Only their smiles were perhaps surprising when Norway’s defense chief, Admiral Haakon Bruun-Hanssen, presented his annual report to Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen this week. It came as no surprise when the former submarine commander had to admit that Norway’s defense was weakened by last autumn’s frigate collision, just as Russian sabre-rattling has worsened security.
“The security and political situation has, in my estimation, worsened during the course of 2018,” Bruun-Hanssen said in his prepared remarks to an audience that included the defense minister. “The challenges haven’t changed in character, but they have become more clear, and have sharpened between our neighbour to the east, Russia, and NATO.”
Bruun-Hanssen added that “we view the situation as characterized by a higher degree of seriousness and rapid changes many places in the world. The situation demands further strengthening” of Norway’s national defense.
He handed over his report to Bakke-Jensen with the message that it’s becoming steadily more important to beef up Norway’s own defense forces in addition to its support for NATO. The defense alliance is also increasingly uneasy, and sharpening demands for better preparedness among all its members.
More troops need to be made available for rapid deployment, he said, and they must be able to hold out. “Daily operations to maintain surveillance, sovereignty and authority is always a priority,” Bruun-Hanssen said. “Last year I called the greater (military) presence in (Norway’s northern areas) ‘the new normal,’ and that still applies.”
In the meantime, the Norwegian Navy was hit with the loss of 20 percent of its frigate fleet after the KNM Helge Ingstad collided with a tanker on November 8 and sank. The vessel has since been raised but the defense department’s annual report now reveals that just the salvage operation is expected to cost NOK 726 million (USD 86 million). That’s way up from early estimates of around NOK 300 million and Bakke-Jensen’s own estimate in March of NOK 640 million.
Bruun-Hanssen had to admit that the collision has weakend Norway’s defense just when it needed to be strengthened. The country’s remaining four frigates are now sailing more than usual, with extra crews assigned to them, he said.
“The collision will affect the defense department’s operational ability, delivery and preparedness,” the report itself acknowledged. The Navy’s operating budget was NOK 82 million over budget at the end of last year, mostly because of the frigate collision.
The frigate was valued at NOK 4.3 billion upon delivery in 2009. That’s since been reduced by NOK 2.2 billion. A full report on the vessel’s condition, and whether it can be made seaworthy again, is expected later this spring.
The Navy is also evaluating whether parts of the frigate can be used by the others in the fleet, and whether it may be possible to sell the frigate’s steel. The government will need to fund a full replacement of the frigate over the state budget, an expense that can lead to cuts elsewhere.