Nordics look to collaboration in defence of Europe’s new front line

Untroubled for decades, the Nordic nations are increasingly seeing themselves as sitting on Europe’s new front-line. A challenge which can only be solved with steadfast cooperation.


Norway F35

The Nordic five (N5) - Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden - are sitting on Europe's new front-line. Untroubled for decades, these nations of the north-west now face both the ubiquitous spectre of global terrorism and what Edward Lucas, senior vice-president at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) describes as the threat of a "revisionist and rapidly rearming Russia."

As the leader of CEPA's Baltic Sea Security Program, in 'The Coming Storm' Lucas argues that closer defence and security cooperation throughout the region will prove essential in meeting the challenges ahead. While the problems of division and mistrust that he notes between the Baltic States and Poland may take some time to resolve, it seems the Nordic countries themselves have already gone some way along the collaborative road.

NORDEFCO: a Nordic agreement

The Nordic Defence Cooperation (NORDEFCO) was formally inaugurated in 2009, with the self-stated aim "to strengthen the participating nations' national defence, explore common synergies and facilitate efficient common solutions."

This is not the first inter-state collaboration amongst the N5 nations; there is a long history of various bi- and multi-lateral cooperation agreements between the Nordic countries over the years, most notably after the end of the Cold War, as defence spending declined significantly. Originally arising out of the potential economies of scale to be gained from joint projects as technological advances made weapons and materiel more efficient (but markedly more expensive) the whole issue of cooperation suddenly gained renewed impetus in the wake of Russia's actions in Ukraine and Crimea.

"This is not the first inter-state collaboration amongst the N5 nations."

The latest move to cement this Nordic defence solidarity came in May with the signing of the Nordic Joint Procurement Agreement (NJPA) during the Nordic Defence Industry Seminar (NDIS) in Helsinki, Finland to help bolster military and industrial collaboration.

The origins of this can be traced back to the original 2001 'Nammo' agreement on defence materiel between the governments of Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden and builds on the latest update which was signed in March of this year. In addition to collaboration over procurement, the cooperation within this revised agreement is also expected to include study and analysis, technology R&D, capability development, export control, industrial participation, security of supply and the end-of-life disposal.

Joint procurement

Once implemented, the NJPA will provide a clear structure to the framework and procedures for procurement initiatives between the N5, enabling them to leverage the combined resource of their collective national defence industries for the benefit of all. Ultimately it is hoped that the agreement will help bring about changes in individual state legislation to simplify joint procurement projects and bring greater cost efficiency.

To smooth the way towards full-scale collaboration, NORDEFCO is working to develop common procurement models, based around three primary templates - an 'Actual Joint Tender', a 'Coordinated Tender' and a 'Government-to-Government Joint Procurement Procedure.'

The organisation has also been working on improving communication between its Cooperation Area Armaments Working Groups (CAWGs) and the wider defence industry across the participating nations, to help identify the possibilities for collaborative development programmes. The long-term goal is to exploit projects which offer cost-saving, technical or industrial benefits for the N5 partners, and so help drive further ongoing cooperation in the future. With the CAWGs' remit covering a number of possible joint procurement opportunities including aerial surveillance, communications, individual protective equipment, arms and ammunition, the scope for that could be considerable.

Working together

To make it all work, by 2020 the N5 partners anticipate that a number of key elements will be in place to help put the likes of NJPA and Nammo into practice, and advance regional cooperation still further.

Their vision sees enhanced dialogue, greater collaboration and coordination over capability development and armaments, improved communication and analysis structures, and deeper cooperation with military education and training, including regular cross-border exercises. There will also be a particular emphasis on increasing systems similarity, interoperability and seeking shared solutions to identified capability gaps and shortfalls, and actively seeking new possibilities for cooperation. According to the latest Action Plan, the "overall objective of NORDEFCO on the military level is pragmatic cooperation across the entire range of defence structures in order to achieve better cost-effectiveness and quality, and thereby creating enhanced operational capability for the nations."

From Reykjavik to Copenhagen, the clear consensus is that close collaboration is in everyone's best interests - but the Nordic defence landscape is not a uniform one. There are some fundamental divisions over institutional memberships and to some extent in attitude and individual security posture, which also need to be factored in.

Overlapping layers in a divided landscape

Finland and Sweden are both in the European Union, but not members of NATO; Iceland and Norway, on the other hand, are not part of the EU, but are in NATO, leaving just Denmark alone as a member of both. Geography also plays a part in the perception of specific concerns by individual N5 nations; two states - Norway and Finland - share land borders with the Russian Federation, and three - Finland, Sweden and Denmark - have coastlines on the Baltic.

"The entry for Iceland - unique as the sole NATO member with no standing army - is left blank."

The latest figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) show a variance in military expenditure too, recording top-spending Norway at $5,898 million in 2015, representing around 1.5% of GDP, while the entry for Iceland - unique as the sole NATO member with no standing army - is left blank.

These overlapping layers of Nordic defence arrangements, both between the N5 members themselves and within the frameworks of international organisations inevitably muddy the waters, leaving few binding commitments or statements of intent. Essentially there is no equivalent of NATO's Article 5 - but then in fairness, there was never intended to be one.

NORDEFCO was not set up to be a formal military alliance, or to provide a common platform for mutual defence. Enhancing cooperation in capability development was, and is, its prime objective, and the various agreements and accords, such as NJPA, that have arisen as a result underline that.

NATO or a dead end?

However, all that might yet change. The neutral stances of both Sweden and Finland no longer seem as firmly entrenched as once they did, and the staunch opposition in both countries to joining NATO is increasingly being questioned. Karin Enström, Deputy Chair of Committee on Foreign Affairs of the Swedish Parliament and Minister for Defence (2012-14) has even gone as far as to suggest that the choice for real Nordic defence cooperation boils down to NATO or a dead end. "Above all, the biggest constraints on Nordic defence co-operation are Sweden's and Finland's military non-alignment policies," she wrote for europesworld.org in September 2015.

One thing is clear: if Edward Lucas is correct about the threat of a resurgent and newly-confident Russia and the essential need for defence cooperation in the Baltic area, the N5 nations' contribution will be critical, no matter which umbrella it is made under.

"The central message of this report," Lucas says, "is that if the region's security is not improved, NATO, the world's most successful military alliance, could be revealed as powerless, perhaps without even a shot being fired."

It seems Nordic defence cooperation has never been more important.