HELSINKI — Norway's decision to partner with NATO states in the design and delivery of new-generation submarines has exposed new cracks in longstanding pan-Nordic defense strengthening ambitions.
The solution reached by Norway's Ministry of Defense (MoD) also represents a major blow to Swedish ambitions amid ongoing talks within the Nordic Defense Cooperation (NORDEFCO) sphere to add a stronger cross-border industrial collaborative dimension to the present military partnership.
Saab had offered a customized version of the Swedish next-generation A-26 submarine to Norway. The Swedish defense group, which has won a US$1 billion contract to deliver two new generation A-26-class subs to the Swedish Navy, had hoped to partner with Norway in the long-term development of an export-driven A-26 type.
"Obviously, it is a disappointment for Sweden that Norway said no. That said, there are other markets for Saab-Kockums in producing submarines and finding global partner. But all things being equal, this is not good news for Sweden," said Stefan Cederberg, a Stockholm-based industry analyst with SEB Bank.
That Saab failed to make it onto Norway's prospective submarine partners list is seen as the latest snub to Saab and Sweden's defense industry.
Sweden was confident of selling the JAS Gripen to Norway in 2008, but Norway opted instead for the F-35 Lightning 11.
The lack of military-industrial cooperation between Nordic countries is being affected by the growing influence of the US and NATO in the region's security and defense. This is happening against a backdrop of increased militarization by Russia in the High North and the Baltic Sea areas.
While pan-Nordic defense cooperation continues through NORDEFCO, NATO has now become the focal point for long-term defense and security planning among Aalliance member states Denmark and Norway, as well as unaligned states Finland and Sweden.
"There were realistic hopes that Sweden and Norway could develop a partnership connected to the development of the A-26 submarine. That door is now closed after Norway decided to favour a NATO-family solution. The decision does raise questions about Nordic cooperation," said Allan Widman, chairman of the Swedish parliament’s Committee on Defense.
Norway's decision also raises questions over the capacity of NORDEFCO, the pan-Nordic military cooperation vehicle, to deliver long-term added-value, large-scale joint projects and contracts that advance political cohesion and the capturing of economic benefits for the Nordic defense industry as a whole.
Choosing the NATO-option saw Norway short-list Germany's Thyssen Krupp and France's Direction des Constructions Navales Services (DCNS) as possible suppliers of the Navy's new submarine-class.
The MoD's decision made no reference to Sweden or to Nordic cooperation. Norwegian defense minister, Ine Eriksen Søreide, said the solution reached would ensure that the Norwegian Navy would not alone get the submarine type it most needed based on an existing design, but that the project would contribute to "a more efficient armaments cooperation in NATO."
Distancing the submarine program for Sweden and Saab even further, Søreide said that Norway is also willing to cooperate with other NATO countries, including Poland and the Netherlands, who are in the process of acquiring new submarines.
The Norwegian Navy is due to retire its fleet of six Ula-class submarines after 2020. The subs, designed for Arctic conditions and operations, were bought in the 1990s.
Norway has been historically slow to contract out naval ship builds to yards in Sweden or Finland. The Navy's 183 meter long logistics ship, the Maud, is under construction at the Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering yard in South Korea.
In terms of joint military equipment production and procurement, the practical realization of a four-nation Nordic market has been problematic.
Successful examples of Nordic military-industrial cooperation are hard to find. Norway withdrew from the Archer mobile artillery joint venture with Sweden in 2007, claiming unspecified failures to meet operational requirements per the original contract.
The Standard Nordic Helicopter Program (SNHP) failed in its all-Nordic ambition when Denmark opted to select the AgustaWestland EH101 helicopter as its preferred standard for troop-transport, support and rescue in 2001.
A joint decision by Sweden, Norway and Finland to pursue the SNHP and purchase the NH90 helicopter in 2001 culminated in all three countries experiencing higher than budgeted costs and significant delays in delivery of the aircraft.
The anticipated Sweden-led Nordic Viking submarine development project lost momentum in 2002-2003 when Finland decided to opt out as a member and Norway down-graded its participation to observer status. The project collapsed in 2004 when Denmark decided not to acquire more submarines and mothballed its existing sub fleet.
In recent years, the most notable development in Nordic defense-industrial cooperation was the US$ 309 million acquisition by Norway's Kongsberg Group, in March 2016, of a 49.9 percent shareholding in the Finnish state owned Patria Oyj, Finland's biggest producer of armored personnel vehicles, aircraft and weapons systems.
The acquisition elevated Kongsberg's status as the second biggest Nordic defense industry group behind Saab. The Norwegian company's offerings include anti-aircraft and missile systems.