Norway is getting safer. Not only the military balance will change, but also the geographical situation.
The Nordic region is now more capable militarily than it has been for centuries. And Russia is in a historically weak position. Norway was in an isolated position during the Cold War: we bordered two neutral nations, a threatening Soviet Union and the cold Atlantic Ocean. If a war had broken out, Norway would have had to independently hold the Soviet Union at bay while waiting for help. Ensuring that we actually received such aid would have made the task all the more difficult. We therefore invested vast resources to protect our country from military attack, both money and personnel, until the end of the Cold War.
When Putin’s Russia showed its true colors by annexing Crimea, Norway was again in that isolated position with Russia as a threatening neighbor. In fact, in some ways our situation was worse: the arrival of new technologies has made it more expensive than ever for a small nation to maintain an armed force with a wide range of capabilities. For periods of time, we were entirely without these necessary capabilities, such as surface-to-air missiles. A wide range of capabilities is important when you are geographically isolated and have no allied bases in your territory.
However, Sweden and Finland within NATO are transforming the new security situation into one that differs significantly from the Cold War scenario. We no longer need to look longingly across the ocean to the United States, and across the North Sea to Britain, for help. While the support of major NATO nations is always essential in an armed conflict, we now have significant capabilities ourselves. The Nordic countries have a large number of combat aircraft, the majority of which are so advanced that it is not certain that Russia will be able to shoot them down. While Russia has invested in 440 aircraft over the past decade, Norway, Finland and Denmark have 150 new F35s, and Sweden can boast around a few hundred older and recently upgraded aircraft. . This is proof of the very real military power of the Nordic countries. The Nordic countries also have a large number of infantry and tanks, especially Finland. Moreover, the Nordic countries would not be alone in the face of Russia. It would not be possible for Russia to focus only on attacking us as it was able to do with Ukraine, because Article V of NATO would mean that it would have to be ready to defend itself against attacks from the US. NATO from Poland, Turkey and the Baltic States, not only on land but also from the sea.
At the same time, there are two reasons why we should reassess the threat posed by Russia. The first, and of lesser importance, is Russia’s nearly exhausted military potential. The brigade based in Murmansk, the one that Norway would face in the event of war, is practically wiped out. Russia has exhausted most of its precision-guided missile inventory. It’s possible they could produce replacements for lost gear and ammo, at least over time. Yet that would require finding replacements for Western technology they no longer have access to due to sanctions.
The second reason to reassess the threat from Russia is that we can now see that Russia has never had a military force capable of conducting large-scale offensive operations against determined defenders. The war laid bare the fact that Russian military doctrines – their use of tanks, fighter jets, etc. – are ineffective against the NATO doctrines taught to Ukraine by the United States. Their equipment has critical flaws, the technology they have that actually works is imported, and the pilots are poorly trained. Overall, it seems that the Russian autocracy is not capable of developing, at least militarily. This was also the case before the war in Ukraine. Putin’s Russia certainly has disturbing intentions and ambitions, but it does not have an equally disturbing ability to act on those ambitions. This is at least true when, hopefully in a short period of time, we can achieve a joint defense in the Nordic region, which will function as an integral part of a NATO command structure in the event of a conflict .
The role of the armed forces must change
A strong Nordic region and a weak Russia have several implications. First, it may no longer be necessary for the Norwegian Armed Forces to invest significant resources to ensure the ability to receive allied support in wartime. The Norwegian armed forces currently have three missions: to lead the defense of Norwegian territory, to receive allied troops and to intervene militarily abroad. Once Finland and Sweden join NATO, we will have significant military capabilities already stationed here in the Nordic countries. Either way, Allied troops and materiel can now arrive via the Baltic Sea, where NATO will have total dominance, and then via Sweden.
This would imply a one-third reduction in the portfolio of the armed forces. Resources could be reinvested in more direct combat power. With such a strong northern region, the United States will lose importance in defending Norway, and so it will also be less important to impress the United States with overseas missions. The NATO membership of Sweden and Finland could potentially mean reducing the missions of the armed forces from three to one.
Secondly, the new situation should lead to a debate on whether we really want to spend 2% of our GDP on defence. 2% is a target figure for NATO, but it is voluntary for individual nations. As mentioned, it will be of lesser importance to impress the United States with overseas missions and major investments. So the question that remains is whether such a substantial investment in defense is necessary to keep Russia at bay.
Given the warnings from several political parties that we will not be able to afford our current level of well-being in the future, is it acceptable to maintain NATO at its current level of military dominance? It is true that it is cheaper to deter a war than to make one. Moreover, Norway’s defense capabilities in the North not only guarantee peace, they also prevent Russia from exerting military pressure on us. However, with the accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO, we must carry out new analyzes to identify the minimum level of investments required by Norway and the other Nordic countries to ensure a deterrent capability in order to to prevent Russian aggression.
This debate cannot be left to military experts alone. It’s a matter of societal priorities. Assuming that no level of investment in armies gives a guaranteed deterrent capability, it all comes down to a question of risk. We must strike a balance between the level of risk we can tolerate and the number of resources we are willing to invest in our armed forces to minimize that risk through deterrence. With Russia weakened and the Nordic region strengthened, a decent deterrent can be achieved with reduced capabilities.