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.
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.
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.