Defense Chief Haakon Bruun-Hanssen formally delivered what’s billed as his professional military advice to Defense Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide on Thursday, and it didn’t take long for officers to blast it to bits. Norway’s national officers’ federation immediately demanded that proposed cuts in Bruun-Hanssen’s Strategic Military Review be stopped.
Bruun-Hanssen’s long-anticipated proposals for restructuring the military yet again, in another attempt to boost efficiency, “should worry very many in our country,” stated the federation (Norges Offisersforbund) in its rapid response to the defense chief’s long-term plan for the Norwegian military. The plan is supposed to be approved by the Parliament next year.
Bruun-Hanssen recommended that the defense budget be increased by NOK 3 billion annually, in order to make the military relevant. Even with the extra funding, he said that military brass will have to set tough priorities, and that in turn would likely lead to major cuts in Norway’s home guard troops (Heimevernet), coastal artillery and the King’s Guards.
Heimevernet currently consists of 45,000 reserve soldiers who can report for duty on short notice when the military needs them, for example during natural catastrophes, search and rescue operations, accidents or terrorist attacks. Bruun-Hanssen’s plan calls for their numbers to be cut by 12,000.
The defense chief also proposes cutting 800 management positions in the military, along with cuts in the navy, air force and coast guard. The coast guard would see its fleet cut by two vessels, for example. The proposed cuts come despite rhetoric earlier this year about the need for a stronger military at a time of new tensions with Norway’s neighbouring Russia.
The defense minister had asked Bruun-Hanssen to review military strategy and offer advice on how the Norwegian military could best meet future challenges and work with NATO, of which Norway is an active member. Military spokesmen said the review was based on the current security situation, operational capability and budgetary resources.
‘Sober’ defense structure
Bruun-Hanssen recommends what was called a “sober defense structure with a new approach.” It involves strengthening surveillance and intelligence and raising levels of readiness, responsiveness and endurance. The officers’ federation believes the proposal will instead weaken security.
“Heimevernet’s ability to support the civilian forces in connection with storms, floods and similar situations will be weakened,” Torbjørn Bongo, deputy leader of the federation, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). He said the long-term effects will also mean that Norwegian defense budgets will fall below the level requested by NATO.
“I don’t think he (Bruun-Hanssen) really wants to cut Heimevernet, but that he feels forced to do so because of economic reasons,” Bongo told NRK.
Bruun-Hanssen’s predecessor warned last week against Norway’s tendency to invest heavily in equipment like new frigates and, most recently, new fighter jets, only to lack funds to maintain and operate them. Defense Minister Søreide is therefore under pressure, with the new state budget proposal for next year due to be released next week.
She was non-committal after receiving Bruun-Hanssen’s report, saying it was important that he was free to make his own professional evaluations. “The framework that defines Norwegian security and defense policy is changing so much that we have to make a comprenensive review of the military’s future structure and composition,” Eriksen stated. “At the same time we know that the economic starting point is demanding.”
She said that there “no doubt” will be a need for major changes in military structure in the years ahead. She claimed she welcomed debate and “good discussions” in the months ahead, not least from local leaders in communities where bases may be closed or military activity otherwise curtailed.