnish government.

The working group which was set up to make a preliminary assessment of how to replace the operational capability of the Air Force F/A-18 aircraft proposes procurement of multi-role fighters. The capabilities of multi-role fighters would be complemented with air defence capabilities. The need and possibilities to procure unmanned aircraft and other complementing capabilities will be analysed at a later point.

The capabilities of multi-role fighters play a significant role in securing a pre-emptive threshold which would stop a possible aggressor from using military force against Finland. The capabilities of fighters form an integral part of air defence and the ability of the Defence Forces to use fire power to impact targets on land and at sea.

The life cycle of F/A-18 fighters will terminate by the end of next decade. It is not possible to replace their operational capability with anti-aircraft weapons or unmanned aircraft alone since both systems would only cover a part of the capabilities of the Hornet aircraft.

The project to replace F/A-18 fighters will extend approximately over 15 years. According to the report of the working group, the project needs to be launched in autumn 2015 at the latest. Project-related information requests should be made and, ultimately, invitations for tenders sent during the current parliamentary term.

The procurement decision should be made at the beginning of 2020s.

The working group submitted its report to the Minister of Defence on 11 June 2015. 


And looking further back in Finnish history, the video below looks at the air war over Finland from 1939-1940.

During the years 1939 -1940 Finland was engaged in the Winter War and the Continuation War against the Soviet Union.

The Finnish Air Force had to fight against a massively superior force from the very outset of the Winter War on the 30th November 1939.

In the first two days of that war more than 10 enemy aircraft were shot down.

In spite of the opponent’s overwhelming superiority of numbers the Finnish Air Force managed to achieve many victories until the Soviet Union sent large reinforcements to the front, equipped with more technically advanced aircraft.

This advantage enabled them to obtain air supremacy towards the final stage of the war.

When the Continuation War broke out in Spring 1941, the Finnish Air Force was more effective because of better equipment and additional personnel which resulted in air supremacy being achived on all sectors of the front.

It was not until the expensive offensive by the enemy which began in June 1944 that the Soviet Union gained air supremacy through their overwhelming resources which eventually faltered because of effective defence tactics and counter-attack measures.

The Finnish Air Force faced a very skillful German opponent in the Lapland War of 1944-1945 although, by comparison, it was on a smaller scale.

Taking into consideration the numerous victories won and the favorable aerial reconnaissance results obtained by the Finnish Air Force, its aims were achieved with honour.

In addition to combat and bombing operations, the Finnish Air Force carried out effective scouting missions which were of vital importance for both land and naval forces.

This video shows successful operations by the Finnish Air Force in Winter War and the Continuation War of 1939-1945.

The video consists mainly of films which have been shot by war-time photographers.

A significant part of this material has not been published before.

By this movie The Air Force Foundation wishes to honour those persons whose deeds were admired and respected by the Finnish nation and the whole world.

Another interesting slice of Finnish airpower history involves flying the Buffaloes, an aircraft acquired from the United States and flown during World War II.

Q: Why did the Finns achieve so much with the Buffalo?

A: First off, the Finnish Brewsters weren’t Brewster Buffaloes, or Brewster 339’s, or F2A-2, which were very bad fighters.

They were Model 239’s much closer to the original USN F2A-1, which were reported to be delightful to fly.

Finnish nickname “Taivaan Helmi” “Pearl of the Skies” reflects this.

Also, Finnish Brewsters had reflector sights and reliable armament of three heavy machine guns and one rifle-caliber mg. (later on four heavy MG’s) and seat armour.

The Finnish Air Force also used innovative modern air combat tactics, such as largely relying on finger four / Thach Weave / Schwarm, whatever you call it, against doctrinal Soviet tactics, such as using three plane flights and “Spanish circle” described later on.

In 1941 many of the Finnish Buffalo pilots had had combat experience during the Winter War, and air combat tactics were modified and developed. Mock dogfights were made against captured russian planes.

Training with Brewsters hadn’t been so good as it might have been, since the severe shortage of aviation fuel in 1940-1941.

The quality of Soviet planes in 1941, when the best kill ratio 67.5 – 1) was achieved, was lower than Brewsters, most common types being used were SB-2, DB-3, I-16 and I-153.

Finally, there was element of luck.

The fighter squadron the Brewsters were in most of the war, 24, was commanded by an excellent commander, Major G. Magnusson, a great organizer and tactician who is considered to be “Grand Old Man” of the Finnish fighter aviation.

By almost sheer luck, some of the finest pilots of the Finnish Air Force were in the Brewster Squadron when the war started, such as Hans Wind, Ilmari Juutilainen, Joppe Karhunen and Lauri Nissinen, each one of them later on gaining huge kill numbers also with Messerschmitt 109G-2’s and G-6’s.

The Brewsters probably could have made even more kills, but the Finnish fighter control system during the Brewster’s golden age in 1941-42 was abysmal. For an example, sometimes the alert messages were only somekind like this: “Village of Inkeroinen is being bombed” and arrived as much as 15 minutes too late. But by the summer 1944 it was excellent.

Criticism against Finnish ground control system and FAF brass in general has been extremely harsh by Joppe Karhunen, a Brewster ace and an aviation historian.

Q: How was it possible to achieve victories with Brewsters over the Soviet planes even as late as 1944?

A: Tactics, especially using Brewster’s good dogfight qualities, excellent command and control, high quality of Finnish pilots and low quality of Soviet pilots.