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Norway’s Military: Ready to Go

The Norwegian military has spent the past four years reinventing itself. It has evolved from a Cold War bulwark of the western alliance to something lighter, fleeter and more exactingly lethal. With much of its transformation behind it, the military...

“Everything we’ve done since 2000 and everything we do in the years ahead is designed to ‘sharpen the sharp end’ of our armed forces, so that we can react rapidly and flexibly both at home and abroad,” Lt. Gen. Svein Ivar Hansen, Norway’s Chief of Defence staff, recently told Forsvarsnett (the Norwegian Defence Official Website).

With the Soviet Union gone, Norway’s armed forces are adjusting to meet new threats that emanate from the far-flung corners of the world where instability reigns. “The changes in our military structure are a necessary result of changes in the world,” says Paul Narum, Director General of the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (known better by its Norwegian initials, FFI). “We’ve gone from planning for ‘the big war’ to planning quick and effective responses to today’s more unpredictable threats.”

Cutting & Spending

Administrative and strategic-planning functions have been cut since 2000. The money saved has been poured into training, modern weapons systems and special forces capabilities. There has been a 12 percent reduction in defence personnel even as the annual defence budget has been boosted substantially, to NOK 29 billion. The remaining soldiers are better trained, better equipped and potentially more deadly than their predecessors. Within NATO, Norway is now second only to the United States in military spending per capita.

“We’ve come a long way and are really starting to see results,” says Deputy Minister of Defence Bård Glad Pedersen. “We can take on more challenging jobs and swing into action more quickly. But it’s never easy to make changes, and there are more of them to come.”

This is the year that Norway’s Storting (Parliament) considers legislation titled “The Further Modernization of the Norwegian Armed Forces”. Offering no rest for the weary, this new chapter of reform is set to open in 2005 and last through 2008. Norway’s centrist government is proposing sweeping new changes in personnel policy, along with further cuts in logistics and support functions and a streamlining of the command structure. It wants to lavish resources instead on the first-line officers and soldiers who will be sent to fight if Norway’s interests or allies come under attack, or if the United Nations calls for help.

Marit Nybakk, chair of the Storting’s Defence Committee, calls what’s happening “the largest public-sector restructuring of all-time in our country”.

A Valued Partner

The new plan calls for the Army to give up a brigade but to gain a more robust, deployable “Brigade North” that will include the Telemark Battalion rapid reaction force. The Navy will phase in new frigates and Skjold Class vessels, while the Air Force will be upgraded and modernized. A deployable, joint ISTAR unit for intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance – including unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) – will be established.

The ISTAR commitment brings to mind Norway’s deployment of special forces to the mountains and plains of Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. That assignment, which helped stabilize the country after the fall of the Taliban, signifies the direction Norwegian reform is taking. In the new Norwegian military, quality trumps quantity. Specializing in a few military niches lets a small country pack considerable punch. For Norway, mountain reconnaissance is one such niche. Others include mine-clearing, fast-paced naval operations and F-16 operations in concert with allied air forces. Norway may not be a superpower, but as a NATO partner, it aspires to be irreplaceable.

In a recent profile on Norway’s military transformation (“Who’s Afraid of Norway?”) The New York Times Magazine put it this way: “The evolving nature of conflict presents opportunities for Davids to fight alongside Goliaths, if they bring the right slingshot.”

Norwegian defence manufacturers are known as ambitious developers of weapons systems. But Norway’s own military is determined to buy more of its “slingshots” off-the-shelf and to direct precious research and development funds toward cooperative international projects. Fortunately, Norway’s defence industry is increasingly international in outlook, as is Dr. Narum’s defence research institute.

“Punching Above Its Weight”

As the new elements of Norway’s military machine fall into place, Chief of Defence Sigurd Frisvold has convened a new forum to revise the “concepts and doctrines” that guide the country in its use of force and its relations with allies. The idea is to bring Norwegian defence theory into conformity with the new reality of the country’s nimbler, higher-tech military.

The ongoing transformation in Norway has not gone unnoticed at NATO headquarters in Brussels. Before leaving office at the end of 2003, Secretary-General George Robertson praised Norway both for its budgetary boldness and for “punching above its weight class”.

On her merits as a reformer, Norwegian Defence Minister Kristin Krohn Devold was widely reported as a short-list candidate to replace Lord Robertson as the head of NATO (though the job went in the end to the extremely capable Jaap de Hoop Scheffer of The Netherlands). Certainly the Norwegian military’s commitment to slimming down and projecting power explains why NATO chose Stavanger, on Norway’s west coast, as the site of its new Joint Warfare Centre. The centre’s official purpose, according to NATO, is “overseeing the transformation of NATO’s military capabilities”.