Norway’s Chief of Defense, Admiral Haakon Bruun-Hanssen, used release this week of the country’s annual defense report (Forsvarets årsrapport) to warn of several holes in the Norwegian military. He said national forces would become more important as NATO’s military capacity reduces, but Norway has outdated equipment and far too few soldiers.
Bruun-Hanssen said the military performed well in 2013, not least in international operations, but noted that serious weaknesses were becoming increasingly apparent. He was primarily concerned about the military’s ability to staff vessels and departments to undertake missions at short notice. He said that won’t be possible going forward with the current staffing levels.
“There is a reduction in the military capacity in almost all NATO countries,” Bruun-Hanssen told newspaper Aftenposten. “Therefore I’m calling for a debate on what we’ll do with staffing, to be able to maintain our activities in a responsible way.” He said Norway received more and more requests to help in international missions. “But the main reason that I believe the military’s level of ambition must increase is that we must be in a position to exercise a greater part of the defense of Norway itself, when NATO gets smaller.”
The most pressing need was for more soldiers. “But there are no plans to increase staffing,” said Bruun-Hanssen. “Therefore we must either re-prioritize significantly, or increase resources.” He would not be drawn on the areas that may need to be cut to prioritize recruitment.
There’s also an urgent need to upgrade outdated equipment, especially helicopters. The army has very few and shares them with the civil community, but helicopters are becoming increasingly important in modern operations. The old Orion helicopters have been upgraded with new technology, but the age of the fleet is becoming a significant problem. New fighter jets on order won’t be ready before 2020 and the current F-16s are often grounded by issues, with Aftenposten reporting at one point only 12 of the 57 planes were in flight condition.
Bruun-Hanssen, a highly respected former submarine captain who’s risen through the ranks, was appointed Chief of Defense last November. His concerns have been echoed by the new government’s defense minister, Ine Eriksen Søreide of the Conservatives (Høyre). Aftenposten reported this showed a shift in tone from earlier rhetoric around Norway’s military capacity.
“Are we well enough prepared to fulfill our responsibilities in collective defense?” asked Søreide, when she and Bruun-Hanssen gave their first speeches in January. “Do we have adequate systems and capabilities to handle a situation the day we have to hit the ‘big button’? I think we must be honest and say that we see deficiencies.”
Ukraine in the background
Bruun-Hanssen said it was not a good time to be pointing out gaps in the ranks, with the situation in Ukraine as a backdrop. “I am calling for this debate from how defense has been used in recent years,” he said. “The level is difficult to maintain without increased staffing.”
“I look at the situation as worrisome,” Bruun-Hanssen said, of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. “Not since the Cold War have states used force against each other. Now exactly that is happening. But I am not worried about Norway’s security. There is nothing today which suggests anyone will use force towards Norway. But the fact that force is being used is worrying, and it demands that we consider the level of ambition we should have for our defense in the future.”
He said Norway’s current contribution to the conflict in Ukraine has been to send a mine sweeper and command vessels to the Baltic Sea as a show of solidarity. NATO’s current operations have involved strengthening its presence on Ukraine’s outer borders with Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, and sending assistance to the Baltic states. Latvia, which has a large Russian-speaking population, has been especially alarmed about the recent behavior of its neighbor to the east.