Scandinavia is boosting its defense spending even as Sweden’s NATO entry is stalled

Scandinavia is boosting its defense spending even as Sweden’s NATO entry is stalled

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After a needless two-month delay, the Turkish Grand National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs Committee finally approved Sweden’s application for NATO membership earlier this week. But Fuad Oktay, the committee’s chairman, made it clear that full parliamentary ratification was still some time away. Since the parliament, like the committee, is controlled by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AK party, Sweden’s NATO accession will continue to depend on the whim of the Turkish leader. 

For his part, Erdogan continues to demand that Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Ben Cardin finally approve the sale to Turkey of both F-16 fighters and upgrade kits for F-1s already in the Turkish Air Force, and that Canada should do the same with respect to the sale of drone cameras. More than 19 months have passed since Stockholm first applied for NATO membership. Since there has thus far been little movement on these issues either in Washington or Ottawa, the question of when Sweden actually will join NATO thus remains very much up in the air.

Even as Swedish entry remains in abeyance, however, Washington has worked with Stockholm to continue the process of ever closer military cooperation that began more than a decade ago.

Early in December, Swedish Defense Minister Pal Jonson and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin signed a new Defense Cooperation Agreement that, in the words of the Swedish defense ministry, regulates “issues such as … access to deployment areas, pre-positioning of military materiel, and … creates conditions for US military support should the security situation demand it, and is therefore an agreement of great consequence to Sweden’s security.” The State Department has also pointed out that “by design, the DCA will apply seamlessly before and after Sweden’s accession to the NATO Status of Forces Agreement.”

The agreement with Sweden followed upon a Defense Cooperation Agreement that the United States had reached with Norway in 2021. And last week, Washington signed two more such agreements, with new NATO member Finland and with Denmark, one of NATO’s longest-standing members. Both of these agreements provided for more joint training and enhanced interoperability between the American military and its Scandinavian counterparts. 

Improved interoperability has long been a NATO objective. It has yet to be fully realized, in part because of what one expert described as “technological disparities, command and control, doctrinal differences, and resource gaps.” Those words were written nearly a decade ago; whether the new agreements can lead to progress in this regard is therefore still an open question.

On the other hand, the commitment on the part of both the U.S. and its Scandinavians allies and partners to increased joint training and exercises sends an important message to Moscow regarding NATO’s determination to deter Russian aggression in the Baltic region. Moreover, the Scandinavians are underscoring that message with new undertakings to increase their defense spending. In June, the Norwegian government announced that defense spending would reach the NATO target of 2 percent of gross domestic product by 2026, a real increase of some 45 percent over 2023 levels.

In September, the Swedish defense ministry announced that its 2024 defense budget would increase by 28 percent over the previous year’s, enabling Sweden to meet the NATO percent target that very year. The Swedish increase is especially noteworthy as 2024 defense spending will also result in a doubling of the defense budget in just four years. 

In October, Finland announced its own 5 percent increase in defense spending. Helsinki’s defense spending already had virtually reached the 2 percent threshold in 2022; the 2024 defense budget would amount to 2.3 percent of GDP. A significant portion of that budget is to be allocated to security along Finland’s 832 mile land border with Russia — the longest in NATO.

The upgrade in border defense is in response to new Russian construction at the Petrozavodsk base in Karelia, about 110 miles from the Finnish town of Kitee; it is perhaps no coincidence that a month after its budget announcement, Finland closed its border with Russia in order to prevent an influx of migrants that Helsinki asserted were part of Moscow’s hybrid warfare operations to destabilize the country.

Denmark is lagging behind its Scandinavian neighbors in reaching NATO’s 2 percent target — it will only do so in a decade’s time. Nevertheless, it has committed to annual increases of $3 billion over the next decade. And, just as it has roused itself from its defense budget torpor in the aftermath of the 2021 Russian invasion of Ukraine, Denmark could well accelerate its plans to reach NATO’s spending goal. Perhaps its latest agreement with the U.S. will act as a spur in that regard. 

The latest round of agreements with Washington, coupled with the efforts by the Scandinavian states to boost their defense spending, are both timely and welcome. Moreover, in conjunction with the agreements reached this month, all three Scandinavian states recommitted themselves to support Ukraine. These commitments are especially heartening given the Biden administration’s challenging struggle to win more funding for aid to Ukraine in Congress. 

Many on Capitol Hill who oppose such aid point to Europe’s unwillingness to spend money to defend itself. Perhaps the latest budgetary efforts on the part of America’s Nordic and Baltic friends and allies will convince at least some otherwise skeptical legislators that — thanks to Vladimir Putin — more European states have at last hit an inflection point on defense spending while maintaining their support for Kyiv. Given these developments, perhaps those lawmakers will recognize that now would be the worst possible time for America to be seen as backsliding from its hitherto solid support for Kyiv’s fight for its continued freedom and independence.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was undersecretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy undersecretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

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