Reshaping Nordic Defense Capability to Meet the Russian Challenge


By Robbin Laird

In our recently released book entitled The Return of Direct Defense: Meeting the 21st Century Authoritarian Challenge, we highlighted that the focus of European defense was emerging as nations with defense capabilities oriented to operate integrated operations as “coalitions of the willing.” There is no single defense challenge, but a range of challenges, with NATO providing common standards and training and key states shaping ways ahead for their own defense along with key partners in providing for direct defense.

No “coalition of the willing” is more suggestive of the way ahead than Nordic defense cooperation in shaping a key role in the evolving Arctic to UK to North American defense corridor. With the Kola Peninsula as the location of the most concentrated military capability in the world, it will be a key focus for defense of the United States, and as such a key focus for the American forces to protect their own country. Increasingly, for the Nordics a key way ahead is to shape greater defense cohesion and joint capability to defend against any Russian invasion force by ensuring that there is a more effective local balance of military power.

In other words, rather than viewing the Nordics as defended by friendly forces come to the region, the ability of these states to combine capabilities to deter the Russians from a direct operation against them becomes a key part of the way ahead. As a Finnish official put it during the recent phase of Finnish defense modernization: “The timeline for early warning is shorter; the threshold for the use of force is lower.”

Time might be too short for non-Nordic NATO forces to show up to reinforce their direct defense effort: therefore, how can the Nordics prepare for direct defense reinforced by the United States and other European forces in times of crisis but to do so with a credible direct defense capability?

During my recent visit to France, I had a chance to visit Denmark “virtually,” and discussed such an approach with Hans Tino Hansen, the founder and CEO of Risk Intelligence. His firm is working an assessment of what the Russians can project into the region and how the Poles, Balts and Nordics can collaborate more effectively to provide a defense belt which can absorb a Russian shock, slow it down, and prepare with NATO allies to reinforce the region and ultimately if necessary, to take back any lost territory. It also looks into the role of Ukraine and Belarus in an armed conflict and how it impacts on Russian options.

Various wargames conducted by think tanks during the last five years have resulted in reported quick defeats for the exposed Baltic countries and NATO forces in the region due to the time lag of NATO reinforcements arriving to the region. With a more coordinated and comprehensive approach to collective defense in the region it would be possible to do more with Nordics shaping more effective integration to thereby contribute more together.

As Hansen puts it: “We value and support a dialogue with the Russians. But the history and political culture of Russia, not just from the Cold War, is that the Russians respect strength and only from such a position a meaningful dialogue is possible.”

He then sketched out how the Nordic integration process could more effectively shape a dialogue from strength strategy even if two countries are members of NATO and two are not. He started from the fact that Russia is not the Soviet Union and does not have the advantages which flowed from Warsaw Pact geography or the forces of the Cold War.

“We have been looking at the conventional air-ground forces which could move into north-eastern European territory primarily from the Russian Western Military District. We have at the same time looked at how the national efforts of Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and the Nordics, if integrated more effectively, can provide for a more capable defense against different levels of direct action by the Russians.

“Our study is not yet ready, but the initial findings suggest that if you do such a correlation, there is almost a balance between the two even without NATO reinforcements in the basic and early scenarios of a conflict and not counting in the operational-strategic level assets on the Russian side. Furthermore, the Russians have at the present a significant advantage of readiness, training and large exercises in higher levels of formations, electronic warfare as well as C2.

“To get a good outcome, it is crucial to have the kind of integration tools such as C2 which allow for a cohesive defense approach, but what such a process underscores is that integrated defense in the region holds great promise for shaping a stronger hand for the countries to initially defend themselves and to dialogue with Russia from a position of strength.”

He underscored that the Ukrainian piece of this effort was crucial, because stronger Ukrainian defense would require the Russians to have forces in place to deal with that challenge that could not be used elsewhere. At the same time the Belarus military and geography adds to the balance of Russia. Finland can mobilize a significant force to hold Russian forces at risk within the broader Nordic context and enhanced Swedish and Finnish collaboration creates new conventional capabilities which can affect Russian actions in the Baltic as well.

We discussed Kaliningrad which is most often considered a source of strength for Russia and a danger to NATO and allied operations in the Baltic, but it is at the same time a source of vulnerability as well as strength for Russia. For example, the Russian enclave could if faced with a significant regional missile strike capability combined with a range of other conventional air, naval and land capabilities, face a formidable threat to its enclave. Hans pointed out that the Nordics and Poland have to acquire such a capability, but that Denmark, for one is on the way to do so with the current study on strike missile capability as part of the current defense material acquisition plan.

We discussed a key missing piece as well which is the role of long-range artillery. By adding significant long range artillery capabilities, Russian forces can be targeted in the enclave, as well as in terms of forces they would move into the Baltics, and in other areas where they would wish to project ground forces. I added that the U.S. Navy and USAF are clearly looking to add longer range conventional strike and an ability to provide such a strike capability to an enhanced integrated air and ground capability by the national forces in the Northern region would provide a significant deterrent to the Russians.

Hansen underscored that the United States is a key part of Northern European defense, but what he is suggesting is that the approach needs to change. “By reducing what we need the United States to do in our defense in the initial period of armed conflict, the capabilities which the American can build for stand-off strike and defense capabilities as well as strategic capabilities becomes more important and part of the integration package.”

He argued that “we need the right capability mix in the wider region. We need to be able to do both defensive and offensive (in a defensive context) operations for a period of time without having to depend initially on the UK or the United States.”

And he returned to the evolving collaboration between Finland and Sweden and its impact. “If Swedish/Finnish defense cooperation really takes off, it actually means that the soft bottom of the Kola Peninsula is clearly exposed. With strong integration of the Finnish and Swedish forces, that they are in a much better position to be defend their airbases which can be available as well to other Nordic defense forces and NATO forces as well in an armed conflict. It means that the Russians cannot take these areas, especially if the Finns and Swedes start to work together in a more coherent fashion. We’re looking is some kind of web of cooperation between Sweden and Finland and between the NATO countries and these two key nations.”

And if such cooperation accelerates, this allows the Nordic states to focus more attention on their reach from the “green” Arctic to the “white” Arctic and to shape enhanced capabilities for extended Nordic defense into the “white” Arctic as well. For especially Denmark, which is stretching its limited military resources from the Baltic Sea across the North Sea, North Atlantic and via Greenland to the North Pole, cooperation with the United States and the other Nordic countries as well as other NATO countries will be key to in order to counter the increasing threat level of this vast area.

In short, significant change is underway as the “coalition of the willing” focuses on the challenges of direct defense and the offshore powers that reinforce European direct defense re-calibrate their forces and the contribution those forces could make in a timely manner.

Also, see the following:

A recent interview with Major General Anders Rex, the Chief of the Danish Air Force underscored a way ahead with the kind of C2 which Hansen emphasized in his interview.

The Future is Now for Enhanced Integratability: The Perspective of Major General Anders Rex

And the U.S. Navy is clearly working the long-range strike piece as a key American contribution to the support of European direct defense. Our interview with Rear Admiral Meier, head of the U.S. Navy’s Naval Air Force Atlantic command, centrally underscored that point.

The Way Ahead for the Large Deck Carrier: The Perspective of Rear Admiral Meier, Commander, Naval Air Force Atlantic

And in our book, we focused on what we believed to be the importance of reshaping capabilities for the 4th Battle of the Atlantic, by shaping force integration from Poland to the Baltics to the Nordics and to the UK.

This is how we put it in our book:

“In effect, the core zone of interest for direct defense is to secure Poland and to work with allies which can aid in securing Poland but also operate defense in depth capabilities that can deflect, deter, or defeat Russian longer-range strike forces that are directed against the belt running from Poland through the Baltics into the Nordic region. This Northern–Baltic–Polish belt or arc is at the heart for the next few years will shape the direct defense of Europe against hybrid and conventional threats, with a reach back to the nuclear equation.”