While the F-35s have been repeatedly described as the backbone of Norway's future defence and crucial to protect the country, there is trouble lurking behind the facade.
A report by the Office of the Auditor General (OAG), which the Defence Ministry insisted should be classified, has revealed a critical lack of flight technicians, the newspaper Klassekampen reported. The Norwegian Defence Ministry is struggling to recruit new personnel and retain the ones they have.
Local unions in the Air Force contacted parliamentary representatives as late as this week with a warning about the situation, but according to Klassekampen, the military's technician problem has long been known.
The air defence technicians are trained at the Kjevik school centre outside Kristiansand. The school's stated goal is to train over 40 new technicians a year, but only manages to deliver a half.
“We have a deficit of 20 to 25 people each year”, Torbjørn Strand, head of the Norwegian Officers Association at Kjevik, told Klassekampen. “It will have consequences eventually. It will cause collapse. We'll be unable to get the planes up in the air”, he said.
The association believes the problems are partly due to the Armed Forces' educational reform of 2016, which meant, among other things, that the Air Force dropped its own basic training for aircraft technicians. Instead, the military opted for recruiting personnel from the four upper secondary schools in the country that train flight technicians. At Kjevik, civilian-trained technicians were to undergo military specialisation in aircraft and helicopters. However, the plan has largely failed.
“As of today, we are in crisis”, Strand said.
The OAG's report went through several parliamentary committees before it was finally dealt with by the parliament behind closed doors in February. In the report, the OAG listed its second-highest level of criticism: “serious”. This level implies “conditions that can have significant consequences for society or the citizens concerned, or where the sum of errors and omissions is so large that this must be considered serious in itself”, Klassekampen pointed out.
Defence spokesman Major Stian Roen confirmed that the Armed Forces are struggling to get enough technicians.
“The Air Force needs a significant number of flight technicians every year for the next decade”, Roen told Klassekampen.
However, he rejected the seriousness of the situation.
“We have a good plan and a number of measures to increase the number of aircraft technicians in the Air Force in the future. Work is being done on increased recruitment”, he assured.
So far, Norway has received 15 new F-35s, and three more are to arrive in May. Right now, Norwegian F-35s are on their maiden four-week air policing mission in Iceland.
Despite the official price tag of NOK 85.1 billion (over $9.2 billion), the newspaper Bergens Tidende estimated last year that it could in fact reach as high as NOK 97 billion ($10.4 billion) due to unforeseen maintenance issues.
The acquisition, though hailed as Norway's single most important military investment, has also been slammed as the nation's largest investment blunder, because problems involving the costly jets have been heaping up, including noise levels, lack of pilots and hangars, and a runaway maintenance bill.