Finland kicks off major air exercise with NATO partners
Stars and Stripes May 30, 2023
Finland is hosting a major air exercise with NATO partners just weeks after joining the U.S.-led alliance amid ongoing tensions with neighboring Russia.
Some 3,000 service members and 150 aircraft from 12 NATO countries as well as Sweden and Switzerland are participating in Arctic Challenge, which began Monday, NATO said.
The American contingent consists of troops assigned to U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa and the Marine Air National Guard.
Fourteen F-15E Strike Eagle fighters and eight F-35A Lightning II fifth-generation stealth fighters, all belonging to the Air Force’s 48th Fighter Wing at RAF Lakenheath, are taking part in the training from Finland’s Pirkkala Air Base and Norway’s Orland Air Base respectively, according to a statement Monday by USAFE-AFAFRICA.
An unspecified number of U.S. KC-135R Stratotankers from the 100th Air Refueling Wing at RAF Mildenhall and the Maine National Guard’s 101st Air Refueling Wing are scheduled to provide support until the exercise ends June 9, the statement added.
Meanwhile, American exercise controllers from the 414th Combat Training Squadron at Nevada’s Nellis Air Force Base are supporting local planners at Lulea Air Base in Sweden, and U.S. Marines will provide advanced ground-based radar capabilities throughout the exercise, the statement said.
The Finnish air force is directing the training, which is being carried out at sites in Finland, Sweden and Norway. Its focus is on ensuring that partners can work together with various aircraft across swaths of the high north.
The exercise has been held every two years since 2013, with this year’s being the biggest to date, Col. Henrik Elo of the Finnish air force was quoted by Agence France-Presse as saying.
In addition to the U.S., Norway, Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom will supply F-35s.
Other aircraft from partner countries being used include Rafale and Mirage combat jets from France, German and British Eurofighter Typhoons, and Belgian, Dutch and Danish F-16s, according to NATO.
Finland shares an 830-mile border with Russia. After decades of nonalignment, it officially joined NATO in April because of concerns sparked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
The country had been a partner of the transatlantic military alliance since the 1990s and regularly participated in drills and some peacekeeping missions with NATO allies, such as the one in Kosovo.
Neighboring Sweden, another historically nonaligned country, had hoped to join the alliance at the same time as Finland, but its bid has been held up by Turkey and Hungary. Turkey says Stockholm harbors members of armed groups it considers to be terrorists.
U.S. President Joe Biden told reporters at the White House on Monday that he planned to speak next week with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was recently reelected, about Sweden’s NATO membership.