UPDATED: Members of the opposition in Parliament have begun presenting their own demands for changes in the government’s latest long-term defense plan. Among them: a larger military presence in Northern Norway and hundreds of new defense employees.
Both the Norwegian officers’ federation (Norges Offisersforbund) and all opposition parties in Parliament have claimed that the long-term defense plan presented by Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen earlier this month is too weak. Bakke-Jensen has been busy defending the plan, not least in various commentaries published in Norwegian newspapers this past week, but Parliament is not impressed.
“We have to do more to strengthen Norwegian defense now,” stressed MP Anniken Huitfeldt of the Labour Party, who also leads the Parliament’s foreign relations and defense committee. She described Bakke-Jensen’s plans as too future-oriented, with not nearly enough defense build-up over the next few years.
“When the defense minister says that they’ll increase the number of employees by 2,200 up to 2028 and starts with just 57 positions, around 2.7 percent, it shows the weakness with this long-term plan,” Huitfeldt told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “It’s much too defensive.”
‘We need more people’
She and her colleagues in opposition say their most important goal is a more concrete plan. “To increase Norway’s defenses we need more people,” Huitfeldt said. “We want 500 more defense employees in 2021. We can’t put that off.”
Huitfeldt even suggested exploiting the current pandemic, calling it “a unique opportunity” to recruit people who’ve lost their jobs in other branches. “Many of them have worked in defense before and can work there again,” she said, calling also for a halt in privatization of services to the military and handling even such functions cleaning and maintenance internally, also for security reasons.
There are also clear demands for more military personnel and ongoing presence in Northern Norway, in response to Russia’s military buildup in its own Arctic areas. NRK reported over the weekend how Russian troops and elite soldiers have been carrying out exercises just a few kilometers from the Norwegian border lately.
“They’re so close that the border guards we have on patrol can see and hear what they’re doing,” Norway’s new defense chief Eirik Kristoffersen told NRK. He noted how Russia has boosted its ground forces and he’s not surprised.
“It’s natural that Russian troops want to have more presence here,” Kristoffersen told NRK. “It’s in the north that Russia has stored its nuclear weapons,” and wants to protect the area. Norway estimates that Russia has around 12,000 soldiers stationed in Petsjengadalen, close to the Norwegian border.
Building up again, with help from allies
Norway is currently reviving and expanding its Porsangmoen military camp south of Lakselv, where 3,000 soldiers will be able to assemble on relatively short notice. “We went way too far in shutting things down there some years ago,” said Kristoffersen. Many thought the Cold War was over. Now, Kristoffersen said, “it will be built up again. We’ll have a force here that will make everyone think twice before trying to compromise Norwegian sovereignty.”
NATO is also building up its presence in the north, not least with US military aircraft and vessels. “The US is following what Russia is doing,” Kristoffersen said. “When Russia boosts its military activity, the US does the same. Both countries have become more active.”
Sub snub reversed
Norway, however, seems to not only welcome the US presence but wants to accommodate it and even promote it. A quarrel has been going on this fall, however, between the government and local politicians in Tromsø who don’t want to accommodate US nuclear submarines in the city.
The nuclear subs and other US naval vessels used to be based at Olavsvern outside Tromsø, which was built by NATO in the 1960s at a cost of around NOK 3 billion and could receive the nuclear-powered vessels at a dry-dock inside a mountain. In 2009, however, the Norwegian government (led, ironically enough, by current NATO boss Jens Stoltenberg at the time) decided to shut down Olavsvern. It was sold to private interests, including the man who’s now Tromsø’s own mayor, in 2013.
Now, with NATO and US presence increasing in the Arctic and a renewed need for crew changes, the US Navy wants a permanent base in the area, specifically Tromsø’s own city-owned harbour at Tønsnes. The local city council initially turned down the request. Newspapers Nordlys and Klassekampen have reported how the government pressured the Tromsø politicians to change their minds, claiming Tromsø is obligated to receive nuclear-powered US subs. Tromsø’s leaders claimed no such agreement or obligation exists.
Gave in to ‘most important ally’
Efforts have also been undertaken to buy back Olavsvern or lease it. The mayor has a conflict of interest and can’t take part in that discussion, while vice-mayor Malene Bråthen of the Center Party notes that the Tromsø City Council voted against allowing “reactor-powered vessel to call at our harbours” because of the risk nuclear reactors pose. Talks continued this week and on Wednesday the council reversed its position, voting 32-11 in favour of allowing the highly controversial nuclear subs to dock, and defying angry demonstrators outdoors.
“I think this is an insult, and treason against the people of Tromsø,” complained one demonstrator to NRK. “It’s a huge defeat for all of Northern Norway.” Politicians voting in favour claimed they were merely respecting the obligations Norway has as a member of NATO, and to help allies throughout the northern area.
Defense Minister Bakke-Jensen has argued that Norway’s defense cooperation with the US is fundamental to Norwegian security. Norway has gone to great lengths to accommodate US military personnel, aircraft and other equipment elsewhere in Northern Norway, from Vardø in the east to Evenes in the west. He has stressed how Norwegian defense is based on national efforts, cooperation with NATO and bilateral cooperation with other countries, not least the US, often referred to as Norway’s “most important ally.”
The Parliament, meanwhile, is most concerned with beefing up Norway’s own defense forces. In addition to demanding another 500 defense employees now, MPs in opposition want, among other things, a lasting solution for helicopter support for the Army based at Bardufoss, more air force capacity at Ørland and Evenes and more emphasis on recruiting efforts, especially in Northern Norway.