Finland Brings Cyber Capabilities to NATO
As negotiations continue toward full NATO membership for Finland, the country’s advanced defense sector brings new capabilities and a troubled history with Russia, its neighbor to the east.
“We have built a platform for replication of human sensing,” said Marcus Nordström, CEO at MarshallAI, a technology company in Finland, which joined NATO as an observer in July.
The company develops products to take the burden off personnel who are already manning posts. Nordström provides an artificial intelligence focusing on visual or auditory elements that could potentially be a threat to troops in combat or a critical installation in any location, among other use cases.
“Let’s say that we are standing in a field, and we are scared that someone might be watching us with a drone, for instance. Rather than placing eight persons to look at each direction, watching the skyline for an hour, we can use a computer to carry out that task and give us an alert when the computer thinks that there is something which might be a drone, just as an example,” Nordström explained.
The Nordic country ranks ninth in the Global Innovation Index, compiled by the World Intellectual Property Organization, trailing Germany and ranking ahead of Denmark. Its government promotes startups with tax incentives and engages entrepreneurs through various institutions.
“Despite a population size of just over 5.5 million, the country that gave the world the first heart rate monitor, the web browser, wind turbines, reflectors for walkers, SMS messaging, saunas, Nokia phones, Angry Birds and 5G technology, is proving itself as a leading light in the start-up tech scene,” claimed Business Finland, a government body, in a release.
While most young people worldwide have calculated indirect fire trajectories and learned the risks of shrapnel through the video game Angry Birds, Finland was awakened to the reality that a regime next door had less entertaining anger against democracies. After Russia invaded Ukraine, Finland abandoned its historic neutral stance and applied for full NATO membership. This boosts a defense sector that in 2020 employed 7,900 and had a turnover of €1.84 billion, almost $2 billion, according to the Association of Finnish Defence and Aerospace Industries.
“We are looking for business, we want to understand what researchers are researching, and that what companies are developing are the kind of technologies that really answer to demand needs,” said Tiina Nurmi, ecosystem lead, Innovation Ecosystems on Cyber Security, Space, Defense and Telecommunication at Business Finland.
Nurmi described her job as a bridge between academia, businesses and the government to create communities that will produce profits in defense technology.
“I would say that the companies are the backbone of the ecosystem,” said Reijo Savola, project manager, Cybersecurity and Software Engineering, University of Jyväskylä, in a SIGNAL Media interview.
Savola specializes in critical infrastructure cyber defense and works in academia to improve Finland’s capabilities integrating government, armed forces and businesses in the process.
Roles like his have been described as central to successful warfighting on the continent.
“The war in Ukraine has brought into sharper focus the fact that military resilience overlaps with broader societal resilience requirements,” said Anna Dowd and Cynthia Cook in a recent article from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a U.S. think tank.
The changing scenario impacts how attention shifts toward strategic interests.
“We have different departments in our organization, and we have people like myself with experience and history in certain fields,” Nurmi told SIGNAL Media. Business Finland first evaluates the market viability of an innovation. The second step directly involves Nurmi’s team, seeking defense applications.
“I work with a group and there are people who work with a single company at a time; and we all have our background in different industries,” Nurmi explained. Cross pollination happens as the government processes a potential grant and plays a role with its consultants, according to Nurmi.
The idea behind creating the ecosystem is the integration between business and academia, bringing innovation—mostly from universities—to the marketplace.
Finland spent 2.94% of its gross domestic product on research and development in 2020, according to the World Bank; meanwhile, China spent 2.4% and the United States 3.45%.
“There are researchers and companies actively working together, so what researchers produce is utilized in business,” Nurmi elaborated.
As the country readies itself for full NATO membership, projects are going through another layer of analysis to access government funding with a new set of challenges and opportunities.
“It’s so much clearer when you understand what the world needs, what NATO needs,” Nurmi said. To add value to new entrepreneurs entering defense, there is one key element her team follows.
The government chooses projects to fund and incubate. Roles like Nurmi’s are unique in Europe, according to Nordström, as funding for defense startups is currently limited.
“I look at Europe, I see that for instance, looking at the venture capital markets in Europe, I don’t really identify any funds that would have a kind of understanding that the defense segment can be something,” Nordström explained.
Part of this entrepreneur’s work is to speak to possible venture capitalists and interest them in his company, but without Business Finland, the process would be complicated.
“We have seen [investment funds be] kind of reluctant, they are afraid of us mentioning defense as an industry,” Nordström said. “Our company, we started in the commercial private sector, then we have taken the leap into law enforcement and defense.”
After introducing its innovation to the U.S. Army and receiving attention from the Department of Defense, MarshallAI found its proper place in defense with its algorithms for automatically identifying threats.
Meanwhile, Nurmi meets continuously with potential innovators in aerospace and defense. To understand and direct the businesspeople she serves, she also covers strategic information from various sources, both allied and adversarial, to add input when evaluating a new project.
“Finland will have a key role in digital defense because digital is our domain. We’re good at it, and now we are in the position to bring that more and more to the defense sector,” Nurmi said.
Within this sector, there are areas where Finns expect to bring NATO capabilities to a new level. “Cybersecurity solutions for platforms and infrastructure—I’d say that there are very good solutions available built by our companies,” Savola offered.
Savola added that telecommunications is also an area looking into defense. “Solutions for mobile communications that can be used in warfare, in this area they are very robust.”
Part of the reason why their capabilities must punch above their weight is due to pure geography.
“We are close to Russia, and we share a long border with Russia—more than 1,000 kilometers,” Savola explained. “Of course, we are worried about what could happen to the critical infrastructure.”
Cyber tactics share similarities with conventional battlespaces where a larger enemy can punch deep into a small territory before defenders can react. Moscow’s interest in Finland and its cyber warfare capabilities is a cue for those defending the country that they should operate assuming Russia has already infiltrated critical targets.
“There might be some mechanisms inside the critical infrastructure installed, waiting for some order,” Savola explained.
Therefore, ensuring Finnish systems are free from cyber weapons is only the first part of their defensive work.
“We are quite active in finding potential vulnerabilities and developing the countermeasures,” Savola said.
“There’s quite a lot of monitoring going on in Finland, and we try to learn from the experiences from other countries; so, for example, we have quite a lot of Ukrainian people in Finland now, and in our university there’s also some new researchers from Ukraine,” Savola offered. “[Ukrainians] have learned, [after] what happened in Ukraine in critical infrastructure, and we try to learn from that, so, of course it’s very, very challenging.”
Savola went on to explain how Finland uses real-world Ukrainian experience to develop its own defenses in case Russia decides to direct a cyber attack toward its infrastructure.
Nordström said Nordic countries offer an innovation-friendly environment. “Finland and the other Nordic countries, including Sweden, Denmark and Norway, we do have some state-of-the-art technology in certain areas that might not be available in other countries.” Much of Nordstrom’s work is classified, and he was unable to comment on specific technologies.
Still, there is one aspect that every male entrepreneur understands in Finland and other Nordic countries. Explaining tactical uses of new technologies is facilitated by the integration between the armed forces and the population.
“Definitely it helps that all Finnish males go to the army to do the [compulsory] military service,” Nordström said. “I see that this is a superb opportunity for our company as well to leverage this technology and this platform also with NATO and the U.S. Army,” he added.