By Anne Kauranen
JOUTSA, Finland (Reuters) – Finland has shut down a section of one of its main highways for five days for the first time in decades to allow its fighter jets to practice landings and take-offs on a reserve road runway.
The Nordic country, which is applying for NATO membership following neighbouring Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has a dozen similar reserve runways designed for wartime use around the country.
But the reserve roadbase located in Joutsa, Central Finland, has not been used for decades due to its importance as the main highway connecting the capital Helsinki to the more northern parts of the country.
Nevertheless, it took the Air Force only a few days to clear the roadsides and prepare the site for the exercise in which some 200 staff and Finland’s F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets, older Hawk Mk 51 trainer planes and other military aircraft participate, the head of Finnish Air Force Academy, Colonel Vesa Mantyla said.
“Mainly I believe all the roadbases are in quite good condition so easily taken into the operations in a couple of days,” Mantyla said.
In order to protect its fleet, the Finnish Air Force can rapidly disperse all its aircraft across the country and therefore it rehearses on the road bases annually.
“The threat from Russia or the actions from Russia with the cruise missiles and ballistic missiles (in Ukraine) proves that the concept of dispersed operations is right,” Mantyla said.
Hundreds of locals gathered on the roadside in Joutsa on Wednesday to follow the drill where pilots practise landing on a 2-kilometre (1.24 mile) stretch of the closed highway while ground staff rehearsed “hot refueling” a fighter jet with its engines running.
Veikko Haapala, a local pensioner who had come to spot planes, said he trusted the Finnish defence forces to be capable of defending the country, especially with the help of NATO allies.
“I do feel somewhat anxious, given how the world situation has gotten, over how we defend ourselves,” Haapala, 79, said.
Another local, Seija Viinikainen, 57, welcomed the exercise amid the Ukraine war turning the situation “dubious”.
“Finns too need to be awake and count in even these small countryside runways so that the military is prepared to use them and the conscripts can exercise on them as well,” she said.
(Reporting by Anne Kauranen; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)