It took a complaint from NATO’s Norwegian chief Jens Stoltenberg to spur Norway’s defense ministry into action this week. It finally announced a bigger contribution to NATO’s so-called “Readiness Initiative” force, but Norway is still unlikely to meet goals for overall defense spending.
Norwegian Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen was on the defense himself as he and his other NATO colleagues gathered in Brussels Wednesday for an annual ministerial meeting. Stoltenberg, the former Norwegian prime minister from the Labour Party who’s now NATO’s secretary general, had stated the day before that he thought Norway could “contribute more” to the alliance’s new preparedness force.
Newspaper Aftenposten reported how Bakke-Jensen, less than 24 hours later, let it be known just minutes before the NATO meeting began that Norway will do just that. Now it’s set to contribute one of its four remaining frigates, a submarine and six new F-35 fighter jets to the preparedness force being identified at the request of the US — but not without Bakke-Jensen making a political jibe at Stoltenberg.
“This is our contribution to the re-establishment of our armed forces that Stoltenberg was actively a part of reducing when he was the Labour Party’s leader,” Bakke-Jensen, who represents the Conservative Party, told Aftenposten.
The new preparedness effort is meant to reduce the time it takes to get NATO into action if needed. The NATO Readiness Initiative identifies 30 battalions, 30 air squadrons and 30 battleships that could assemble within less than 30 days (4×30).
Still lagging on defense spending goal
Bakke-Jensen also had to be on the defensive when it came time to reveal how well each of the now-29 NATO countries is doing in building up defense spending. Goals outlined several years ago, when Russia began re-emerging as a new threat after years of friendlier post-Cold War relations, call for each NATO member to spend at least 2 percent of gross national product (GNP) by 2024.
Only seven of the 29 currently meet the goal: Estonia, Greece, Latvia, Poland, Romania, the UK and US. Aftenposten reported that another 16 are expected to meet the goal by the stated 2024 deadline.
Norway is not among them, and now lands 13th on NATO’s list, down from 10th place in 2017. While Norway’s actual defense spending has risen as a percentage of GNP, and much more in terms of actual kroner allocated in the state budget, Norway spent 1.66 percent of GNP on defense last year.
Stoltenberg isn’t satisfied. “We of course welcome Norway’s contribution, but the increase is less than that of most other NATO countries,” Stoltenberg told Aftenposten. “That’s why Norway is falling farther down on the list of contributors.” He added that all countries that are lagging behind in defense spending “should do more. That also includes Norway.”
Asked whether it’s embarrassing for him, as NATO chief, to see that his own homeland is among those not contributing to the same degree as others, Stoltenberg responded that “I don’t want to characterize Norway’s contribution. All countries are moving in the right direction. We’re happy about that.”
Big spending increases not enough
Norwegian government officials and commentators continue to bristle at the not-so-subtle criticism, however. Norway’s huge oil and gas industry gives the country an unusually large GNP for a country with a population of just 5 million people making up the tax base. Oil revenues are largely stashed in a sovereign wealth fund for future generations’ pensions when the oil runs out or climate concerns force cuts in its extraction and production.
That means defense spending still needs to largely be financed through the state budget. The current government has boosted it year after year since winning power in 2013 after eight years of Stoltenberg-led governments. Defense spending was not nearly as much of a priority then as it is now.
A government proposal to finance the replacement of a frigate lost in a collision and sinking last year with money from the so-called Oil Fund was recently rejected, not least by Stoltenberg’s own Labour Party. Bakke-Jensen insists its operating capacity will be replaced until a new frigate can be ordered, but admitted to newspaper VG this week that the frigate’s loss remains “a challenge.”