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On a recent chilly morning on the island of Santahamina in Helsinki, gunshots ring out. Moments later, a car bursts into flames. Special forces equipped with lightweight semi-automatic rifles storm a nearby farm building. An exchange of gunfire erupts and a police officer is shot. “We need backup,” shouts another officer. Soon after, an armoured vehicle of the Finnish Defence Forces arrives, shielding a group of soldiers in battle gear. A fire engine follows close behind and, in a matter of seconds, the flames are extinguished.

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Course participants tuck in to lunch at the Santahamina military base

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Pasi armoured personnel carrier of the Guard Jaeger Regiment in Helsinki

From a safe distance, a few dozen onlookers dutifully take notes as Colonel Sami Nurmi explains what they’ve just witnessed. Though the scene seems intense, it was in fact staged as part of a civil-military co-operation exercise. Look closer at those watching and you’ll find among them ceos, media bosses, mps, architects, opera chiefs and other high-profile Finns.

This is Finland’s National Defence Course. The military organises four of these courses a year, each lasting three and a half weeks, designed to teach civilians the ins and outs of Finnish security. Through lectures, demonstrations, exercises and tours, the programme offers a crash course in both how the military operates and how society functions. It’s part of Finland’s approach to keeping its population safe in times of crisis. “For a society to function in challenging times, we need everyone on board,” Colonel Nurmi tells monocle. “We need all the key sectors of the society to pull together, not just the military.”

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M05 military uniform
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Finnish conscripts training for close-quarter combat 

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Police special forces prepare to storm a building as part of an exercise

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Participant Kim Berg, a first-term MP 

Participation is invitation only; you can’t apply. Crucially, the National Defence Course targets a large cross-section of decision-makers to take part so that when it comes to national security, leaders in the community feel as though they have buy-in. The fact that almost all of the invitees say yes speaks volumes of the solidarity and civic duty of Finns (not to mention the potential networking opportunities that come with rubbing shoulders with the nation’s establishment). Courses have been taking place since 1961 and, so far, almost 10,000 citizens have participated.

“For a society to function in challenging times, we need everyone on board”

“I am lucky because my boss is a Finn and he understood immediately why I should be granted leave for such a long time to take part in the course,” says Antti Jääskeläinen, executive vice-president at Finnish paper giant upm, a multinational company with a €10bn turnover. “I know people who were invited but their foreign bosses were a bit hesitant to let them go for such a long time.” To that end, participants do get Fridays off to take care of urgent work matters. Otherwise it’s long days with a lot to absorb.

The philosophy underpinning it all is the Finnish concept of kokonaisturvallisuus (comprehensive security). “The fundamental insight is that the most crisis-resistant and resilient modern societies are ones in which the authorities, the business community, other civil organisations [ngos] and the citizens together prepare for crises,” says Charly Salonius-Pasternak, reserve officer and a security policy researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. “[Then, when there is a crisis, they can] seek to ensure that the vital functions of the society keep functioning.”

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Colonel Sami Nurmi is in charge of the National Defence Course 

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Guard Jaeger Regiment conscripts with Finnish RK 95 TP assault rifles

Military exercises are just one part of the course. The rest concerns societal security more broadly and includes lectures on everything from cyber warfare and Russian affairs to climate change and social marginalisation. There are also visits to significant sites, such as the Finnish parliament, the Central Criminal Police and other key authorities. The goal is to teach participants the inner workings of these institutions – and their own organisations’ role in the whole. Krista Taubert heads the foreign news department at Finland’s national broadcaster yle. Even though following world politics is her day job, she says that the course is enlightening. “It really helped me to understand the key role that reliable journalism plays in countering disinformation and promoting civic engagement,” she says as the group is introduced to a training centre for close-quarter combat.

Evidence suggests that the National Defence Course works. Finland is consistently ranked among the world’s safest and most stable countries, and its citizens report a high degree of trust in both the military and the authorities. Finland has also fared better than most western countries when faced with coronavirus, avoiding lockdowns and keeping its economy going.

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Professional firemen take part in the exercise

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Conscript holding an NLAW anti-tank missile launcher

The kokonaisturvallisuus philosophy has been put to a test during the pandemic, and Colonel Nurmi is confident that the course contributed to Finland’s response. “The fact that most of the country’s top business leaders had completed this course helped them to lead their organisations through the crisis and understand the critical importance of co-operating with the authorities,” he says.

The country already has a relatively high level of allegiance to its military. It’s one of the few western democracies that still has a mandatory military service. After turning 18, Finnish men are required to serve between six and 12 months in the military, or to join a year-long civilian service if they object to the military one. Such is the popularity of the military service that only 7 per cent choose the latter. Since 1995 the service has also been open to women, if they choose to apply; last year, more than 1,500 did. “About eight in 10 Finns support the current system,” says Salonius- Pasternak. “National service is the only way to build a large enough reserve force, and the expertise that the reservists bring from their civilian lives is invaluable to comprehensive defence efforts. While the purpose is to train soldiers and leaders, improvements in terms of health, integration and psychological resilience are frequently brought up as ancillary benefits.”

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Participant Henna Helander, president of Finnish Association of Architects

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National Defence Course participants observe close-quarter combat training

Many believe that the National Defence Course has played a key role in maintaining that support for the military and defence and cementing it among Finland’s leaders. “I used to think that defence was all about guns,” says Liisa Suvikumpu, managing director of the Association of Finnish Foundations. “That’s why I was never really interested in it. This course has really helped me to understand how it all works; that it’s not only about the military but that it concerns us all.”

“National service is the only way to build a large enough reserve force, and the expertise that the reservists bring from their civilian lives is invaluable to comprehensive defence efforts”

It’s a model that more nations should consider emulating. Some of Finland’s neighbours – Estonia, Latvia and Sweden among them – have followed suit, although their courses are much smaller in scope. According to Nurmi, countries such as the US and the UK have also expressed interest.

Kim Berg, a first-term MP from the centre-left Social Democratic Party – one of the four parliamentarians on the course – says that the issue of defence often comes up in his discussions with foreign colleagues. “I always tell them about this course,” he says. “I believe all countries should have something like it. National defence is something that concerns us all, not just the soldiers.” 

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