Norway’s defense establishment has suffered a string of accidents and embarrassment in recent years. Now a group of naval officers are calling for the resignations or firings of Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen and both former and current Royal Norwegian Navy commanders.
Newspaper Aftenposten reported just before the weekend that the officers, who sounded alarms last year over a lack of staffing and training in the Navy, have lost confidence in naval leadership. Last week’s second report from the state accident investigation commission into the collision and sinking of the frigate KNM Helge Ingstad was the last straw: The report claimed the total loss of the frigate could have been avoided if its crew had been better trained.
Aftenposten noted that military officers seldom voice their frustrations to the media and all have requested anonymity, for fear their public complaints would put their own careers at risk. Aftenposten has the identities of all, however, and has honoured their request in this case.
The officers no longer believe statements from all the defense leaders involved that they’ll learn from their mistakes. They haven’t seen much improvement since the frigate collided with a tanker just north of its own home base in Bergen in November 2018. The commission (Havarikommisjonen) has indicated itself that the Navy has not learned from earlier “unwanted incidents.”
According to the commission, weaknesses within the Navy have been so extensive, and the ability to fix known problems so poor that the combination presents a considerable risk of continuing to operate the frigates in the Navy’s current manner. “The commission confirms warnings we have issued (before) … and the answers given (by those responsible) during the period afterwards seem to indicate that they just want to quiet them instead of learning from them,” the officers wrote to Aftenposten.
Legal battles loom, too
The situation is especially serious since Norway’s defense department has launched lawsuits against others in the frigate case, including the owner of the tanker that the frigate crashed into and classification society DNV GL, which had certified the frigate. “The state’s case hasn’t exactly been strengthened after the commission’s report,” editorialized Aftenposten on Friday.
Norway’s defense chiefs are trying to blame DNV, for example, for failing to discover other issues that could have led to its sinking. Those controlling the tanker are being challenged over lighting on board the vessel and the frigate’s Spanish builder has been challenged as well. Now there’s concern Norway’s defense department will crash and sink in court, too: “It’s difficult to see how the state can prevail in such a lawsuit,” Aftenposten wrote, referring especially to the DNV GL suit.
After detailing who should be held responsible for what, the officers claimed that “it’s time” to hold Norway’s own military brass accountable “for this fiasco.” They noted the commission’s attention to responsibility within the system and concluded that Defense Minister Bakke-Jensen and those on duty and still in service should be removed from their positions.
They include rear admirals Rune Andersen and Nils Andreas Stensønes. Andersen was in charge of warships for the Navy when the frigate sank yet is now chief of the Navy. Stensønes was chief of the Navy and is now chief of Norway’s military intelligence agency Etterretnings-tjenesten, which has suffered its own share of embarrassment over the Frode Berg spying scandal.
“Those responsibile for the system must be held responsible,” wrote the officers. “That means Andersen, Stensønes and Bakke-Jensen must go.”
Andersen has responded that several weaknesses and errors have since been addressed to improve safety and security. He told Aftenposten that other problems will be addressed in upcoming maintenance operations. He claimed that “new systems” were being introduced regarding both crewing and control of crew competence, while there will now always be an experienced officer on the bridge.
“The commission has delivered an incredibly comprehensive, credible and important report,” Andersen told Aftenposten. “We take what’s come forward very seriously. We have been working for the past two years (since the frigate’s collision and sinking) to correct weaknesses. We have done a lot. We’re doing a lot now, but there’s much work ahead.”
‘We have lots of work to do’
Andersen said he could understand why there are demands “that I must go,” but claimed he wasn’t considering them. “There’s a general officers’ attitude that you don’t take off when things get difficult,” he told Aftenposten. “We have lots of work to do.”
Stensønes, who also caught criticism right after the frigate disaster, ended up being transferred and promoted to succeed the retiring head of the military intelligence agency (E-tjenesten), just as it was emerging from the fallout of its recruitment of the retired border inspector who wound up jailed in Moscow on espionage charges. Now E-tjenesten is withholding a parliamentary report on the embarrassing Frode Berg scandal, allegedly for security reasons, and Stensønes wouldn’t answer questions from Aftenposten last week on the frigate disaster. When contacted for comment earlier, Stensønes claimed he did not have operational responsibility for the frigate and was then concentrating on “taking care of the crew, handling the vessel (which is now being scrapped),” and supporting investigations into the sinking.
Defense Minister Bakke-Jensen is widely viewed as on his way out anyway. It’s highly questionable whether his Conservative Party will win a third term of government power in the upcoming national election. He’s also already been granted a new high-level job as head of the state fisheries directorate, but that’s also under criticism on charges that the appointment amounted to political patronage.
Bakke-Jensen continues to defend the defense department in connection with not only the frigate disaster but also the spying scandal, poor handling of last winter’s NATO exercises that had to cancelled because of imported Corona infection, charges that Norway is delegating far too much presence and power to US and NATO troops and various other complaints. The accidents commission has also reported a near-accident involving a military aircraft that recently came close to crashing into a mountain in Lofoten.
Bakke-Jensen, who bristled at reporters’ questions just before indications of human error arose, issued a statement last week about the commission’s highly critical report on the frigate sinking, saying that he would read it in detail. He stated that “the most serious thing we must do is to address the organization’s ability to learn from mistakes. The commission points out that irregularities reported in have not been followed up and that this had an impact on the sinking.
“That’s completely intolerable and something that I, along with the (new) defense chief, will immediately address,” Bakke-Jensen claimed.
He added, though, that “I have confidence in the defense department’s leaders. I believe they have the ability to clean up. We will now find the reasons why warnings and irregularities were not followed up. I take this very seriously.”