NEWS ANALYSIS: Crown Prince Haakon and other high-ranking officials gathered all over the country this week to honor Norwegian military veterans and celebrate Norway’s liberation from Nazi German occupation after World War II. At the same time, they’ve all been warned that Norway’s current defense and preparedness are woefully inadequate, just as both are more needed than they’ve been in years.
Memorials and receptions were held from north to south, to pay tribute to fallen heroes and others still alive for acts of bravery. Most important was how Norway, which quickly fell to invading Nazi German forces in the spring of 1940, finally won back its freedom in 1945 with the help of its resistance forces and allies. The Norwegian government was thus keen to be among the founding members of NATO four years later. “Never again a 9th of April” (the day the invasion began in 1940) became a popular motto.
When the Cold War ended in the early 1990s, however, defense lost much of its priority in Norway. After the Soviet Union fell apart, Russia was viewed as much more friend than foe. Russians and Norwegians had been good neighbours in the border area in the Arctic for centuries and few in Finnmark forget that it was the Soviet Red Army that marched over the border in 1944 and pushed out remaining Nazi German forces. The Soviets played a key role in liberating Norway in the north long before the war finally ended on May 8, 1945, and that’s long been recognized at Liberation- and Veterans’ Day ceremonies.
When Russia re-emerged in the 1990s as a more open if economically troubled country, cross-border relations rose as defense spending sank. Military presence in the northern counties of Finnmark and Troms was reduced in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and some bases all but closed. Even as Russian President Vladimir Putin grew more authoritarian and allowed oligarchs to seize control of Russian natural resources, Norwegian politicians didn’t seem to worry about any need to rebuild defense. Norway supported pro-democracy efforts in Ukraine but defense at home wasn’t a top priority, not even after Putin invaded Crimea in 2014. Instead, Norway viewed itself as “the eyes and ears of NATO in the Arctic,” able to help with local knowledge and experience, but utterly reliant on NATO allies for its defense.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine last year was a brutal wake-up call, and now the alarms are ringing at full strength, especially after a highly critical assessment of Norway’s defense capabilities was released last week. A government commission set up two years ago to assess military preparedness and capacity was blunt in calling for an immediate strengthening of the military. At least another NOK 30 billion of investment is needed immediately, said commission leader Knut Storberget, a former government minister himself from the Labour Party. After that, at least NOK 40 billion every year for the next decade. And the money needs to be better spent on new frigates, helicopters, technology, air defense systems and, not least, ammunition.
“We’re in a new security policy situation,” Storberget said. “Europe must take on much greater responsibility for its own security. Norway’s defense capability is not dimensioned for this challenge.” He urged more long-term planning, predictability and political consensus for investment “in what’s most important of all: our peace and freedom.”
It was tough talk meant to wake up Parliament and the government, which had tried to go on the offense itself just the day before. Defense Minister Bjørn Arild Gram of the Center Party, Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre and Finance Minister Trygve Slagsvold Vedum called a press conference to announce major defense spending of their own: around NOK 11 billion more by 2026, when Norway must meet NATO’s goal that every member of the alliance spend at least 2 percent of GNP on defense. Norway has fallen woefully short of that goal that it promised to meet, spending only 1.57 percent last year and an estimated 1.43 percent this year, since Norway’s GNP has increased so much, ironically enough, on war profits from sales of gas to Europe after Russian gas was cut off. Only seven NATO members had met the 2 percent spending goal, but Norway lags far behind other NATO colleagues, not least the US and UK.
Støre needs to avoid getting into trouble at the NATO summit in July, at which all NATO members must reveal their current status and plans for spending 2 percent of GNP on defense. It will be embarrassing if Norway, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, falls short. It probably won’t now, with commentator Sverre Strandhagen calling Støre’s press conference a “smart maneuver.” At the very list, it proved that the best defense is a good offense.
Storberget’s commission, though, wasn’t mightily impressed. It criticized not only Norway’s lack of defense, but how the defense department spends the money it has. The Army, Navy and Air Force, the commission recommends, need to set aside special requirements and modifications they demand when ordering everything from tanks to jets, and instead buy more equipment “off the shelf” that would cut costs and speed delivery. Military processes for purchasing and managing projects take far too much time, get bogged down in details and leave projects difficult to steer. Special modifications can delay delivery.
There are also huge delays in purchases of ammunition and too much gets shifted out at the same time, leaving Norway vulnerable in a transition phase. Norway urgently needs more helicopters, frigates and submarines, some of which are on order. Norway has ordered, for example, four new submarines from Germany, but officers and researchers say seven or eight are needed. Norway is also buying six American Seahawk helicopters for use with the Coast Guard.
The government’s own new funding allocations are earmarked for the Seahawks, artillery ammunition and investment in communications systems for submarines. The fighter jets’ base at Øland will also be strengthened, with NOK 446 million earmarked for needed buildings and air defense systems plus funding for a new main landing strip and security systems. Norway has sent lots of ammunition and other defense material to Ukraine but now needs more for itself.
The commission’s findings and criticism didn’t come as a surprise. Defense Chief Eirik Kristoffersen has been calling for more funding and acquisitions and agrees with recent research that Norway could not handle a war situation at home. So does defense research institute FFI: “The defense department is not able to meet its needs in the most demanding scenarios,” a report from FFI stated in March, with “demanding scenarios” meaning war. The military is also struggling with logistics, preparedness, communication, economy and medics. Ironically enough for an oil-producing nation, FFI warns that in an emergency, the Norwegian military would struggle to deliver enough fuel for equipment needing it.
FFI was especially critical of Norway’s anti-aircraft defense systems and ability to handle submarine warfare and hydbrid threats. Norway’s military is also underfinanced and understaffed. Far more soldiers are needed.
“We have a defense that looks good in peacetime but won’t work in wartime,” Lt Col Harald Høiback told newspaper Morgenbladet when FFI’s report was issued. “We have spent money to built up visible presence that creates jobs in voter districts.” He’s among those who fully believe that the problems began when the Soviet Union collapsed. “There was a widespread impression that war on Norwegian territory was as irrelevant as being scared of werewolves or being sold into slavery. War landed on history’s junkpile.”
Høiback, who also holds a master’s degree in history and a doctorate in philosophy, thinks the fear of war in Norway disappeared in the 1990s, leading to constant reorganizations, the dismantling of an overcommando and how defense chiefs “began thinking politically” instead of leaving that to the politicians. He hopes that with Finland’s new membership in NATO, and eventually Sweden’s, can strengthen security but cautions that they’re expecting NATO to strengthen their’s.
There are some bright points: Eastern Norway may get its own Army forces instead of having to rely on the Home Guard. Putin’s vessels and aircraft in or near Norwegian territory are under much higher surveillance and now more widely viewed as potential threats. Military spokesmen confirmed last winter that “foreign drones” were seen flying around NATO exercises “and it would be naive to think that they weren’t being used by foreign intelligence agencies,” likely Russia’s.
The biggest question is how high the risk of an attack really is at present. Strandhagen in DN writes that Norway faces the same kind of attack as the Baltic countries and it can still take time for NATO allies to arrive. There’s been an increase in US military presence in Norway over the past several years, raising debate over base policy, but the US can be distracted by China’s threats in the Pacific and opt to defend Taiwan. It can be difficult for the US to be engaged in conflicts on both sides of the globe again.
Strandhagen notes that even with US naval ships, submarines and marine forces present in Norwegian territory, it’s unclear whether threats would be seen as ominous enough to respond, especially “since the world’s largest assemblage of strategic nuclear weapons is found on Kola,” the Russian peninsula just east of Kirkenes.
Fear factor may need to rise
Commentator Aslak Bonde, writing in Morgenbladet, thinks the fear level must be higher than it is now in order to win political support to boost the defense budget as much as the commission recommends. If Russia were to cut off Norway’s gas supplies to Europe, or attack Norway, it would set off a world war, and that’s still considered unlikely. “Even decades ahead, it’s difficult to believe that the Russian leadership thinks it could win such a war,” Bonde writes.
The commission’s report, however, warns that Norway and the rest of the world may end up with a humiliated, brutalized and unpredictable Russia with large portions of its naval and air force strength intact. Russia could also rebuild its conventional military might lost on its war against Ukraine. The report concludes that Russia “can threaten us in various ways.”
Defense Minister Gram and his government colleagues are now going through the commission’s report. Members of Parliament are, too. Commission leader Storberget hopes for a broad consensus with commitments to radically and quickly improve defense.
“The government is boosting defense with more money, more personnel and more material,” Gram claimed. “We will continue to do so. It’s absolutely necessary that we now devote a larger portion of our resources to our defense.”