The Norwegian government finally confirmed Wednesday evening that it would join NATO allies in sending some of its 36 Leopard 2A4 battle tanks to Ukraine, which has wanted them for months. The new military contribution to Ukraine’s defense against invading Russian forces has broad support in the Norwegian Parliament, but top politicians and military officials are quarreling over how or even whether Norway should invest billions in new tanks to replenish its own fleet.
The debate over pending acquisition of new tanks (called stridsvogner in Norwegian) has been flying for months, with Norwegian Defense Chief Eirik Kristoffersen somewhat at odds with Defense Minister Bjørn Arild Gram. Kristoffersen thinks his forces have a greater need for more long-range precision weapons and new helicopters for the Army to improve Norway’s own defense.
Most agree that Norway has underfunded its defense for decades, especially in the years after the Cold War when Russia was increasingly viewed as more friend than foe. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its invasion of the rest of Ukraine last year has changed all that, and made Norway’s neighbour in the north a much bigger threat.
Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported just before Christmas that Kristoffersen, a highly respected general who’s been in battle himself, had actually advised the government against buying new tanks even though Parliament had approved their acquisition. DN commentator Sverre Strandhagen wrote earlier this month that Kristoffersen’s objections to major investment in new tanks (most likely new Leopards from NATO ally Germany, or competing K2 Black Panthers from South Korea) “shocked” many within the defense and political establishment: Requests for bids from tank producers for more than 70 new tanks and their related maintenance needs had already gone out and decisions on actual purchasing were about to be made.
Now, reported DN, a compromise looms that could involve purchase of 54 new tanks, in order to allow more investment in more of the other weapons that Kristoffersen prefers. Debate continues, though, with some thinking only around 20-30 new tanks should be purchased just for Norway’s Telemark Battalion, which is most often sent out on NATO assignments.
A decision on the tank investment has thus been postponed pending a new analysis and professional advice on defense needs from the defense research institute FFI, due later this spring. Ine Eriksen Søreide of the Conservative Party, a former defense minister who now leads the Parliament’s committee on defense and foreign affairs, had initially approved the full purchase of tanks estimated to cost NOK 19.3 billion but now seems open to alternatives because defense needs have changed.
‘Norway wants to go along’
Current Defense Minister Gram’s Center Party, which champions rural interests, has been the biggest fan of tanks that are mostly based in the regions of Troms and Innlandet were many of Center’s voters are based. A compromise will ultimately be hammered out but as Strandhagen wrote, “nobody will get what they want.” Fewer new tanks and more items on Kristoffersen’s list seem most likely.
It remains unclear how this week’s decision to send an as-yet-unspecified number of Norway’s Leopard 2A4 tanks to Ukraine will affect the tank debate at home. Gram, who confirmed the new military support to Ukraine while appearing on state broadcaster NRK’s Dagsnytt 18 newscast Wednesday evening, stressed that the tanks “have become greatly desired” by Ukraine. “Norway supports how countries (including Great Britain, the US, Germany, Poland, Finland, Spain, Denmark and others) are donating tanks to Ukraine. Norway wants to go along.”
DN reported that Gram had held a secret meeting with members of the Parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee on Monday this week, after Germany had hesitated sending any of its own Leopard tanks to Ukraine and prevented other Leopard customers from sending their own for fear of escalating the war over Ukraine. Norway has had as many as 52 Leopards, but some older versions have been used for their spare parts.
Now Norway has committed to not only contribute to Ukraine’s plea for 300 tanks but also, reported DN on Thursday, bring around 100 Ukrainian soldiers to Norway for training. Norway has helped train Ukrainian soldiers abroad, but this will be the first time training will be carried out on Norwegian soil, most of it in Gram’s own home region of Trøndelag.
Ukrainian troops will also need rapid training to operate the tanks themselves, which several military experts claim are critical for defense of Ukrainian territory and efforts to reclaim regions invaded by Russia. “These tanks are much better than the ones they (Ukrainians) have had before,” Lt Col Palle Ydstebø, an instructor at Norway’s military college (Krigsskolen), told NRK earlier this week. “They’ll be the last brick they need in their ground systems. They’ll be able to set up mobile brigades that can break through occupied areas and maneuver into the enemy’s territory.”
Russia reacted to all the new tank donations to Ukraine by threatening to respond swiftly, and there were reports of new missle attacks on Ukraininan cities Thursday morning. Russian officials claimed the countries sending support to Ukraine had made “extremely dangerous” decisions that ultimately can put Russia at war against all of NATO, with the inherent threat of nuclear weapons that entails. Russia views the defense support being sent to Ukraine as a “provocation,” while Gram and other NATO defense ministers quickly point out that it was Russia that attacked a peaceful neighour on February 24 last year and set off the massive international response in support of Ukraine.
“We need to evaluate out own defense capability and preparedness,” Gram told news bureau NTB last weekend, “but we will continue to support Ukraine and donate material to them.” Dozens of his colleagues meeting in Germany and Oslo in recent days clearly agree.