By Sigurd Neubauer
No military doctrine exists for Nordic security.
Yet, a political document entitled Vision 2025, which was based on a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), was adopted in 2019 by the defense ministers of Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland.
The document states that the Nordic countries will “improve our defense capability and cooperation in peace, crisis and conflict”. Additional agreements have been reached to align operational defense planning.
Russia’s war against Ukraine, meanwhile, has upended the status quo for the Nordic nations with Finland and Sweden expected to decide by early May 2022 whether to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Norway, Denmark, and Iceland, along with the Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – are already NATO members.
For Finland and Sweden, who have championed defense and security policies anchored in neutrality throughout the Cold War vis-à-vis NATO and Russia, appear to take advantage of a narrow window of opportunity presented by the Ukraine war to join the military alliance.
Karsten Friis is a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs
The strategic calculus in Helsinki and Stockholm, where policymakers have long coordinated their defense and security policies as part of a broader push to strengthen collective security throughout the Nordic region that predates the war in Ukraine, are now concluding that there is little Russia can do should they formally join NATO.
Because Russia has withdrawn two of its three brigades from the Kola Peninsula, which borders Norway, to fight in Ukraine, Nordic policymakers consider this to be a sign of weakness. This is also becoming a factor for why Finland and Sweden are moving closer towards joining NATO.
Commenting on the fluid security architecture in Northern Europe, Karsten Friis, a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, explains that the Nordic security architecture is complex because the Nordic states have different arrangements: Norway, Denmark and Iceland are members of NATO, while Finland and Sweden are not.
Sweden, Finland, and Denmark are members of the European Union (EU) while Norway and Iceland are not. “In the context of defense cooperation, it is particularly Finland and Sweden’s non-aligned status that has been a challenge for the others as it has effectively prevented a deeper integration,” he adds.
Since 2008, regional defense has been formalized through the Nordic Defense Cooperation (Nordefco), a lose framework for joint activities and procurement. Nordefco consists of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden.
“It initially sought to save money for its respective members by purchasing similar weapons systems and thereby be able to joint service and maintenance. However, this proved difficult in practice, so instead the focus has been on joint exercising and coordination,” Friis says.
He adds that national bureaucracies have also been streamlined so that military planes are able to land on each other’s airfields.
We also discussed how the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), also known as the F-35 Lightning II Program, fits into the emerging Nordic security architecture.
Only weeks prior Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Finland finalized its decision to join the JSF program by committing to purchase 64 F-35A fighter jets.
While Norway and Denmark are founding partners of the JSF program, Finland’s decision to acquire the F-35 accelerates strategic cooperation between the three countries through interoperability.
As of April 2022, Norway has ordered 52 F-35A fighter jets, 24 of which have already been delivered. Denmark, for its part, has ordered 27 F-35A fighter jets, one of which has arrived.
Sweden has developed its own jet fighter program known as JAS Gripen and is therefore not expected to join the JSF. Iceland does not have an air force, let alone an army. Iceland, however, hosts a U.S. airfield, which was important during the Cold War, then closed, and now reopened again.
What does these dynamics mean for Nordic defense cooperation and for interoperability in particular? Friis says that the “combined Nordic air force consist of about 250 fifth generation and 4.5 fighter jets, which is a formidable force in European or even in a global context. It is in the air where the potential for Nordic cooperation is the best”.
Prior to the war in Ukraine, Norway, Sweden, and Finland began carrying out weekly joint exercises, including with fighter jets, a trend Friis expects will continue.
When it comes to the maritime domain, the resources are thinner as the vessels belonging to the Norwegian, Danish, Swedish and Finnish navies cannot efficiently operate in each other’s waters, Friis explains.
“The maritime conditions in Norway’s Barents Sea are harsher than in the Baltic Sea, which is why the potential for mutual support is a bit more limited. The four countries also have rather small navies, so they do not have much excess capacity,” he adds.
On how Nordic security correlates with the Baltic states, Friis says that the Baltic Sea remains a central arena for Stockholm and Helsinki in particular but less for Copenhagen and Oslo.
“Nonetheless, from a defense perspective, the region from the Arctic to the Baltic is in practice the same especially when it comes to the range of today’s precision guided missiles.”
The United Kingdom (UK), for its part, “has also invited all of these countries into the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF), which is an initiative aimed at enhancing defense cooperation between both Nordic and Baltic states. NATO has its Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) in the Baltic states, which provides a significant military footprint as well in this region,” Friis says.
But given the growing threat presented by Russia, Iceland and Greenland are also becoming increasingly important for the broader framework of Nordic security.
“Iceland’s geographical location makes it an important ally for North Atlantic security and sea-lines of communication. Greenland, as part of Denmark, is also important, not least for U.S. and Canadian security and early warning regarding missile defense. Denmark has therefore stepped up its security engagement there over the past few years,” the Norwegian defense scholar explains.
On March 31, Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre called President Vladimir Putin of Russia to discuss the war in Ukraine. The call, Friis explains, was closely coordinated with the U.S., UK, France, and Germany. “The purpose was to ensure that Putin has an updated situational awareness of the war in Ukraine. Western leaders fear that the military apparatus in Russia is hesitant about providing Putin with bad news.”
Beyond this objective, Støre sought to convince Putin “that he has more to lose than to win by continuing the war. The Western leaders believe that it is important to continue the dialogue with Putin even if talks so far have been futile,” Friis concludes.