Norrbotten at the beginning of November. A few degrees below zero, a thin layer of snow and not much daylight mean that Nordic Battlegroup’s area of deployment may feel remote from a probable operation in a more subtropical region as much as 6000 km from Brussels.
But what is happening here in the Nordic Resolution exercise between Luleå, Boden and Jokkmokk is a scenario influenced by former wars, a poor economy and wretched conditions for the local population, in which various ethnic and religious groups are continuously subject to assault. Food and drugs are in short supply. The humanitarian conditions are poor. It is a scenario that is very reminiscent of what Nordic Battlegroup may encounter in a real deployment.
There are fewer than two months left before the first Swedish battle group is placed on standby to become an important part of EU crisis management in the first half of 2008.
For the first time, all units that previously exercised separately are to exercise together and become a single unit. The aim is to learn from each other, test abilities and create team spirit.
Participants from Sweden, Estonia, Finland, Ireland and Norway will together become Nordic Battlegroup.
In Norrbotten, the United Nations, supported by Nato, have deployed armed forces in the fictitious country of Bogaland. The EU has decided to send Nordic Battlegroup to the neighbouring country of Xland. Its task is to create law and order in the region and to enable aid organisations to work for vulnerable groups. In Xland, NBG will also create the conditions for an election.
Several factions and gangs of robbers are wreaking havoc in the region to such an extent that the country's own depleted armed forces are inadequate. The reason for the international engagement in the region is that the conflicts in the region are at risk of escalation. A year earlier the conflicts were extremely ruthless on the civil population in a warlike scenario.
NBG has just entered Xland. The deployment area has been secured. When more and more materiel and personnel are flown into the region, the unease among the gang of robbers in Xland increases.
Transport and logistics are part of the exercise. Moving large quantities of materiel and personnel over long distances by air, rail and sea is an important factor that has to function well in a real deployment.
Unrest at the airbase
Demonstrators have gathered at Eufor’s checkpoint at the airbase in Jokkmokk, where the airbase battalion receives all units. The police turn up and the leader of the demonstrators is bloodily knocked to the ground. In the night darkness a few hours later, a reconnaissance platoon discovers a prison camp at Victoria Fort in Voullerim, where, during the Cold War, a double-barrelled cannon watched over Lule river valley.
From Jokkmokk, the forces move south from the airbase and are augmented in size and ability as required.
“We are in a hostile area and on high alert. However, there is nothing that we consider we are unable to handle. In the next few days, we will create order so that the local population can move freely and hold their election in a couple of days,” says Brigadier Karl Engelbrektson, who is in command of NBG’s operations.
During the exercise, all of NBG is under his command. The numbers of participants are as follows. Sweden 2350, Estonia 50, Finland 220, Ireland 80 and Norway 150.
Lisa Axenskär, who is usually part of Lv6 in Halmstad, thinks that Nordic Resolution gives NBG a good basis for doing its job after the new year. During the exercise, the various parts have got closer to each other.
“The expectation in the period of preparedness is to continue to exercise as much as possible so that we can be as good as possible. I am convinced that we will be able to do the jobs we are allocated. I feel extremely sure of that.”
Personally, she thinks that, as an officer, it is a natural step to be part of Nordic Battlegroup.
“This is an experience I want to have. Partly for my own sake and partly in connection with the realignment of the Swedish Armed Forces. It is important to have own experience of foreign service to be able to pass the knowledge on,” she says.
We know what we can do
“Nordic Battlegroup puts many abilities to the extreme test. In order to be able to perform all the tasks we have to be very professional, be highly developed in terms of technology and have skilled personnel. The establishment of NBG has driven developments much faster in the direction in which the Government and the Supreme Commander of the Swedish Armed Forces has ordered us to go, i.e. towards rapid international deployment.”
Karl Engelbrektson’s opinion is that NBG will be very well prepared for its work when the unit is put on alert soon.
“Everything is relative and, as the commander, I am always extremely loyal to the task I have been given and must relate it to the personnel and the abilities I have at my disposal. We are very clear about what abilities we have in the unit. This is an extremely good place to start. We know what we can do and what we can’t do. I am very confident about the personnel.”
No country that has established battle groups for the EU has previously gathered all countries with all abilities for a joint final exercise. As the leading nation for Nordic Battlegroup, Sweden is the first to do that.
“When the exercise has been completed, we will know what abilities we have overall and what synergies are generated by all the units together. So far I am very satisfied. I am actually starting to feel really proud,” says Karl Engelbrektson.
The reporting on Nordic Battlegroup has mostly concerned shortages of materiel, the lack of helicopters, etc.
A challenge for the Swedish Armed Forces
Developing NBG has been a challenge for the Swedish Armed Forces. Part of the problems have involved producing all the materiel in time. In some cases, substitutes have had to be used to date during training on account of late deliveries. The materiel is being used in ongoing deployments today, among other things.
“The task of commanders, and in this case my supreme task, is to know what you can and can’t do and to relate that knowledge to the tasks you may face. For this purpose we have something called operational and tactical adaptation. We will never consciously let ourselves get into situations that we know, on the basis of a professional assessment, that we cannot handle,” says Karl Engelbrektson.
NBG must be able to participate in EU crisis management operations in the introductory phase. This is usually the hardest phase and NBG must, for a limited period of time, be able to perform tasks on the entire conflict scale from humanitarian assistance to armed combat.
Most difficult to force peace
In the EU concept, four different scenarios are described within which the units must be able to act: humanitarian assistance, evacuation situation, peacekeeping and peace-forcing operations.
Håkan Syrén, Supreme Commander of the Swedish Armed Forces:
“As I see it, things are looking very good today with regard to the first three tasks. We now need to give the matter some serious thought and look at what we can do at the top level too and the situations we can be put into. We must be able to look each other in the eyes in the unit and also tell our employers what we can deliver on 1 January 2008 as one of the EU’s really strong instruments for going in and averting unrest or conflict,” says Syrén.
In principle, it must be possible to deploy Nordic Battlegroup in crisis areas anywhere 6000 km from Brussels, but not in a subarctic environment. However, in the Swedish Armed Forces, it is a generally accepted fact that anyone who can deal with the subarctic climate can deal with any environment. This is also one reason why Nordic Resolution is being held in Norrbotten.”
“If we are to hold an exercise of this size, we need to have room to manoeuvre both on the ground and in the air. We also want to have large distances as the unit may need to perform under such conditions. This allows us to test our transport, logistics and command systems. The climate is harsh, and that is good, although it is precisely the opposite of what we believe we may have to deal with. Naturally it is better to train in the environment in which you have to act, but we must have a realistic approach to the cost of what we do. The basic techniques involved in handling units and systems are the same in cold and hot climates. If you are used to surviving in a harsh climate, it is very easy to adapt,” says Karl Engelbrektson.
Interesting to be the first to get involved
When Nordic Resolution is over, the work continues on evaluating the exercise and the ability of the units in relation to a potential deployment.
Christian Bjurefalk is part of airbase battalion AB01 and applied for NBG to try something that felt new and exciting.
“I have done a mission in Kosovo and enjoyed mission life. As I have a background in the army, it is nice to see what the air force can offer. It is also a chance to see new parts of the world to which you don’t otherwise travel. When the armed forces change, it is nice to be part of that. If a deployment is made, it is interesting to be involved in an early mission. This is what many professional soldiers strive for, getting involved early,” he says.
Christian’s colleague, Jesper Borgryd, who is a dog handler, joined NBG straight after compulsory military service.
“I want to do international service, and that is a large part of why I wanted to do military service. For me, this is the third term, and it is a good and natural transition from compulsory military service. It happened naturally when the opportunity arose.”
They both hope that NBG will get going and that the unit will be deployed and used.
“That is what I want. Otherwise I wouldn’t have applied,” says Jesper Borgryd.
They agree that the training has been good and that it provides both military and civil experience for the future. Their time with NBG has not been a waste, even if the unit is not deployed.
AB01 is one of the units in Nordic Battlegroup affected by shortages of materiel.
“Materiel is a well-known factor. Some things are not available and it is extremely annoying. What we do is to struggle on as well as we can with the materiel we have and try to exercise as well as possible. When the materiel comes, everything is fine,” says Christian Bjurefalk.
Text: Anders Sjödén