Our organisation has roots back to the Viking Ages. Since then, the Armed Forces have gone through enormous changes. But one thing remains unchanged: The will to defend ourselves from enemies.
The first Norwegian defence organisation, the leidangen, was established along the coastline in the 10th century. The leidangen protected the Norwegian coast and the land within "as far in as the salmon goes", according to old sayings.
The Vikings also established a line of cairns and fires on strategic mountain tops along the coast. They were used for spreading news, messages and warnings to the whole country. A message would take a week to reach from the south to the north of Norway. The system of cairns was the precursor of today's sophisticated control and warning system.
In addition to the leidangen, the hird was also an important military power. In Norway, the hird was initially the King's lifeguards. From the Viking Age and up to the 1500s, the royal hird made it possible for the King to claim his rights and powers – both in Norway and abroad.
"The unions with Denmark and Sweden were fundamental for the development of Norway's defence."
Presence at sea
In 1380, Denmark and Norway formed a union that would last until 1814. During the Late Middle Ages, the trade alliance the Hanseatic League eventually became a substantial power in Northern Europe. To avoid losing out to the League, the Dano–Norwegian authorities needed to be present and show their powers at sea. In 1510, a permanent Dano–Norwegian Navy was established, and during the reign of King Christian IV, the fleet was one of the strongest in Europe. While the Army was administered as a Norwegian unit, the Navy was joint for both states.
From the 16th to the 19th century, the union with Denmark and later on, the union with Sweden, were fundamental for the development of Norway's defence. Danish King Christian IV reorganised the army, and in 1628 he decided to establish a Norwegian army. The country was organised into small geographic areas, and the farmers in each area had to provide soldiers, food and some equipment to the army. In total, the Norwegian Army consisted of about 7,000 soldiers. Personal conscription came much later.
The battles with Sweden
The union of Denmark–Norway was in a nearly constant battle with neighbouring Sweden from the 16th to the 19th century. In the 17th century, there were no less than four large conflicts between the countries. The Swedes eventually succeeded in claiming Norwegian land territories. Large areas were transferred from Norway to Sweden, and today's border between Norway and Sweden was more or less established in the 1600s.
The army in Norway gradually became more independent from the army in Denmark. In 1750, a Norwegian military academy was established, and the first school for non-commissioned officers was created in 1784.
"Today's border between Norway and Sweden was more or less established in the 1600s. "
Alliance with France and Napoelon
The 18th century was a relatively peaceful period, despite the constant rivalling with Sweden. The Dano–Norwegian navy grew in size and organisation, but was rarely involved in battles and wars. The presence of the Navy was nonetheless important, especially during the Napoleonic Wars from the 1790s and onwards. The British had long feared that the Dano–Norwegian navy would join Napoleon's side. To prevent this from happening, the United Kingdom raided Denmark in 1807, known as the Battle of Copenhagen. The result was disastrous for Denmark–Norway. Most of its fleet was destroyed, and the remaining ships were taken to Britain.
After the British bombardment, Denmark–Norway joined France and Napoleon. The alliance with France meant that the kingdom now was at war with both Britain and Sweden. A Norwegian campaign against Sweden was successful for the Norwegian troops, but the war against Britain was long and hard for the Dano–Norwegian kingdom. Britain established a strict embargo. This especially hurt Norway, since the country was completely dependent upon imports of corn and other food. The embargo resulted in hunger and famine, and made Norwegians more opposed to the already unpopular union with Denmark.
Union with Sweden
Napoleon was finally defeated in 1814, and Denmark–Norway stood on the losing side. As a punishment, the Dano–Norwegian kingdom was dissolved, and Norway was transferred from Denmark to Sweden. But before the union with Sweden was formalised, the newly-established Norwegian authorities managed to create a Norwegian constitution. The Constitution became important in the union with Sweden, because it formally recognised Norway as a state. In a military perspective, the most important part of the Constitution was paragraph 109, which established conscription for all men. But it would last until the end of the 1800s before all Norwegian men were included as conscripts.
Peace – and two world wars
After the Napoleonic Wars, people in Europe were tired of wars and fighting. This general mood slowed down the development and growth of the Norwegian Army and Navy. At the end of the 19th century, the authorities built up the Army and the Navy, due to the growing Norwegian fight for independence. The union with Sweden was peacefully dissolved in 1905, but Norwegian politicians strongly believed that the Armed Forces had been an important factor for securing Norwegian independence.
During World War I from 1914 to 1918, Norway managed to stay neutral, but the Norwegian neutrality is highly debated. The Norwegians sympathised with the British, and more than 3,500 Norwegian sailors were killed in German attacks. After the war, Europe once again was tired of war. This led to strong demands of disarmament – also in Norway. The Norwegian Armed Forces were built down, and the military budget was held at a minimum.
Throughout the 1930s, the increasing tensions in Europe forced Norway to re-build its forces. However, the renewed focus on military spending came too late. On 9 April 1940, Nazi-Germany attacked Norway, and the Germans gained control of the entire country in June 1940. Around 1,100 Norwegian soldiers were killed in the battles. After the defeat, the Norwegian Government-in-exile started building several Norwegian army, navy and air force units from the United Kingdom. Around 10,000 people lost their lives on Norwegian soil during World War II, most of them during of the liberation of Northern Norway in the autumn of 1944. In addition to this, numerous Soviet and Serb prisoners of war were killed in German prison camps in Norway.
The occupation changed Norway's military policy fundamentally. The country had learned that claiming neutrality was no guaranty for avoiding war and occupation. Norway thus abandoned its principle of neutrality.
In the late 1940s, international tensions grew between the West and the Soviet Union. As a small neighbour country to the Soviet Union, Norwegian authorities were concerned. The Nordic countries did not succeed in creating a Nordic military alliance, and this led to Norway joining NATO in 1949.
The NATO membership and the experiences from the War, led to an unprecedented build-up of the Norwegian Armed Forces. Norway also received monetary help from the USA and NATO to buy weapons and to build infrastructure. In 1952 and 1953, the defence budget amounted to 30 per cent of the state budget, and 4.7 per cent of Norway's gross domestic product.
A golden era for conscription
The end of World War II marked the start of a golden era for universal conscription for men in Norway. More men had to serve the initial military service, and military education and trainings grew in size and numbers. At the peak period, more than 350,000 Norwegians were part of the Norwegian military forces. Since 1949, Norway has also been an important contributor to UN peacekeeping missions. More than 40,000 Norwegian women and men have served for the UN.
"The Norwegian Armed Forces were at their largest in the 1950s and 1960s."
A policy of balance
The Norwegian Armed Forces were at their largest in the 1950s and 1960s. After this, NATO changed its policy, and the monetary support to Norway was reduced. This led to a change in the Norwegian Armed Forces. At the same time, the Arctic gradually became more important to the great powers.
Norway's NATO membership was intended to prevent the Soviet Union from pressuring and attacking Norway. At the same time, Norway did not want to provoke its giant neighbour more than necessary. This meant that Norway needed a flexible and trustworthy defence policy. One result was that Norway did not allow any foreign or allied country to establish military bases on Norwegian territory – except if Norway was attacked or threatened with attacks. Norway also refused its partners to deploy nuclear weapons in Norway during peacetime.
A modern, but smaller organisation
From the 1970s, military funding were incompatible with the political goals for the Armed Forces. With the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, the Armed Forces were transformed from a so-called invasion defence to a more compact organisation with higher quality, modern weapons, new materiel and more professional forces and units. Norway's recent participation in international operations like Afghanistan, has given the organisation important experience and expertise.
In the 2010s, several major changes were made on the personnel side. In 2015, Norway introduced universal conscription. This gave Norwegian men and women equal rights and duties when it comes to protecting Norway. In 2016, the Armed Forces also established a new personnel system for non-commissioned officers, the specialist corps. The specialists follow a rank scale from OR1 to OR9 – comparable to the NATO structure. The new system has been described as the greatest change in the Armed Forces since the creation of the Army in 1628.
The recent changes in the international security situation have also forced Norway to once again restructure its armed forces. In October 2019, Chief of Defence presented his advice on how the Norwegian Armed Forces should develop in the coming decades. He recommended increased investments in personnel and materiel, and a renewed structure. Parliament will decide on spending and structure in 2020, with eventual changes to be implemented from 2021.
The 2020s also bring several big changes to the Armed Forces' materiel. The new fleet of F-35 fighter jets will be fully operational in 2025, while the fleet of P-8 Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft will be operational from 2023. The rescue helicopter AW101 SAR Queen and the NH90 helicopters will also be fully operational in 2020s, and the five new 212A submarines will be delivered to Norway towards the end of the decade.