NATO Drills In Finland, Norway, Sweden 03/04 06:39
HELSINKI (AP) -- NATO kicked off an exercise on Monday to defend its newly
expanded Nordic territory when more than 20,000 soldiers from 13 nations take
part in drills lasting nearly two weeks in the northern regions of Finland,
Norway and Sweden.
With over 4,000 Finnish soldiers taking part, the Norway-led Nordic Response
2024 represents the NATO newcomer's largest ever participation in a foreign
exercise, according to Finland's military.
"For the first time, Finland will participate as a NATO member nation in
exercising collective defense of the alliance's regions," the Finnish Defense
Forces said in a statement.
The Swedish Armed Forces said about 4,500 personnel from its air force, army
and navy would take part in the drill, which is being conducted in demanding
Arctic winter conditions.
Finland, which shares a 1,340-kilometer (830-mile) border with Russia,
joined NATO in April 2023 in a historic move following decades of military
non-alignment. With its bid now ratified by all NATO members, neighboring
Sweden is currently finalizing formalities to enter the military alliance as
its 32nd member -- most likely in March.
Both Sweden and Finland had developed strong ties with NATO after the end of
the Cold War, but public opinion remained firmly against full membership until
Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Nonalignment was seen as the best way to avoid tensions with Russia, their
powerful neighbor in the Baltic Sea region. But the Russian aggression caused a
dramatic shift in public opinion in both countries, and they applied jointly
for NATO membership in May 2022.
For years, the biannual NATO drill, which has been conducted in the Arctic
extremes of northern Norway, was called "Cold Response."
However, "thanks to the NATO expansion with Finland and eventually Sweden,
we are now expanding the exercise to a Nordic Response," the Norwegian Armed
Forces said on its website. This year, the drill is hosted equally by Finland,
Norway and Sweden.
The pan-Nordic drill is part of Steadfast Defender 24, NATO's biggest
exercises in decades, with up to 90,000 troops involved over several months of
drills that are aimed at showing that the alliance can defend all of its
territory up to its border with Russia.
The participating nations in the current exercise that runs through March 15
are Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the
Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden and the United States.
Roughly half of the participating troops will drill on land. The rest will
train at sea, with over 50 participating submarines, frigates, corvettes,
aircraft carriers, and various amphibious vessels, and in the air with more
than 100 fighter jets, transport aircraft, maritime surveillance aircraft and
helicopters, according to the Norwegian military.
The combined joint training will focus on the defense and protection of the
Nordic region, Norwegian military officials said.
"We need to be able to fight back and stop anyone who tries to challenge our
borders, values and democracy," said Brigadier Tron Strand from the Royal
Norwegian Air Force, Commander of the Norwegian Air Operations Center, in a
statement. "With the current security situation in Europe, the exercise is
extremely relevant and more important than ever before," he added.
"The High North represents an important and strategically located area for
NATO" and the Nordic Response 2024 exercise "increases Nordic preparedness and
the capability to conduct large-scale joint operations in challenging weather
and climate," NATO said on its website.
Finland's new president, Alexander Stubb, will inspect the drill together
with Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Store in northern Norway on March 7.
It's the first foreign trip for Stubb since he was sworn in as Finland's new
head of state and its supreme military commander on March 1.
Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden is to visit an airbase in northern Sweden
on March 11, the country's military said.