War games in the boreal forest highlight the evolution of northern security architecture

ROVAJÄRVI: Private First Class Aaron Cox with the US Army Airborne Troops is one of approximately 750 troops taking part in Exercise Ryske in Lapland this week. Military Interoperability in Extreme Arctic Environments is trained to support Finnish security during the NATO accession process.

Vladimir Putin has said he wants a halt to NATO expansion, but with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we can now see stronger military cohesion between US and European allies. The same is true in the North, where traditionally non-aligned countries Sweden and Finland invite an increased volume of international exercises with key partners in the transition period to membership this summer and autumn.

Ryske (Finnish for “crash through”) is the largest military exercise north of the Arctic Circle. It takes place in the heart of the boreal forest between Sodankylä and Kemijärvi, some 90 km from the Russian border. Alakurtti, home to one of Russia’s two Arctic brigades, is about 145 km east of the training ground where US, Finnish and Norwegian soldiers are currently training.

Colonel Jukka Kotilehto. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

For the Jaeger Brigade, the northernmost military unit of the Finnish Defense Forces, joint operations with partner countries are nothing new. Last winter, their soldiers took part in the Norwegian-led NATO exercise Cold Response.

“We are training with key partner nations to enhance technical and procedural interoperability,” Guard Jaeger Regiment Commander Colonel Jukka Kotilehto said.

“The goal is to improve the capabilities of US and Finnish ground units to operate in the Arctic environment,” he added.

Finland’s security cooperation with NATO has been going on for decades. The Nordic country joined the Partnership for Peace program in 1994, just three years after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Finland has also participated in NATO-led missions in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq.

On the soft security side, Helsinki has over the past three decades been a key player in building economic and political bridges with Russia aimed at integrating the eastern neighbor into European collaboration. The Arctic Council, the Barents Cooperation, the EU’s Northern Dimension Partnership and the Baltic Council are some examples of multilateral mechanisms that took decades to build, but days to tear down afterwards. Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.

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An opinion poll from April this year shows that 84% of Finns think Russia poses a military threat, and more than 90% think Russia is an unpredictable and unstable dictatorship.

Finland officially applied for NATO membership on May 18 and a week later, on May 27, the country’s defense minister decided to increase defense cooperation in training and exercises with the main partner countries.

That’s why military forces from countries like Norway, the United States, the United Kingdom and Sweden are deployed to train for war games in southern and northern Finland this summer and fall.

We are getting closer to forming a great team, said Jukka Kotilehto, deputy commander of the Jaeger brigade in Sodankylä.

US soldiers assigned to the 2nd Brigade Combat Team and Airborne Division will remain in Finland for seven weeks. Exercise Ryske provides unprecedented combat training for Americans. Reindeer grass between minefields, chooper-sized mosquitoes, and 24-hour daylight are all challenges unique to arctic battlefields.

But above all, the objective is to develop combined operational combat capabilities beyond technical, cultural and linguistic barriers.

American and Finnish soldiers work side by side to read the terrain as their forces prepare for another counterattack on the savage battlefield north of the Arctic Circle. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

“Radio communication and language differences have been the most difficult obstacle in the combat phase of the exercise so far,” Colonel Kotilehto said.

Covering 1,100 square kilometres, the Rovajärvi artillery range is the largest in Western Europe. Advancing through the boreal forest, where an ambush can come from anywhere and at any time, requires techniques and management skills that a military adversary would find deeply unsettling.

Half of the US and Norwegian soldiers taking part in the exercise were deployed to the forest battlefield by helicopter. US Airborne Troops have two CH-47 Chinooks departing from Rovaniemi Air Base, while the Finnish Army provides an NH90 to transport soldiers.

The Norwegian Army’s 150 soldiers, some 125 conscripts and 25 officers all belong to the Porsanger Battalion, which is part of the Land Command in Finnmark. The battalion is the northernmost standing ground force to defend NATO’s northern flank and, due to the geographical peculiarities of little Norway, has been a lone power in the vicinity of Russia’s heavily militarized Kola Peninsula.

Norwegian army soldiers with the Porsanger battalion regrouped after retreating from a counterattack against the American and Finnish team in the exercise area. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

Maneuvers in the Troms and Finnmark region along the coastal road (European route E6) between fjords and steep mountains made the Norwegians vulnerable and easy to eliminate through the use of precision weapons. Over the past few years, the Russian Northern Fleet has been testing and deploying long-range cruise missiles which, with a very short warning time, can hit targets deep in the Scandinavian Peninsula.

In the north, the Kremlin’s military planning aims at denying access and denying areas; on land, at sea and in the air for areas west of important strategic ballistic missile submarine bases on the Barents Sea coast.

With Finland and Sweden joining NATO, access for Nordic military forces through common territories and combined planning will strengthen the northern flank of the alliance to whole new levels and make operations possible. more difficult to achieve in a conflict scenario.

The geographic flexibility to rapidly deploy forces to different locations as NATO expands from one to three countries in the north makes the US military’s reinforcement of northernmost Europe much harder for a potential enemy to predict.

The enhanced high-level international military exercises in Finland this summer are all part of the new security architecture unfolding in northern Europe.

Hard to find, hard to fight. The Finnish Army’s Jaeger Brigade readiness units are more than willing to exchange knowledge of tactics, techniques and procedures with allied forces training to defend the homeland in the arctic environment. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

Company Commander Captain Petter Nybøle Lie of the Norwegian Porsanger Battalion said cooperation with Finnish soldiers was not a big difference to long-established procedures between different NATO forces, including including joint training with the US Army.

“It’s going well,” he said, but notes that there is a difference in mentality between the two countries. Finnish soldiers take more risks.

The Finns have a more offensive way of fighting, while we Norwegians make more methodical moves, Nybøle Lie said.

Risks or methods, however, the Norwegian soldiers are more than happy to share the results of the last days of fighting against the American soldiers in the heart of the forest battlefields: “We have won”, smile the conscripts and take a well-deserved break with a summary.

A few minutes later, a major artillery attack by American soldiers began. Combined with heavy rain with thunderstorms, the smiles quickly faded and were replaced by short radio commands as the young soldiers began to regroup in the field.

Nearby, the opposing team of Finns and Americans placed mines along the road and at a bridge crossed a creak. “Ryske” (crush) is easier said than done.

Finnish soldiers show their American partners how to deploy mines in the field. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

Click on the gallery below to see more photos from Exercise Ryske 2022.

Robert M. Larson