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Winter Skies, Frozen Seas And Northern Shores: Nordefco (epilogue 1a)


The Nordic Defence Cooperation (NORDEFCO) came to light after a meeting of the Scandinavian defence ministries held in 2009, where it was decided to merge the three existing similar and previous initiatives into a single one: NORDEFCO[1]. The Memorandum of Understanding of 2009 defined NORDEFCO’s purpose as the mechanism to strengthen the national defence capacities of the participant countries and cooperation on defence. NORDEFCO’s core objectives are to serve as an instance for common defence issues and policies; to increase the quality of the members’ armed forces; to enhance interoperability for joint operations; to develop cooperation in defence technology, multinational operations[2]; and to achieve common technological benefits. Cooperation, then, is the main framework of the organization (Jokela & Isu-Markku, 2013; NORDEFCO, 2009; NORDEFCO, 2014; NORDEFCO, 2014) [3].

On the pure military aspect, NORDEFCO intends to have as main objective the cooperation of every defence structure of the members aiming at interoperability of their armed forces.

This objective has three sub-objectives, which are: to improve the production of military capabilities (or assets of any kind); to maintain and develop the national operational capabilities; and to encourage a cost-effective contribution to efforts in maintaining or achieving peace and security (Jokela & Isu-Markku, 2013; NORDEFCO, 2014)[4].

In order to meet with the abovementioned objectives, NORDEFCO has five cooperation areas.

The first of them is ‘Capabilities’, aimed at addressing development (defence) plans and processes, along with procuring operational effectiveness. The second is ‘Armaments’, aimed at achieving financial, technical and/or industrial benefits regarding armaments life cycle and acquisition. The third is ‘Human Resources and Education’, aimed at enhancing cooperation on military education and facilitation of experiences exchange. The fourth is ‘Training and Exercises’, aimed at coordinating and harmonizing joint military training activities. And the fifth is ‘Operations’, aimed at planning, coordinating, preparing and executing any – decided – military operation (Jokela & Isu-Markku, 2013; NORDEFCO, 2014; NORDEFCO, 2014).

All of the mentioned cooperation areas are to be implemented between the armed forces, their structures and branches. These areas are also the bridges for cooperation between the members’ armed forces (NORDEFCO, 2014; NORDEFCO, 2014).

Seeking Unity: Background and Antecedents

NORDEFCO is not the first concrete initiative in defence cooperation in Scandinavia. As a matter of fact, such attempts can be traced back to the mid-19th century. Ideas about a Nordic unity occupied the minds of the cultural elites, despite strong clashes between Denmark and Sweden, which were the dominant powers of the time[5]. Culture and history were being regarded as a ground for establishing a strong union, but they were not enough as Denmark received little support when fighting against Prussia. Nevertheless, the idea of cooperation was of such scale that a temporary monetary union took place from 1875 to 1914. Finland, additionally, joined the cooperation initiatives right after its independence and the end of Russian occupation (Herolf, 2013).

Issues related to security and defence were among the main concerns for the Scandinavian nations. However the Second World War shattered any further advance on that regard: the occupation of Norway and Denmark by Germany, the occupation of Iceland by the Great Britain, and the wars after the Soviet Invasions of 1939-1940 and 1944, with the following special treaties that Finland was forced to sign, broke any possibility for a union in a military sense. As a result, the years after the Second World War would witness the failure of Sweden’s efforts to create a neutral Scandinavian defence union. Denmark, Norway and Iceland joined NATO, perceiving the latter as a stronger alliance that could provide the security they needed, and the appeasing policies followed by Finland towards the Soviet Union (Herolf, 2013; Jokela & Isu-Markku, 2013).

The Finnish and Swedish decision to remain neutral (or become neutral in the case of Finland) gave the region a sort of neutrality but that also meant that any idea of a strong military cooperation had to be ruled out. Not entirely, though, because in the 50’s, other steps towards a union in a non-military sense were made. For instance, a passport union, a common job market, welfare agreements, voting rights, a Nordic-language convention, and even the establishment of the Nordic Council (cooperation between Scandinavian parliaments) and the Nordic Council of Ministers were implemented at that time[6]. Even more, the UN peacekeeping missions provided a path for an embryonic military operational cooperation with the jointly deployment of Scandinavian troops for the mentioned operations, leading the way into the Nordic Cooperation Group for Military UN Matters (NORDSAMFN) (Forsberg, 2013; Herolf, 2013; Jokela & Isu-Markku, 2013)[7].

The end of the Cold War meant the end of the facts restraining defence cooperation and the emergence of new frameworks and thematic areas. As a result, the five Scandinavian countries found themselves among the founders of the Council of the Baltic States, the Barents Euro-Arctic Council and the Arctic Council. This situation also meant the emergence of new political factors that hampered the cooperation process. For instance, Finland and Sweden joined the NATO Partnership for Peace (PfP), all of the Scandinavian nations but Norway and Iceland applied for an EU membership. And although Norway takes part of the Common Defence and Security Policy, Denmark is not entirely compromised in both EU and Nordic defence initiatives, focusing instead (and more) on NATO (Forsberg, 2013; Herolf, 2013; Jokela & Isu-Markku, 2013).

Still, some initiatives gained ground, not without many complications. NORDAC was created but it faced problems of operational design and orientation of equipment. Reasons were i.a. the different paths taken by the Scandinavians during the Cold War, and projects such as the Viking submarine or the Standard Nordic Helicopter Programme ended with the countries acquiring other sort of equipment or stepping-out. Still, procurement of similar battle tanks – Leopard 2 – were an example of successful coordination in procurement. NORCAPS – The NORDSAMFN – faced also challenges of its own due to the fact that the Nordics were not leading in peacekeeping missions anymore and the new nature of those missions required a high training, support and equipment. Generally, Finland wanted to prioritize the idea of autonomous defence, while Denmark, Norway and Sweden wanted to focus more on fighting indirect threats ‘out of area’ (Jokela & Isu-Markku, 2013).

Midnight sun: NORDEFCO today and Baltic-Artic role.

To understand what is the current role and importance of NORDEFCO for Scandinavian countries, it is important to examine the meaning that this particular defence organization and alliance has, as well as others like NATO or the European Union.

The previous segment made clear that NATO is important in a full or partial way (either being a full-time member or joining the PfP). However the actual role that the EU has and how its perception plays a role in deepening NORDEFCO’s activities and objectives remains rather unclear.

According to Herolf (2013), the federalist approach and the EU’s foreign policy approach are less liked or perceived as ‘suspicious’ because they would mean a giving up of sovereignty. This means that cooperation among the Nordic states seems more likely to take place rather than cooperation between Scandinavians and the EU. However and despite the abovementioned perceptions regarding the EU, cooperation between Scandinavians (for example there are close defence ties between Sweden and Finland), EU and even NATO takes place in parallel ways.

The Baltics and the Arctic are two other areas that are increasingly falling under the action area of NORDEFCO[8].

In the case of the Baltics, the nations within that region were invited by NORDEFCO to join some of the cooperation areas in 2010 and 2011, at the point to even include cyber defence as an area for cooperation and to transform NORDEFCO into a Scandinavian-Baltic initiative. The reasons behind this are various. Firstly, the Scandinavian nations perceive the Baltic nations’ inclusion as an important step to keep and strengthen the abovementioned cooperation, whereas cooperation in defence between the two regions was even labelled as ‘necessary’. Secondly, the military build-up and the importance of the Baltic sea route for the economy of Russia makes such an approach inevitable in strategic and security sense, given the strategic correlation (and vulnerability) between Scandinavia and the Baltics before the renewed assertive Russian policies (Forsberg, 2013, Herolf, 2013; Jokela & Isu-Markku, 2013; NORDEFCO, 2014).

In the case of the Arctic, the geopolitical importance is one of the reasons why NORDEFCO is increasing its range of activities into that area: the proximity of oil reserves and transportation routes for energetic resources and trade[9]. And in a similar ways as the Baltics region, the fact that Russia is securing its interests through aggressive policies and renewed utilization on military assets to secure its interests, is a motive behind NORDEFCO’s focusing on the Arctic Area. Thus, the initiative is becoming an Arctic actor just like NATO, and especially in the area of security. As a result, a monitoring and early warning system, along with a Maritime response force were proposed, along with the development of national Arctic/High North security and policy strategies intended to help the countries to meet their national interests and objectives.

The recent events of Russian incursions with air and naval assets, along with exercises whose objective were mock-attacks on Baltic, Scandinavian and other nations’ territories will definitely make Nordic (and Baltic) cooperation much more closer (Forsberg, 2013, Herolf, 2013; Jokela & Isu-Markku, 2013; NORDEFCO, 2014).

Those events and the increasing attention given by NORDEFCO to the Arctic highlights it geostrategic importance. An importance that inevitably involves the Baltics and Scandinavia, because the three areas – Arctic, Scandinavia and the Baltics – will be equally affected should tensions take place or escalate in any of them.


Forsberg, T. (2013). The rise of Nordic defence cooperation: a return to regionalism? International Affairs, 89(5), 1161 – 1181. Oxford: The Royal Institute of International Affairs.

Herolf, G. (2013). European Security Policy. Nordic and Northern Strategies. International Policy Analysis. Berlin, Germany: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.

Jokela, J., & Isu-Markku, T. (2013). Nordic Defence cooperation: Background, current trends and future prospects? NORDIKA Programme, Note N° 21/13.

NORDEFCO. (2009). Memorandum of understanding on Nordic defence cooperation. NORDEFCO.

NORDEFCO. (2014). Annual Report 2013. NORDEFCO.

NORDEFCO. (2014). GUNOP, Guidelines for NORDEFCO military level operating procedures, final (unclassified). NORDEFCO.


[1] Those previous initiatives were the Nordic Coordinated Arrangement for Military Peace Support (NORDCAPS), the Armament Cooperation (NORDAC) – its activities were included within NORDEFCO cooperation areas – and the Nordic Supportive Defence Structures (NORDSUP).

[2] Either for national defence or for international operations (like peacekeeping).

[3] It is specified that it is not a command structure. See: NORDEFCO, 2013, p. 6.

[4] The general objective is divided into three by NORDEFCO itself, although the three parts can be understood as objectives by themselves, as they reflect the ones defined by the 2009 Memorandum of Understanding.

[5] Denmark was controlling Iceland, while Sweden was controlling Norway after the loss of Finland due to the Russian invasion of 1809.

[6] Finland had a door opened to join thanks to the exclusion of any foreign policy issue, being common defence among them.

[7] This path was, according to Josela & Isu-Markku (2013), ideal for the Scandinavians to highlight its neutral stance, to show the Soviet Union that they were not a significant threat – despite some being members of NATO – and that they were more willing to contribute to world peace, stability and security. That contribution is, even nowadays, one of the pillars for NORDEFCO.

[8] The Netherlands have been approaching NORDEFCO in order to join the initiative.

[9] The Northeast Passage, which extends from the Kamchatka Peninsula to the Northern Sea, all across the Arctic Ocean and in parallel to Russian seashores.

* Cover image ‘Flags‘ by miguelb


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