HELSINKI — Practical cross-border initiatives have not yet matched the ambitions of Nordic defense cooperation, but a proposed joint Tactical Air Transport wing is progressing while creation of a Nordic Air Wing is unlikely in the near future.
The task of identifying potential areas of cooperation is handled by Nordic Defense Cooperation (NORDEFCO), the interstate military vehicle created by Nordic governments in 2009. Although NORDEFCO has identified the pooling of air assets as a potential long-term area for cooperation, the organization has stopped short of pursuing a strategic route to establish a Nordic Air Wing that would share air surveillance over Nordic airspace.
The growing cost of national defense and tighter budgets will give Nordic cooperation greater importance. All areas for cooperation, including developing a common air-surveillance capacity, will be on the table, said Marit Nybakk, the president of the Nordic Council, the primary interstate Nordic forum for political, security and economic contacts among Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, Finland and Norway.
“The decision by Finland and Sweden to take part in joint air-policing and surveillance of Icelandic airspace may be a sign of things to come. It is certainly an important step towards more meaningful cooperation in Nordic defense,” Nybakk said.
The air-policing agreement between non-aligned Finland and Sweden will enable both countries to participate in NATO’s Norwegian-led Peacetime Preparedness Mission over Iceland initiative, which begins operations in 2014.
While the establishment of a Nordic Air Wing may not be a realistic short-term objective, NORDEFCO is advancing with plans to form a Nordic Tactical Air Transport wing (NORTAT), after the initiative received the green light from Nordic defense ministers in November.
The potential areas of cooperation include the pooling of air transport capacities, command and control, joint training and common sustainment solutions.
“This project holds the potential for increased availability of aircraft and reduced overall costs,” according to NORDEFCO. The process supporting the establishment of the NORTAT has been endorsed by the Nordic chiefs of defense and national armament directors.
The NORTAT project is already underway. In the operational area, preparations for establishing a Nordic pool of airlift resources has started with a goal of being operative early next year. The establishment of a joint booking system and the possible establishment of a Nordic Air Transport Command will be analyzed this year.
Central to the project is the formation of a joint sustainment solution between C-130J users Norway and Denmark; the establishment of a common pool of spare parts; joint procurement of heavy maintenance; and the ability to work on each other’s aircraft.
Together, the Nordic nations spend about US $180 million annually on tactical airlift capability. Apart from the positive effects of savings generated from pooling resources, NORTAT also will improve the availability of aircraft.
Nordic cooperation, especially in defense, has always been about “baby steps,” said Petter Lahm, a Berlin-based political analyst.
“Before the European Union was formed, they had a common passport area and labor market. In the years after World War II, they even contemplated creating a Nordic defense union to share regional defense responsibilities. Given this tradition for cooperation, a joint Nordic Air Wing is not so far-fetched, but it will not happen overnight,” Lahm said.
While the Cold War scuppered the Nordic defense union proposal, the modern challenges of falling defense budgets and rising procurement costs have refocused the attention of Nordic governments and their military chiefs on the potential gains of sharing assets and tasks to create a superior level of overall military capability in the region at a reduced cost, Lahm said.
The Iceland mission will allow Finnish and Swedish aircraft to train with NATO within the framework of Nordic defense cooperation. While this will improve interoperability, it is unlikely that Finnish aircraft will be used for flight identification tasks, said Erkki Tuomioja, Finland’s foreign minister.
“This kind of interaction is not new. Finland, Sweden and Norway train in each other’s airspace almost weekly,” Tuomioja said.
The sharing of air assets was discussed at a meeting of Nordic defense ministers in Rovaniemi, Finland, in March. More recently, the same issue was raised by NORDEFCO’s Military Coordination Committee when it met here May 15-16.
Other important cross-border Air Force projects slated for development by NORDEFCO this year include the establishment of joint airspace surveillance, data exchange and procurement platforms.
The lack of commonality in aircraft and equipment should not pose a barrier to the establishment of a Nordic Air Wing, said Mikael Oscarsson, the Swedish Christian Democrats’ policy spokesman on defense; his party wants Sweden to become a full member in NATO.
“A Nordic Air Wing would be a real sign of Nordic defense cooperation, while Nordic defense would be best served if Sweden also joined NATO. Such a development would contribute to increasedsecurity, both for our country and our neighboring countries,” Oscarsson said.
In light of Russia’s rearming programs in the High North, Nordic governments are more keen than ever to explore ambitious forms of collaboration, Oscarsson said.
However, the formation of a Nordic Air Wing could be a bridge too far in terms of ambition at this stage, said Allan Widman, the Liberal Party representative on Sweden’s cross-party Defense Advisory Council.
“What is clear is that Sweden is no longer the Nordic region’s military power. We spent less than 1.5 percent of our GDP on defense in 2012. This is half of what we were spending in 2000,” Widman said. “We need to share practical functions, such as air defense, with our Nordic partners. We also need to seriously consider joining NATO.”