North European and North Atlantic Defense: The Challenges Return

2017-10-15 By Robbin Laird

With the focus on the land wars and the battles against terrorism at home and abroad, the return of Russia to the geopolitical table and the willingness and capability of the leader of Russia to use military power for political purpose came as a bit of a surprise.

Events in Crimea and constant pressure on the Baltics and periodic threats to use nuclear weapons if the Nordics do not go down a proper path, have had their impact.

The Russians continue to put on the pressure. 

In Zapad 17, the Russians recently exercised their forces in the European region of Russia with the Baltics and Northern Europe in mind.

But this is not the Soviet Union; this is Russia with a nationalistic agenda with the Baltic states and the Arctic in their sights.

The impact has been to stimulate greater Northern European interest in defense modernization and a practical focus on enhanced cooperation.

This is not the old Soviet Union with significant leverage points throughout Warsaw Pact Europe.

This is a more consolidated state with a military modernization agenda which is also not about recreating the massive Soviet Army of the past.

Vladimir Putin with the Russian Chief of the General Staff, during the Zapad 17 exercise. Credit: TASS

It is an evolving air sea and ground modernization force, significantly smaller than the forces of the Soviet Union, but being designed for more agile force insertion and political effect.

The liberal democracies have much work to do to rebuild the forces and the shape an effective approach to crisis management.

There are new capabilities coming to the region, notably the P-8s/and Tritons in crafting a maritime domain awareness capability and an operational belt of F-35s from the UK through to the Netherlands.

Shaping an integrated force and one which can leverage missile defense capabilities is part of the way ahead; but this is a work in progress.

In addition, Finland and Sweden are clearly focused on the defense challenges posed by Russia and are strengthening their relationship with Nordic NATO partners and others as well.

Notably, Sweden has recently held the largest military exercise in more than 20 years.

Recently, I had a chance to talk with our strategic partner, Hans Tino Hansen, the CEO of Risk Intelligence, which is based in Copenhagen, about how to view the challenges and how the Nordics are looking to shape a way ahead.

Question: What is a good way to characterize the situation facing the Nordics strategically?

Hans Tino Hansen: I would consider this a period of limbo, without a marked strategic direction.

It certainly is not a return to the Cold War.

It is not the onward march of peaceful globalization.

It is actually a limbo situation, as I see it, which means that it’s very difficult to analyze in the right way, and therefore also difficult to come up with the right solutions.

Ambiguity can create significant uncertainty and with uncertainty crisis situations, in which the various sides are sorting out what their way ahead really is.

And that is what makes it a dangerous period – it will be defined by states shaping their way ahead interacting with other states in determining their objectives and the effectiveness of their objectives.

Question: We are clearly in a strategic learning curve which is not defined by our historical experience with the Soviets in the Cold War. 

These are Russians building new capabilities and actively engaged in trying to reshape the geopolitical situation.

A clear need with the strategic limbo situation is crafting new crisis management tools.

How do you view this challenge?

Hans Tino Hansen: It is a central one.

And next year, with the Secretary General of the Danish Atlantic Treaty Association, Lars Bangert Struwe, I am planning a series of six workshops where we are going to focus on the new situation and its impact on Denmark’s crisis management capability and defence planning.

We are looking at the broader situation in the northern region consider from the Arctic to the Baltic as the context.

We are focusing on the layout of the Northern European security complex and its impact on Denmark.

We will have sessions looking respectively at the US, Russia, NATO, the role of Sweden and Finland and then on crisis management.

And we will conclude by focusing on how does Denmark adapt itself, going forward, to this new landscape, notably with regards to crisis management and defense planning.

Robbin Laird: We want to have tool sets available that allow our leaders to respond effectively, but without having to do full mobilization.

In other words, we don’t want to end up like World War I and we don’t want to end up like World War II.

And so that means we’re in this situation where we really do need military tools to go along with diplomatic approaches for crisis management.

And to be blunt, we lag significantly on the diplomatic and strategic thinking side of the equation.

One key path of change is better integration of offensive with defensive capabilities to forge more effective deterrence.

How might Denmark look at this dynamic?

Hans Tino Hansen: We need to start with the key challenge of air defence which is currently covered by our F-16s, and anti-missile defense.

With F-35 we will have significantly different capabilities which can provide for the possibility of integrating with ground or sea based missile defense forces as well.

This is something which needs to be addressed in the US-Danish defense agreement as well.

But the strategic shift would be actually to connect the air defense capability with the naval and air strike capability, together with the control and command capability along with the intelligence resources.

Defensive capabilities are not sufficient to deter, but has to be developed in parallel with strike capabilities.

In addition, Denmark’s participation in Ballistic Missile Defence will connect the operational level to the strategic level.

This might be a way to enhance our ability to deal with defense of the Northern European security complex.

And we certainly need credible deterrence against anyone deploying long range missiles, for instance the Russians in Kaliningrad or others around the world.

And we need such deterrent capability in support of naval operations in the Baltic or in protecting our supply lines.

We would look to the F-35 as being a force multiplier for the whole of our defense effort, as a trigger for greater integration and effectiveness in the Northern European security complex.

Question: Clearly, Sweden and Finland are looking at the situation differently and are enhancing their working approaches towards collaboration in the region and beyond. 

How do you see their evolution?

Hans Tino Hansen:  It is quite interesting to see how Sweden has moved from the 1980s where you couldn’t say “NATO” at all in Swedish security and defense circles.

Then in the ’90s, it became possible to say “NATO,” but you were not allowed to smile.

And then first part of the 21st century, we’ve had Sweden being integrated into NATO operations, for instance in Afghanistan.

This has had a significant impact on Swedish thinking.

And now we see, with the latest exercise, Aurora ’17, the Swedes applying NATO standards to their forces to ensure greater interoperability with its NATO neighbors.

And you can see that they are seamlessly operating together with NATO forces in this exercise.

Finland is of course not integrated to the same level.

But Finland comes with a much different and much bigger defense organization, which at the same time offers new and flexible capabilities to counter hybrid warfare.

It is quite interesting to see that one of the things that was exercised in Aurora ’17 was actually for Finland to reinforce the Swedish island of Gotland in the Baltic.

For the Finns it is crucial that Sweden is able to control and secure Gotland in a time of crisis, let alone a time of war.

The island is in reality an unsinkable aircraft carrier.

Question: To conclude, how do we shape an effective path forward?

Hans Tino Hansen:  In spite of the challenges we need to combine military modernization which can integrate capabilities throughout the Northern European security zone with effective crisis management tools and approaches.

Without credible conventional, or for that matter nuclear, but let’s leave the nuclear out for the sake of the argument, if we do not have credible conventional tools that we can use both in peacetime, in crisis, and in war, there won’t be a deterrence effect.

And then we face a significant risk of something that moves from doing the crisis back from, can actually it kind of morph into a warlike situation.

And that’s is not what we want to see.

Editor’s Note: This week the Danish government has introduced its draft defense agreement for the period ahead.

The Danish government wants to raise its defence budget by 20 percent over the next five years, in response to Russia stepping up its military activity in eastern and northern Europe, according to a proposal for a new defence agreement between 2018 and 2023.

Denmark had cut its defence spending in the last five-year budget period, but would be back to normal spending levels with the new plan.

"If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking."

—General George Patton Jr.

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