Battlelines drawn in debate over army

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The Norwegian Army is the target of a defense debate that’s recently fired up in Parliament. Even the Socialist Left party (SV), which isn’t known for being a fan of NATO or the military, worries that the army has become the victim of a massive defense reorganization and too much spending on new fighter jets.

The Norwegian Army suffers from outdated equipment and sparse operations around the country. PHOTO: Forsvaret

The situation has become so acute, with the number of brigades pared down from 13 during the Cold War to just one today, that SV leader Audun Lysbakken is calling for a halt to the purchase of a final 12 fighter jets from the US. Norway has committed to buy 40 of the new F35 jets from Lockheed Martin in Texas with an option for another 12. Lysbakken wants to divert funding for what he considers the optional jets to the army.

“I believe the fighter jet acquisition poses a threat to our defense ability,” Audun told newspaper Dagsavisen over the weekend. “We risk spending so much money on fighter jets that it won’t be possible to make the investment that’s needed in the army.”

The army (hæren) is now widely viewed as the big loser in the fight for state budget allocations. Norway’s army, which along with the home guard (heimevernet) makes up Norway’s ground forces, amounted to a combined force of just 10,000 last year. Only one brigade remains, Brigade Nord in Bardufoss, Northern Norway.

Lysbakken, backed by some military experts and other critics in Parliament, believes that Norway’s ground forces have been cut to a level below NATO demands in order to invest heavily in fighter jets instead. “The fighter jet program is the elephant in the room in the defense debate,” Lysbakken told Dagsavisen. “The parties that agreed on how Norwegian forces should be distributed are arguing now over relatively small funding amounts. At the same time they insist on carrying out the fighter jet purchases that don’t make it possible to find money needed for the army.”

New F35 fighter jets like this one have been landing at their new homebase in Norway, but critics argue they’re so expensive that they’re pulling funding away from the army. PHOTO: Kaszynzki/Lockheed Martin

He points to postponement of new tanks for the army, the downscaling of a second batallion and poor helicopter support for soldiers on the ground, while defense funding is shifted to pay for the fighter jets. The first F35s arrived in Norway last fall, with the latest batch landing in Norway last week. If the final 12 F35s that would bring Norway’s fleet up to 52 is terminated, Lysbakken claims, “we could save NOK 8 billion on the investment and at least NOK 290 million in annual operating costs.”

Lysbakken also points to how military professionals advised that Norway needs between 27 and 42 fighter jets to protect its sovereignty, not as many as 52. The jets are most often sent up to ward off Russian jets that regularly buzz the coast, just outside Norwegian airspace. Norway has also sent fighter jets to aid NATO and Norwegian operations abroad, such the controversial invasion of Libya and, most recently, NATO’s stepped-up presence in the Baltic countries.

“This is a question of pure priorities,” Lysbakken claims. “With a high number of extremely expensive fighter jets, we won’t be able to afford the most elementary equipment for the army.”

MP Audun Lysbakken, shown here during a televised debate in Parliament, wants to halt funding for an extra 12 fighter jets and use the money on the army instead. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

The US ambassador to NATO claimed last week that Norway must simply boost its total defense spending even higher than it has in recent years, presumably to be able to afford both the fighter jets and what the army needs. Norway has agreed to boost spending to 2 percent of GNP but has no firm plan yet for doing so.

Dagsavisen reported that SV doesn’t have many allies in Paliament behind its call for moving funding from the fighter jets to the army. Lysbakken stressed, though, that funding for each of the 12 remaining jets will be allocated individually. “It’s still entirely possible to stop it,” Lysbakken said. “There is no measure approved that obligates us to buy all 52 fighter jets.”

He’s urging at the very least what he calls an “honest” debate over the army and the fighter jets. “We must acknowledge that the defense budget can never be large enough that we can put a priority on everything,” he said. “I fear that with deficient spending on the army, the US will send more American troop to the northern areas. If that happens, it will contribute to further raising tensions.”

Newspaper Aftenposten reported in May that Parliament has approved building up army presence in Finnmark because of the rising tensions with Russia. The problem, however, is the vast area that needs to be protected, with no clear plan for helicopters to transport large groups of soldiers, replacement of the army’s outdated tanks and other vehicular equipment or addressing a lack of air cover until 2025.

The price of boosting forces in the north is also high for those in the southern parts of Norway. A squadron at Rena in Østerdalen is due to be shut down, while Rena’s other elite division known as the Telemark Batallion is often tied up with assignments for NATO or other UN operations around the world.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund