The Nordic Approach to the Strategic Shift

By Robbin Laird

The strategic shift facing the liberal democracies and the return of Russia have had a significant effect on the Nordics.

Two Nordic states are members of NATO; and two are not.

But in spite of this, their level of strategic cooperation has deepened in the wake of the Crimean takeover and Russian activism globally.

The Kola peninsula has on it the highest concentration of military power on the face of the planet and when combined with Putinism, this has gotten the Nordics attention.

And exercises like Zapad 2017 simply enhance their focus of attention.

As Mathieu Boulègue wrote after the completion of the exercise:

At a time of tension with the West, the Kremlin used the Zapad drills to convey several messages.

On the one hand, Russia seeks to control the escalation dominance during a conventional conflict with NATO.

It did not rehearse a total war scenario but rather showed it is ready to raise the cost of deterrence in order to win while also imposing a tremendous cost on an invading army. Veshnoriya did not stand a chance.

Furthermore, intimidating NATO while bolstering Russia’s sense of military power on the home front allows Moscow to use supposedly increased insecurity in the West and the shared neighborhood as a credible deterrent.

Deterrence is one thing, but if you can prove to your enemy that their incursion will result in a catastrophe, you create insecurity among your opponents – and your neighbors.

This Chatham researcher went on to assert that “Zapad showed that any army seeking to burst Russia’s A2/AD bubble would bear a high enough cost as to be effectively beaten.”

Clearly, that is a conclusion the Russians hope we will reach; but it is not one which is to be assumed.

Indeed, it will be hotly contested; that is the whole point of whether or not the Russian actions really are even in the Russian interest.

The entire restructuring of North Atlantic defense, in part under the influence of a fifth-generation warfare approach, is to take away that assumption and put in its place a credible escalation response force.

For the Russians it is about intimidation; for the West it is about showing them once again that such an approach really is not in your long term interest.

I have recently returned from Norway after an earlier visit to Finland this winter and will publish a number of interviews and assessments over the next few weeks. 

What we are doing in this edition of is providing an overview of the Nordic defense efforts and various ways the Nordics are reshaping their defense and strategic efforts.

The strategic shift to confronting and dealing with peer competitors is built around shaping an effective crisis management approach and escalation management.

The recent strikes in Syria are an example, but it is just one on a continuum of crisie management events and responses to be managed.

It is quite striking to see how focused the Nordics are on trying to think through what crisis management in their region entails. 

They are doing that on a national level as well on a collective one.

As one Norwegian strategic analyst put it during my recent visit to Norway:

“We have to prepare ourselves to handle a crisis situation on our own (Norway) but reaching out to NATO and to our NORDEFCO partners,

“We think that it is more and more likely that Sweden and Finland would be fully involved in such a situation.

“I think our western partners realize this, so the American footprint in Norway could also be used to reinforce the Baltic states.

“It might be difficult to penetrate the area in certain situations.

“Having access to Norwegians territory, and perhaps for a door in Sweden and Finland makes a big difference.

The centrality of effective of crisis management is occurring precisely as the F-35 is entering within the European air forces, and given the F-35 is a C2 asset it inevitable will be part of reworking, rethinking and re-engineering crisis management.

A simple example is the shift from F-16 to F-35 in Norway for their quick reaction alert aircraft.

How will an F-35 QRA effort differ from an F-16 one?

What signal is the engagement of the F-35 send?

What reachback does the F-35 and to which forces for which type of conflict engagement?

The F-16s in the current QRA effort are operating off of a large base and linked directly to the F-16s on that base.

The F-35s will not be.

They will operate on a specific base for the QRA purpose, so the question is a significant one, how are those F-35s linked and engaged when they take off?

Another way to put it is the question of HOW F-35s can be used as a crisis management asset.

The old habits of crisis escalation in the Cold War were built around legacy assets and sequential signaling with sending ever expanding levels of force, but the initial air element required a flotilla of capability to even show up – tankers, lifters, ISR, C2, and fighters and perhaps bombers.

Now the US sent F-35s and bombers (tanked of course) in a signal to North Korea.

The US thereby ALREADY demonstrating to Europeans that an F-35 has a strategic impact that a classic tactical fighter never had.

Put bluntly, for smaller air forces investing heavily in F-35 there role in crisis management will be central and significant.

How will the US handle this transition as well?

And associated with that we come back to the sustainment issue.

Crisis management requires operating for the duration not simply a fly over,

This means a sustainable F-35 force.

How will this happen regionally?

In 2015, I wrote a piece about Baltic defense which was built around how the F-35 can play a key role in crisis and be part of an effective deterrent or warfighting effort against Russian actions in the Baltic.

Deterrence is not just about arming and occupying the Baltic states in ADVANCE of the Russians doing something and given the geography such actions seem unlikely at best.

As a landpower with significant Baltic sea assets, it is difficult to imagine the Russians providing a long period of warning for the USAF to deliver significant US Army forces to the Baltic states to deter Russian attack. This is not a US Army led operation in any real sense.

And building up outside forces on the ground in the Baltics takes time and could set off Russian actions which one might well wish not to see happen.

This latter point is crucial to Balts as well who would not like to be viewed by the Russians as an armed camp on their borders in times of crisis, and not only the Russians living in Russia, but those in the Baltic republics themselves.

Credible defense starts with what NATO can ask of the Baltic states themselves.

In the 1980s, there was a movement in Western Europe which called for “defensive defense,” which clearly applies to the Balts.

Greater cooperation among the three states, and shaping convergence of systems so that resupply can be facilitated is a good baseline.

Add to that deployments of defensive missile systems designed for short to mid-range operations, and the ground work would be created for a stronger DEFENSIVE capability which would slow any Russian advance down and facilitate the kind of air and naval intervention by NATO which would mesh very nicely with the defensive capabilities of the Baltic states.

In a piece by Thomas Theiner called “Peace is Over for the Baltic States,” he looks at what kinds of actions by the Baltic states make sense in terms of collaborative defense within the bounds of realistic expectations.

The key is not simply to wait for NATO’s so-called “rapid reaction force” to show up in time to view the Russian forces occupying the Baltic states.

Most importantly, the three Baltic nations need a modern medium range air-defense system and tanks. 

The air-defense systems currently in service, namely RBS-70, Mistral, Stinger and Grom man portable air defense systems (MANPADS) , do not reach higher than 4-5km and have a range of just 6-8 km. 

The three Baltic nations do not need a high-end long-range system like the SAMP/T or the MIM-104 Patriot.

What the core Nordic states (Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland) can do is create a more integrated air and naval defense.

If the Russians believed that the Nordics most affected by a Baltic action could trigger what other NATO nations can do, there is little incentive for them to do so.

This means leveraging the Baltic Air Patrol to shape a Northern region wide integrated air operations capability that the US, France, Germany and the UK can work with and plug into rapidly.

It is about modular, scalable force with significant reachback that would kill a Russian force in its tracks, and be so viewed from the outset by the Russians.

And because it is not based in the Baltics, but the air controllers could well be, it is part of the overall defensive defense approach.

Naval forces are crucial as well, not only to deal with Russian naval forces, but to support the Baltic operation as well. Modern amphibious forces are among the most useful assets to provide engagement capabilities, ranging from resupply, to air operations, to insertion forces at key choke points.

By not being based on Baltic territory, these forces are part of the overall defensive defense approach, and not credibly part of a forward deployed dagger at the heart of Russia argument that the Russian leadership will try to use if significant NATO forces were to be forward deployed upon Baltic territory itself.

Shaping an effective defensive template, leveraging collaborative Baltic efforts, with enhanced integrated air and naval forces will only get better as Western naval and air transformation occurs in the period ahead.

There are a number of key developments underway which can reinforce such a template.The first is the Dane’s acquiring the missiles to go with the sensors aboard their frigates and to position their frigates to provide area wide defensive capabilities which can be leveraged in the crisis.

The second is the acquisition of the F-35 by key states in the region whose integrated fleet can lay down a sensor grid with kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities, which can operate rapidly over the Baltic states by simply extending the airpower integration already envisaged in the defense of the region.

The Norwegians, the Dutch, and possibly the Danes and the Finns will all have F-35s and a completely integrated force which can rapidly be inserted without waiting for slower paced forces has to be taken seriously by Russia. There is no time gap within which the Russians can wedge their forces, for Norway and Denmark are not likely to stand by and watch the Russians do what they want in the Baltics. With the integrated F-35 fleet, they would need to wait on slower paced NATO deliberations to deploy significant force useable immediately in Baltic defenses.

The third is the coming UK carrier, which can provide a local core intervention capability to plug into the F-35 forces in the region and to add amphibious assault capability.

The fourth is that the USN-USMC team coming with F-35B and Osprey enabled assault forces can plug in rapidly as well.

The fifth is the evolving integration of air and naval systems. The long reach of Aegis enabled by F-35/Aegis integration can add a significant offensive/defensive capability to any reinforcement force, and the Norwegians are a local force that will have such a capability.

By leveraging current capabilities and reshaping the template for Baltic defense, the coming modernization efforts will only enhance the viability of the template and significantly enhance credible deterrence, rather than doing what RT referred to scornfully as “US troops drills in Baltic states is more a political than military show.”

A key advantage of the approach is that it is led by the Nordics and gets away from the Russian game of making this always about the US and the “US-led” Alliance.

Putin and his ilk can play this game, but European led capabilities are crucial to reshaping Russian expectations about how non-Americans view their aggression as well.