Long-term defense plan ‘disappointing’

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Two new battalions and more helicopters for special forces will, among other projects, boost Norway’s defense spending by NOK 16.5 billion (USD 1.6 billion) by 2028, according to the government’s latest long-term defense plan. Norway will end up complying with NATO’s spending goals as early as next year, but only because the country’s economy is shrinking during Corona times. Defense advocates are disappointed.

The government proposes ongoing development of the Army’s Brigade Nord with new battalions based in Troms in Northern Norway. PHOTO: Forsvaret

Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen and Prime Minister Erna Solberg presented a plan on Friday that’s well below what Defense Chief Haakon Bruun-Hanssen recommended last fall. The government opted for Bruun-Hanssen’s cheapest alternative, which would “secure national ability to meet defense tasks in a new security policy situation,” he said at the time, but also mean that Norway’s participation in NATO’s rapid response forces or other international operations “would come at the expense of demands for national preparedness.”

Even though Home Guard forces (Heimevernet) will continue to be strengthened with 11 districts and 37,000 “equipped and trained” soldiers, concerns for national preparedness surfaced quickly. Newspaper VG noted how this year marked the first time that both defense- and civilian security needs would be evaluated together. The civilian security evaluation due from currently hard-pressed Justice Minister Monica Mæland was, however, delayed because of all the time she’s needed lately for Corona crisis response.

‘Not enough resources’
Torbjørn Bongo, leader of Norway’s officers’ federation (NOF), was among those disappointed by the new defense plan, not least because it barely meets the defense chief’s minimum request. “If you’re going to take the defense chief seriously, this raises questions about what will need to be cut when he doesn’t get enough resources,” complained Bongo to state broadcaster NRK Friday afternoon.

Bongo worries that the defense budget estimates presented on Friday will thus require “a high degree of efficiency cuts” that NOF thinks are unrealistic. “It won’t be possible for the military to carry them out,” Bongo told NRK. “We fear that the cuts and assumptions in this long-term plan will contribute towards weakening defense in some areas, not strengthening it.”

Instead of replacing Norway’s sunken frigate, the government now wants to plan a “new vessel structure” that could replace the lost frigate’s capabilities. PHOTO: Forsvaret

Nor were opposition parties in Parliament satisfied, with both Labour and the Socialist Left (SV) parties wanting even more soldiers on the ground, especially in Northern Norway. “The most important needs are personnel, in all branches,” MP Anniken Huitfeld, defense policy spokesperson for Labour, told NRK. SV leader Audun Lysbakken agreed, also demanding that the Army and Navy get higher priority in Northern Norway, given its proximity to Russia.

Defense Minister Bakke-Jensen insisted that the government is putting a high priority on defense, claiming actual military operations are more active than they’ve been for many years. The new plan will strengthen air defense, he said and add around 2,500 soldiers over the next eight years through rebuilding of a battalion at Skjold in Troms and another “where the Army thinks best.”

The defense chief, however, wanted to boost military personnel by 15,000, six times what defense now stands to get. There are still no plans to replace Norway’s frigate Helge Ingstad, which sank after colliding with a tanker in late 2018, and the Navy will need to just keep sailing with the vessels it currently has for several more years.

Still striving for a ‘sustainable defense’
Prime Minister Solberg also claimed the government was continuing efforts to build up defense by “strengthening its response capability and improving preparedness.” Her goal, she said, is to have “a sustainable defense that can meet multiple challenges and support the country through various crises.”

Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen and Prime Minister Erna Solberg, presenting their new long-term defense plan on Friday. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Torbjørn Kjosvold

Bakke-Jensen confirmed that Norway will meet NATO’s defense spending goals (equal to 2 percent of gross national product) as soon as next year, well ahead of a 2024 deadline. Norway currently spends around 1.8 percent of GNP on defense.

The defense minister conceded to newspaper VG, however, that meeting the goal early is mostly because Norway’s long-strong economy (and thus its GNP) will likely shrink as a result of the Corona virus crisis that has all but shut down the country for the past several weeks. With around 400,000 Norwegians now out of work, econoic prospects are no longer good for this year or next.

The 2 percent goal, Bakke-Jensen told VG, “is a terrible goal for building defense forces, but a good goal for getting NATO allies to spend more money on defense.”

For the defense ministry’s own version of its new long-term defense plan, and the plan itself, click here (external link to the ministry’s own website). 

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund