Video Above: F-35s to Europe
Will Finland join NATO? It is an interesting question in light of the country’s decision to acquire the F-35 and join a collective force of networked, European-based 5th-generation aircraft.
Finland is described as an allied or partner nation regarding NATO but has not formally joined the alliance. Many speculate this could be due to concerns that Russia would be extremely unhappy and threatened by the development. Should that stop Finland? Particularly if the country were backed by the protective NATO article 5 security guarantee ensuring an alliance-wide collective security posture. An attack on one, amounts to an attack on all, something designed as a formidable deterrent against any Russian aggression.
Would F-35s Inspire Finland to Join NATO?
Could acquiring the F-35 change this equation and potentially inspire Finland to more formally join NATO? It certainly seems possible given that an ability for F-35s to network to one another from many European countries adds a new security dimension to Finland for sure. Not only would Finland have its own force of F-35s but would also be reinforced and heavily supported by a multi-national force of F-35s.
The collective power of NATO and NATO-aligned F-35 countries could be positioned to greatly outmatch any fleet of Russian Su-57s, according to multiple news reports about the emerging Russian fleet of Su-57s.
An interesting report in The National Interest from last Fall says Russia only operates 12 Su-57s and plans to acquire 70 by 2027. Should the Russian fleet approach 70 or more in coming years, it by no means will come anywhere close to the number of US and allied F-35s operating on the European continent. There are many unknowns related to which aircraft may be superior, as a margin of difference would likely pertain to sensor range and fidelity, stealth performance, computing and weapons delivery.
However, Sun Tzu’s famous “mass matters” concept may indeed be extremely relevant. Should multiple squadrons of F-35s form a multi-national coalition in much lagers numbers, it would seem difficult to envision a scenario wherein it could be challenged by a small number of Su-57s.
This advantage is compounded by the existence of the F-35s secure datalink called Multi-function Advanced Datalink (MADL) which connects all F-35s to one another. This enables target sharing, surveillance data and intelligence information exchanges and level of integrated, coordinated operations likely to present an extremely formidable deterrent.
Will these factors and the substantial advantages they present be enough added protections to inspire Finland to join NATO? That remains to be seen but it certainly could be a decisive factor and something which could of course greatly contribute to Finland’s security at an increasingly threatening time.
Finland is at the beginning stages of a large multi billion dollar deal to acquire as many as 64 F-35s, a major addition to the growing international community of networked F-35 partner nations.
An Interoperable European F-35 Force
The arrival of Finland to the F-35 community seems particularly significant for a number of key reasons, in part because they are joining what is already a strong community of Northern European F-35 partners such as Poland, Denmark, The Netherlands and Norway.
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Norway already has operational F-35s, Denmark received its first F-35 in 2021 and Poland and The Netherlands are now at the earlier end of acquiring and flying F-35s. Further South, of course Italy and Switzerland are customers as well. All of this makes for a formidable European force of networked F-35s.
Several of these countries are within striking range of Russia, given the jet's combat radius and the geographic proximity of European countries to one another. Finland, however, specifically borders Russia and is therefore uniquely positioned to fortify the West’s deterrence posture. Poland of course borders Lithuania and Belarus and is also positioned within striking distance of Russia.
F-35s based in both Poland and Finland are positioned to hold Russia at risk in new and significant ways given their proximity. Closer proximity not only places key Russian target areas within the combat radius of the 5th-generation jet but also increases the probability of additional “dwell time” above Russia, enabling the jet to respond to new emerging targets and sustain longer attack missions without needing to place a refueler at risk.
Finland and other Northern European countries border the Baltic Sea, and the Gulf of Finland portion of the sea borders Russia just South of Finland. In the event of a contingency, US and NATO Naval assets could lend additional support, as portions of the Baltic Sea are well within striking range of Russia. Given this, F-35-armed US amphibious assault ships and carriers could add additional F-35B and F-35C combat power, massively strengthening the prospect of multiple networked F-35 formations.
The possibility of a large and interoperable European F-35 force seems extremely significant when it comes to deterring Russia, given that very small number of Su-57 5th-generation aircraft Russia operates. An interesting story from The National Interest last Fall says Russia has only received 12 Su-57s thus far, but has a plan to acquire more than 70 by 2027.
Video Above: Can F-35s Deter Russia from Invading Ukraine?
This number is considerably less than the number of F-35s Europe operates both now and moving into the future. While specifics regarding how combat the performance of an F-35 might compare to an Su-57 may be tough to come by, as superiority likely pertains to unknown variables such as mission systems, computing, sensors and weapons delivery, having a much larger force of 5th-generation stealth fighters would be an extremely impactful circumstance.
The rapid arrival of new F-35s has brought new dynamics to play, which have been documented in a widely read and quoted 2016 Rand Corporation study called “Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank, Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics.” The published report, emerging from extensive wargaming, made the determination that the Baltic states would be quickly overrun by Russian forces in the event of any invasion. The study recommends that the Pentagon substantially reinforce its combat presence and forward-deployment activities in the region.
“The games' findings are unambiguous: As presently postured, NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members. Fortunately, it will not require Herculean effort to avoid such a failure. Further gaming indicates that a force of about seven brigades, including three heavy armored brigades—adequately supported by airpower, land-based fires, and other enablers on the ground and ready to fight at the onset of hostilities—could suffice to prevent the rapid overrun of the Baltic states,” the study’s abstract states.
However, what about considering this 2016 assessment in a 2022 context? In 2016, there were not as many F-35s operating in Northern Europe as there are today, by large margins. Would the proximity, access, and lethality of a nearby multi-national F-35 force change this equation? The quick answer: absolutely. Russia does not operate as many of its own Su-57 5th-generation aircraft, which may not even compare to F-35s in terms of performance. Consequently, a dispersed, networked force of U.S. and European F-35 launched from the air and sea would be very well positioned to slow down, stop or even destroy a Russian ground invasion of the Baltics by quickly establishing air superiority. The strategic circumstance when it comes to deterring or destroying any kind of Russian attack across Eastern Europe has been changed in a profound and measurable way given the amount of arriving F-35s.
Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.