Nordic Defense Cooperation: A Template for Europe
The end of the Cold War proved a blessing for Europe, and nowhere did this hold truer than in the continent’s northernmost “Nordic” countries. In 1991 these nations – Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden – witnessed the demise of their principal strategic threat, the Soviet Union. Finally after years of being fixed on the front line of a potential third World War the Nordic nations could rest easy. The difficult neighborhood they had found themselves residing in during the Cold War now became a blessing. Geographically removed from the bloody conflicts starting to engulf the Balkans region, these countries no longer faced the threat of war on their immediate borders.
Thanks to the lack of a clear and present security threat, the Nordic nations embraced their newfound sense of safety by downsizing their militaries. No longer encumbered with the need to maintain and outfit large, manpower-heavy conventional forces, Nordic defense budgets began steadily shrinking as a percentage of gross domestic product.
By the end of the 1990s and the dawn of the new century, Nordic military reform had gathered momentum. The most striking example of capitalizing on the post-Cold War “peace dividend” occurred in Sweden. Despite its avowed neutrality, Sweden had once been able to mobilize upwards of 850,000 troops and its Air Force at one point was the world’s fourth-largest. By 2005, the country had 35,000 uniformed regular forces, conscripts included. Further planned cuts to material will leave the Royal Swedish Air Force with no more than 100 Saab JAS 39 Gripen combat aircraft by 2012.
The downsizing of Nordic defense capability resulted not only from the so-called peace dividend, but also due to recognition of an altered security environment in which heavy, static armies were of little use within the out-of-theater peacekeeping missions increasingly absorbing the attention of Western governments. The “failed state” had come to be viewed in Nordic capitals as a greater principle threat than a phantom, as-yet-unseen conventional foe. Because of this revised threat perception, Nordic armed forces were gradually re-tooled for expeditionary purposes with emphasis placed upon flexibility and interoperability with NATO and European Union forces.
The financial benefit created by the downsizing of the Nordic armed forces and the shedding of heavy platforms, however, was partially offset by headline goals calling for outfitting these smaller, more mobile and professional armies with newer, more advanced hardware. Unloading defense material no longer deemed necessary – as in the case of Denmark’s submarine fleet – did not alleviate pressure on equipment budgets, as newer requirements for items such as flexible support ships emerged in their place. In the meantime, the four Nordic countries retained their air superiority capabilities; by doing so they ensured expensive fighter jets remained a crucial component of their force structures.
Throughout the past ten years the number of international peacekeeping missions began to spike, as did the cost of advanced military hardware. Gradually the Nordic nations began to recognize that their defense budgets and armed forces were being stretched beyond capability.
The Finnish armed forces, for example, must perform surveillance and security duties along the country’s eastern border with Russia while also patrolling the nation’s coastal areas. Finland also places an emphasis on involvement within international peacekeeping missions and in March 2008 expanded the armed forces’ range of security commitments by agreeing to join the NATO Response Force (NRF). Thus the Finnish armed forces are not only tasked with air, land, and maritime duties, but must be able to perform territorial defense and expeditionary roles. For a 34,000-strong standing military operating on a EUR2.7 billion ($3.68 billion) budget, confronting this array of responsibilities requires the need to train 30,000 new conscripts a year (for use as manpower reserve in wartime) and the retention of a large artillery inventory.
By the middle of the last decade a general realization set in amongst the Nordic nations that synchronizing their militaries in areas of overlap and undertaking joint procurement projects to drive down weapons costs would help neutralize the affects of smaller budgets and armies. A first step towards security/defense collaboration occurred in 2005 when Sweden and Norway initiated talks touching upon the sharing of air and naval assets. From that point forward discussions of defense cooperation have grown to include Finland, Denmark and Iceland – a country with no standing armed force of its own.
Helping advance these talks was a resurgence of Russian air and sea patrols in the “High North” (as the outlying areas of northern Scandinavia and Arctic are referred to by Norway), plus Moscow’s military incursion in Georgia during August 2008. These actions, combined with recessionary fallout stemming from the 2008 global financial crisis, further cemented the Nordic perception that in order to meet the security demands of the 21st Century they needed to work together to maximize their resources.
As a result the pace of pan-Nordic defense cooperation has quickened. Areas of potential cooperation – ranging from air surveillance, to joint weapons procurement, to coordinated use of strategic and tactical transport aircraft – were proposed between the defense chiefs of Finland, Norway and Sweden under a joint report, Nordic Supportive Defense Structures (NORDSUP). Almost one year later, in December 2009, a new structure, Nordic Defense Cooperation (NORDEFCO), was launched providing the Nordic nations with an organization through which to draft and pursue joint initiatives.
While sharing security responsibilities helps lower operating costs, it is the pooling of resources and the streamlining of procurement initiatives that may prove to be the most cost-efficient element of the emergent pan-Nordic defense collaboration. Norway and Sweden have taken a first step by partnering on the development of the Archer 155mm self-propelled howitzer. Such initiatives provide a way for partners to split development costs and smooth compatibility issues where training, maintenance and joint operations are concerned. These details increase in importance when four countries spending a combined $20 billion on defense have to contend with providing security over roughly 1.235 billion square miles of land and sea territory. Cooperation on air and littoral zone surveillance, in turn, would ideally help free up deployable forces from each Nordic country for participation within UN-, NATO- or EU-led missions abroad.
The practicality of Nordic defense does face potential roadblocks in terms of sovereignty concerns and divergent political-security commitments. While Norway, Denmark and Iceland are members of NATO, Finland and Sweden are not. At the same time, both Finland and Sweden are EU members while Norway and Iceland continue to remain on the periphery of the union. Only Denmark is a dual EU-NATO member. Yet this hodgepodge political alignment is unlikely to prove any sort of deal-breaker as Norway participates in the EU “Nordic Battlegroup” and Sweden and Finland partake in NATO training exercises and meet Alliance standards.
Ultimately the importance of Nordic defense cooperation will be seen in its imprint upon Europe’s own defense consciousness. As Europe continues to struggle with declining defense budgets, large public deficits and the high cost of overseas deployments, it would be well served by looking north for inspiration. In order to meet their own needs and overcome their shortcomings the Nordic nations are starting to show how collaborative arrangements may be the way of the future. Through regional and ad hoc partnerships Europe might successfully tackle its own similar issues.
Photo by ktylerconk.
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