Adjusting Military Forces to the New Security Environment, the Case of Three ‘Middle Powers’: Australia, The Netherlands and Norway

Adjusting Military Forces to the New Security Environment, the Case of Three ‘Middle Powers’: Australia, The Netherlands and Norway

Theme: This paper provides an overview of the military policies designed and implemented by three mid-sized countries in the context of the current international security environment.

Summary: The ‘transformation’ of military forces into modern and effective tools for providing security in a changing world is a key concern for states and international organizations. Some ‘middle powers’, with limited resources but willing to play a role in contributing to security, are adapting their forces to face new and challenging threats and the demands of closer cooperation within alliances and coalitions. This paper provides an overview of the policies designed and implemented by three mid-sized countries as relevant examples of the ongoing global debate about adjusting national armed forces’ strategies and capabilities to the current international security environment. These case studies are interesting examples of how national political will and decision making remain the key driving forces behind any such modernisation process.


Western ‘Middle Powers’: Struggling for a Relevant Role in the Current International Security Environment?
The concept of ‘middle power’ used here is based on both empirical and qualitative factors. In population and economic terms, Australia and The Netherlands rank closely, which translates into quite similar defence budgets and armed forces.[1] Both countries are a significant step behind the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy in terms of economic might and military capabilities. Other countries that could be considered ‘middle powers’ based on economic parameters and size of the defence budget would be Canada and Spain, despite significant differences in other relevant criteria such as, for example, population and the number of armed forces personnel.

Based on the aforementioned criteria, Norway would hardly qualify as a ‘middle power’: its GDP, defence budget and armed forces are roughly half the size of the other two countries’.[2] Nevertheless, Norway’s role in peacemaking efforts in different regions such as the Middle East and Sri Lanka shows a level of participation in world politics above its size measured in merely quantitative terms. Also, Norway’s military engagement in Afghanistan might have come as a surprise, but it may just be an indication of a new approach to international affairs that finds further resonance in the country’s 2004 National Strategic Concept. As discussed below, the changes in Norway’s understanding of the role of its military forces, together with its history of relevant engagement in world affairs and its position as a non-EU European member of NATO, make it an interesting case study.

As witnessed in the recent Informal Meeting of NATO Defence Ministers (Taormina, Italy, 9-10 February 2006), ‘transformation’ is the current buzzword in discussions about the future of the armed forces. The term as such refers to the changes needed to adapt the military to the new security environment.[3] This process involves more than just acquiring technologically advanced weaponry and equipment and has significant impact on the decision making, organizational and operational levels by referring to ideas and concepts such as co-operation and integration among national military units and bodies and international organizations. Even though there is some degree of consensus about specific issues (such, as for example, the need to strengthen European military capabilities), the areas for actual or potential disagreement are substantial and originate at the very core of the topic. The expression ‘international security’ can and is understood differently based on the referent for which security is to be provided (the state, societies or individuals) and on the nature of the threats being confronted (traditional military warfare, asymmetric conflict with terrorist groups or environmental crisis, among others). The understanding of international security by national decision and policy makers will have a significant impact on the measures taken to transform the military forces. The plans adopted by international organizations (such as, for example, NATO’s Prague Capabilities Commitment and Response Force or the EU’s Capability Acton Plan, the European Reaction Force and the EU Battlegroups) also play an important role as a framework in which to develop national strategies.

Budget constraints and the need for interoperability among forces engaging in multi-lateral military interventions are also key parameters to consider in assessing transformation alternatives and processes. To some extent, these factors are trends that might be subject to change. Some countries have indeed increased their military expenditures in recent years and agreed to develop and/or purchase advanced and expensive military equipment but, with the exception of the US (whose military budget has increased by 35% since 2001), it is difficult to envisage substantial increases in other Western countries. Similarly, and despite the unilateral US intervention in Iraq, future military actions undertaken by Western countries will require effective joint operations between different national armed forces.

In the current international security environment, ‘middle powers’ are faced with three key issues regarding their military forces. First, define or, at least, prioritise what constitutes a threat to their security. Second, set the guiding principles for countering those threats and for the nation’s role in providing security at the international or global sphere. Third, transform the armed forces to the extent possible based on the resources available and the compromises acquired within the international organisations they belong to. In an increasingly complex, globalised and challenging world, ‘middle powers’ need to shape their armed forces as effective tools to provide security to their populations, protect and advance their national interests and foreign policies and remain useful and reliable allies and coalition partners in multilaterally undertaken missions.

Australia: Strengthening its Expeditionary Forces Beyond an Already Dangerous Neighbourhood
The recently released Defence Update[4] (December 2005) maps out Australia’s understanding of international security as a combination of perceived threats (especially terrorism, WMD proliferation and failed or failing states) and regional or geopolitical considerations (terrorist networks based on or operating in Indonesia or the Philippines, North Korea’s claim to possess nuclear weapons, instability in Pakistan, outright risk of state failure in Papua New Guinea, the rise of China and, to a lesser extent, India as a global and regional power, among others). The document also demonstrates Australia’s global approach to its security by, for example, rightly linking it to the achievement of peace in the Middle East.

Australia’s wide and deep understanding of security translates into assigning its armed forces with significant roles across the broad spectrum of security threats, including counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation efforts. Similarly, the transnational nature of the security threats leads to emphasising the global force projection role of the Australian Defence Forces (ADF), its expeditionary character and the flexibility required to engage in the full spectrum of potential missions from humanitarian assistance to high end fighting. Further underpinning Australia’s commitment to international security, the new Defence Update highlights the need for regional cooperation in military affairs and stresses the importance of its alliance with the United States. Maintaining close relations with the United States has been a constant goal of all Australian governments since the 1950s[5] and its latest examples include the dispatching of fighting forces to Iraq and Afghanistan. On strictly military terms, the reinforcement of the alliance with the US translates not only into further commitment to the ‘war on terror’ but also into increasing interoperability among both forces.

Australia’s complex, yet precise, definition of the regional and global threats to its security and to the advancement of its national interests and its ambitious regional and global goals are both the background and the driving force behind the transformation of its armed forces. A key strategy in such a transformation process is the strengthening of the Army’s fighting and support capabilities, articulated in a 10-year plan under the self-explanatory name of ‘The Hardened and Networked Army’.[6] Additional Navy and Air Force programmes are aimed at providing the ADF with the mobility and sustainability that is deemed necessary for its goals and missions (for example, amphibious ships and airlift capability).

The Netherlands: Are Current Budget Constraints Undermining Earlier Transformation Efforts?
In the early 1990s, the Dutch armed forces underwent a dramatic restructuring process.[7] Strategically, the focus was shifted from defending NATO territory to force projection and expeditionary missions. The armed forces were to contribute in both combat operations and other less risky interventions such as peacekeeping or stabilisation missions. Such an ambitious double goal required the procurement of a wide range of equipment including strategic lift assets. In order to finance such a far-reaching restructuring process while still reducing the defence budget, manpower was reduced by 50% and conscription dropped. The resulting armed forces were of high quality, with broad land, air and sea deployable capabilities that could participate in diverse expeditionary missions.

Currently, and after sustained defence budget reductions, moving on from restructuring to transformation into networked armed forces seems a difficult goal to achieve. Transformation requires substantial upfront investments in technology and software. These short-term expenses can be set at 30% of the defence budget, above the 20%-25% that analysts predict The Netherlands will spend on procurement and research and development.[8]

Despite the continuous reductions in defence expenditures, Dutch policy- and decision-makers continue to set high goals for the country’s armed forces. For example, in September 2003,[9] while at the same time announcing a 5% cut in the 2004 defence budget and an 11.000 reduction in personnel, a set of security policy guiding principles were drafted. These guidelines were based on a global view of security that acknowledged the existence of new threats such as WMD proliferation and the rise in instability in many parts of the world. Furthermore, the Dutch government concluded that engaging in countries beyond Europe would strengthen The Netherlands’ national security, including interventions at the early stages of a crisis. Additionally, and in what represented setting more ambitious goals than in the 1990s, the Dutch armed forces should be able to perform high end fighting expeditionary missions lasting up to one year. In line with this strategy, the Dutch armed forces have recently been deployed to both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Norway: ‘The Reason for Having a Defence is Using It’
So said the Defence Minister when Norwegian F-16s and Special Forces were sent to Afghanistan as part of the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. On 27 January 2003, the fighter jets dropped two bombs over Afghanistan, in what represented the first official Norwegian live round fired at an enemy since 1945. Beyond the symbolic nature of such a statement, Norway’s mission to Afghanistan represented a significant change in the country’s security and defence strategy. The new National Strategic Concept[10] published in October 2004 confirmed the wider role of the Norwegian Armed Forces (NAF) as an instrument of security policy beyond its anti-invasion character during the Cold War years.

Norway’s National Strategic Concept is built around a set of considerations about the current concept of security, two of which are worth highlighting. The first refers to the explicit acknowledgement that the most likely threat to Norway’s security is posed by limited strikes from state and non-state actors. 9/11 and the many terrorist attacks thereafter clearly provide the background for this conclusion. This type of limited strikes is considered not only as a threat to the state’s security but, embracing a broad and non-traditional view of the concept of security, as a threat to societal security. Secondly, and referring to the 1999 intervention in Kosovo, the document introduces the concept of human security, understood as protecting the individual’s most basic human rights.

Under this understanding of security, Norway’s interests are also broadly defined to include challenges to the welfare of the Norwegian people as well as threats to international law, human rights, democracy and the rule of law, economic security and the environment. Having stressed Norway’s determination to use military force to defend its fundamental security interests, the NAF is also assigned the role of safeguarding the country’s freedom of action in pursuing its security policy.

While stressing the need for a global perspective on security, special attention is paid to two regional considerations. First, a multilateral approach with regards to the relations with Russia is considered as the most appropriate (through, for example, the NATO-Russia Council). Second, protecting the oil and gas resources in the North Sea is considered a key Norwegian interest.

NATO membership is a defining parameter in Norway’s security policy with significant influence in the strategic, political and operational thinking regarding the country’s military forces. NATO is seen as the preferred forum for transatlantic dialogue and consultation on security issues as well as the framework in which Norway’s armed forces should develop its capabilities. In addition to the goal of achieving full information sharing and transmitting capabilities (a networked force), the Defence Concept stresses the need to specialise in certain military duties (a niche force). Both of these operational guidelines are aimed at contributing relevant, flexible and interoperable military capabilities to NATO.

The EU’s growing role in security and defence matters represents an interesting challenge for Norway. By acknowledging the steps taken by the member states in developing a common policy and engaging in some of its most tangible and visible initiatives (through a commitment to participate in one of the 13 EU Battlegroups together with Sweden and Finland), Norway is pursuing a coherent policy of regional security cooperation, despite the fact that its influence on the strategic guidance of EU operations will be limited.


Overcoming Security Uncertainties Through National Initiatives Aimed at Increased Military Cooperation Among Allies
Defence and security policymaking is as important for any state as it is difficult. Our traditional understanding of the threats to national and international security has been seriously challenged since the end of the Cold War and in the post-9/11 world. In fact, even the distinction between national and international security can be questioned. For ‘middle powers’, while the demands go beyond the already challenging task of providing security for its populations, the resources available to meet them are limited both financially and, in the case of the armed forces, operationally.

This paper has provided a brief overview of the strategies and policies designed and implemented by three Western mid-sized countries facing a relatively similar international security environment. The different nature and circumstances of their responses provide us with some interesting insights into some of the challenges posed to ‘middle powers’.

First, the realisation that, in an increasingly interconnected world, conflict, tension or instability in countries and regions geographically distant can represent threats to western ‘middle powers’ should lead to a truly global view of security. As in the case of Norway, whose understanding of security during the Cold War had been focused on the threat of invasion by an enemy superpower, expanding the perceptions of security is a necessary first step.

Second, asymmetric violence, including terrorism and insurgency, are the methods of fighting that armed forces are going to face both in the homeland and abroad. This type of warfare requires specific capabilities, both human and material, that middle powers should acquire and sustain accordingly. Decisions about the procurement of expensive new equipment should be taken carefully since they will be subject to analysis and criticism. In the case of Australia,[11] the plans to procure new amphibious vessels and Abrams tanks for strengthening the expeditionary nature of the ground forces are seen by some analysts as too expensive and as the result of pressure from the Army. Additionally, long-term military planning must carefully assess the ability to meet the long-term operating and maintenance costs of increasingly sophisticated capabilities. Again in the case of Australia, doubts have been raised about the long term financing of the Joint Strike Fighter or new destroyers.

Third, limited financial resources call for closer cooperation among national armed forces as much as strategic considerations. Both NATO and the EU have performed capability assessments that point at weaknesses across most of the operational needs of modern and effective armed forces. In the case of European armed forces, the consequences of the current lack in capabilities are worrying: only 3%-4% of European forces are expeditionary deployable.[12] Some of the alternatives for covering the gaps refer to restructuring and reallocating assets (for example: closing bases or shifting financing to increase flexibility as performed by The Netherlands) and pooling of support services (as in the case of the joint aircraft sharing agreement whereby The Netherlands is responsible for maintenance and Germany for training).

Last, national policy and decision making continues to be key in transforming the armed forces of ‘middle powers’. The understanding of security subscribed to by any two countries might differ from each other as much as those by two analysts or scholars. Nevertheless, and as Norway’s Strategic Concept remarks, ‘a static way of thinking and an exaggerated focus on selected historical events might render us vulnerable to those who think broader or more innovatively than we do’. International organizations or alliances provide useful mechanisms to transform national armed forces through cooperation and joint planning and, given the significant deficit in capabilities, should welcome efforts by individual nations willing to undertake specific strategies such as specialising or developing niche forces.

Roger Cabrera
The University of Saint Andrews (Scotland)

[1] Basic economic and military figures. Australia: population 20 million, GDP US$598bn, per capita US$30,059 (2004), defence budget US$11.6bn (2004) and US$13.2bn (2005), active forces 52,872. The Netherlands: population 16.4 million, GDP US$575bn, per capita US$35,255 (2004), defence budget US$9.46bn (2004) and US$9.7bn (2005), active forces 53,130. The International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 2005-2006, Routledge, London, 2005.

[2] Basic economic and military figures. Norway: population 4.5 million, GDP US$243bn (2004), per capita US$53,305, defence budget US$4.25bn (2004) and US$4.69bn (2005), active forces 25,800. The International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 2005-2006, Routledge, London, 2005.

[3] For more detailed analysis of what transformation means for the armed forces see, for example: William Hopkinson, Sizing and Shaping European Armed Forces, SIPRI, March 2004, (accessed 15 February 2006); Klaus Naumann and General Joseph Ralston, European Defence Integration: Bridging the Gap Between Strategy and Capabilities, Center for Strategic and International Studies, October 2005, (accessed 15 February 2006); and Michael Codner, Hanging Together. Military Interoperability in an Era of Technological Innovation, Whitehall Paper 56, 2003.

[4] Australian Government. Department of Defence, Australia’s National Security. A Defence Update 2005 (accessed 15 February 2006).

[5] For a comprehensive analysis of the Australia-United States relationship, see Peter Edwards, Permanent Friends? Historical Reflections on the Australian-American Alliance, Lowy Institute for International Policy, 2005, (accessed 15 February 2006).

[6] Australian Government. Department of Defence, The Hardened and Networked Army, (accessed 15 February 2006).

[7] Rob de Wijk, ‘The Implications for Force Transformation: The Small Country Perspective’, in D.S. Hamilton (ed), Transatlantic Transformations: Equipping NATO for the 21st Century, Centre for Transatlantic Relations, John Hopkins University, Washington, 2004, (accessed 15 February 2005).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Dutch Advisory Council on International Affairs, The Netherlands and Crisis Management, March 2004, (accessed 15 February 2006).

[10] Norwegian Ministry of Defence, Strategic Concept for the Norwegian Armed Forces, October 2004, (accessed 15 February 2006).

[11] The future of Australia’s armed forces has been the subject of debate in the Australian press and research institutions. See, for example, Hugh White, ‘Khaki Reshuffle Adds Little to Military’s Role’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 20 December 2005; Alan Dupont, ‘We Have to Bring Out the Big Guns’, The Australian, 29 November 2005; Aldo Burgo and Mark Thomson, Reviewing the Defence Capability Plan 2004-2014. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, February 2004; Mark Thomson, Punching Above Our Weight? Australia as a Middle Power, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, August 2004; and Mark Thomson, Crunch Time: Planning Australia’s Future Defence Force, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, November 2005.

[12] Testimony of General James Jones before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 108th Congress, 2nd session, 27 January 2004. Quoted in Klaus Naumann and General Joseph Ralston, European Defence Integration: Bridging the Gap Between Strategy and Capabilities, Center for Strategic and International Studies, October 2005