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Politics : Military Strategy Board

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From: TimF9/13/2021 1:23:13 PM
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D. Long

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Some notes on Finnish military thinking during the Cold War

Inspired by this thread, I thought to write a brief note about Finnish military thinking during the late Cold War, about 1968-1991. This note attempts to provide some insight into what the military, specifically the Army, was thinking at the time; what the politicians thought is a different matter. All the information here is based on National Defence College's historical studies that are openly available, but mostly untranslated to English.

1. Strategy

In public, Finland was prepared to defend her neutrality equally against anyone who would violate her territory. Exercises pitted - and still pit - friendly "Blue" units against undetermined "Yellow" enemy, who usually attack from the north or west, never from the east. Training material used to train the vast majority of conscripts used images of imaginary or Western military kit to depict the "Yellow" enemy, a generic "Great Power", and as far as enemy order of battle was discussed in publicly available written material, the examples were, again, generic. (This practice continues: for instance, graphical depictions of how enemy attack helicopters would operate show AH-64 Apaches.) In general, foreign powers were hoped, but not really expected to leave Finland untouched in case of general European war.

However, as the capability of NATO to mount a ground attack against Finland was minuscule, the Finnish Defence Forces planning was focused on one threat: the Eastern one. This was a difficult proposition. The Soviet Union had overwhelming superiority in men and material, and the conclusion of the Second World War had moved the border considerably to the west. In addition, the Paris peace accords limited both the strength and the equipment of the defence forces, and the stipulations of the Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance treaty suggested that in time of crisis, Soviet forces might have to be admitted to "assist" the defence of Finland's territory. The task of maintaining at least some semblance of independence even in case of general European war, and securing Finland's survival as a people and as a nation, thus became the national foreign policy priority.

The priority for the Defence Forces was therefore the maintenance of an independent "poor man's deterrent" within the limits of funding, available manpower, and the Paris treaty limitations (which originally prohibited all guided missiles, for instance). This deterrent was not even supposed to be able to "win" any war against a great power, merely to make an invasion a costly proposition and therefore, hopefully, deter it in the first place. Moreover, the force had to be credible in the eyes of the Kremlin in particular, so that Soviet offers to "help" the Finns could be plausibly rejected. The limitations of the force were very well understood by the military, and multiple top secret studies examined the weaknesses of the defense in brutal detail. For instance, a 1969 study later known as "the holy book of pessimism" calculated, among other things, that in case of surprise attack using forces in high readiness, the Soviets would probably reach the barracks of the unit designated to block the main highway to Helsinki before the troops had time to return from their daily field exercises to pick up live ammunition, let alone dig in. Given that the overarching goal of foreign and defence policy was national survival, this led the military to conclude that in many cases, the prudent course of action would be to accommodate the Soviet demands and even relinquish territory, in order to avoid a war and occupation that could threaten Finland's survival. As one high ranking officer put it at the time, "glorious suicide" was not an option.

However, this did not mean that the military just gave up. On the contrary, ensuring that any conflict would be as bloody as the means permitted became a matter of grim determination. Defensive planning would allow vast areas of Finland's territory to be overrun, but the fight would still go on. Beginning in the 1960s, military command structure was decentralized to the extent that regional commanders could order mobilization and begin combat operations in their areas if they lost contact with Helsinki, and were expected to fight against any odds unless firm orders to the contrary were received. (This policy came close to causing a major incident, when in 1968, amidst a general war scare, lookouts of an island fortress spotted a Soviet destroyer happily sailing into Finnish waters. The commanding officer promptly cleared the fortress for action and prepared to follow his standing instructions, that is, greet any interloper with a point blank salvo of 12-inch warshot. The destroyer was in fact carrying the Soviet prime minister Kosygin for informal negotiations, but no one had remembered to inform the fortress about it. Fortunately, communication lines to mainland were not out of order that day.)

From about mid-1960s, every conscript received basic training in wilderness survival and guerrilla tactics. Even artillery crews and clerks were expected to be able to either infiltrate and rejoin friendly units and/or contribute to irregular warfare in occupied areas when, not if, their units were overrun. Guerilla warfare, in particular the Vietnamese and Algerian resistance, was intensively studied, but not believed to be a sound basis for defense policy, because it would entail the occupation of the whole country and in absence of outside help would probably fail - as the resistance by Estonian "forest brothers" in the late 1940s had. The worst case plan was to pursue a fighting retreat and hold a perimeter behind which, and from which, Finnish civilians could be evacuated, in the hopes that the enemy would not pursue complete conquest but only occupy areas it needed for its operations against a third party. Some areas, notably the Helsinki region and parts of Lapland, were designated as areas of critical strategic importance, and were to be held at all costs. Elsewhere, enemy would be permitted to advance in depth, attrited via guerrilla action, and attacked along the flanks as situation permitted. Following the "total defence" concept, all the national resources would be mobilized, and the society as a whole was supposed to help the military effort in any way they could.

2. Threat

During the early Cold War, Finnish defense planning was seriously compromised by a) lack of modern material and funds, and b) the presence of a Soviet naval and military base at Porkkala, within artillery range from Helsinki. (The base was shut down and the area returned in 1956.) The presence of the Allied control commission complicated matters, and mobilization planning was in fact forbidden until 1948, when the president authorized the defence forces to begin initial mobilization planning in greatest secrecy.

As mentioned, the planners quickly concluded that the Western allies did not have forces in place to threaten Finland with an invasion. The only real threat would come from the east and south: the Soviet occupation of Estonia meant that strong amphibious forces were stationed mere 80 kilometers from Finnish heartland, and the Soviets had used amphibious landings tactically during the Continuation War. By 1968, the threat priority was clear: the most likely military threat would be a surprise attack, possibly accompanied by unrest from the radical left, followed by general attack if the surprise coup de main failed to reach its objectives. The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and its preparations during the summer, caused a major war scare and highlighted the problem. The typical reference threat scenario was an attack by forward elements of an air assault division on Helsinki airfields (2) and potential parachute and helicopter LZs, with a simultaneous landing of 2 to 4 infantry battalions from civilian cargo ships directly to Helsinki harbor, strongly supported by tactical aviation and special forces, with follow-on attacks by mobilized regular forces.

Fig 1: "Coup de main" attack

The bright spot in 1968 was that the Finnish military intelligence was able to provide a good picture of the Soviet/Warsaw Pact preparations and exercises (including ominous naval exercises in the Gulf of Finland), and could assemble the first detailed assessment of the invasion within 24 hours of the Warsaw Pact troops crossing the Czechoslovakian border. Finnish military attaches were in good terms with their Western counterparts, and it is now clear that they were provided with information from the Western intelligence community. These contacts, however, were politically so sensitive that not even the president was fully informed that they even existed.

The secondary threat included the use of Finnish territory, in particular Lapland, against Sweden and/or NATO forces in Norway. (A ground attack by NATO forces against Murmansk was a theoretical and rhetorical possibility, but not entertained as a serious threat.) Since such an attack would draw Finland into a general war, Lapland's defences were bolstered considerably from the mid-1960s.

Fig 2: Possible avenues of attack in case of general war. (Tactical landings not shown, but would be expected along the key routes.) Despite the road network being much better than in 1939, the attacker would still require road access for supply, thus limiting the possibilities.

During the Cold War, the ultimate threat remained the use of nuclear weapons. While the military prepared against their use the best it could, the conclusion was that their use against Finnish forces was unlikely (with the exception of strikes against e.g. airfields), and in any case, there was nothing the military could do to prevent their use if the enemy was so inclined.

3. Forces

In any case, the military was confident that they could obtain 48 hours of warning of an attack against Finland. The first line of defence against surprise attack was to be formed by cadre units, manned by instructor officers and conscripts: these about battalion-strength units and local defence preparations (e.g. distributing weapons to airport personnel, blockading runways with trucks, etc.) were to be ready no more than 6 hours after receiving the word. The cadre units would then be filled to full brigade strength by reservists within 36 hours from the go code. Their primary task was to secure key targets and prepare to attack air and amphibious landing sites immediately after the landings, before the beach- or airhead could consolidate itself.

In case of a general crisis short of war, the military could call reservists to service selectively, as the Swedes had done during the Second World War. This was one important reason for the mandatory conscription and reserves that were significantly larger than what could be reasonably equipped: the idea was that the reservists could be rotated if the crisis continued, yet the economy would not be ruined, as the full mobilization of about 420 000 men would inevitably do.

Finnish military organization was originally based on divisions of two brigades each, but divisions were found to be too cumbersome in practice, and brigade organization became the standard. Infantry was the main arm: infantry brigades of 4 battalions plus artillery and supporting elements were the norm. Their tactical mobility was good, thanks to bicycles and skis and their ability to move through forests, but operational mobility remained poor at best. They would rely on commandeered civilian vehicles, not only trucks and buses but agricultural tractors and carts as well. Horses were to be used until the 1970s, and in smaller roles until the 1980s. Brigades were generally formed into corps of two or three brigades, with additional supporting artillery at the corps level. Artillery arm was attended to religiously: Finnish officers had learned that the only sure way to stop a Soviet assault was via massed, overwhelming firepower, and as a result, Finnish organization was and remains among the most artillery heavy on the planet. Even light infantry companies had their own 81 mm mortars, and heavier artillery was organic to battalion level (eventually in the form of 120 mm mortars), while brigades and above had even more tubes. The artillery doctrine was to use massed fires, concentrated in space and time, whenever possible.

An armored brigade (whose organization varied quite a bit over the years, but most often consisted of two tank and two infantry battalions, originally motorized but with APCs from the early 1970s) formed the supreme command's main operational reserve, as well as being the spearhead unit for opposing a surprise attack. The supreme command also commanded artillery reserves and long range reconnaissance/raider detachments, which were one attempt to mitigate the almost total lack of long range fires and lack of aerial superiority.

In addition to the Army, there were small naval and air forces. The air forces were a vital component during peacetime, as the use of Finnish airspace by U.S. bombers and reconnaissance planes was probably the most likely reason why the Soviets would invoke the "help" clause of the Friendship and Mutual Assistance treaty. In wartime, they would have dispersed to small roadside bases and tried to challenge the projected enemy air superiority, with a capability for a short burst of maximum effort to prevent enemy tactical aviation from disrupting the armored brigade's hopefully decisive counterattack before it could even begin. In addition, archives have revealed that the Swedes kept a large quantity of surplus Draken fighters in storage for the explicit purpose of donating them to Finland in case of a crisis; Finnish Air Force, in turn, trained a surplus of Draken pilots.

The main task for the Navy was to challenge and prevent amphibious operations along the coastline, and secure the Bay of Bothnia for supply shipping from Sweden. The main weapons system were mines: all the Navy ships could lay mines, and several specialized (i.e. cheap) coastal minelayers were in operation. In Finland's broken coast, with narrow waterways twisting through hundreds of thousands of small islets and skerries, even old contact mines remain a potent weapon - especially as long as island fortressess and mobile coastal artillery could effectively keep minesweepers at bay. Another Navy task was to escort, during the onset of a crisis, an army task force to the Åland islands, which block the entrance to the Bay of Bothnia and could serve as a springboard for an attack against Sweden and Stockholm. The islands have been demilitarized during peacetime since 1854, but remain strategically important, and "Operation Sail Race" to be the first to land and dig in was one of the most rehearsed Finnish contingency plans.

4. Terrain

Finnish terrain remains poorly suited for massed mechanized warfare. Fields and other open areas are broken by stretches of forest, and engagement ranges are far shorter than in the Central European plain. Practical maximum range in tank combat, for instance, is 2000 meters, and during the 1944 Soviet offensive, no tank engagements occurred beyond 700 meters: 300-400 meters was typical, and some initial encounters were at a range of 15 meters.

In addition to restricted lines of sight, the terrain is also often broken by swamps, lakes and rocky outcroppings. As a result, a very good approximation of the terrain usable by mechanized units is the road map of Finland: tanks can certainly roam outside the roads, but they will eventually require supply, and providing supply across a broken country is not easy. On the flip side, after the Second World War Finnish forests were increasingly criss-crossed by logging roads. These were a double-edged sword: they helped Finnish mobility, but could have been used by armored formations as well - at least in moderate strength. Their capability as supply routes remained limited, however.

Furthermore, the terrain was to be broken up even more: all the bridges and rock cuts constructed after the early 1960s, for example, contain prepared demolition charge pits. The objective of demolitions and the liberal use of minefields was to canalize the enemy advance even further.

The terrain also limits the use of airborne forces: there are only very few fields large enough where even helicopter landings could be effected in larger than battalion strength.

The conclusion of terrain analysis was that the enemy forces would be largely road-bound, and while they could execute tactical manouvers outside the road network, even using amphibious vehicles like BTRs to cross lakes unless opposed, roads and crossroads would remain among the key objectives to be secured.

5. Tactics
As a response to these factors, the Finnish Army during the Cold War prepared for four principal types of tactical operations: Defense, Delay, Attack, and Guerrilla Warfare. Of these, attack was believed decisive: Finnish manpower and material reserves could not sustain a battle of attrition against a superpower, and the endgame had to be a political settlement. A defeat or at least severe mauling of the initial invasion force would provide better grounds for an acceptable settlement, and such a mauling could not be delivered by defensive or guerrilla operations alone.

The "reference" engagement that typified this mindset was a rather simple 1-2-1 play: one unit blocks the enemy advance, while two units attack its flanks and a fourth remains in reserve and/or covers the operation. The brigades, for instance, trained to throw a "blocking force" of one battalion to stall the enemy, while two battalions manouvered along the forests. Similarly, companies trained to put up one platoon to pin down the enemy, and flank with one or two platoons. Attack and outflanking were enshrined in doctrine to the point that every officer candidate learned the mnemonic "when in doubt, attack; when in doubt how to attack, outflank the enemy; when in doubt how to flank, flank from your right". The principal problem with this approach was time: an infantry brigade executing the textbook engagement would need 10 to 24 hours to complete its movement to contact, and unless the blocking unit could hold out, the enemy might slip past the flanking movement. No entirely satisfactory solution to the problem could be found during the Cold War, because funds did not permit the purchase of APCs and ATVs in quantity required for better operational mobility.

Because the most likely enemy forces became entirely mechanized during the 1960s, this meant that the infantry had to be able to take on tanks and other armored vehicles. Alongside artillery, man-portable anti-tank capabilities have long been a focus area for the Defence Forces. (As an aside, the capability of Finnish troops to move on foot across forests seems to be somewhat underappreciated. Some years ago, in an international exercise, the Norwegians received a lesson why it is a bad idea to leave forests unwatched if Finns are around: a very Finnish flanking move by a jaeger company put the company's AT missile launchers into a position where they were able to take out a Norwegian mechanized company before they even realized what was happening.)

Finally, guerrilla warfare deserves a mention. Finnish terrain is not quite the guerrilla heaven the mountains of Afghanistan or the jungles of Vietnam may have been, and while the top brass considered guerrilla warfare seriously in the 1960s, they ultimately rejected all strategies where the enemy was to be allowed to overrun the entire country. However, at least before helicopters with thermal imagers became commonplace, the terrain permitted small units of determined men who like the great outdoors to move unseen and, at best, cause the enemy grievous harm far beyond their numbers. To this end, the paramilitary Border Guard (which would fold into the Army command structure on mobilization) and several Army garrisons trained conscripts - athletes and hunters from the eastern forests being their preferred stock - in "sissi" units; the literal translation means "guerrilla" but the politically preferred one is "ranger." At one point, eight "sissi" battalions and three border jaeger battalions would have been founded at mobilization. They would either penetrate to the enemy's depth on foot or on skis, or stay behind as the enemy advance bypassed their hideouts deep in the woods. With the help of prepositioned supply dumps and supply runs by small planes and helicopters, they would harass the enemy, in particular its logistics, and collect intelligence. Their equipment and tactics were tested and refined in numerous detailed war games and exercises, with somewhat mixed results: the conclusion was that the units could cause considerable damage to the enemy via ambushes and mining, and even slow down its advance measurably, but could not do so entirely reliably. However, their presence would require the enemy to divert troops to rear area security duties and "encourage" it to advance more cautiously.


Selected comments -

level 1
· 4h · edited 4h
Interesting read, although mostly familiar stuff to me by now.

The "Yellow" enemy might come from anywhere except east during training exercises, but on the other hand my father was taught in the reserve officer school, that the enemy comes always from the east, except when it is flanking. This happened in 1983 IIRC.

Another interesting matter is the fact that Finnish military was capped to max size of 50.000 men in the Paris Peace Treaty. This caused the raised redines force of partial mobilization to be two last batches of conscripts, with current serving batch sent home to make room for better trained men in the 50k.

The peace treaty did not actually allow Finland to maintain half a million man reserve army. Excess weapons not needed for the 50k men were to be disposed off at the end of the Lapland war, but allies never told how to do it. After a couple of years of keeping the weapons in centralized storage waiting disposal, the army decided to return them to dispersed storage across the country, ready to be used for mobilization. No protest came from the Soviets or UK, the other signatories of the treaty.

level 2
Op · 4h
Yup. There was this Orwellian doublespeak where we had to be very careful that any written material did not name the enemy, but everyone knew who we were really talking about.

That said, the A3 (Great power, eastern) ToE was rarely used even with officer candidates, with the exception of those who were trained as reconnaissance and intelligence officers. The first time I saw a map with the enemy coming from the east was in a HQ exercise.

level 3
· 4h

Nowadays it has changed. My trainers about five years ago talked quite openly about Russia and equipment recognition folders contained only Russian and Finnish vehicles. NCO school mates who went to reserve officer school had to memorize the organization of a Russian motor rifle brigade, every vehicle in it. Name "Practice Opponent A2 Yellow" was used some times, but mostly by other conscripts who had heard it from brothers and uncles and fathers.
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