Russia has a way to reduce NATO’s combat power, and Norway appears to be ‘breaking a taboo’ to deal with it

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: Sasha Mordovets/ Getty Images.

NATO members in Eastern Europe have for some time been raising alarm about increasing Russian activity in the region.

In the months ahead of Russia’s joint military exercises with Belarus this autumn — the largest such exercise in years — NATO has deployed units throughout the Baltics and Eastern Europe, and Lithuania has gone so far as to call for a permanent US troop presence there.

Now, in what appears to be a first among Western militaries, Norway is publicly discussing ways to counter Moscow’s latest advancement in armoured warfare.

Oslo plans to spend $US23.7 million to $US41.5 million between 2017 and 2025 to replace its Javelin anti-tank guided weapon systems in an effort to “maintain the capacity to fight against heavy armoured vehicles,” according to a document from the Norwegian Ministry of Defence.

Norway’s focus on anti-armour abilities is probably a response to Russia’s investment in active-protection systems for its tanks and armoured vehicles, according to retired Brig. Ben Barry, senior fellow for land warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

APS systems use radar to detect anti-tank and anti-armour weapons, deploying countermeasures to destroy or disrupt them.

Active protection system tank army

“Norway’s focus on the requirement to find new ways of countering APS is probably driven by its renewed focus on deterring a confrontation with Russia,” Barry wrote on Monday. “Indeed, the new Russian Armata main battle tank contains an integral APS, and will be the first tank to be fielded with such a system from the outset.”

“There is a need for anti-tank systems that can penetrate APS-systems,” reads the Norwegian defence document cited by Barry.

With this step, Oslo appears “to be breaking a taboo among Western military officials and defence industries over discussing publicly the challenges of countering APS,” Barry writes. “The increased fielding of APS by Russia would considerably reduce the combat power of NATO land forces.”

Norway has for some time been looking to beef up its defence spending and modernise its military. In November, the government announced it would add $US230 million to its 2017 defence budget, bringing the overall budget to more than $US6 billion.

Norway Marine
Norwegian soldiers, US Marines, and Dutch and UK Royal Commandos perform an integrated air insert during a training event for Exercise Cold Response around the city of Namsos, Norway. Master Sgt. Chad McMeen/US Marines

While not without political wrangling, increased defence spending had support across Norway’s political parties, in part because of a need to keep pace with Russian defence spending as well as concerns about a potential reduction in US spending on European security under President Donald Trump.

In February, Norway’s Defence Forces announced that funds freed up by reorganization projects would be directed toward procurement programs, among them the modernisation of Oslo’s land forces’ strike capability, according to Defence News.

“Given all that is happening in the region, Norway needs to have the strongest defence that it can afford,” Bård Vegard Solhjell, a Socialist Left Party member of parliament who was on the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, said at the time.

While Russia’s Armata will be the first tank to be outfitted with an APS from day one, other militaries have added or are looking to add such systems to their armoured vehicles — a move likely also inspired by the spread of anti-tank weapons systems and rocket-propelled grenades.

Israel has installed the Trophy APS system — which can reduce the effectiveness of anti-tank guided weapons and RPGs by two-thirds — on its Merkava main battle tanks.

The UK has been looking at APS for at least a decade, according to Barry, while the Netherlands recently said that BAE Systems would outfit some of its armoured vehicles with another Israeli APS.

The US — whose M1A1 Abrams tank may be losing its edge to foreign tanks, among them the Merkava — is reportedly planning to include an APS on current armoured vehicles and its next-generation tank.

Despite those moves, however, some militaries “seem to miss the uncomfortable implications for their own anti-armour capabilities,” Barry told the BBC.

APS are not foolproof. They are currently unable to stop high-velocity anti-tank ammunition fired from guns, and, theoretically, APS would be overwhelmed by anti-armour weapons fired in volleys. But, Barry notes, even with these tactics, APS would still reduce the effectiveness of anti-armour weapons.

US Army Tank Exercise
An Abrams M1A2 tank fires its main gun during annual training at the Orchard Training Center, Idaho. Maj. Wayne (Chris) Clyne/US Army

Though Norway shares a short land border with Russia, the country, like the rest of NATO, has been looking ways to adjust to increasingly contentious relations with Moscow.

In January, 300 US Marines arrived in Norway for winter-warfare training. Their arrival coincided with Operation Atlantic Resolve, a separate US-funded operation supporting NATO by deploying troops throughout Europe for training.

Norwegian defence officials have also stressed the need for “unity and solidarity” in NATO in order to counter what appear to be Russian attempts to undermine the alliance — though communication with Moscow is also central to that response.

“It is important that the relationship that Norway, the U.S. and NATO has with Russia balances deterrence with dialogue,” Norwegian Defence Forces chief Adm. Haakon Bruun-Hanssen told Defence News earlier this year.

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