The Scandinavian countries are proud of the image they project to the world. They are peaceful, they fulfill their international duties and they do their best to solve other countries’ problems. Is it a contradiction, then, that Norway and Sweden both host thriving defense industries?

“The problem is probably not that there’s too little military equipment in the world,” says Christer Henebäck, information director at Bofors Defence. “The problem is that there’s too much.”

In that case, the Scandinavian arms industry might deserve a closer look. According the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI, Norway is the 28th largest exporter of arms and military equipment in the world. The foreign ministry itself says that its yearly exports of about 1.1 to 1.5 billion Norwegian kroner (approximately ?140 – 200 million) are relatively modest. Compared to its closest neighbor Sweden, who, with its 4.5 billion Swedish kronor (about ?500 million) in annual arms exports, is number 15 on the same list, this assessment is true.

Differences between neighbors

“Norway has a relatively small [defense] industry,” says Ian Anthony, project leader for export controls at SIPRI, “that caters mostly to customers to which it has catered for many years.”

Anthony is making a contrast between Sweden and Norway. Unlike its neighbor, he says, Sweden has a fairly large defense industry that produces a broad spectrum of goods. The two countries’ arms export control regimes, though sharing many similarities, are tailored to their respective domestic needs.

Although both countries have a Section for Export Control subordinate to the foreign ministry, Sweden has the additional politically independent agency ISP, the National Inspectorate of Strategic Products. The Swedish Section for Export Controls therefore has to stick to handling policy developments, leaving licensing decisions to ISP, whereas their Norwegian counterparts get to make licensing decisions by themselves.

The division in the Swedish system is far from random.

“In the mid-80s there was a series of events that led to a fundamental rethinking of the way export controls were being conducted,” Anthony says, referring to a series of Swedish export scandals. The rethinking to which he refers resulted in new legislation and the 1996 creation of the ISP.

Says Thomas Tjäder, international security advisor for the ISP, “the legislation needs to project credibility, longevity, and a steady policy line. [The ISP] was created so that there would be an authority, independent of party politics, that would provide that steady line.”

In Norway, where the industry is smaller, there is no such independent office, and Anthony argues that there’s not as much of a need for one. Unlike in Sweden, he says, “most of the decisions made are routine decisions, and rarely do they have to make a decision regarding a country or a weapons system they have never dealt with before.”

After all, the Norwegian defense industry caters mostly to customers to which it has catered for years.

A billion Norwegian kroner still buys a lot of destructive power, however, and Norway prides itself on being very strict about who gets to lay their hands on it. Having signed all the multilateral treaties they have been allowed to participate in, and being one of 17 non-EU countries to accept the provisions in the European Union Code of Conduct on Arms Exports, there is no lack of documents to support this restrictive attitude. As a matter of fact, among the things one should be careful about exporting without a license are cargo parachutes, machinery that can make tiny aluminum spheres, and something called tetranitrobenzotriazolobenzotriazole, which may or may not be a European Union typo.