Minister forced to defend her defense

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Defense Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide was under attack again this week, after yet another report from military experts contended that Norway’s defense forces are woefully inadequate. NATO forces would of course be expected to help Norway defend itself, but the report is the latest in a long series of claims that Norwegian troops are unable to mobilize and ward off an attack.

Defense Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide insists that she’s been trying to reverse years of military neglect that she claims was caused by “systematic underfinancing” by previous governments over the past 20 years. That includes the eight years when the current NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was Norway’s prime minister. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Petter Brenni Gulbrandsen

For Søreide and those following military developments in Norway, the report from Defense Chief Haakon Bruun-Hanssen came as no surprise. She’d received a classified version of it at the end of last year, but its contents were only made public this week in an article in newspaper Klassekampen.

Debate has flown in the days since, forcing Søreide to appear on the nightly national newscast Dagsrevyen and downplay how Bruun-Hanssen had given the combat readiness of Norway’s National Guard the lowest grade of five possible. He claimed that only one region was defined as prepared to fight, while the Army, the Air Force and Norway’s cyber defense flunked in his evaluation as well.

Purposely highlighting deficiences
The report from December comes in addition to the assessment of a top military officer, writing in newspaper Aftenposten last spring, that the Army can at best only defend an area of around 20-times 20 kilometers, and only for a short while. Newspaper VG reported in June that a new survey shows that two out of three Norwegians don’t think Norway’s defense forces can actually defend the country. That’s a sorry state of affairs, after decades of declarations that Norway would never again be so unprepared for an attack like it was in 1940, when Nazi German troops marched in and occupied the country for the duration of World War II.

This is not news either to Søreide or Bruun-Hanssen, who launched a series of inspections and evaluations of Norway’s military capability aimed at highlighting its deficiencies, and addressing them, when they both took charge after the last national election in the fall of 2013. They warned as early as the spring of 2014 that Norway’s military was in poor shape after years of what Søreide called “neglect” under previous governments. Those governments ironically included the ones led by current NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg when he was Norwegian prime minister from the Labour Party from 2005 to 2013.

That’s what made Søreide, from the Conservative Party, bristle when Stoltenberg’s Labour Party colleague Anniken Huitfeldt, who now heads the foreign relations and defense committe in the Norwegian Parliament, accused Søreide of neglecting defense forces as well. “That’s completely unreasonable, and the Labour Party knows it,” Søreide shot back. “We have invested in a considerable build-up of the military (during the past three-and-a-half years of the Conservatives-led govenrment), and not least in the Army and the National Guard.”

Plans for ‘considerable strengthening’
Huitfeldt accused Søreide of mostly just authorizing the string of studies on military capability, while actual investments in equipment and troops have been put on ice. “The reality is that neither the Army nor the National Guard have been put on hold,” Søreide insisted to news bureau NTB on Wednesday. “We have earmarked major funding for them. I wonder why Labour, in an election year, talks about more money (for the military), which they weren’t anywhere near coming up with themselves when they sat in the government.”

Norway’s defense budgets have indeed been boosted in the past few years. Bruun-Hanssen’s report, however, noted that the National Guard still lacks basic and necessary equipment and supplies, while soldiers receive too little training and officers have trouble finding enough competent personnel.

“This is what we’ve been saying since 2013 and there’s a lot that’s good, but we also have challenges tied to reaction ability and being able to hold out,” Søreide told NTB. “This is what’s being addressed in the long-term plans and will provide considerable strengthening of the military. It takes time to turn around 20 years of systematic underfinancing and deterioration.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund