by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
Norway’s military is one of the best-funded in Europe, but according to the general who used to run it, the armed service is setting itself up for a war it’s sure to lose without major reforms to the conscription system and how the military selects its officers.
The general, who was Norway’s top officer from 2005-2009, is careful to say he doesn’t think Norway should abolish conscription altogether. The Norwegian military right now only uses a limited conscription model. Young people of both genders are conscripted, but only 14.5 percent of those called in 2012 were ultimately conscripted for one year of service, or 9,265 conscripts out of more than 63,800 examined. (Oslo also extended conscription to women in June, the first European state to do so.) Though it’s still a conscript-heavy force. Norway’s military has around 24,000 people serving in total.
But according to Diesen, who authored a report from Oslo think-tank Civita, conscription isn’t a very good model for fighting the kinds of wars Norway might find itself embroiled in the future. “We have a situation where an armed conflict in our own neighborhood probably will be limited both in time, space and power input, compared to the old invasion scenario,” he writes.
A conflict will likely erupt quickly and unexpectedly, but not threaten Norwegian sovereignty or survival as a nation as during the 20th century, which provoked a national conscript force. He doesn’t explicitly mention a threat from Russia, but he does raise two possible future conflicts: one over Svalbard in the Arctic Ocean and another over Arctic oil resources — wars that would function more as “coercive diplomacy.” The foe, obviously, is Russia.
Fighting an Arctic war would be high-tech. Diesen sketches out a scenario where an aggressor tries to immediately knock out Norwegian air bases, such as Ørland Main Air Station in central Norway, with an overwhelming surprise attack targeting the runways. Norway’s last line of defense would be the Norwegian-built NASAMS air-defense system, which “for long periods each year we do not have trained manpower to operate these systems, because anti-aircraft units are mainly staffed by conscripts.” Conscripts are called up, trained for a limited period of time, and then demobilized, only for a new batch to take their place.
This is a “massive waste of social resources” compared to a professional military class. Diesen also argues it’s unethical to use conscripts in a war where they will knowingly suffer heavy casualties as a result of inadequate training implicit in a conscription-based model.
“Defense is in a dysfunctional state. We are spending money on advanced weapons systems, but military conscripts only get to train on these systems for short periods. This training period is becoming shorter as it takes increasingly longer to ensure that soldiers are capable of using these modern weapons systems,” Diesen wrote.
It’s getting more so. Norway’s defense budget of $6.9 billion in 2012 is the highest per capita in Europe, and Oslo is investing heavily in advanced weapons systems like the F-35.
The conscription model also relies on an extended period where troops can be called up, organized and eventually sent out to fight. That’s time Norway can’t afford to take for granted. Instead of a week, the Norwegian military might only have one or two days.
Norway may also again have to react to lone wolf threats similar to that of Anders Breivik, a neo-fascist who killed 77 people in July 2011 through attacks on the Norwegian government and a youth camp for the Norwegian Labour Party. Highly-trained counter-terrorist units may not be able to prevent such attacks, but could respond more rapidly than conscript troops.
Diesen has powerful opponents. Norway’s defense minister, Anne-Grete Strøm-Erichsen, endorsed keeping conscription at a recent Oslo summit. “We need to maintain a strong emphasis on how we recruit, develop and retain the right skills,” she said, according to Defense News, which first picked up Diesen’s report. “There is a broad political backing for conscription as the basis for our recruitment. Conscription for both men and women will give us a better defense.”
Strøm-Erichsen also warned against over-reliance on professionalization. Conscription provides “continuity and recruitment,” she added, ensuring the armed forces stay at stable levels.
The conscription model has deep roots in European conceptions of statehood and a democratic polity — as opposed to the pre-Napoleonic rule of kings backed up by small bands of armed elites. Norway, being small, mountainous and thinly-populated, was also amenable to conscription as a practical means of defense.
Thus, according to Diesen, conscription is widely accepted across political lines, but the debate around the policy is limited to “whether it should be extended to apply to both sexes. Interest in and knowledge of the serious … economic and ethical weaknesses of the current military model — as it should be objectively debated — is almost non-existent.”
Likewise, conscripts make poor peacekeepers, Diesen writes. Norway has deployed troops to Afghanistan, and has contingents in South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other nations. To reduce the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder, “it is also essential that departments that have been through combat operations continues to remain as a social group even after they return to Norway,” he writes, as opposed to being “dissolved immediately after return.”
More than limited conscription, Diesen thinks the Norwegian military should create a corps of experienced non-commissioned officers, or Unteroffiziere. There’s a sense there may be some resistance to this idea, as it creates the perception of class distinctions within the military.
This is worth taking seriously. Diesen’s solution is calling the Unteroffiziers corps under a different name, which comes off as sounding merely cosmetic. Their absence, however, means Norway’s forces will continue to lack the “backbone of military organizations in other countries.”