11 March 2021

Defence efforts in Northern Europe should focus on the near term

Russia’s means of power are limited compared to those of a united Western alliance, but the country could still pose a serious threat on NATO’s eastern flank. At the same time, Western defence efforts are likely to be constrained in the coming years. Improvements in the defence of Northern Europe should therefore focus on the near term, while still keeping an eye on the future. Relatively limited and inexpensive measures could make a considerable difference, according to researchers from FOI.

Soldiers on a tank

US Marines prepare their M1 Abrams tank to take part in an exercise to capture an airfield as part of the Trident Juncture 2018, a NATO-led military exercise, on November 1, 2018 near the town of Oppdal, Norway. Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP.

In 2017, FOI researchers conducted a first comprehensive analysis of Western countries’ military capability to handle threats in Northern Europe. In this new report, Western Military Capability in Northern Europe 2020, FOI has performed a first cut, net assessment of the force balance between the West and Russia.

“The aim is to identify important characteristics of the force balance with respect to relative strengths and weaknesses. We also suggest some keys to improving Western defence of Northern Europe,” says Krister Pallin, Deputy Research Director and co-editor of the report.

The report consists of two parts. Part I examines the changing security landscape in Northern Europe, NATO’s common preparations for collective defence, Western and Russian fighting power, and the results of a war game. Part II charts the defence efforts and military capability of Denmark, Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, and of the United States presence in Europe.

The West needs to show solidarity in handling Russia and other threats

If the Western alliance stays united politically and coordinates its defence efforts, most security threats will remain manageable. It is vital to organise defence collectively, improve the necessary military capabilities and be able to take decisions in a crisis. However, this may prove difficult, with 30 democracies having to agree.

“The diverging threat perceptions of the Western countries are unlikely to disappear and may affect the ability to reach an agreement to counter Russian actions. This is why regional and bilateral cooperation formats are fundamental to ensuring rapid response and support to threatened allies. The US is now shifting its long-term priority towards Asia, and European allies need to take a greater responsibility for collective defence. However, in the short- to medium-term, there is no substitute for an active and firm US commitment to European security,” says Eva Hagström Frisell, Deputy Research Director and the other editor of the report.

The West needs a broad set of capabilities, at a decent readiness level, rather than larger forces

The West’s major military problem is that Russia enjoys greater availability of its armed forces and may launch a quick attack on the eastern flank before NATO has had time to react. In addition, the attack may look very different on different parts of the flank.

“The West needs to be able to counter threats rapidly and credibly across the spectrum of conflict, in joint operations on land, at sea and in the air, as well as in space and cyberspace. At the same time, it may be sufficient to increase Russia’s risk or costs in attacking. Relatively small measures could have a deterrent effect and also improve Western odds in the event of open conflict. Functioning command and control, well-developed planning and good exercises are among the most effective, and rather inexpensive, measures for improving Western collective defence,” says Krister Pallin.

The West needs to prioritise capability in the short term

Russia’s possibilities for military aggression against the West are more apparent in the near term, as the West has embarked on a clear but slow improvement of collective defence, while Russia’s military capability is expected to reach a plateau in the 2020s.

“Long-term investments in collective defence are also necessary, but they do not satisfy the needs of countering Russia in the short term. While Western military expenditures have increased since 2014, additional large rises are unlikely in the near term, primarily due to diverging perceptions of the defence needs. Just bringing order to parts of the current force structures will require much of the available resources,” according to Krister Pallin.

As in the previous edition of Western Military Capability, from 2017, the present report states that there is a risk of a Russian armed attack, but does not discuss the probability of such an attack. Furthermore, the report does not cover Swedish military capability in detail, nor the consequences of the status of Western defence or of an armed conflict in the region, for Swedish security and defence policy.