Shaping a Way Ahead in Nordic Defense


2017-10-15 By Robbin Laird

With the Nordic states facing significant strategic change in their region, and a Nordic Security Zone from the Arctic to the Baltics requiring enhanced cooperation to deal with the changes, how might the Nordics best shape a way ahead?

During my latest trip to Denmark, I had a chance to discuss this key question with an American researcher who has lived in the region since 2011 and has a cats bird seat to observe the trends and understand the regional dynamics.

Dr. Gary Schaub Jr. is a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Military Studies at the University of Copenhagen, which conducts research-based consultancy work for the Danish Ministry of Defence. He previously served on the faculty of the US Air War College and the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies.

Schaub played a key role in co-hosting an airpower symposium in 2015 held in Copenhagen with the Australian-based Williams Foundation.

Question: During your time in Denmark, what has been the biggest strategic shift affecting Nordic security?

Gary Schaub Jr.: Without doubt, the resurgence and revanchist behavior of Russia.

After the Cold War, the Nordics found themselves far from the front line of global conflict.

After Ukraine, they suddenly found themselves once again on the front lines. Conflict was in their region and security had to become a serious business again.

The first panel seen left to right at the Copenhagen Airpower Symposium: Dr. Gary Schaub, CMS, Dr. Peter Jackobsen, Royal Danish Defence College, and Col. Anders Rex, Royal Danish Air Force. Credit Photo: SLD

Question: We should be clear about the threat.

This is NOT the Soviet Union at the head of the Warsaw Pact; this is Russia shaping power to achieve what it believes are its strategic NATIONAL interests.

 How do you see the Russian dynamic?

Gary Schaub Jr.: With the Soviets, there was a direct threat of territorial invasion; the new Russian threat is not about invasion, it is about intimidation to achieve their objectives in the region, notably with regard to the Baltic states and the Arctic.

The Russians have shaped a significant missile and air bubble over the region which includes surveillance, electronic warfare, and various other means to reach deep into the entire region.

The Russians are able to see fairly well with their own sensors what’s going on and can put Nordic air forces at significant risk in their operations, which also include frequent direct encounters in the region’s airspaces.

This is a new reality for a new generation of young Nordic leaders growing up in this decade.

One should also realize that the Russians are using exercises like ZAPAD 17 to influence Western behavior.

They are triggering Cold War reminisces for military and political purposes.

It is not about the primacy of the Army and the ground forces; it is about generating our own anti-access and area denial strategy to counter them from the Arctic to the Baltics.

We should be very wary of sinking money into ground forces, which are costly and not really directed at deflecting the real Russian strategy.

Question: How best to deter the Russians in the period ahead?

Gary Schaub Jr.: Part of the effort is to shape the region’s own counter anti-access and area denial strategy – pushing into the Russian zone covering the Baltic states and reaching out very deep into Nordic territory – but also working the political and information issues as well.

The Baltic states have rather large Russian populations and two of the three Baltic states have conceived of citizenship in terms of ethnicity and linguistics as opposed to where you were born.

This is a prescription for real opportunities for the Russians to meddle in the years ahead.

The Lithuanian solution of incorporating the Russians within their national identity should be considered long and hard.

Latvia and Estonia need to think about the ways in which the institutions of the state can better integrate Russians within their borders.

The information space is crucial as well.

The Russians are trying to work the media in the Nordic region but they simply are running dead center against the Scandinavian culture of shaping consensus.

Societal resilience in the Nordic states makes them a tough sell for outreaches like Sputnik and RT. Therefore, when the Russians attempt to influence the Danes through the media, they do it with the Russian ambassador threatening to nuke Denmark if they participate in NATO BMD.

It should be noted that the new ambassador, when he was posted earlier this year, rescinded the threat made by his predecessor because it clearly didn’t work.

IT infrastructure is a different challenge and clearly the Russians are putting pressure on such infrastructure in the region.

Question: How has Nordic cooperation progressed during your time in Denmark?

Gary Schaub Jr.: It has progressed significantly.

Initially, much of the cooperation was very political and often symbolic.

It has become less headline grabbing and more focused on the nuts and bolts of cooperation to shape real military capabilities as well as enhanced crisis management.

This is clearly a work in progress, but the change is significant.

NORDEFCO has been the organized effort to enhance cooperation among Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Finland, and Sweden.

NORDEFCO is now focused on ways to enhance operational military capabilities among the forces. For example, an agreement was reached last year on “Easy Access” among the air and naval forces of the member states.

The agreement allows relatively free flow of those forces across the territories of the member states as agreed upon.

Question: The Nordics have been involved as well in the land wars in the Middle East.

What impact has that had on working together?

Gary Schaub Jr.: Engagements have facilitated more ability to work inter-operably across the board as NATO standards have been established.

Also, key elements of force specialization have been shaped.

For example, the Danes have built a cell to work within a US or NATO CAOC to learn, empower, and work within a modern air battle management center.

The Air Expeditionary Squadron can take those skillsets back to working Nordic engagement as well, particularly given the importance of coordinating air and naval power in the region to shape new deterrent capabilities going forward.

The Nordics have leveraged these operations as well to shape a more common culture in terms of how to talk about the use of evolving military power in a joint and combined way.

And, more generally, there is growing European cooperation with regard to air operations.

For example, the Belgians and Dutch have agreed to share air patrols over their territory and to share the responsibility for protecting sovereignty in their airspace.

The Dutch are negotiating a similar agreement with the Germans; the Belgians are doing the same with the French.

In other words, a process of de-territorializing or multi-nationalizing defense of sovereign airspace is evolving in Europe.

The Nordic states can be seen as both stimulating and being part of this trend.

The Dutch, the Norwegians, and the Danes all have very small air forces and there has been some talk on how could they possibly share doing quick reaction alerts.

As all three will transition from flying F-16s to flying F-35s, this would seem to be a natural process of evolution, to shape a regional quick reaction alert capability.

But the important thing would not necessarily be the resources saved by sharing the responsibility, although that has been the context for most of the discussions.

Rather, the real significance would come from removing the bureaucratic and practical barriers that remain to hinder operational cooperation between these air forces.

Question: The Danes are an F-35 partner, and the new defense agreement clearly is leveraging the F-35 as a key regional tool and a trigger for creating capability for what we are discussing as a counter to the Russian A2/AD threat to the region.

 How important is the F-35 to the Danes in shaping a regional approach?

Gary Schaub Jr.: The F-35 program as a global program is really the key point.

A common aircraft and common support structure are built into the program from the ground up. It is a central dimension of the program and provides as-yet unrealized opportunities for cooperation, integration, and force multiplying effects.

The key for the U.S. will be make sure that the technology inherent in the aircraft is shaped into an operational program that makes this promise a reality.

Building a community of practice organically that’s tied to the program will lead to, I think, greater operational cooperation.

There is an inherent opportunity not only to share logistics supply, but maintenance as well, which would generate greater collaborative capabilities and generate much higher use rates.

For example, if the maintenance crews of one country are able to work on the aircraft of another country through a common security clearance, this would obviously have a significant effect on the use of the F-35 fleets.

When I talk to allied air forces, it is clear that there are legal restrictions to doing that. But that is not a problem of the aircraft; rather it is how nations are organized to operate even the SAME aircraft.

Hopefully over the next 10 years, as these countries receive all their aircraft and start using them in the field, they’ll work their way towards overcoming those barriers to cooperation and this is clearly something the Danish Air Force is very interested in seeing happen.

Question: As the Nordics enhance their practical cooperation and collaborate to deal with the Russian challenge, what is the US role?

Gary Schaub Jr.: As NORDEFCO was established, the Brits launched the Northern Group and the US launched EPINE or the “Enhanced Partnership in Northern Europe.”

Both the Northern Group and EPINE play off of NORDEFCO and its meeting structure.

But as NORDEFCO has gone from more political and symbolic gestures to more effective real world collaboration, both the Northern Group (especially with Brexit on the way) and EPINE with the new Administration in power need to evolve.

The Nordics are looking for practical ways ahead on credible deterrence with regard to the Russians. That will be a test for both the Northern Group and EPINE.

In this collaborative environment between equal—but small—powers, the suggestions of a Britain or US could smooth over the small barriers that might keep these otherwise pragmatic nations from doing what is in their own, and their region’s, common interests.

There is a huge opportunity for the new Administration to shape a thoughtful proactive NORDIC agenda as the Nordics themselves seek a more regional approach. And as F-35s and P-8s come into the region, there is an opportunity to leverage common assets to shape a more proactive and common effort towards regional defense and security. The Administration should seize it.

Editor’s Note: With regard to NORDEFCO, please go to the following site:

With regard to the Easy Access agreement, see the following:

At the Nordic Defence Ministers meeting in Copenhagen 9 November, the Nordic Ministers signed Memorandum of Understanding on Easy Access.

The meeting was held as the final meeting during the Danish chairmanship of the Nordic Defence Cooperation (NORDEFCO). In addition, discussions were held in the Northern Group and NB8 format with the participation of Baltic Ministers and Germany the UK, Poland and the Netherlands.

At the meeting, the Nordic ministers signed a framework agreement (Memorandum of Understanding) to enable easier access to each other’s territories. The agreement covers Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland and will strengthen security in the Baltic region by making it easier to access each other’s air, sea and land territories with military capabilities. The agreement also makes it easier to carry out exercises and training in the Nordic region.

After the meeting the Nordic Defence Ministers published a joint statement stressing the importance of the signed agreement:

Today, we, the Nordic Ministers of Defence, have signed a Memorandum of Understanding on enhanced and easier access to each other’s territories in peacetime.

In light of the worsened security situation in our region, increased cooperation within NORDEFCO has become even more important.

The Easy Access framework is driven by the ambition to ensure unprecedented access for the Nordic countries to each other’s territories in all domains, be it air, land or maritime. 

The Easy Access Memorandum of Understanding will improve the operational effect and quality of air, land and maritime operations. 

The signing of the Memorandum of Understanding is a clear example of the value the Nordic Defence Cooperation (NORDEFCO) brings to the Nordic countries in our joint effort to contribute to stability, peace and security in our neighborhood.

The framework agreement is inspired by the Danish-Swedish military framework agreement of 14 January 2016, which for instance allows for the Danish Quick reaction Force to cross Swedish territory to intercept foreign aircraft on its way to the Danish territory and thus shortens the response time.

Joint statement, Nov. 9th 2016