HELSINKI — A potential joint Nordic Battalion Force (NBF) will be on the table when defense ministers and commanders from Sweden, Finland, Norway and Denmark meet to discuss the Swedish proposal this fall.
The concept for establishing the modular-style NBF is fundamental to a closer and meaningful Nordic defense cooperation, said Swedish Armed Force chief Gen. Sverker Göransson.
The NBF could be activated in 2016, Göransson said. The modular design would enable it to be deployed in a broad range of tasks and call in air, naval and special operations forces when needed.
The Swedish proposal has received mixed reviews in Nordic capitals. Finland said it welcomed the Swedish initiative, but added that the country’s participation would depend on whether the NBF — besides being properly constructed, funded and equipped — is assigned a worthwhile role to strengthen the Nordic and Baltic Sea defenses.
Oslo and Copenhagen are expected to discuss the NBF proposal in September, although it is speculated that neither Denmark nor Norway will join at the outset.
Finland’s defense minister, meanwhile, told Defense News he has questions as to how the battalion would be used.
“Would it function as a regional force, or could it be a crisis management tool that could be used outside of the European Union’s [EU’s] borders?” asked Defense MinisterCarl Haglund.
The NBF advocated by Göransson would operate as a separate force to the European Union’s Swedish-led Nordic Battle Group (NBG), made up of troops and equipment from Finland, Norway, Ireland, Estonia and Latvia. Unlike the NBF, which would be Nordic-specific, the larger NBG is assigned to the EU’s standby international mission forces.
Sweden and Finland estimate that the NBG, whose next sixth month standby is scheduled for January 2015, costs around US $300 million to train, assemble and made deployable.
Haglund said that while Finland supports effective Nordic military cooperation, a force that would protect Nordic territories requires the signing of defense agreements.
“If it is assumed that a Nordic Battalion Force would be used, for example, in the common defense of Finnish, Swedish and other Nordic territories, then we are talking about a completely unique situation,” Haglund said. “We do not have these types of mutual defense agreements in place at the present time.
The Swedish-sponsored NBF proposal forms part of a broader national and Nordic debate on territorial and regional defense that also raises significant questions as to whether Sweden should rescind its non-aligned status and join NATO, said Peter Hultqvist, chairman of Sweden’s Parliamentary Committee on Defense.
“Any new initiative that comes out of Nordic cooperation on defense, and which delivers a more effective military capability to defend Sweden, should be considered,” Hultqvist said. “We must look at the fine detail. What will a Nordic battalion-size force cost, and what countries will join. Above all, such a force must be mission-relevant.”
Nordic Defense Cooperation (NORDEFCO) is examining the basis for building the NBF. The group is expected to present a development review in the fall, said Stefan Andersson, a Stockholm-based political analyst.
NORDEFCO serves as the primary conduit for collaboration between the Nordic militaries.
“The Swedish proposal falls neatly in to line with a NORDEFCO Cooperation Area Battalion Task Force 2020 study to determine if a common approach is possible to the development of a generic Nordic Battalion Task Force that would include Command and Control, C4IS, Logistics as well as effective intelligence and engagement pillars,” Andersson said.
The modular operating model would involve a battalion of 400 to 1,200 personnel comprising three to seven companies, Andersson said.
“This battalion force organization, at its maximum capacity, would be about half the size of the Nordic Battle Group, which has around 2,400 troops assigned. The Swedish hope is that Norway and Finland will be there from the very start, with Denmark possibly joining at some later point,” Andersson said. “What is interesting is that the battalion force contemplated is regarded as being a worthwhile project within Nordic political and military circles whether or not Finland or Sweden should decide to move towards NATO membership in the future.”
Göransson’s military assessment, made last spring, that years of under-funding of Sweden’s national defense has stripped the country’s capacity to defend itself for longer than one week, re-opened the debate on the country’s potential membership in NATO.
The prospects for a future application by Sweden brightened in July when the Social Democrats, a party traditionally opposed to stronger formal links with the alliance, reversed its position to support a government initiative to allow Swedish forces to train with NATO’s Rapid Response Force.
“We are talking about advanced training exercises that we can’t do ourselves in Sweden. It would mean cooperation at a deeper level with NATO, just as Finland, which is also non-aligned, does. Taking part in Response Force exercises is vital if we want to develop the full capacity of our military,” said Hultqvist, who is also the Social Democrats’ shadow spokesman on defense.
Sweden’s Christian-Democrat opposition party, meanwhile, is lobbying for full membership in NATO. The Christian-Democrats say NATO membership offers the only long-term viable defense solution to protect the sovereignty of Sweden and neighboring Nordic states.
“Having a Nordic battalion force is useful in the short-term, but the truth is Sweden needs to be in NATO. We must become a full member,” said Mikael Oscarsson, the Christian-Democrats’ defense policy spokesman. “This is the only solution that can contribute to increased security both for our country and neighboring Nordic countries.”
Oscarsson said the “dire shortage” of firepower within the Army’s two primary artillery battalions, due to delays in the delivery of the first of 24 mobile ARCHER systems, highlights Sweden’s need to develop common defense platforms with Nordic neighbors and NATO.
“The first ARCHER units should have arrived in 2011. Technical delays mean our artillery battalions still haven’t taken delivery of even one. Most of the older howitzer units have been decommissioned. This means that the Armed Force’s capacity to defend this country is severely limited right now,” Oscarsson said.
Göransson said the first four ARCHER systems are expected to be delivered late this year, while the rate of delivery will see two units delivered each month in 2014 until the order with BAE Systems is fulfilled.