A Comparison: Norway and the UK. Why is Norway ‘stronger’ than us?
STEVE COLTMAN OCTOBER 2021
In the 2021 copy of Defence UK’s publication ‘ProPatria’ I wrote an article about Scotland’s defence, referencing Norway. The purpose of that article was to challenge the SNP into justifying their apparently laissez-faire attitude to defence by comparing it with the rather more robust approach of their near-neighbour Norway. This article puts the spotlight on Norway for quite a different reason. The ProPatria article emphasised that Norway has quite impressive armed forces for a country of its size, so I wondered how their armed forces, GDP and population compared with ours, pro-rata. The UK does not come out of this comparison very well, as we will see. The basics are:
Norway: Defence Spending: $7.514bn. Population (2020): 5.38m (2020) Percentage of GDP 2020: 1.9% Spending per capita: $1.397
UK: Defence Spending: $58.485bn, Population (2020): 67.22m. Percentage of GDP: 2%. Spending per capita: $870
So, the UK has a significantly smaller defence budget per capita than Norway, indicating that Norway’s GDP is much higher per capita than ours, something to be born in mind throughout this thought exercise. What this article will concentrate on, however, is value for money – how much ‘bang for the buck’ does each country get for its defence budget?
The UK’s defence budget is 7.8X bigger than that of Norway. It might be simplistic to say that our armed forces should therefore be 7.8X bigger than Norway’s but let’s run with that idea to start with:
The Norwegian Navy has four major surface combatants (it had five, but one was lost in an accident, although it had been paid for, so let’s call it 4.5). Pro rata the Royal Navy should have 35 major surface combatants. It actually has 12 frigates (one was recently decommissioned) and six destroyers, plus two aircraft carriers and five big amphibious warfare craft. I am including the three Bay class here although they are operated by the civilian Royal Fleet Auxiliary. 25 vessels, albeit two are big aircraft carriers.
The Norwegian Navy has six small submarines (with four replacements planned). 7.8X this latter number is 31 submarines. It’s hard to compare Norway’s smaller conventional submarines with the RN’s big nuclear boats but 7 of the latter don’t compare well with 31 of the former. (I am not including our four SSBNs here, the nuclear deterrent is another issue, and the new Norwegian subs are not that small either, at 3,000 tonnes submerged).
The Norwegian Navy also has four mine counter-measures vessels; the RN has eleven (not thirty-one!). Norway has six fast attack craft (they call them corvettes). The RN has no coastal combatants at all. The RN has eight patrol craft against Norway’s fifteen coastguard vessels, and seven big replenishment ships against Norway’s one. One can confidently assert that, SSNs and aircraft carriers not withstanding, the Royal Navy is definitely not 7.8X bigger and more powerful that that of Norway, even if we are not exactly comparing like with like.
The Norwegian Army has one heavy mechanised brigade and two battalion-sized combat units plus a 40,000-strong conscripted militia: “Brigade North will be developed with four manoeuvre battalions and with tactical and logistical support. The manoeuvre battalions will be equipped with new main battle tanks, mobile air defence systems and long-range precisions fire.” (The defence of Norway - Capability and readiness LONG TERM DEFENCE PLAN 2020)
Brigade North currently has a single battalion with 36 tanks but these will be replaced with brand new tanks, either the Korean K2 or the German Leopard 2A7. It will not be upgrading its existing tanks as the UK is doing. Brigade North will also have 24 K9 self-propelled howitzers from S Korea.
The arithmetic is simple enough:
7.8 x 36 is 280 tanks but the British Army has no-where near that number. The plan is to reduce the British tank fleet to about 120, two tank battalions in two armoured infantry brigades.
7.8 x 24 self-propelled guns is 187 but the British Army has no-where near that number either. It has just two artillery battalions, one for each armoured infantry brigade with, currently, 18 AS-90 self-propelled guns each. The army will have spare guns as well, of course, but 7.8 x 24 is still 187!
The British Army is also due to have two (?) Strike Brigades, equipped with the modern Boxer and Ajax armoured vehicles but not with tanks and only with towed light guns according to a recent news article. Pro-rata the Norwegian Army is far stronger than the British Army, even when you factor in the British Army’s lighter infantry units and the Navy’s Commandos. The Norwegian militia is not, qualitatively, the same sort of thing as Britain’s Army Reserve but the difference in numbers is still remarkable. Pro-rata to population the Norwegian Home Guard is the equivalent of half a million soldiers. Britain’s reserve forces number little more than 10% of that number.
Air Forces: It does not get much better when you compare air forces I’m afraid. Again quoting the Norwegian Defence Ministry’s own document their Air Force will be:
The first of these is NASAMS II, “The National Advanced Surface to Air Missile System (NASAMS) is a medium-range, network-centric air defence system designed and developed jointly by Raytheon and Kongsberg Defence & Aerospace, primarily for the Royal Norwegian Air Force (RNoAF). The primary weapon of the system is AIM-120 AMRAAM.” (source: airforce-technology). The document does not say how many launchers Norway has but a single battery consists of three six-round launchers and a battalion consists of three batteries. The UK equivalent of this is the ground-launched version of CAMM, but the RAF has, at present, no surface-to-air missiles at all and only one battery seems to be on order, for the Army, to defend the Falklands. It’s not as if we had no targets worth defending however (Lossiemouth, Faslane, Coningsby, Marham, Devonport, Portsmouth, GCHQ, I could go on, and on…..)
52 F-35A fighters, multiplied by 7.8 is over 400! The RAF has 160 Typhoons of which the 53 Tranche 1s are considered surplus to requirements and scheduled for disposal in 2025. The RAF and the RN have 48 F-35Bs on order but up to 138 may possibly be ordered, or maybe not. The final total is not yet known but I think we can all agree the RAF won’t be flying 400+ fast jets any time soon.
(The Tranche 1 Typhoons came into service in 2003 so most will be less than 20 years old when disposed of. “The UK's recently revealed plan to prematurely retire its Tranche 1 Eurofighter Typhoon combat aircraft will see the fleet axed with more than half of its airframe fatigue life remaining.” Source – Janes.) There was recently a magazine article featuring a ‘brand-new” Japanese F-15 Eagle fighter outside the Mitsubishi plant. Except it was not brand new. Some of the systems inside it were, like the radar, but the airframe was 40 years old. Are the Japanese mad or is the RAF mad?
Norway will have five P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol planes, the RAF is receiving nine, not 39.
Electronic warfare, OK, I think we will have to concede the RAF is probably superior here, absolutely and relatively.
4 x C-130J Super-Hercules: the RAF is (again prematurely) disposing of its entire C-130J fleet and gaining 22 A-400M’s. It’s about evens here, 22 A-400Ms is a similar capability to 31 C-130Js. The RAF also has C-17 heavy lifters and MRTT tankers but Norway has access to similar shared assets as well.
14 NH90 Maritime Helicopters. Once again, applying the 7.8x multiplier we would have a fleet of 109 machines. The UK has nowhere near that number. In Britain’s case, maritime helicopters are operated by the Navy, not the RAF. The RN has 28 of the smaller Wildcat and originally had 44 of the larger Merlins but now only operates 30 of them.
Tactical Transport helicopters: The Navy has 22 Merlin HC2 and the RAF have about 60 Chinook heavy-lift helicopters and 24 Puma medium helicopters, giving a total of 106 machines. Pro-rata Norway would have to purchase about 14 machines to match these numbers, so we can be satisfied that so far as transport helicopters are concerned, we need not be embarrassed about the size of our current fleet.
SAR Helicopters: 16 Norwegian Merlins are equivalent to, pro-rata, 125 machines for the UK. We have no-where near this number (nor, probably, any need for that number). In the UK SAR has in any case been outsourced to civilian companies. You might have thought the armed services needed some kind of combat search and rescue capability though.
This is the end of the painful comparisons. It is clear to anybody that, although the UK has a bigger defence budget than Norway, we don’t have bigger conventional armed forces pro-rata. No-where near in fact. So what is the explanation? I can only offer suggestions; others may have other ideas as well:
1. The UK has a nuclear deterrent of course. It has been argued that the cost of this deterrent over its entire lifetime is not a big percentage of the total defence budget but right now it is costing £30-40bn just to build four submarines let alone all the other costs. This must he hurting the conventional forces.
2. Norway has conscription, especially into the Army that is about 50% conscripts. These are inexpensive compared with professionals and contract soldiers.
3. The UK, especially the RAF, has a distressing tendency to buy expensive kit only to throw it away. I have referred above to the waste of the Typhoon tranche 1 fleet, and the C-130Js. Don’t get me started on the “over a hundred….sent for disassembly” Tornado F-3s (actually more like 130, scrapped, when just over 20 years old). The MoD/RAF/Treasury have behaved in a manner that no other country would. You can search high and low for an example of another country behaving like this, and the search would be in vain. The RN and the Army are not above criticism in this respect either.
4. 2010 Defence cuts. It has been claimed that a 10% cut in the budget resulted in a 25% cut in front-line combat capability. I think this is an example of a larger problem. To spend money efficiently it is necessary to make realistic plans then stick to them. Chopping and changing defence plans simply squanders money. A defence cut saves money not yet spent by wasting money already spent.
5. Operational costs: The UK has been heavily involved in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although the operational costs are supposed to have been paid for separately it is not impossible to imagine that these operations might have adversely affected the armed forces. However, this author does not have a complete explanation for why we spend so much on defence but have so little to show for it.
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