HELSINKI — The Norwegian government has proposed forward-looking capacity-building measures to bolster the fire-power of the country’s military organization while reinforcing capabilities in its substantial and strategic High North border areas with Russia.
The reinforcement, which is backed by cost savings, force modernization and increased budgetary spending programs, has been criticized as insufficient by some opposition party leaders ahead of Norway’s parliamentary elections slated for Sept. 11.
“We need to look at the whole of our defense capabilities and infrastructure. Without question, we need to do more on our preparedness. We have not done enough in this area,” said Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, head of Norway’s Centre Party.
The latest polls show, the Centre is being tipped to form Norway’s new coalition government in partnership with the Labor Party.
The conservative-led government has adopted a multitiered approach to developing Norway’s national defense. This strategy is largely focused on cost-efficiency and rendering the military organization more combat-ready.
Backed by centrist parties the Liberals and Christian Democrats, Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s administration implemented its Long-Term Defense Plan, or LTDP, in November 2016.
The LTDP includes programs to redistribute “efficiency” savings to bolster capital programs of the Norwegian Defense Force, or NDF. Core programs include strengthening the NDF’s rapid response forces in the High North, holding more large-scale multibranch exercises and improving funding for the Norwegian Army’s combat equipment procurement programs.
Moreover, in the face of a more unpredictable Kremlin, Norway is deepening defense collaboration with the U.S., U.K., NATO, and Nordic neighbors Finland, Sweden and Denmark.
To tackle gaps in Norway’s defense capabilities, the Centre Party has proposed establishing a post-election national emergency commission to examine border security and the NDF’s overall military preparedness.
“The Office of the Auditor General’s latest reports have revealed shortcomings in our operational capacities and preparedness. We need to take a holistic approach that takes into account the country’s total military organization, emergency resource management, critical infrastructure, civil defense needs and cybersecurity,” said Vedum.
NDF chief Admiral Haakon Bruun-Hanssen has already outlined weaknesses in Norway’s combat readiness and military organization during recent communications with the Ministry of Defense.
The NDF has identified specialized manpower, combat-ready personnel and multibranch exercises as areas requiring additional capital expenditure. The NDF sees a higher level of funding as fundamental to scaling-up rapid force mobilization for frontline border units to provide a credible defense against any future attack by a “major” military power.
Additionally, the NDF wants to eliminate personnel and skills shortages, particularly in core air, naval and land force units that are undermanned.
Extra funding is also being sought for Brigade North, the NDF’s largest High North force, which lacks sufficient modern armored fighting vehicles, optimum manpower and infantry equipment resupply stocks.
Norway’s border-strengthening measures include more regular training and exercise operations between NDF, NATO and U.S. forces. Norway has extended the brief stay of the rotational U.S. Marine Corps force, stationed in Værnes, that is currently conducting cold weather training in Norway.
The extension will see the 330-strong USMC force, which began operations in Norway in January 2017, continue to rotate and train to the end of 2018.
“At almost any given time, Norway is hosting training or exercises with the United States and other allies and partners to support interoperability of forces,” said Ine Eriksen Søreide, Norway’s defense minister.
Allied training, and especially multibranch exercises in the High North, said Søreide, has been a core element in Norway’s defense and security policy for several decades.
“Increasing allied training in Norway is also a key element in our new Long-term Defense Plan for the armed forces,” said Søreide.
The spending framework running parallel to the LTDP will add $20.1 billion to the national defense budget over the next 20 years. An estimated $5 billion will be released from cost-efficiency measures to the NDF’s core military equipment-procurement budget.
The NDF’s operating budget for 2017 is set at $6.2 billion. Of this, around $1.5 billion will be spent on equipment procurement, $378 million on infrastructure and $4.4 billion on operations and personnel.
The organization’s need for further spending, echoed by opposition leaders, is being justified on by Russia’s significant capital expenditure to expand its air, naval and land forces in the nearby High North region.
This expansion has resulted in the modernization and capacity-strengthening of Russia’s Northern Fleet, based in Severomorsk on the Kola Peninsula. Record levels of investment have added new submarine and anti-submarine warships, including Borei-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines and the multipurpose Yasen-class destroyers, to the Northern Fleet’s arsenal.
Russia has also expanded the number of specialized modular-construct Arctic forces combining Army, Navy and tactical air-transport components in the High North. Of pivotal interest to Norway is that the Northern Fleet, the biggest and most powerful of Russia’s five fleets, has a more expansive budget to conduct large-scale and more regular exercises in the Arctic High North.
The latest exercises run by the Northern Fleet have comprised up to 50 ships, including destroyers, submarines, transport and surveillance intel vessels. These exercises are increasingly multibranched with fighter, bomber and heli-aircraft as standard or in mission-specific combinations.
Norway and NATO have responded to the rise in Russian “training” activity in the High North by holding larger-scale and more regular land, air and sea exercises. Norway is also using diplomatic bridge-building and cooperation to protect its borders with Russia. Norway provides financial support to Russia to upgrade infrastructure centered on the Northern Fleet’s Cold War spent nuclear waste repositories.
Russia is less collaborative with Norway when it comes to NATO’s growing presence in the High North. In May, the Kremlin criticized the Norwegian government’s decision to approve a visit by members of NATO Parliamentary Assembly to the Arctic island of Svalbard.
“For all countries bordering Russia it is important to know how well NATO’s border is protected, and just how secure the border is. Norway is doing a very good job protecting its borders. It is also NATO’s role to protect our common area,” said Marko Mihkelson, vice chairman of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s subcommittee on transatlantic defense.