HELSINKI — The Swedish government wants to accelerate the pace and depth of Nordic cooperation, urging moves that could create joint air, naval and army units with Finland, Norway and Denmark.
Sweden’s intent is backed by a joint positional statement by Defense Minister Karin Enström and Foreign Minister Carl Bildt that was expanded at the annual Sälen Society and Defense conference Jan. 14.
This statement proposes Nordic states “pool and share” their military equipment and capacities, effectively creating joint air, naval and land forces units to undertake Nordic defense roles.
“Sweden wants to create a more efficient use of resources, higher quality, better effects and an expanded variety of defense capabilities through cooperation,” it states. “Joint ownership and use of military capacities and resources, or so-called pooling and sharing, is a central part of the Swedish vision for a Nordic defense cooperation.”
But questions remain about Sweden’s own level of defense spending, broader interest in this sort of defense pact and how it could work with NATO-member Nordic nations.
Collaboration that extends to forming joint air patrol and rapid-response naval and land units has been under discussion by Nordic countries since 2008. The expectation, Enström said, is that there will be significant progress toward sharing and pooling defense equipment in 2013. Sweden’s low defense spending in recent years has reignited Stockholm’s desire to develop a pan-Nordic defense strategy that delivers a more credible capacity and shares costs, but finding common ground for a pan-Nordic armed forces could prove hard work, said Staffan Danielsson, the Swedish Center Party’s spokesman on defense.
“Commonality of equipment and joint Nordic military units are nice ideas, and while there is no doubt that more progress can be made in developing stronger cooperation between the militaries of our neighboring countries, the real question is, how far can Nordic defense collaboration be taken? This may not suit other states,” Danielsson said.
Sweden will need to strengthen its own national defense capability before promoting a Nordic defense pact, Danielsson said.
“This means taking responsibility and spending a lot more money on our military,” he said. “This is the best means of contributing to increased stability in the Nordic region. Twenty-five years ago, Sweden’s defense budget corresponded to 2.5 percent of its GNP. We were the principal military power in the region. Today, defense spending is 1.2 percent of GNP, the least among the Nordic countries. ... An increase in military spending is necessary if we are to remain credible.”
The Swedish proposal has divided Finnish thinking. Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen said concrete measures covering joint exercises and equipment acquisition were on the table, but a defense treaty was not.
“Discussion of a defense pact is not on the agenda, and I don’t know if it ever will be,” he said. “Now is the time to concentrate on defense cooperation at a practical level.”
Enström insisted that pooling and sharing equipment is a vital component in building a Nordic defense structure that can best promote regional security. The Baltic-rim area also must be included in any regional defense strategy, she said.
“The Baltic Sea has become an increasingly important trade link. Every day, 2,000 ships pass through here, and 15 percent of world trade takes place here,” Enström said. Under a solidarity agreement, the Nordic countries already have a system to aid each other in times of crisis, she said.
Sweden does have support for its proposal in Finland.
“Commonality of equipment and the pooling of capacities and military operations could serve Nordic defense very well,” said Eero Heinäluoma, speaker of the Finnish parliament, the Eduskunta. “For instance, I could not see why Finland would not purchase the JAS Gripen when Finland’s existing fighter fleet is replaced in the future. If the Nordic countries were to deploy a single type modern fighter, this has the potential for huge savings.”
The prospect of a pooling-and-sharing pact with Sweden, or a broader Nordic defense agreement, is a possibility but must be viewed as a long-term rather than short-term objective, said Carl Haglund, Finland’s defense minister.
“In practice, the type or arrangement that Sweden proposes would require a treaty-based formal defense agreement with Sweden, given that we are talking about fundamental capabilities impacting the Navy or the Air Force,” he said.
The pooling and sharing proposal could be incorporated within the evolving pan-Nordic defense collaboration program, said Erkki Tuomioja, Finland’s foreign minister.
“The level of defense cooperation that currently takes place between the Nordic countries hasn’t required a treaty arrangement, but this could happen,” Tuomioja said. “The Nordic states already collaborate in joint military maneuvers, training, joint materials acquisition, crisis management and surveillance operations. A certain amount of this cooperation is bilateral. A pooling and sharing arrangement cannot be ruled out of future cooperation.”
Sweden’s wish for a meaningful defense pact with Finland and other Nordic states could be a pipe dream, said Tomas Niebel, a political analyst in Berlin.
“A defense treaty covering nonaligned Sweden and Finland, as well as the NATO-aligned Norway and Denmark, would be very complicated,” Niebel said. “There is still room for genuine cooperation in Nordic defense, and particularly in material acquisitions and joint air surveillance. However, a treaty could be a bridge too far for Norway and Denmark, which still see NATO as the primary vehicle for regional defense.”
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s message to Sweden, delivered at the Sälen conference, clearly reminded the nonaligned Nordic nations of NATO’s growing importance in the region, Niebel said.
“Rasmussen made it clear that NATO stood as the most credible line of defense in the region, and that countries like Sweden and Finland that remained outside the alliance could not be guaranteed assistance if attacked, as would be the case for Denmark or Norway,” Niebel said.
Future moves toward membership were a question for Sweden and Finland to decide, Rasmussen said. “It is not possible to stand outside NATO but still want everything it offers. Collective defense applies only to NATO members,” he said.
Recent remarks by Gen. Sverker Göransson questioning Sweden’s overall military capability have sparked a renewed national debate on defense and security. The commander in chief said he doubted that Sweden could withstand a sustained attack on the country for longer than one week.