Just a few minutes after the ink was dry and Finland officially became the 31st member nation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a Finnish pilot was in the sky flying with the U.S. Air Force.
On April 4, Finnish Air Force Capt. Sami Nisonen and U.S. Air Force Capt. Jacob Olsen, both students at the Air Force Test Pilot School, took off in a T-38 Talon twin-seat aircraft. It was just a routine mission for the course, but due to the timing, it was the first bit of military cooperation between the U.S. and Finland as official NATO partners.
“This is just the first of many future joint endeavors between the U.S. and our NATO ally, Finland,” said David Vanhoy, the Test Pilot School Technical Director, in an Air Force statement.
The Air Force Test Pilot School, established in 1944, is one of four schools that trains pilots, navigators, and flight engineers in all manner of flight testing and evaluation, with each year-long class admitting up to two foreign students.
Finland, along with neighboring Sweden, maintained a position of international neutrality for decades, with neither country joining NATO during the Cold War. That official stance of neutrality has never been entirely neutral – neither country has ever had anything other than testy diplomatic relations with Russia and both have often entered into military training partnerships with NATO countries.
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In 1994, for instance, Finland joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace program, and along with Sweden in 2014 became an Enhanced Opportunities Partner with NATO. 2014 was also the year in which Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula, which has only further pushed the two Scandinavian countries further towards complete integration with NATO. In May 2022, just a couple of months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, both countries announced their intention to join the treaty organization.
Just last year, U.S. Army soldiers from the 1st Cavalry Division participated in Exercise Hammer 22 in Finland, alongside 4,000 Finnish Army soldiers.
The greatest consequence, perhaps, of Finland joining NATO is the 810-mile-long border it shares with Russia. And behind that border, as a consequence of decades of neutrality, is one of the larger militaries now aligned with NATO. The country already maintains more artillery weapons than Poland, Germany, Norway, and Sweden combined. It has received some $13.6 billion in military equipment from the U.S., including Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air (AAMRAM) and Harpoon missiles, and has agreed to purchase the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. It also maintains some of the largest training areas in NATO, although it remains unclear, and quite possibly unlikely, that other NATO forces will maintain any kind of presence in the country.
“Finland is one of the guys on the team – it’s a key player that actually would be able to contribute to a fight, contribute to defense,” retired Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman told Task & Purpose last year. “It’s not a backbencher. It’s not a marginal actor.”
So, a single training flight may not seem like much, but there is certain to be more to follow when it comes to NATO’s newest member nation.
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