October 31, 2012

Nordic-Baltic Defence Cooperation: Opportunities and Challenges

The total population of the Nordic and Baltic region amounts to 32 million people, which makes up only 6% of Europe’s population. Hence the region holds a fairly modest position in Europe in terms of population size. At the same time, the Nordic and Baltic countries are surrounded by a relatively similar security environment where Russia does not pose a military threat to them, but still affects the whole region due to its fitful nature and inadequately contained aggressiveness. The region’s defence forces are quite small-sized with capability development and materiel procurements becoming increasingly more difficult for them due to defence budget cuts and increased appreciation of military technology. After all, the Nordic and Baltic countries are rather small and therefore less attractive customers for the huge international arms industry compared, for example, to Southeast Asian nations with their rapidly growing economies.

31.10.2012, Martin Hurt
Baltic Rim Economies 4/2012
The total population of the Nordic and Baltic region amounts to 32 million people, which makes up only 6% of Europe’s population. Hence the region holds a fairly modest position in Europe in terms of population size. At the same time, the Nordic and Baltic countries are surrounded by a relatively similar security environment where Russia does not pose a military threat to them, but still affects the whole region due to its fitful nature and inadequately contained aggressiveness. The region’s defence forces are quite small-sized with capability development and materiel procurements becoming increasingly more difficult for them due to defence budget cuts and increased appreciation of military technology. After all, the Nordic and Baltic countries are rather small and therefore less attractive customers for the huge international arms industry compared, for example, to Southeast Asian nations with their rapidly growing economies.
The Nordic-Baltic region has traditionally put great emphasis on transatlantic cooperation. However, the US pivot towards Asia raises the issue of how to remain relevant in the longer term. The trend towards downsizing in the defence forces is accompanied by an increase in dependence on allies, partners and especially neighbouring countries with whom many qualities are shared. Cross-border defence cooperation takes on new significance as the need to retain existing military capabilities through joint training activities and large-scale investments is getting more pronounced.
Although constantly deepening bi- and multilateral cooperation has become commonplace, there are still several factors that undermine the development of Nordic-Baltic defence cooperation.
The first factor is, of course, the historical tradition to treat national defence mainly as an activity conducted by a state to safeguard its independence. All Nordic and Baltic countries are currently members of either NATO or the EU (or both), which is why the development of military capabilities should not be solely based on each nation’s individual needs, but should take into account NATO’s and/or the EU’s requirements and developments in their entirety. Every wasted euro affects not only one nation, but all allies, all partners and their ability to implement the decisions adopted by their heads of state.
Another complicating factor is a preference for domestic defence industry and research institutions – a preference that stems from internal politics and has been expressed more or less vocally. This category also includes decisions based on local political considerations to retain units without military relevance in the international context.
All people active in the field of national defence have not yet linked into the global social network that contributes to joint defence development. There have been major language and cultural barriers in the cooperation between the Baltic states on the one hand, and the Nordic states on the other. Fortunately, these are gradually beginning to disappear in connection with deeper cooperation.
Despite the challenges, Nordic-Baltic defence cooperation also provides ample opportunities which so far have been exploited only to a limited extent.
Nordic defence cooperation dates back to the Cold War era. The present cooperation framework NORDEFCO was launched in 2009 to strengthen the participating nations’ national defence, to explore common synergies and to facilitate efficient common solutions. In January 2011, the Baltic countries were also invited to join in, but initially only in three selected areas of cooperation: education, veteran and gender issues. However, none of these contributes directly to the establishment of Nordic-Baltic military capabilities or to the creation of considerable synergy. At the moment, Nordic-Baltic defence cooperation is far from reaching the level of pooling and sharing, not to mention smart defence. Admittedly, the Nordic countries work closely together, but the Baltic states still lag behind in their involvement.
From the perspective of the young Baltic nations, the Nordic armed forces seem extremely well developed and highly experienced. The Baltic countries have much to learn from every Nordic country, be it a member of NATO or merely of the EU. The building of national defence from scratch is a time-consuming process which requires financial resources as an input, but it cannot do without experiences either – otherwise the resources will be easily squandered. The Baltic defence forces still have a lot of potential, which is why they definitely need support in the form of joint exercises, joint procurements and personal cross-border contacts.
The Nordic Battle Group (NBG) has provided a fine example of joint capability to which Sweden, Finland, Norway and Estonia (plus Ireland) have contributed to date. Sadly, the NBG is by default only of a temporary nature, having been on standby twice – in 2008 and in 2011. If the Baltic countries expect increased military visibility from NATO and EU members on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea, they must all join the NBG. In addition, it would be justified to ask why only Sweden must fulfil the leadership role in the NBG – maybe the responsibility should rotate, so that Finland, Norway and a Baltic country could also bear the brunt of leadership?

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