Northerners fight for military bases

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Critics of government plans to restructure and relocate military operations in Northern Norway were trooping into an open hearing at the Parliament this week, bound and determined to preserve bases and the economic support they provide. Some even argue that the future of the army itself is at stake.

Military exercises will continue in Northern Norway, like here in Finnmark, but reorganization plans call for the controversial shutdown of several bases and operations. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Frederik Ringnes

Military exercises will continue in Northern Norway, like here in Finnmark, but reorganization plans call for the controversial shutdown of several bases and operations. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Frederik Ringnes

Seven mayors and other regional leaders are among those blasting the government’s long-term defense plans that have evolved over the past year. The plans are based on a new overview of the threats facing Norway, and are mostly supported by the country’s defense chief, Admiral Haakon Bruun-Hanssen. He has felt that most of his own professional military advice has been followed by the conservative minority government coalition, even though he also has some concerns about the army’s future.

The goal is to streamline and make Norway’s defense more efficient, at a time when questions have arisen over how quickly NATO can come to Norway’s defense if needed. The Norwegian government is also trying to boost defense spending, promising to meet NATO’s request for 2 percent of GNP and putting the most priority on more surveillance flights and intelligence gathering in the north and more days at sea for coastal and offshore patrols, not least in the northern areas where Russia has become more active as well.

Ironically the proposed reorganization also involves major cuts, closing several military bases in Northern Norway including the Andøya air station, Trondenes, Harstad syd, Heggelia and Åsegarden. The defense ministry wants to move its maritime surveillance flight base from Andøya to Evenes near Harstad, while Norway’s fleet of Bell helicopters would be moved from their current base at Bardufoss in Troms to Rygge outside Moss in southern Norway.

Those proposals in particular have set off strong protests, not just from local politicians in Andøya and elsewhere in Northern Norway but also from the head of Norway’s largest trade union federation, LO boss Gerd Kristiansen. She wants to keep the Bell helicopters in Bardufoss, for example, suggesting to TV2 that she can’t rely upon the professional military advice or the economic arguments for moving the squadron to Rygge.

Defense Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide has been handed lots of reports offering advice from Defense Chief Haakon Bruun-Hanssen. Now she's coming up with her own proposals, which include some major spending cuts. PHOTO: Forsvaret

Defense Chief Haakon Bruun-Hanssen feels that Defense Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide and the rest of the government coalition has mostly followed his professional military advice. Søreide defends the proposed restructuring and cuts in some areas that it involves. PHOTO: Forsvaret

That sparked a salvo back from Defense Minister Inger Eriksen Søreide. “I react strongly that the LO leader won’t pay attention to the professional military advice on this, to the fundamental analysis and the long-term economic calculations that are aimed at strengthening the defense department’s operational ability,” Søreide told newspaper Moss Dagbladet this week. She accused Kristiansen of refusing to evaluate defense ability in a new threat situation.

“Kristiansen is clearly more preoccupied with (preserving) jobs in the north, but defense capability isn’t based on district politics or job creation,” Søreide said. “The goal is to defend Norway and its allies against serious threats and attack. We want to ward off a security crisis with national resources and provide for allied engagement, and we shall assert national sovereignty.”

Lobbying pressure all autumn long
District politics, which has long involved pressure to decentralize and spread public funding and activity to outlying areas of Norway, has always played a major role in defense spending and operations, however, despite Søreide’s claim. That’s why the local politicians from areas faced with base closures are reacting strongly as well. They include at least two mayors from Søreide’s own Conservative Party, noted newspaper Aftenposten on Wednesday, and they’re already fighting hard to convince other politicians in the Parliament to torpedo or at least modify the government’s defense reorganization plan, and maintain local military operations. Members of Parliament can expect heavy lobbying all autumn long.

Army advocates were also up in arms, stressing that their last base left between Bergen and Trondheim, Setnesmoen, is on the closure list as well. “If Setnesmoen is shut down, I have no doubt that defense willingness (along the northwest coast) will be reduced,” Oskar Leidulf Hjelle, regional leader for the Møre og Fjordane civil defense unit, told Aftenposten. “It will reduce preparedness. It will also affect cooperation with the police and civil defense.”

Others claims that new reliance on advanced weapon systems and surveillance at the expense of troops on the ground are “deeply immoral,” as one former coast guard officer put it.

The hearing held by the parliament’s defense and foreign affairs committee was expected to be lively. It was to continue through Friday.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund