Following Finland’s formal accession to NATO on April 4, Washington and Helsinki have been involved in negotiations for a Defense Cooperation Agreement which, according to Finnish media, will allow the United States to set up extensive military infrastructure in the country to facilitate forward deployments of American F-35 stealth fighters. The agreement is expected to pave the way towards major deployments of U.S. forces to Finnish territory, and to streamline the use of facilities in Finland including for storage of prepositioned arms and munitions. Negotiations are not expected to conclude before the autumn, and possibly not before 2024, but are expected to proceed smoothly with Helsinki seeking greater integration and interoperability with the U.S. Military and to host a greater American military presence. Negotiations are particularly protracted due to their unprecedented nature, as while Finland sided with the Axis Powers during the Second World War, from 1945 throughout the Cold War it maintained a strictly neutral foreign policy – meaning its NATO membership marks an abrupt shift.
Finland’s accession to NATO notably doubled the length of the alliance’s border with Russia, and was responded to by a significant expansion of Russian deployments of asymmetric mobile missile assets to the Russo-Finnish border such as Iskander ballistic missile systems. Deployments of American F-35s to Finnish territory would likely be seen as a major threat by Russia, and lead to further militarisation of the border. Developed under the Joint Strike Fighter program, the F-35 was designed primarily for strike operations and accordingly has advanced stealth and electronic warfare capabilities well suited to penetrating advanced air defence networks. Its deep bomb bays are capable of carrying a wide range of munition types including penetrative ordnance to neutralise hardened fortifications, as well as B61 nuclear bombs. Approximately 200 B61s are currently stored at six airfields across Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey for use by the U.S. forces as well as its local partners as part of nuclear sharing agreements. F-35s based in Finland would be within range of critical targets in Russia including Moscow itself, and significantly increase pressure on the Russian air defence network which currently faces F-35s across its other western, northern, eastern borders. The U.S. has not only escalated F-35 deployments to Central Europe, but also to East Asia and the Arctic, with deployments to Finland thus in line with broader efforts to increase the fighter class’ presence along all possible frontiers.
The Finnish Air Force itself in 2022 placed an order fo 64 F-35A fighters, which are expected to begin deliveries in 2026 and replace the country’s F-18 Hornet fourth generation fighters. The F-35 was chosen in a tender over multiple competing European designs such as the Swedish Gripen and pan-European Eurofighter, and marked the latest of multiple tenders in which the American stealth jet has consistently come out on top due to its unique capabilities. The F-35 is one of just three post fourth generation fighters in production today worldwide, alongside the Chinese J-20 and Russian Su-57, and is thus the only NATO compatible stealth fighter in production. Its Russian rival the Su-57 has seen its production scale continue to increase, as the class has been extensively combat tested in Ukraine including in complex missions such as air defence suppression and air to air combat, making it by far the most throughly combat tested fifth generation fighter in the world. The Su-57 lacks a number of key technologies seen on the F-35 and J-20, however, and has yet to be acquired in significant numbers with only 10 airframes currently in service.
Lacking a meaningful fifth generation fleet, Russia instead relies heavily for its air defence on both ground based surface to air missile systems, such as the S-400 developed specifically to tackle stealth targets. It also depends on strike assets such as the Iskander missile system which are capable of striking key airfields and neutralising combat aircraft on the ground. The F-35 itself, although promising, is still considered far from ready for high intensity combat with approximately 800 performance bugs still remaining, with issues with its engine in particular meaning its all weather availability rates are by far the worst in the U.S. Air Force. Should the wide ranging issues affecting the fighter be resolved, however, its presence across Russia’s borders will represent one of the leading security challenges which the Russian Military faces.