HELSINKI, Finland – The National Guard’s most senior general met with Finland’s defense leadership and observed military training during a three-day stop last week.
“I was honored to learn more about Finland’s defense forces and their concept of comprehensive security,” said Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau.
“Finland and the United States have an enduring friendship and shared commitment to peace and stability. Our security cooperation efforts have broadened over almost 30 years, and I believe they will only be strengthened in the years ahead.”
Army Maj. Gen. Tim Williams, adjutant general, Virginia National Guard, accompanied Hokanson. Virginia Guardsmen have trained shoulder-to-shoulder with their Finnish counterparts for many years, building deep professional and personal bonds.
Finnish troops served with Virginia’s 29th Infantry Division in Bosnia in the 1990s, sparking enduring friendships.
“The folks that we worked with in the Finnish Army have grown up along with us, and we’ve been keeping in contact, and we had an opportunity about six years ago to really strengthen cooperation, now that we’re all in senior positions,” Williams said.
In recent years, Virginia Guardsmen conducted cyber training with their Finnish counterparts, competed in a Finnish sniper competition, and learned from Finland’s expertise operating and thriving in Arctic conditions, among other exchanges. Just this week, a Virginia infantry platoon arrived here for joint training.
During his visit, Hokanson met with American Ambassador Douglas Hickey; Gen. Timo Kivinen, Finland’s chief of defense; Lt. Gen. Esa Pulkkinen, director general of Finland’s defense policy; and other senior leaders.
At the Guard Jaeger Regiment near Helsinki, Hokanson talked with conscripts and observed training.
With a population of 5.5 million in a country slightly smaller than Montana, with Europe’s longest border with Russia, at 883 miles, and with the Soviet Red Army’s 1939 invasion seared in its collective memory, the Nordic (but not Scandinavian) nation embraces a whole-of-society approach to defense.
All adult men must perform a year of national military or civilian service, and women can volunteer.
“Finland has had a very strong, capable military operating in a difficult environment for generations,” Hokanson said.
In the face of disasters, Finns don’t wait on government help – they expect to be self-reliant for at least 72 hours, a lesson learned from World War II when the Soviets invaded.
Finland’s military focuses on territorial defense rather than power projection. Its military policy embraces the whole of government and all sectors of society, including the business sector and nongovernmental organizations.
Conscription contributes to all Finns having a familiarity with the military, and – because people from all walks of life have the shared experience of a year in uniform – enhances social cohesion.
In national defense courses run since 1961, union leaders, media representatives, and educators learn about the country’s comprehensive security policy alongside service members. Topics include psychological resilience and media literacy.
“This level of community involvement gives everyone a stake in national success,” Hokanson observed.
In short, Finland has made itself a hedgehog unpalatable to the Russian bear.
And the experience of Ukraine, where the Russians have not differentiated between civilian and military targets, makes Finland’s strategy of keeping high-value targets away from civilian population centers look prescient.
Williams said the Virginia Guard has learned from this national comprehensive security strategy – defense in depth.
“Their whole approach is colored by their hundreds of years of experience, but – more recently – 1939,” the adjutant general said. “They’re the masters of using an inferior-size force against a larger enemy – and how to stop them. Hedgehog and the bear: that’s the perfect analogy.”
The other area of most significant learning for Virginia Guardsmen? Arctic operations.
“It’s being able to live, survive, operate and thrive in the Arctic during all the seasons because each Arctic season brings its unique set of challenges – and some are more deadly than others, particularly when you get into the winter,” Williams said.