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Finnish-made 130mm "turret cannon" firing in reinforced coastal artillery employment
Courtesy General Headquarters, Finnish Defense Forces

Finland's military importance arises from its geographic position. As a small country, it poses no military threat to its neighbors, but at times in the past larger powers have considered its possession important for their security. The exposed western position of the tsarist capital, St. Petersburg, caused Russian officials to strive for control of Finland. Later, Soviet strategists were likewise convinced that Leningrad's security required Finland's subjugation and therefore mounted invasions. In the postwar period, Finland's military importance increased, for developments in weapons technology and Soviet basing policies caused the country to figure not only in the strategic concerns of its giant eastern neighbor, but also in those of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

The region itself was peaceful. Sweden, Finland's neighbor to the west, was nonaligned and had a long tradition of friendly foreign relations. The militarily vital regions of Central Europe to the south were relatively distant, and they were separated from Finland by the Baltic Sea. In the high north, where Finland and Norway had a common border, Norway had prohibited operations by other NATO forces in peacetime, and it did not permit nuclear weapons or Allied bases on its territory. Denmark, likewise part of NATO, attached these same restrictions to its membership in the alliance.

Finland's military importance grew from the fact that, although it formed--along with Sweden--a vast zone of neutrality between the forces of the Warsaw Pact and NATO, the country was adjacent to areas of crucial importance to the superpowers. The Soviet Union maintained its traditional watchfulness over the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Finland, which controlled access to the Leningrad region with its large population and high concentration of vital industry. Although the Soviet Union exercised military domination over the southern shores of these waters, it was highly sensitive to the position of Finland, which occupied the northern shore and strategically significant island groups.

Contiguous to Finland's northern border is the Kola Peninsula, where some of the Soviet Union's most important military installations were located. The only part of the Soviet coastline providing ice-free access to the Atlantic year round, the peninsula's harbors served as home ports of the Soviet northern fleet and of most of its nuclear ballistic missile submarines patrolling the North Atlantic. In the event of hostilities, the Soviets would regard securing the northern Norwegian coast as essential to ensure that their surface and submarine fleets could reach the North Atlantic, where they could disrupt major supply routes for United States forces in Europe. Because of the importance of the Soviet military complexes on the Kola Peninsula, NATO almost certainly would have to view them as prime wartime targets. Also crucial to the alliance would be confining, in the Barents Sea, whatever Soviet naval assets survived attack. Thus, in the event of hostilities, the superpowers would commit considerable military resources to this region.

The official Finnish view held that the country was unlikely to be the victim of an isolated attack upon its territory, but rather that any military action directed against Finland would almost certainly have to be part of a wider conflict between East and West. Finnish military planners did not regard their country as having strategic targets justifying military aggression, but they believed that foreign powers might try to seize Finnish territory to use it as a transit route to reach essential targets.

Thus, Finnish Lapland was regarded as a possible invasion route for either NATO forces aiming at the Murmansk area or Soviet forces seeking to occupy northern Norway. For the Allies, however, the difficulties of mounting a land attack across northern Scandinavia against Soviet military bases would be enormous. For this reason, military analysts judged that NATO operations in the area would more likely be air-based and seabased .

Finnish strategists had traditionally regarded the wide buffer zone formed by Finnish and Swedish air space as a deterrent to attack, because it increased the flight time of attacking aircraft to potential targets and thereby reduced the operational time in the target area. Since the deployment of cruise missiles in the 1980s, however, there has been a threat to the inviolability of Finnish air space that did not require intrusions on its land and sea territories. Soviet sensitivity over the cruise missile threat underscored the significance of this problem.

Military planners considered southern Finland and the Aland Islands to be lesser strategic areas, except in the event of a Soviet move against southern Norway through Sweden, and they saw a NATO thrust against Leningrad through the Baltic Sea as implausible. Such an operation would necessitate control of the Danish Straits and of the constricted Baltic itself against strong Soviet land, naval, and air forces. Finland was, however, obliged by treaty to secure the Aland Islands in the event of war to prevent their military use by other powers. This obligation underscored another aspect of Finland's defense environment. War between the power blocs could well mean a preemptive attack on Finland to secure it and to prevent use of its territory by the enemy.

Although Finnish strategists did not publicly emphasize the military threat represented by the Soviet Union, it was evident that the strong Soviet military presence near their shared border, 1,200 kilometers in length, was a prime source of concern. According to a study by the United States Department of Defense in 1988, Soviet conventional forces assigned to the Northwestern Theater of Military Operations, an area that included Finland, consisted of 12 divisions, 1,350 tanks, and 160 tactical aircraft. Although not at full strength, these ground forces could be mobilized quickly for a drive into southern Finland as a preemptive move to deepen Soviet defenses of Leningrad and adjacent areas in a crisis situation.

Another contingency that Finnish planners needed to anticipate was the crossing of northern Finland by Soviet land forces as part of an attack aimed at securing the coast of northern Norway and thereby controlling the sea approaches to the Kola military complex. In the Pentagon's judgment, Soviet operations were likely to include a thrust against northern Norway in which ground forces, supported by land-based air and naval amphibious forces, would try to seize critical airfields and to destroy early warning installations. The ground forces balance significantly favored the Soviets in this area, and probably the air force balance did as well. Such an operation would, nevertheless, be extremely arduous in view of the paucity of east-west road links and the austere climate and terrain.

If Finland is unlucky in its strategic location, as a theater of war, its physical characteristics present exceptional conditions that heavily favor a defending army. Only a few regions are conducive to the maneuvering of modern ground forces. These are primarily in the coastal areas of southern, southwestern, and western Finland, where the main administrative and industrial centers, a majority of the population, and the most highly developed transport networks are located. The vast regions of central and eastern Finland are areas of rivers, lakes, and forests. With swamps covering as much as 50 percent to 60 percent of some parts of this territory, military operations would be constricted to the few roads (see Geography , ch. 2; Transportation and Communications , ch. 3). Even specially designed rough-terrain vehicles would be greatly hampered in these areas.

In Lapland, above the Arctic Circle, climatic conditions are especially severe. Beginning in November, the long Arctic night hampers winter activity. Frost, snow, and cold (-30°C to -35°C) can paralyze the operations of large bodies of troops and their air support, unless they are specially trained and equipped. In mountainous parts of Lapland, ground operations would also be forced in the direction of the few routes through passes, and the more open northern regions provide little cover for ground forces.

An attack on Finland by sea would be severely hampered by the jagged coastline of shallow bays, rocks, and clusters of islands. The few narrow ship passages would be heavily defended by modern coast artillery emplaced on cliffs, by highly maneuverable missile boats, and by extensive minefields. The thick ice cover would virtually preclude the winter operation of warships near Finnish territorial waters.

Data as of December 1988

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