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Two members of the Hjemmeværnet take part in a training exercise

Scandinavia’s Homeland Defence: A Model for Other Countries?

Elisabeth Braw
Commentary, 13 March 2018
Domestic Security
Scandinavia has a robust homeland defence system that is popular and works.

The Danish government has recently held one of its regular crisis management-exercises, which included its own agencies and the armed forces, as well as businesses and civil organisations.

While the level of participants from the private sector was usually low, all that changed in June 2017 when Danish shipping giant Mærsk was hit by a ransomware attack. For nearly two weeks, several key divisions were unable to operate. The attack cost Mærsk $300 million in lost revenues and costs associated with solving the attack

Following this, the next crisis management exercise included top-level executives who replaced their more junior colleagues. In addition, private companies receive regular crisis preparation updates from the government. Even more importantly, the armed forces operate a volunteer home guard organisation, the Hjemmeværnet.

The Hjemmeværnet, for example, is still put to frequent use in both military and civilian functions, such as evacuation, and search and rescue

Europe can learn from this whole-of-society, ‘total defence’ model, which is also used by Sweden and Norway. The model started in the aftermath of the Second World War, when the Scandinavians were eager to build up resilience against potential future invasions.

No invasion ever happened, but the Hjemmeværnet and its Swedish and Norwegian counterparts – the Heimevernet and Hemvärnet, respectively – formed a key part of the deterrent.

The Hjemmeværnet, for example, is still put to frequent use in both military and civilian functions, such as evacuation, and search and rescue. They also guard military installations and critical national infrastructure. In 2017, Hjemmeværnet soldiers provided 2.4 million hours of service, training and operations, including 144,000 hours spent supporting police operations.

Earlier this year, when rocks were being thrown from highway bridges on the Danish island of Funen, the under-resourced police asked local Hjemmeværnet members for help. ‘I don’t think there’s a single day of the year where Hjemmeværnet members are not assisting the police’, Major-General Hans Christian Mathiesen, the commander of the Danish Army told the author. ‘For example, they often guard crime scenes until the police arrives’.

With a Hjemmeværnet-like organisation in place, each town has trained citizens available to assist, with, for example, evacuation or food delivery for the needy

While perhaps mundane, the Hjemmeværnet’s every-day capabilities instil trust among the population. According to a recent survey, 75% of Danes are confident that the Hjemmeværnet can perform its tasks. (In 2004, the figure was 63%.)

The same survey showed that 79% of Danes believe the Hjemmeværnet contributes to the country’s security. Norway’s Heimevernet, in turn, consists of former conscripts: 4,500 of the country’s annual 10,000 conscripts are transferred to the force.

Sweden, meanwhile, is in less good health than Denmark and Norway, its total defence having been severely cut beginning in the nineties. Many Cold War sites where the government stored essential goods were sold, and the Hemvärnet has been having trouble recruiting. Now, however, the government is bringing total defence back and increasing defence spending.

Living in a service economy, we pay people to deliver our groceries, to clean our homes, even to deliver our meals. And since the end of the Cold War, we have become used to paying a small group of people to take care of our national security.

However, as Britain’s Chief of the General Staff General Sir Nicholas Carter pointed out at RUSI in January, there are no longer two distinct states of peace and war. 

As Scandinavia learnt during the Cold War and after, total defence does not frighten citizens. On the contrary, they feel empowered because they know what to do in a crisis

That’s why the total defence model would be useful far beyond the borders of Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Consider, for example, a power plant hack in the middle of the winter. According to a study by Lloyd’s of London, an insurer, in the northeastern US, this would leave 93 million residents without power. There would also be a rise in mortality rates, a decline in trade due to ports shutting down, disruption to water supplies because of electric pumps failing, as well as chaos in transport networks.

An attack in Europe would have similar effects. Most of us would panic because we have no training in how to get by in an emergency. If we had, however, been educated by the government or civil organisations in how survive for several days without power, the threat would feel less catastrophic.

And with a Hjemmeværnet-like organisation in place, each town would have trained citizens available to assist, with, for example, evacuation or food delivery for residents in need.

As Scandinavia learnt during the Cold War and after, total defence does not frighten citizens. On the contrary, they feel empowered because they know what to do in a crisis, whether as trained Home Guard members or simply as informed citizens.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Sweden recently announced it would start distributing Om kriget kommer (If the War Comes), a brochure designed to empower the population rather than frightened.

‘During the Cold War total defence, we also used to have a civil defence command system that mirrored the military command system, and we’re bringing parts of that back now’, Anders Eriksson, a political adviser to Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist, told the author.

‘It has to be adapted to today’s circumstances, of course, including the fact that many companies that are crucial in emergency situations – such as drug manufacturers – are now internationally owned. That makes it much harder for the government to involve them in national security efforts’.

Other ministries are coordinating emergency plans with the Ministry of Defence. ‘That’s something they haven’t had to do in a long time’, Eriksson noted. Hospitals are launching plans for how to provide care in case of an attack on the country, not just victims of subway train collisions. This spring the Sahlgrenska University Hospital in Gothenburg will conduct an exercise with the armed forces. Government agencies are making plans for food provision in emergencies where grocery deliveries won’t reach shops for several days – a severe risk given that food is now transported over very long distances.

No citizen would welcome a hack of critical national infrastructure, and such a robust population is a deterrent in itself. Indeed, the Norwegian armed forces refer to their Home Guard members as their ears and eyes: trained citizens living in their local communities who not only know what to do, but can spot even small changes better than anybody else.

Britain, too, would do well treating its population as a resource. Better yet, it would also be a highly cost-effective deterrent.

Elisabeth Braw is a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Banner image: A member of Denmark's Hjemmeværnet helps a policing operation. Courtesy of Lars Schmidt/Wikimedia

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.

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