New battles loom over defense plan

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NEWS ANALYSIS: Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen still has to fend off more attacks on the government’s long-term defense plan, even after his second-try at winning support for it in Parliament. Opposition politicians and military officers think it’s still too weak, despite government claims that it will strengthen both local and national security.

Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen (far right) armed himself by having Prime Minister Erna Solberg (center) and Justice Minister Monica Mæland by his side when presenting the government’s revised long-term defense plan. Mæland was there to present preparedness measures, as those on a local and state level continue to overlap. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Torbjørn Kjosvold

“The government is working with clear goals in mind,” Bakke-Jensen insisted when unveiling what was billed as a “revised” plan just before the weekend. “We will create a more secure Norway … better prepared to handle crises, serious incidents and threats.”

There’s been no lack of those lately. In the very week leading up to Bakke-Jensen’s presentation came government claims that Russia was behind a recent hacking attack on the Parliament’s email system, another sign of the rising tensions between Norway and its neighbour in the north. Norway has long been under pressure to boost defense spending and faces, along with all other NATO members, conflicts within its ranks and uncertainty over the US’ role and commitment.

The Norwegian government now proposes spending at least NOK 3 billion more on defense next year, NOK 8.3 billion more in 2024 and NOK 16.5 billion by 2028. Critics quickly noted that the economic framework for Norway’s long-term defense plan, however, thus remains the same as when Bakke-Jensen first presented it last spring and was met by disappointment. Bakke-Jensen then faced the embarrassment of having the Parliament send it back “for improvements.” They simply didn’t see enough signs that the government was following through on recommendations from Norway’s outgoing defense chief last fall for nothing short of a major defense build-up.

Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen, shown here visiting Norwegian soldiers on duty for NATO in Lithuania earlier this fall. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Frederik Ringnes

Many still don’t see signs of that. Despite getting a more detailed description of how the government views defense development over the next eight years, critics like Torbjørn Bongo of the Norwegian officers’ federation NOF think the plans are weak and remain below the defense chief’s minimum alternative needed to carry out its duties.

Bongo still doesn’t think the army will be granted sufficient forces. He cited a lack of personnel and “unrealistic” cost-cutting to improve efficiency, among other things. “We risk weakening defense over the next 10 years,” Bongo told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK).

Bakke-Jensen claims, however, that new plans call for 550 more full-time positions and 700 more recruits four years from now, rising to 2,200 new positions and 3,000 additional recuits by 2028. He claimed Norway’s northern brigade would be developed with four battalions based in Inner Troms. Defense forces will be beefed up in both Troms and Finnmark, after they were depleted following the end of the Cold War.

Toralf Heimdal, mayor of Bardu in Northern Norway, was unimpressed. “This looks like what I feared,” Heimdal told NRK. “It’s pretty much the same plan that was presented last spring, with no firm commitments beyond weak personnel growth and some investments finally being cleared. I’ve seldom seen a defense plan with so much air and so little balloon as this one.”

Opposition politicians in Parliament will now likely fight during the upcoming state budget negotiations for new helicopters for the army, for example, and new tanks before 2025, among other improvements. Heimdal maintains that Norway otherwise won’t have “the structure NATO thinks we must have.”

Norway’s new defense chief Eirik Kristoffersen promised to set clear priorities with the resources available. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Tanja Renate Aakerøy

Norway’s new defense chief, Eirik Kristoffersen, officially and diplomatically called Bakke-Jensen’s revised long-term plan “good,” with “a necessary strengthening of defense in light of the security situation we face.” He said it “balanced assignments, structure and economy, which is important for sustainable development.”

He told NRK, however, that “if there’s room for more financing,” he would like to see faster military personnel buildup (in order to have more troops physically present in Northern Norway and available for duty abroad), more protection of Norwegian air space and more resources for the army.

Anniken Huitfeldt of the Labour Party, who leads the Parliament’s foreign relations and defense committee, said Bakke-Jensen’s revised defense plan was “more concrete” than the initial one but still lacked enough funding for expanded military personnel. “That’s the greatest weakness,” she said, adding that other promises “are shoved out further in time.” Liv Signe Navarsete, defense policy spokesperson for the Center Party, wasn’t satisfied either.

That sets the stage for major defense budget battles in Parliament this fall. Defense Chief Kristoffersen noted repeatedly that once the Parliament “has made its decisions, it will be up to us. We can all contribute to finding good solutions, working smarter and getting more out of the resources we have.” He promised to set clear priorities, “to get the best possible defense out of what we have.”

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund