WASHINGTON — With Sweden and Finland poised to join NATO, countries in the region are debating ways of more effectively defending the alliance’s northern flank, putting new divisions of labor on the table for connecting forces from the Baltic Sea to the North Sea.
The discussions are expected to culminate in a revamped military exercise in 2024, for which planning has already begun. The Norway-hosted drill, dubbed Cold Response, is a recurring exercise involving cold-weather operations. It is slated to see elevated Finnish and Swedish roles along with a name change to Nordic Response, a Norwegian defense official accompanying Defence Minister Bjørn Arild Gram to Washington told reporters earlier this month.
Central to the new thinking is a desire to view the territories of Norway, Sweden and Finland — and to some extent the other two countries considered part of the Nordic region, Denmark and Iceland — more holistically in defense plans.
While such thinking has been in the works for a while, prospective membership of all five Nordic nations in NATO has spurred new ideas.
“We already have a good cooperation on [a] broad basis, also on defense, but still: All in the same alliance will be something different,” Gram told reporters Sept. 21 following a meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
There is still an awareness of different regional priorities across the contiguous land mass forming the Scandinavian Peninsula, Gram said. So casting Finland as the leader on land forces, owing to its long border with Russia, while having Norway focus on naval capabilities would be too simplistic of a view, he added.
But a cross-cutting view of the geography could highlight second-order effects previously not seen, he argued. “What happens in one area can affect the other,” he noted, citing as examples Sweden’s and Finland’s Baltic Sea orientation as well as Norway’s long western exposure to the North Atlantic’s waters.
Such an event entered global attention this week, days after Gram’s trip to Washington, as several sections of the Nord Stream 1 and 2 gas pipelines through the Baltic Sea sprung leaks from what NATO has labeled sabotage. Analysts now wonder if oil and gas infrastructure in the North Sea could be targets next.
The government in Oslo announced on Sept. 30 that the military would increase its readiness around critical energy installations in Norway’s water. “Norwegian Armed Forces are present and conducting patrols with assets on land, in the air, at sea, under water and in cyberspace,” reads a statement.
“The Royal Norwegian Air Force is conducting frequent patrols with F-35 fighter jets, both from Ørland Air Base and the Quick Reaction Alert out of Evenes Air Base,” the statement adds, noting that giving too much detail about defensive measures would compromise sensitive information. On Friday, aircraft were patrolling Norwegian territory, including the oil and gas facilities at the Draugen and Heidrun Oilu fields west of the country, the Norwegian Armed Forces said.
As countries in the region examine their infrastructure networks and military-basing layouts, linking air operations more closely may be one of the lower-hanging fruits. “It’s a very good example because we see that we can integrate and share infrastructure, share a common air picture and so on, Gram said. “We can cover each other, cover the whole area.”
Sebastian Sprenger is associate editor for Europe at Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multi-national investments in defense and global security. Previously he served as managing editor for Defense News. He is based in Cologne, Germany.