Norway’s defense ministry is under fire on all sides, as questions continue to fly over the country’s preparedness and ability to fend off an attack. On Monday, Defense Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide received yet another report from Norway’s military establishment that suggests Norway’s own defense is inadequate and has relied far too heavily on its membership in NATO.
The NATO and international exercises in which Norway has been participating, along with a higher presence in the Arctic areas that border on Russia’s, “have come at the expense” of the country’s own military training and exercise, claims Norwegian Defense Chief and Admiral Haakon Bruun-Hanssen. He handed over his latest annual report to Søreide that further portrays an “entire military operation under pressure.”
The report comes after a weekend of political debate at Søreide’s Conservative Party’s annual meeting, which addressed a wide range of issues from immigration and integration to the economic downturn and defense. The defense debate in turn followed recent reports of the US’ higher expectations and involvement in Norwegian military matters, not least in the form of a new radar system to be built in Norway’s far northeastern city of Vardø. Local residents are concerned about the highly secretive system, while not a single Member of Parliament from Norway’s northernmost county of Finnmark was even made aware of it.
Norway’s defense has also come under heavy criticism for being too expensive and geared too much towards accommodating the needs of NATO, the US and international military or peace-keeping operations. “This increased activity is being financed by changing our priorities,” Bruun-Hanssen said, “while the uncertainty tied to the ongoing Ukraine conflict plus higher threats of terrorism demand better preparedness at home in Norway. Today’s defense is not sustainable within its economic framework.”
Newspaper Aftenposten reported over the weekend how Finland, which is not a member of NATO, has a defense system based on an army of around 160,000 troops augmented by 20,000 recruits every year (compared to just 7,000 in Norway) and a total defense made up of 230,000, compared to Norway’s 17,000. Finland shares a much longer border with Russia and has a more conflict-filled historical relationship to its Russian neighbours, while Norway and Finland face similar defense challenges. Finland has opted to stress artillery on the ground and forces in the air as it stands alone and Aftenposten reported it has an annual budget of around NOK 20 billion, half of what Norway’s defense costs every year. Finland nonetheless seems able to rely on its defense, while the Norwegians don’t think their own defense is adequate.
Slow NATO response time
What’s most alarming is that Bruun-Hanssen himself has acknowledged that Norway has just a modest “first line of defense” meant to hold off any invaders until NATO allies arrive to help. NATO, now headed by former Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, is supposed to arrive with air force assistance within three days, while it can take longer to get ground defense assisstance. Much longer, according to a report by Norwegian website aldrimer.no that claimed it can take several weeks before NATO troops are in place in Norway. Aldrimer.no cited sources within Norway’s own military leadership who suggested it can take up to two months before a major influx of NATO forces can come to Norway’s aid.
Norwegian defense officials didn’t want to comment on the report about NATO mobilization that can be slow despite ongoing exercises to boost its tempo. “I can’t go into details of classified planning and classified evaluations of our preparedness,” defense spokesman Eystein Kvarving told news bureau NTB last week.
Lots of stress on support apparatus
As the debate swirled around the very weekend marking the 76th anniversary of the invasion of Norway by Nazi Germany on April 9, 1940, it’s suddenly commanding the attention not only of Norway’s Conservative Party (which currently leads Norway’s government) but also opposition politicians and politicians in other NATO countries. Calls have gone out for years for the European members of NATO to boost defense budgets and Norway has increased its military spending. The questions now are whether the budget increases have been adequate and whether the investment is being made in the most efficient manner. Aftenposten raised the question of whether it’s been correct for Norway to move away from the type of defense Finland has. Given the increasing unpredictability of neighbouring Russia, the answer may be ‘no.’
Bruun-Hanssen cited “lower levels of training” than planned at home at a time when Norway has military personnel stationed “in many places” internationally. “That stresses our support apparatus,” Bruun-Hanssen said. “We’re not dimensioned for so many (international) operations at the same time.” Operating budgets are also tight, as Norway’s participation in international operations from Afghanistan to Africa has spread its forces too thin. Preparedness for any military defense of Norway itself, in the form of training and maintenance of military equipment, has had a lower priority.
Both the debate and Bruun-Hanssen’s latest report about military inadequacy come just as the government is formulating its own long-term plan for Norway’s defense. It’s expected later this spring, and Søreide’s Conservative Party pushed through measures at their annual meeting calling for more investment at home than party leaders had proposed. Eriksen seems keen to respond to Bruun-Hanssen’s call for a more “sustainable” defense of Norway itself, but can’t grant all the requests.
Local politics add to debate
It’s all likely to lead to even more debate over how defense spending in Norway will be spread around the country. With an increasingly unpredictable Russia as a neighbour, attention has returned to restoring Norway’s military presence in its most northern areas, while the leader of the Conservatives’ chapter in the southern country of Vest-Agder, Harald Furre, stressed that “the whole country” is worth defending. “We must also have defense of Sørlandet (the southern region),” Furre told newspaper Dagsavisen. Efforts are also underway to protect Norway’s civil defense (Heimevernet) from major cuts, along with preserving local defense installations around the country.
Others claim Norway’s history of “district politics,” aimed at spreading resources and investment nationwide instead of just in its most populous areas, shouldn’t be allowed to jeopardize strategic defense. Local officials like Furre want military spending in their own areas, to create jobs and boost the local economy.
Both Eriksen and Prime Minister Erna Solberg thus remain faced with also trying to satisfy local constituencies in addition to the defense establishment, NATO and national security in general. Solberg suggested that many local communities are likely to be disappointed as her government strives to restructure and “use our defense kroner in the best possible way.”