Re-Imaging Nordic Defense: The Norwegian Case


By Robbin Laird

In any reimagining of what Nordic defense looks like, Norway — a founding NATO state that served as the alliance’s de facto lead in the high north — fits as a central piece. Certainly, the template they have shaped in their restructuring of defense since 2014 provides a central foundation for shaping the way ahead. And yet, its role as the central player in NATO’s Northern Europe defense strategy is changing as it becomes part of a much larger NATO area with the inclusion of Finland and Sweden.

Norway is a key part of what I have called “reimagining Nordic defense.”

When I was at the Euronaval exhibition, held in Paris this October, I met with Nordic defense officials and defense specialists to discuss this development. One of those I discussed the new situation with was my colleague Rear Admiral (retired) Nils Wang, managing director of Naval Team Denmark. He noted that “for the first time in our lifetimes not only do the Nordic countries share common values, but [they] will work within a common defence alliance. Although Sweden and Finland over the years cooperated more fully with NATO countries, they will now be fully integrated into NATO defence planning. That means they will look at their capacities compared with other NATO countries in order to have the right balance in the region.”

With regard to Norway, he noted “they share a common border with Russia and are the Northern Flank of NATO in that sense. Their ground-air forces are focused on this part of their defense challenge while their Navy and Air Force are focused on the Kola Peninsula and how best to contain the Russian Northern Fleet.”

But being part of the new NATO team of Finland, Sweden and Norway, rather than being the sole Nordic NATO leader in this key region, means changes should come.

The focus will be upon not primarily a conventional air-ground threat but that of an air-maritime and missile threat, which means that Norway’s investments in F-35 Aegis systems and the P-8, along with a joint buy with Germany of new submarines, provides a solid template which can be built on in the region. They are enhancing both active and passive defense systems for their basing and relying on seabases as well.

For example, at the main F-35 base at Ørland, which I visited when it was being built in 2018, force protection was integrated into the design. In addition, they have moved their Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) base much further North from Bodø to the Evenes base. In January 6, 2022, the Royal Norwegian Air Force F-35s officially took over the QRA mission from the F-16. It will be a base from which the P-8s will operate as well.

They have also regenerated their Total Defence concept to provide for mobilization in case of crisis and conflict. As stated in their Long Term Defence Plan published in 2018: “The complexity of threats and risks requires stronger and more flexible civil-military cooperation. We will continue to build resilience and civil preparedness in order to strengthen the ability of the nation to withstand and recover from attacks and incidents. The defense of Norway is dependent on a modern Total Defence framework, which enables relevant civilian assets to support the national and allied defense efforts during peacetime, crisis and armed conflict.”

The first test of the revised (from the time of the Cold War) Total Defence concept was the Trident Juncture NATO exercise held in Norway in 2018. As discussed in chapter six of my co-authored book “The Return of Direct Defense in Europe,” I interviewed Marines who participated in that exercises during a visit to 2nd Marine Wing in North Carolina, and they recounted being supported by members of civil society rather than just by the host nation’s military.

When operating in Norway it was clear that they are a committed ally and the population was highly committed to supporting U.S. Marine Corps operations, including providing real time intelligence with regard to the “enemy” force.  This was noted as a significant difference from USMC operations in the Middle East.

What we have seen already is that the Chiefs of Defense from the four Nordic countries have been working towards a plan for increased cooperation. The early focus appears to be two-fold.

First is focus on how the region can work together to support allied reinforcements coming in a time of crisis. Until now this has been primarily a Norwegian activity, with engagement of Denmark; now, there is a focus on how to use the entire region and to disperse forces including those that come from outside allies in times of crisis. According to one source, the proposed Nordic plan to support reinforcements would be through the ice-free port of Navike in Northern Norway, Trondheimsfjord in the middle of Norway, the Gothenburg region in Sweden, and the Esbjerg harbor in Denmark.

Second, the Nordic defense chiefs would like to see a new format for the Cold Response Exercise. Renamed Nordic Response, the focus would be upon Nordic integration across the region as a whole. It would set in motion new large-scale exercises which could allow the region to coordinate their multi-domain efforts in providing a broader regional approach to air and maritime integration, with an eye beyond preparing for a ground-air assault from the Russians.

As one senior Nordic defense official told me recently: “This is a chance to rebuild our defense together in innovative new ways. We don’t want to prepare for the Cold War; we have to look at the challenges from not just the Russians but the threat from the Pacific as well.”

The last comment may seem out of place, but it echoes the past. Norway in 2014 went to RIMPAC, the major U.S.-led Pacific naval exercise, because in the future their interests will be best served by a Northern Pacific and Arctic engagement strategy. RIMPAC may be focused on the legacy Pacific, but the Pacific itself is changing over time under the impact of many dynamics, and a notable one is the Arctic.

There were other reasons they came, but one was to highlight their new Naval Strike Missile,

I had a chance at Euronaval to talk about the NSM with Stein Engen, regional sales director for Kongsberg Strike Missiles. Engen started by discussing the origin of the NSM. According to Engen: “The threat scenario in developing the missile has always been the Russian Navy. We have a small navy and air force, so we needed a highly accurate and capable missile to replace the Penguin. As the missile developed and then was deployed by our navy, and its ability to be used against both land and sea targets became recognized by other navies to be a market leader. The evaluations made by the U.S. Navy and other allied navies underscored that NSM is cost-efficient weapon because of its accuracy and ability to get to the desired target, even in contested area and to deliver its effects even against well defended strategic target sets.”

This missile has now been widely adopted by allies as well, as part of Norway’s broader role in the “arsenal of democracy.” Rebuilding an “arsenal of democracy” frankly is beyond what any state is currently capable of doing. This means that the Western allies need to work together to shape a more comprehensive defense capability with strategic depth. And as allies share commonality in the missile base, not only can you build up stockpiles, but you can exercise shared use of these weapons in dealing with global adversaries.

In short, the context within which Norway will operate its forces and work total defense changes significantly with the expansion of the operational territory for NATO forces with the inclusion of Finland and Sweden. But the re-focus on defense begun by Norway in 2014 provides a solid foundation for doing so, and the role of Nordic defense industry within the “arsenal of democracy” will undoubtedly grow as well.

Featured Photo: Photo 23062178 / Norwegian Flag © Yulia Babkina |

Published on Breaking Defense on November 29, 2022.