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.

6. Division to the defence of the common North

I recently wrote an article over at Swedish defence website “Militär Debatt” discussing which Swedish capabilities would be of greatest interest to Finland. To the surprise of some, instead of fancy systems such as submarines and AEW&C aircraft, the capability I picked above the rest was the possibility of getting the Swedish mechanized brigade built around the units trained by the peacetime I 19 Norrbottens regemente (the Norrbotten regiment) in Boden, which would be a significant addition to the defence of the vast and sparsely populated northern Finland. While how many Finnish units would mobilised in the region during wartime as well as how many units would be deployed there during different scenarios is obviously a secret, it is safe to assume that in most cases the number of units would be rather limited as the larger part of the Finnish Army would be used to defend the Finnish population and industrial centras in the south and central parts of the country.

In the Finnish north there are two army units spread over three garrisons: Kainuun prikaati (KAIPR, the Kajani brigade) in Kajani, and Jääkäriprikaati (JPR, the Jaeger brigade) in Sodankylä and Rovaniemi. Of these, KAIPR sits just south of the classic Raate – Suomussalmi – Oulu line of advance, while JPR is further north. As geography changes slowly, the strategic value of the east-west axis of advance aimed at Oulu and cutting through Finland at its narrowest point remains, meaning that a significant proportion of the Finnish forces trained in the subarctic wilderness likely will be concentrated on the Kuusamo-Suomussalmi-Kuhmo line, leaving fewer troops to cover the roughly 250 km from Salla to Vätsäri. As such, it is easy to imagine that a Swedish mechanised brigade would at least double the amount of troops capable of conducting high-end offensive operations in the area north of Kuusamo.

Finnish Leopard 2A4 from the tank company attached to Jääkäriprikaati taking part in exercise Cold Response 22 in Norway earlier this year. Norway is also using the 2A4, though they are in the process of picking a replacement, while the Swedes are employing a localised version of the somewhat newer 2A5. Source: Jääkäriprikaati Twitter

However, as we all know, Finland and Sweden won’t be the only countries in Sápmi that are NATO-members (as soon as the Turkey-situation is dealt with), and any defence planning will be conducted jointly with Norway. Any defence planning will also be conducted within the broader scope of NATO, and as is well-known while NATO obviously doesn’t dictate how the individual countries handle their defence, the alliance isn’t shy of asking and in general has stated that it “needs, now more than ever, modern, robust, and capable forces at high readiness […] in order to meet current and future challenges”, as the 64. paragraph of the Wales Summit Declaration expressed it. That doesn’t mean that all forces need to be fully mobilised here and now, but it will provide some food for thought for the Finnish strategic culture.

…which leads us to an interesting idea: what NATO really needs is a tri-national standing division in the high north.

I will admit that whenever I see the words ‘standing unit’ and ‘Finnish Army’ in the same sentence, the first reaction is to try and explain how the Finnish conscript-reservist system works. However, new times calls for new measures, and as we will have units from three nations fighting side-by-side in the area – which is a single geographical theatre of operations as I have earlier noted – this calls for close cooperation and joint training already in peacetime. Few things would raise the combat capability as much as having at least a number of the units in place already during peacetime. As such, I present to you my very rough concept for the 6. Division, a tri-national mechanised unit for the defence of the high North.

I picked the name 6. Division, as it has a historical connection to some of the region’s most notable military formations in the case of all three armies.

While the German attack on Norway in 1940 for the most part was a huge success for the attackers, the one major allied victory was the liberation of Narvik. The city had been captured in the initial assault, but was retaken by a joint French – UK – Norwegian – Polish attack in May. The key Norwegian unit of the battle was the 6. divisjon. The unit was disbanded following the Allied retreat, but was reformed post-war and stationed in northern Norway from 1954 until it was disbanded again this side of the millenium.

The Swedish VI. armé-fördelningen was first created in Östersund in 1893, were it spent the next 34 years until the northern Swedish division was renamed as the Norra arméfördelningen, only to change to II. armé-fördelningen in 1937. At the same time, the Boden garrison had set up their own division as XV. arméfördelningen, which remained as such until the two units where merged in 1994 with Boden taking lead and renumbering as the 6. armé-fördelning, keeping this until disbandment in 2000.

The Finnish 6. divisioona was set up in 1941 with soldiers from the northern districts. The unit enjoyed a somewhat spotty history, including taking part in the failed Unternehmen Polarfuchs with the Nazi-German forces and having soldiers robbing the Kajaani liqueur store under riot-like forms in 1942, until it turned up at Ihantala in 1944 and formed a key part in what was one of the crucial battles of the summer of 1944. After this, the unit went north to fight their former German allies, a campaign which saw them liberate Rovaniemi.

The key Norwegian unit is the Brigade Nord (Brigade North), which is a fully mechanised unit made up of three mechanised battalions, the Telemark Bataljon, the 2. Bataljon, and the Panserbataljon, as well as supporting units. Of these, the Telemark battalion is stationed further south as the name implies, and is the only fully contracted battalion, the rest including conscripts in their manning. The Telemark and Panser (armoured) battalion include both tanks and CV 9030 infantry fighting vehicles among their numbers, while the 2. battalion lack tanks and only has CV 9030-vehicles (and in fact is only now undergoing transition from light infantry to mechanised, a process which will be ready by 2023). Among the supporting units there are e.g. artillery (K9 Thunder) and engineering battalions, meaning that the brigade has all the organic capabilities needed.

I 19 in Sweden has up until now been responsible for the creation of a number of units which can be pieced together according to need under the command of the Tredje brigadstaben, an independent brigade HQ set up by the regiment. However, the wartime forces set up by the unit is now undergoing transformation into a fixed brigade structure, under which the 19. Mekaniserade norrlandsbrigaden (NMekB 19, also known as Norrbottensbrigaden) will see some important changes. This new wartime unit will reach full operational capability in 2026. Like their Norwegian brethren, the two main combat systems are the Leopard 2 and the CV 90 – though Sweden has a newer Leopard (Strv 122/Leo 2A5 compared to Leo 2A4) and an older CV 90 (Strf 9040 compared to CV 9030 Mk I and III). The current two wartime combat battlions are the 191:a and 192:a mekaniserade bataljonen, och which the former sport both full-time and part-time serving soldiers while the latter is made up of soldiers serving part-time. Note that the Swedish mechanised battalions are tank heavy, sporting two tank and two mechanised companies each, actually making them armoured rather than mechanised battalions, something which also is evident in at least one of the plans on the table which would see a wartime NMekB 19 made up of 191. pansarbataljonen as a standing unit and 192. pansarbataljonen and 193. mekaniserade bataljonen as part-time units (also note the inability of the Swedish Armed Forces to decide upon a single way of writing numbers before units, causing headaches to innocent bloggers).

The key Finnish unit as mentioned is the Jääkäriprikaati which is specialised in (sub)arctic conditions and air defence. While air defence units are nice, the interesting part here is the Sodankylä garrison and the Lapin jääkäripataljoona which with a focus on light infantry is responsible for an unknown number of units to be mobilised in wartime. However, for our standing 6. division there is the post-Crimean detail of the Finnish Army’s new standing units created under the designation Valmiusyksikkö or readiness unit – manned by a combination of longer-serving conscripts and contracted soldiers, NCOs, and officers. The readiness battalion of JPR is most likely currently not ideal for high-intensity warfare, but it certainly provide a baseline for how a Finnish standing unit could be created without breaking the bank.

Note here that I am not arguing for trashing the conscript system or other similar complete overhauls. It is notable that of the Norwegian battalions two out of three are manned by conscripts, while two out of three Swedish battalions would also need mobilisation from part-time soldiers. Finland could well offer a brigade with a single standing battalion and two reserve ones, where in line with the current structure the standing battalion would be made up of conscripts volunteering for an additional six months of service, after which the unit rotate into reserve and takes up the place of one of the two reserve battalions. It is however clear that if the standing battalion is supposed to be able to conduct joint operations within the scope of a multinational brigade, the training for the first six months will have to include high-end international training within that frame of reference.

So that is the current situation, how could this patchwork of units and capabilities, almost all of which are currently in the process of being reformed, be brought together for a functioning division?

To begin with a common divisional HQ is created, which is staffed and up and running already in peacetime, is obviously needed. Exactly where it is located is an open question, though I’d imagine for example either Boden or Rovaniemi could be suitable locations, depending on where there are suitable office spaces without windows. With regards to the three brigades, Brigade Nord will likely fit in more or less as is, especially once the current reforms are finished. While it is unfortunate that the Telemark battalion is deployed so far south, it is also part of the Norwegian Army’s rapid reaction forces (HRS), and as such it should be able to deploy quickly if need be. Neither Sweden nor Finland likely have the budget to keep their whole brigades standing – as unlike Norway their armed forces include several wartime brigades – so the solution is to have at least some units immediately ready. This would include the brigade headquarters and the 191. armoured for NMekB 19 as well as an arctic infantry battalion built around the current JPR readiness unit, with 192. armoured and two Finnish infantry battalions being manned by part-timers/reservists and mobilised if and when need be. While the infantry battalions obviously lack the offensive firepower of their mechanised brethren, infantry certainly has a role to play in the wilderness of the region. However, it needs to be emphasised that even if the infantry units are trained to fight dismounted they will need the mobility (and protection during transports) to be able to keep up with the other brigades. Winter war-nostalgia will only take you as far during modern combat.

To compensate for setting up a lighter (and cheaper) brigade, Finland which is known to sport an impressive number of artillery pieces and whose territory include the largest part of the immediate operating area of the division could be expected to provide a disproportionate number of division level-assets. This includes indirect fires, air defences, engineering, and logistics resources. This obviously would put pressure on the current Finnish force structure, as in essence there would need to be supporting arms for two more brigades than is currently found in the Finnish force structure (which, again, is secret, but it does seem a safe guess that there isn’t surplus artillery and bridging vehicles gathering dust in some warehouse). More K9 Thunder as well as potentially a modern rocket artillery unit would certainly do wonders to aid the artillery situation, and while the wartime needs of the other supporting units is more open, more engineering vehicles (including bridges, it’s a wet region) and air defences are a safe bet. A potential order of battle could in other words look like this.

The main combat units of a hypotethical 6. division. Note that as the Finnish wartime OOB is secret, any unit designations are in place more to give an idea about what the unit might be all about than any real name. Note that there currently is no wheeled heavy rocket launcher in Finnish service, but that hypotethical battery certainly would be a valuable capability (though the other possibility is that the long-range fires will be handled at a higher level). A good argument can be made that it is the Swedes who will bring that with their newfound interest for rockets, but as I noted they already bring bring three heavy battalions so it might be more appropriate that Finland brings the divisional artillery, and it certainly could be that it already is found in the Finnish long-term plan. The Swedes are kind enough to write out the air defence company in their open-source brigade structure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if organic air defence fires show up in other units in the diagram above as well. I also stuck to the mechanised symbol for NMekB 19, despite there being a good case for it in fact being an armoured brigade. The equipment of 193. is unclear, but might be only CV 90 as illustrated here. Note that engineering, recce, and logistics units are not visible in the picture.
A Swedish CV 9040 and a Finnish Leopard 2A4 from a temporary mixed unit during Cold Response 22. A sign of things to come? Source: David Carr/Försvarsmakten

While this is all largely a thought experiment spun from an interesting Twitter-discussion, I do feel it is a valuable and (very hands-on) example of what it actually means that our defence planning will no longer be just about ourselves. It also highlights the fact that while the current general ways of operating are expected to remain in place, even the “small” adjustments needed will cost money or alternatively pull units and capabilities from other places in the wartime force structure, in both cases leading to tough choices. If the upcoming changes for the FDF in the North takes the form of 6. division or something else is another question, but don’t be surprised if the NATO structure plans suddenly start calling for a more fixed structure when it comes to how the northern flank is supposed to be defended.