No Tanks to You

The world of military defence and national security isn’t standing still, so for the next three days we will take a look on a current topic from each of the three countries that make up NATO’s northern flank, kicking off with the northernmost one: Norway.

Norway needs modern tanks.

In my world, the statement is obvious enough that I had not thought I would write a post on the topic, but here we are.

Readers of the blog might be familiar with the fact that Norway has been running an acquisition program simply called “Nye stridsvogner” – which literally means “New tanks”. The international interest has largely come down to the fact that it has been a rather thorough one, including local trials pitting Europe’s main battle tank the Leopard 2 against South Korea’s K2 Black Panther, something that is quite rare in the world of tank procurement these days.

Norwegian Leopard 2A4 further south along NATO’s frontier, here with the eFP Battlegroup in Lithuania. Source: eFP BG Lithuania FB

The current Norwegian tanks are ex-Dutch Leopard 2A4, sporting a rather limited amount of local modifications compared to your standard 2A4. This includes a larger storage box on the back of the turret, two added antennas (one of which is for the GPS), and sporting some non-standard side skirt configurations (including borrowing Leopard 1 light skirts from older spare stocks), as well as sporting the Dutch-standard FN MAG light machine gun on the turret roof instead of the MG 3 (the smoke dispenser were converted to German standard upon delivery). In line with other non-upgraded 2A4s, what once was one of the best tanks in the world is showing serious signs of obsolescence (T-62 making sad noises). The original plan was for a serious upgrade program to take place, aiming for something close to the 2A7V-standard. However, like many Leopard-operators, it was eventually found to be more cost-efficient to just buy new tanks.

The expectation was that the Leopard 2A7NO would beat the K2NO Black Panther, an order would be placed late this year or early 2023, and in a few years time the new tanks would have replaced the ex-Dutch vehicles. That expectation has hit a bump already earlier, with reports coming out that the K2NO did in fact perform rather well in the winter trials. This was followed by the Polish order for the K2 and K2PL, which meant a K2NO-order would not make Norway the sole operator of the exotic tank in NATO. At the same time, Germany was making a mess of its grand Zeitenwende in the eyes of many European countries while accompanying its aid to Ukraine with a significant amount of squabbling, eroding its status as the obvious solid supplier of tanks to western countries.

With the significant political and supply base/synergy benefits of the Leopard called into question, it suddenly it seemed we had a real race on our hands. It wasn’t necessarily that K2NO was significantly better than the 2A7NO, but as opposed to the 2A7NO which had a lot of capabilities bolted on to the original Cold War-era design, the K2NO benefited from having been designed with these in mind. That in turn provide significant benefits to growth potential for the future, as well as weight savings which are a non-trivial matter in a snowy mountainous country such as the Republic of Kor… I mean, Norway.

And then in late November, the curveball hit hard. Norwegian Chief of Defence, general Eirik Kristoffersen, recommended to the Norwegian government that the tank procurement should be cancelled, and the freed up funds should be channelled to fund helicopters and long-range fires for the Army. This was rather quickly leaked and confirmed by the general to the press, and was followed up by a rather spectacular in-fighting in full glare of publicity, with the Chief of Operational Headquarters lieutenant-general Yngve Odlo publicly stating that he does not see any alternative to tanks and want the procurement to go through. He gets backed up by the commander of the sole Norwegian brigade Brigade Nord, brigadier Pål Eirik Berglund, who talked to Norwegian daily and paper of record Aftenposten and stated that “Without new tanks, we will be missing an essential component of the combat capability we need.” While the commander of the Army, major-general Lars S. Lervik, is said to oppose the proposal made by Kristoffersen but in public remains loyal (at least to the extent that he declines to comment and stated that he gives his advice to the general, who then gets to say what he wants to the government), the commander of the armoured battalion (Panserbateljonen) lieutenant colonel Lars Jansen said that the first he heard of the whole thing was when media broke the story.

The kind way to put it, and I’ve seen some make that argument, is that this isn’t a big deal, but normal discussion among professionals when money is limited and choices need to be made about where to spend it, with what can best be described as pitting a 21st century land version of the Jeune École arguing for firepower and mobility against a more traditional school of thinking emphasising taking and holding terrain. However, it is hard to see that such a deep and open split between many of the most senior commanders of the force would be a sign of healthy debate – the question is after all about one of the most important acquisition programs of the joint force which has reached a very late stage, in particular when coupled with the readiness displayed by other senior officers to publicly go against their commander.

The idea to cancel the tanks and place the bet on long-range fires is somewhat in line with the media speculation fuelled by the Instagram Wars of the last few years, in which videos of UACs and loitering munitions or light infantry with anti-tank weapons hunting enemy tanks have spread like wildfire and led some to declare the tank as being dead (again, one might add). However, what experiences from Ukraine seem to indicate is that the increased lethality on the battlefield means what you really need to survive is more, not less, protection. This takes the shape both in heavier protection for infantry protection vehicles, logistics vehicles, and so forth, but also a need for tanks to spearhead assaults and perform the numerous roles they have done on the battlefield since at least the Second World War. While the Ukrainian defensive victories of the first months of the war might have been driven by comparatively light forces, there is a reason why Ukraine is begging for all tanks they can get their hands on.

However, there is a second part to the argument in the case of Norway which is geography, and that deserves to be looked at.

The Norwegian border region in the far north is called Finnmark, and like the areas south of the border in Finland and Sweden it is dominated by wilderness, relatively sparse infrastructure, and a population density which makes talking to plants seem like a reasonable past-time: 1.55/km2 in the case of Finnmark. Opposite the border in Northern Russia sits the Russia Northern Fleet, responsible for an important part of the Russian nuclear deterrent – and in particular for the majority of the ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) responsible for the second-strike capability – as well as air defences stretching out over the Arctic which are to try and stop US strategic bombers and cruise missiles in case of all-out (nuclear) war. The notion by some is that in case of war, Russia would want to push NATO forces further away from the border either through use of long-range fires or by invasion, that the Norwegian forces would be unable to stop the Russians from doing this without dying, and that the solution is to attrit the forces before stopping them, and counterattacking when NATO reinforcements have arrived.

Keen readers of the blog know that I do find the idea of Russia trying to push the front westwards in the region a reasonable one. However, the Russian juggernaut is somewhat questionable, as the amount of Russian forces in the area relatively limited, sporting two motorised brigades (200th and 80th) as well as a marine infantry brigade, and Russia can’t risk overly large losses as that would open up the region to counterattacks. Of course, the Russians have shown the ability to mass forces in prioritised operational directions, but the north isn’t an easy place to fight in in the best of times, and in winter (which is long and really dark) it will become directly hostile unless you have trained and equipped for it.

Which two Finnish, a Swedish, and a Norwegian brigades has done (notable here that the Finnish brigades are peacetime training units, and there’s no telling how many and what kind of wartime units they are tasked to mobilise in case of war).

As such, an important thing here to begin with is that Norway is not going to fight alone. This is not something new, but the new part is that from day one Norway isn’t going to fight alone, but rather alongside Finnish and Swedish soldiers. This means that force levels can be expected to be more or less equal on both sides of the border – as long as Norway contribute the heavy brigade NATO has asked for. And while a strategic surprise might catch the Norwegian brigades in Troms (the country next-door to the west), any Russian advance would see angry Finns and Swedes charging down their flank.

Interlude: If Russia shifts troops north they can obviously outmatch the locals, but in that case NATO is also freed up to concentrate more of their forces in the region.

However, I have not seen the Norwegian debate reflect upon what it means to wait for reinforcements. The USMC is going tank-less (which might be an idea for a dedicated amphibious force, but not for a ground force), and the number of heavy armoured units available in NATO are in fact rather limited and can be expected to have their hands full further south. There simply aren’t many available. But perhaps even more questionable, the plan to rely on long-range fires and having someone else spearhead the counterattack in effect means that someone else will have to take the largest share of losses in the battle for Finnmark.

It is difficult to see this leading to anything but the it being Finnish and Swedish sons and daughters in the first line dying to protect the civilians of Vardø. And that raises the question which I have not seen in the Norwegian debate.

Can Norway morally choose to go to war in the high north without tanks? In particular if it is allied with Finland and Sweden?

And it must be said, if the Norwegian politicians and soldiers would be ready to simply let the population of eastern Finnmark suffer under occupation until someone else comes to their aid – and as we have seen that means torture, rape, and killings in the same vein of the Red Army of old – that decision is odd in the extreme.

A Norwegian Leopard 2A4 during exercises in Alta, the largest town by population in Finnmark. Source: Norwegian Army Twitter

The call for cancelling the tank program has so far been met with mixed responses from the politicians. The Norwegian minority government has stated that they indeed to continue with the process, while from the opposition there has been calls for more information.

Which is somewhat strange, as it isn’t like the idea to invest millions in new tanks is a whim by the minister of defence, but rather based on years of studies and recommendations. The basis for the process is the white paper Landmaktsutredningen from 2017-2018 on the future of the ground forces, and in the latest Fagmilitært råd of 2019 the then-Chief of Defence provided four different ambition levels with additional directions for land- or sea-emphasised recommendations for the future of the Norwegian forces, he did explicitly write that the addition of new tanks is seen as crucial regardless of which level of ambition and funding the politicians agree upon. While a new edition of Fagmilitært råd is in the works, it’s difficult to see which changes would have affected the tank-part of things to the extent that new information would suddenly appear.

Norway needs modern tanks, and the only thing waiting for more information or cancelling the deal would mean is higher cost, a more uncertain deterrence situation in the high north, and a spot on Norway’s reputation among allies.

15 thoughts on “No Tanks to You

  1. Tomas Ries

    An important point on geography which you clearly know but not all readers may, is the Finnmark, like much of Sweden and Finland north of the Arctic circle, is basically flat open terrain, while Troms County is basically alpine, with steep mountains interspersed with deep fjords and long narrow lakes. Finnmark is suited for heavy mechanised operations, Troms much less so.
    As long as the main Norwegian defences began in the Troms mountains (Lyngen Line) there was less need for large armoured formations. The Lyngen Line made sense during the Cold War when Norway did not know if Finland would / could stop a Soviet offensive through northern Finland, outflanking Norwegian defences in Finnmark.
    Today, with Finland and Sweden joining NATO, and with Finland fielding what is arguably the strongest national defence in Europe (alongside Switzerland and Turkey and with Poland rapidly catching up), the military situation of Finnmark has changed.
    Finally one could argue that if Norway took its national defence seriously it would acquire BOTH fires and armour. It certainly has the money for that.

  2. Narwahl

    If the procurement is stopped, would Norway do away with tanks or would they continue to use their currently available Leopard 2A4s as they are likely to be better than what Russia can prioritise in the region?

    1. Kim

      The 2A4s are likely to be used, they won’t do away with the armoured battalion we have.

      I actually think we will replace the 2A4s. Our main problem is more the structure of the Norwegian Army, it is too small for the area it is supposed to defend.

  3. Hans

    Due to the difficult terrain, the Norwegian defense in Finnmark needs both tanks and attack ( or small armed ) helicopters.

  4. Biehtár Ovllá Eira

    You should submit your blogpost to stratagem.no, everyone who´s someone in the Norwegian Armed Forces reads it.

  5. J

    This is weird. Who wants to stop an ongoing program just before finishing line and make his army worse. Oh, its Eirik. Norway could buy all above, but I guess europeans still need something else to believe they should defend their countries and not wait USA to help. EU and NATO in Europe are less than paper tigers. There is not even troops and equipment on paper, and now some idiot doesn’t want tanks. Things in USA are getting weird, so Europe might be alone next time and you don’t want tanks. I guess they are so sure that nukes keep ruskies away, that no need of boring old fashioned armies in western Europe. Germany isn’t buying just talking and now Norway. Things seem to look a lot different when you happen to be behind Poland or Finland.

    1. JM

      I think after the showdown of Russia in Ukraine and all the losses there Europe don’t have to increase spending, but spend better taking into account all the trends seen in Ukraine like drones usage, air defense, munitions spending and so on.

      Europe can be much more secure with the same spending.

  6. Mr. T

    Norwegian here, and I appreciate your insightful post.

    Norway’s biggest defense problem is its giant coast line. Worst case scenario for Norway is a full coastal attack, not an attack through Finnmark.

    Several defense ministers, generals and what not, has said publically that Finnmark is spendable until (other) NATO forces arrive. In other words, Finnmark is a territory that by nature is designed to slow the enemy down, and we will treat it as that.

    It would make no sense for an enemy to attack Norway via Finnmark, Russian or not, because the distance to the cookie jar would be too far. Especially if you want to avoid Finland and Sweden. The distance from Kirkenes to Tromsø is approx. 1,000 kilometers driving distance.

    In comparison, the driving distance from Moscow to Kyiv is 900 kilometers.

    Generally, Norwegians consider the Swedes and the Fins to be our brothers. We would never let you down, independent of NATO membership.

    1. Rabe Darr

      Fully agree, and to me it seems like Corporal Frisk in his post is forgetting that an assault into Finmark would also mean a full war at sea and air, and since Finmark has a coast all the way along it´s northern perimeter, the Russians would get hit from sea, and via air from F-35´s. Also colonel Tomas Beck in which was head of Finmark Landforsvar (FLF) said they already have the capacity and possibility to withhold and stall the enemy, and that’s the FLF alone. This new suggestion from general Eirik Kristoffersen is well thought-through, and probably based on all of the experiences from the Ukrainian battlefield, in which, however how sad it is, is working as a laboratory and educational arena for all NATO-partners, or any military power around the world, and since all European defense organizations have strict budgets to relate to, they do need to prioritize. My guess is that he sees the cost of buying and implemention, and also to maintain is so high, and takes so much of the costs they got for new procurements, that it would be more suitable to go for helicopters and long-range missiles. And on top of this, the CV90 is probably as good to use in this environments of Finmark, and they’re cheaper to buy and maintain too.

  7. Per Perald

    Some 45 years ago I was in the Norwegian infantry, in Brigade Nord, we were taught that Finnmark could not be saved, we should hold the lines in Troms, and wait for French 8now German), Canadian and US reinforcements. I condidred service in GSV on the Soviet border, but chose something else. Finnmark is not important, to live there is a choice

    1. The attitude “We won’t defend that part of the country, those who live there have chosen to” is so completely foreign to Finns I honestly can’t wrap my head around it.

      1. Per Perald

        If that is foreign to Finns does not change the general idea.

        Total population in Finnmark are the same as a middle size town, not worth to waste more lives

      2. And? The same situation goes for Lappi county here in Finland, we’re still going to fight for them, they are Finnish citizens and serve the same flag as us. And becoming allies, we fully expect both Swedes and Norwegians to fight for the 7,009 inhabitants of Inari same as we will fight for Kirkenes.

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