Baltic Sea nations are cooperating more than ever to ensure safety, security and sovereignty, but it is a complex environment, with threats seen and unseen on, over and under the sea.

Ensuring the safety and security of maritime activities requires close cooperation and collaboration among stakeholders. Shipping on the Baltic Sea is substantial and has grown steadily over the past decade. More than 2,000 large ships are underway at any given time on the Baltic, including a significant amount of container traffic and transport of oil.

Half of Finland’s international trade is with her Baltic Sea neighbours. The Swedish port of Gothenburg, at the entrance to the Baltic, is the commercial transportation hub not only for Sweden, but for all ofScandinavia. Sweden is completely dependent on a functioning navigation system for its entire supply chain —72 percent of all goods coming or going to Sweden pass through a Swedish port. The Baltic Sea is also very important for Russia: 40% of its trading goes through the Baltic Sea, including an increasing transportation of Russian crude oil through the Baltic Sea. There is trade under the sea, too, with numerous pipelines and cables. The Baltic Sea North Stream gas pipeline directly links Russia and Germany, it plays an important role in ensuring reliable supplies of Russian natural gas. It’s important, and busy.

“We are completely dependent on the Baltic Sea for trade,” says Rear Admiral Kari Takanen, who was the commander of the Finnish Navy. "We are tracking 100 vessels on radar in the Gulf of Finland at any given time."

While each Baltic Sea country has its own sovereignty and national interests, maritime safety and security are a shared necessity, and best accomplished by means of mutual cooperation.

Perhaps the best example of such cooperation is between the Nordic neighbours of Sweden and Finland with the establishment of SUCFIS (Sea Surveillance Cooperation Finland Sweden) in the early 2000s. It began as an effort to notify each other about impending military manoeuvres, and grew into a mechanism for the Swedish and Finnish national maritime surveillance systems to create some transparency and exchange data between their autonomous systems to add value to their maritime situational awareness, and ensure environmental and economic security. SUCFIS utilizes the combined sensors for sea surveillance in order to establish one continuous, stable and functional recognised maritime picture (RMP), and has evolved to cross border operations using each others nations’ vessels for sea surveillance.

SUCFIS established the model and led the trend towards coordination of networks and sharing of information through their bilateral agreement, which has been expanded to include other partners in various parts of the world.

Based on the success of the SUCFIS model, a broader coalition was established in 2009 called Sea Surveillance Cooperation Baltic Sea (SUCBAS), aimed at improving the exchange of ship positions, tracks, identification data, chat and images, which today includes Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and the United Kingdom. It is not a ‘new system’, but rather a mutual support structure. While each maintains its own capability, they are able to share appropriate information with each other to the extent that their national conditions allow. Today, all nine SUCBAS countries are networked together to maintain a common operating picture (COP) for multinational maritime situational awareness.

Referring to SUCFIS and SUCBAS, former Finnish Defence Minister Carl Haglund wrote in Baltic Rim Economies, published in 2014 by the Pan-European Institution, "The general aim is to strengthen common understanding between the participating countries, as building trust is a crucial element of successful cooperation and leads to increased security.”

The European Union initiated the Maritime Surveillance project (MARSUR) in 2006 to connect the existing national naval and maritime information exchange systems to reduce duplication of effort better make use of data and information to support safety and security. Today MARSUR includes 17 nations (plus Norway, which is not an EU member), using technology and cooperation to create and share the “recognized maritime picture.”

Interoperability is achieved through the adoption of common standards for reliable distribution of data between the autonomous national systems. By sharing available track history, notifications and alerts, each nation can enhance their own recognized maritime picture (RMP).

From a military point of view, it is hard to defend against air, surface and sub surface threats in the Baltic Sea. Together, Finland and Sweden have far more than 100,000 islands and islets.

Because of the currents and varying depths, bottom topography, water temperatures and salinity, open ocean solutions may be less successful. “This creates a need for the Baltic Sea nations to tailor their military forces,” says Vice Adm. Jan Thörnqvist, formerly the chief of Sweden’s Navy and now chief of joint operations for the Swedish Armed Forces.

“There is a common interest there for all the Baltic Sea nations to maintain freedom of navigation and keep sea lines of communications in the Baltic Sea and the Baltic Straits open,” Thörnqvist says.

“It’s easy to hide if you are an aggressor here; there are short transit times and short reaction times,” says retired Swedish Navy Capt. Bo Wallander, now working for the Swedish defence company Saab. “You may only have seconds to make a decision.”

While all the stakeholders in the Baltic Sea region rely on a safe and secure maritime environment, a revanchist Russia is raising concerns for Baltic Sea nations, and prompting closer coordination and collaboration.

The dramatic recent video of Russian tactical aircraft buzzing a U.S. Navy destroyer in international waters shows Russia’s military as bold but unprofessional, reckless and dangerous. The annexation of Crimea and the Russian supported insurgents in Eastern Ukraine have made the former Warsaw Pact members or occupied states wary.

Speaking to international students at the Littoral Operations Center of the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., Thörnqvist says that Sweden together with the other countries around the Baltic Sea, US and NATO periodically conduct combined exercises to enhance their skills and improve interoperability. Russia, too, has increased its activities at and over the Baltic Sea, including surveillance, tests of weapon and sensors, trials and more complex exercises “We’ve watched them, and have seen fairly advanced exercises, with complex manoeuvres. We are seeing things happening that we haven’t seen in 10 years.”

The Baltic Sea nations also conduct their own weapon testing and training. “It’s getting kind of crowded in the Baltic Sea nowadays. And that creates situations where there easily could be misunderstandings or mistakes, and a risk for escalation if there is something happening, foremost in the air where you have fast developing and close situations, but also on the surface. We have had recently seen a ‘different’ unprofessional and dangerous behaviour from the Russian side, when it comes to how they operate their aircraft, for example, which has been more offensive than we have seen before. We are not in a Cold War now, but we have seen similar ‘Cold War’ situations recently in the region.”

Sweden and Finland are not part of NATO, but are part of the EU. “We are both working very close together with NATO, however, and everything we do is leading up to being interoperable with others,” Thörnqvist says.

In a speech at the Lennart Meri-conference in Tallinn on 14th of May 2016 Sweden´s Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist said that Sweden is an active partner with the alliance. “NATO has a key role to ensure stability in the Baltic Sea. As a NATO-partner, we welcome the increased defence measures taken by NATO in the Baltic Sea Region. The United States presence in the Baltic Sea Region is crucial and has a clear threshold effect. We are welcoming the U.S. ambition to increase its presence in Europe through the European Reassurance Initiative.”

Knowing your environment is critical in naval warfare, especially as it relates to the capabilities and limitations of sensors, and an adversary’s systems, as well. Nowhere is this truer than the Baltic Sea. Radar ducting is common. Parts of the sea freeze solid each winter. When that ice melts, it creates a current of fresh water. Currents have different temperatures at different depths, with multiple and distinct boundary layers which deflect sonar.

The Baltic Sea also has a much lower average salinity than the ocean itself, but is notorious for salt pockets where the salinity is much greater than surrounding waters, creating a layer that sound waves can bounce off.

In the autumn of 2014, Thörnqvist said there were numerous reports of suspected submarine sightings within the Swedish Archipelago near Stockholm. “We had no indication from our own sensors to begin with that we had an intruder in the archipelago, but we nevertheless rapidly started an intelligence operation. After having analysed more than 150 reports over 10 days, our Prime Minister, Defence Minister and Supreme Commander made a statement on Swedish television saying that we have been intruded by at least one submarine or smaller craft, deep into Swedish waters. It was proven that it was so. It’s a pretty strong statement to have these three leaders standing together to claim that we have had an intruder deep in Swedish waters. That also created a lot of discussion at the political and military levels. Now we are focusing on increasing our submarine warfare capacity and capability in Swedish waters and around the Baltic Sea.”

The Baltic Sea has been through two world wars, with many sea mines that still pose a danger, as well as a significant amount of unexploded ordnance and even chemical weapons that were dumped—some indiscriminately—in its waters.

Thörnqvist says approximately 20 percent of as estimated 170 thousand mines are still on the seabed. “That creates, of course, big trouble for us working underneath the surface in those areas when it comes to our submarines and mine warfare. But because the traffic exists in those areas, we have been forced to do something about it. This has been a good opportunity to getting together around the Baltic Sea and cooperate to get rid of some mines and reduce threat there.”

All Baltic Sea nations (except Russia) and other NATO-nations are frequently conducting national and international combined mine clearance operations and mine warfare exercises in the Baltic Sea. “Our cooperation regarding mine warfare has been successful,” Thörnqvist says.

Some fishermen have learned from hard experience where the mines must be avoided. Mines may not pose a threat as long as they remain undisturbed in the sea floor. But fishermen might haul up an unknown object in their nets, and even bring it ashore and discard it, where it could be exposed to heat and air. Some of the old munitions are filled with deadly chemicals that are still very toxic. There is a new military occupation field growing for “Historical Ordnance Disposal” (HOD OPS).

In 2014, Sweden and Finland started the development and training to establish a bilateral standing naval task group, the Swedish-Finnish Naval Task Group (SFNTG), with an initial operational capability for maritime surveillance in 2017 and with full operational capability to provide protection of shipping by 2023. The cooperation between the two countries also aims at an increased level of interoperability between the Swedish and Finnish Air Forces with the capacity for joint operations, common base operations and common command and control (C2) capability, together with the development of a combined Finnish - Swedish Brigade Framework.

There has even been discussions between Finland and Sweden to collaborate in other areas, such as education, logistics and procurement, with the benefits of sharing costs and resources.

By Edward Lundquist