Economic worries threaten defense

Norway’s economic downturn is forcing re-evaluation of defense spending. That’s raising the possibility once again that Norway either will reduce the number of new F35 fighter jets it has on order in the US, or be forced to slash other areas of defense and rely much more heavily on NATO.

The first of Norway's new F35 fighter jets were tested last fall. Norway has 52 jets on order, but harder economic times may force a reduction. PHOTO: Kaszynzki/Lockheed Martin

The first of Norway’s new F35 fighter jets were tested last fall. Norway has 52 jets on order, but harder economic times may force a reduction. PHOTO: Kaszynzki/Lockheed Martin

Pressure on the economy as a result of low oil prices, combined with a weak currency that makes the jets much more expensive in US dollars, has sparked new concern over military spending. Defense Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide of the Conservative Party has wanted to halt the chronic “under-funding” of the military and is currently working hard on a long-term plan for defense that’s due this spring. She has received what military brass call “modest” proposals for a military of the future, and her response will be forwarded to Parliament.

Søreide is also under pressure from the US to contribute more to the fight against Islamic extremist group IS but the government won’t be sending any of its F16 jets to join the fight. Instead, Søreide confirmed this week, Norway will extend its training program for Iraqi forces in Northern Iraq. Further military contributions to the fight against IS in Iraq and Syria “remain up for evaluation and won’t be ruled out,” said Søreide as she delivered an overview of international operations in 2016 to Parliament.

Long-term dilemma
Longer-term plans for Norway’s defense remain highest on the military agenda, and present the biggest dilemma. The goal, wrote newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Tuesday, is to have defense forces that no longer are underfunded but also can be restructured and open to new necessary ventures. That’s becoming increasingly difficult given Norway’s new economic realities with less oil money flowing into state coffers at a time of rising unemployment and pressure on the social welfare state from expanding ranks of retirees and refugees.

The defense establishment naturally enough wants to maintain a first-line-of-defense strategy that would allow Norwegian forces to defend Norway at least for several days before NATO troops arrive to help. The alternative is giving up on that, like Denmark has done, and relying more heavily on NATO in return for active participation in NATO operations. Such a situation, wrote DN, implies cutting the number of F35s, from 52 to perhaps 42, reducing investment in new submarines and tanks and making many other cuts as well, to save money on operations. And DN noted that Norway’s geographic position is entirely different from Denmark’s, where held could roll in from bordering allies. Norway, in contrast, shares a border with Russia in the far north and with Sweden, which is not a member of NATO.

“The last think I want is a reduction in the (number of) F35,” Defense Chief and Admiral Haakon Bruun-Hansen declared in an annual address Monday night. He noted, however, that he well understood that the recommendations he presented last year “are politically demanding.” He said he also understood that “the dilemma (over military spending) is more demanding today than it was six months ago, because of the economic situation in Norway and the outlook for the Norwegian economy.”

Major financial boost needed
That doesn’t change the “seriousness” of the military’s situation, he cautioned. A major financial boost is needed if the military is to carry out its duties in the face of new security and political challenges. If funding for the military is lower than that recommended by his panel of experts, it will result in a decline of defense capability.

“The defense minister has said it and I have claimed it for several years: The military is under-financed in accordance with the current long-term plan,” Bruun-Hansen said. Efforts to maintain various military activity and international operations have come at the expense of preparedness, he claimed, and that’s no longer acceptable “in my opinion.” He favours cutting back on international operations in order to boost preparedness at home.

It will ultimately be up to the government and parliament to decide what kind of military Norway will have: one capable of defending the nation or one that relies on support for NATO to do so. For a country with a former prime minister as new NATO boss, it’s a daunting prospect.

Newspaper Aftenposten reported that both the Conservatives and Labour resist any cuts in the number of F35s ordered, prompting critics to predict the F35s will then force massive cuts in other areas of defense because of their sheer expense. That could leave Norway with a relatively strong air force, but weak army and naval operations.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund