This growth was instigated by legal amendments that grant the Border Guard increased authority at sea and responsibility to conduct criminal investigations. As such, the Border Guard has evolved as a hybrid authority that maintains operational readiness and the ability to respond to almost any task in the maritime domain. For example, the West Finland Coast Guard District and the Gulf of Finland Coast Guard District, which both operate under the Finnish Border Guard, participate in operations at sea such as maritime search and rescue, law enforcement, and response to oil and hazardous substance pollution incidents. Other responsibilities that align with traditional military roles include responding to territorial violations and national defense.
Within the preamble of the European Border and Coast Guard regulation, it states that national coast guard authorities are responsible for many tasks, to include maritime safety and security, maritime search and rescue, maritime border management, fisheries control, customs control, law enforcement, and protection of the marine environment. The Finnish Border Guard takes part in all of the above-mentioned functions and more. For example, it is the lead authority in border management, maritime search and rescue, maritime response to oil and hazardous substance pollution, ship-to-sea discharge monitoring, and port-of-refuge decisions. Additionally, the Border Guard plays a major role in maritime surveillance, law enforcement, criminal investigation, combating terrorism, and fisheries and customs control.
The improved maritime role of the Finnish Border Guard has required – and still requires – development of performance and expertise. This article illuminates that work in the fields of operational readiness, expertise, and equipment.
The Development of Maritime Performance
Ensuring a high state of operational readiness among the Border Guard’s maritime and aviation units, as well as within its command centers’ is key to the Border Guard’s ability to successfully perform its duties. At sea, Border Guard units are consistently the first authority to respond to maritime incidents. Eighteen coast guard stations, three patrol vessels, five maritime search and rescue helicopters, two surveillance aircraft, and special operations teams form the spearhead of 24/7 operational readiness throughout Finland’s territorial waters. Although a baseline level of readiness is always available, response levels are adjusted to meet the operational environment. It is on this platform of readiness that the ability to perform, for example, immediate territorial surveillance is enabled.
The vast nature of responsibilities assigned to the Border Guard requires consistent development and maintenance of professional competencies. In response to the additional mandates and authorities it has received, the Border Guard’s training program has been upgraded to reflect current operating environments. Some of these upgrades deal with improving territorial surveillance and violation response skills. For example, staff have been trained to handle more extreme situations. Tactics, use of equipment, and training on the use of military force have all been enhanced. Cooperation and exercises with Finnish Defense Forces have been increased along with orders, plans, and instructions that have been revised to correspond to the changing operational environment. Additionally, courses and other training have been created to address the reallocation of authority to respond to maritime oil and chemical spills. Maritime personnel of the Border Guard will continue to receive training regarding their additional responsibilities.
Complementing the development of its maritime competencies, the Border Guard has significantly improved its fleet in the last ten years. Its first major project involved replacing an outdated patrol boat fleet with larger and more efficient vessels. The new patrol boat class (PV08), has earned its place as a versatile instrument that enables the Border Guard to swiftly react to nearly any situation, from rescue towing, and apprehension of border violators, to transporting medical evacuees. The new patrol boats have also proven themselves as valuable assets during Frontex operations in the Mediterranean Sea.
The commissioning of the offshore patrol vessel Turva, adds a set of robust capabilities to the Finnish maritime domain. At 4,000 tonnes, it brings a new size class to the Border Guard’s maritime fleet, and with this vessel comes the added capability to refuel and land a helicopter while at sea. This is a significant improvement particularly during large maritime disasters when mass evacuations are needed.
Additionally, two H215 Super Puma helicopters have been added to the fleet, while three older Super Pumas are being refurbished to the new standard. With the new and refurbished Super Pumas operational, the helicopters’ performance and surveillance capabilities will be sufficiently matched to meet current and future operational requirements.
Near term projects include the replacement of current fast boats and coastal patrol vessels. Current evaluations of the new RHIB fast boat (NV15) have proven highly functional and will arrive in Finland this spring. With the new coastal patrol vessel (RV90) comes significantly enhanced performance and icebreaking capability. One particularly versatile enhancement comes in the form of a detachable platform which can be connected to the vessel. The platform, which is primarily used for oil spill response, can also be used to transport other equipment should the need arise. This capability significantly increases the transport and functional capacity of the Border Guard’s maritime operations.
Currently, the maritime fleet of the Finnish Border Guard is the best it’s ever been, and the future looks bright. Long term projects include the replacement of Tursas class vessels and Dornier surveillance aircrafts during the 2020s.
One of the most challenging situations in the field of maritime safety and security is a terrorist act such as hijacking a vessel. However, within the current geopolitical atmosphere, it is possible that what might initially look a terrorist attack could, in reality, be a much different type of event. As such, the Border Guard must be able to quickly coordinate the tasks for which it is responsible, in tandem with police and other operators. Simultaneously, it must mobilize all available resources, for example, to conduct a mass evacuation and transport individuals to further care. After the active phase of the situation has passed, the prevention of a potential environmental catastrophe may last for weeks or months.
Contributing to the Border Guard’s overall readiness and mission success relevant to the above scenario, are two Coast Guard command centers which were operationally overhauled in the 2010s. These command centers provide overall situational awareness to field units and decision makers and provide support to other maritime authorities. Separately, these command centers also support each other and can provide operational redundancy when the need arises.
If necessary, the command of a task organization may also operate from an offshore patrol vessel of the Border Guard. The offshore patrol vessel Turva, for example, is particularly well-suited to this. In addition to exercises, using this operating model has been successfully applied to actual maritime situations involving several different authorities.
The tasks and responsibilities of the Finnish Border Guard at sea have been the subject of strong development since 2005. The most recent legal amendments will take effect in April of this year. The Finnish Border Guard and its two Coast Guard Districts have become multipurpose maritime authorities whose tasks range from controlling oil spills to safeguarding territorial integrity and everything in between, including law enforcement and crime prevention. The Border Guard has identified the challenges posed by recent changes. Preparedness, know-how and equipment have been developed in line with new responsibilities and changes in the operational environment. We will continue our work with determination.
Despite the growing maritime roles of the Finnish Border Guard above, we would not be able to function independently. One of our national strengths is excellent cooperation between authorities, which substantially increases mission success at sea. The Border Guard has close ties to the Navy, Police, Customs, rescue services, medical services, volunteer rescue personnel, and transport and environmental authorities. Additionally, we’d be amiss not to mention our close cooperation with other maritime industry partners such as shipping companies and other commercial operators. The ongoing development and collaboration in accordance with the values of the Finnish Border Guard are vital for our ability to succeed in our task in an ever-changing operational environment.
Lieutenant Commander Mikko Hirvi, the Chief of Operations of the West Finland Coast Guard District
Lieutenant Commander Valtteri Viitala, Finnish Border Guard, student officer on General Staff Officer Course 59 until August 2019