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Fire and Ice: The Defence of Norway and NATO’s Northern Flank

April 2nd, 2017

By Dr Rowan Allport – Senior Fellow

The arrival of approximately 300 US Marines in central Norway as part of a new programme of Arctic warfare training marked a departure from Oslo’s previous stance of refusing to permanently host the military personnel of other nations. Although billed as part of a wider reorientation of the Marine Corps back towards a flexible contingency posture after many years of fighting in the Middle East and Central Asia, the deployment is also an element of a wider set of precautions being taken by the Norwegian government to ensure the country’s sustained security. Russia’s reaction to the arrival of the Marines has been predictably hostile, despite the fact that that US forces have been periodically deployed to the country for cold weather exercises for decades. But the decision to allow a continuous presence is symptomatic of genuine concerns regarding Moscow’s intent. Following an extended period in which Norway could focus its military efforts on theatres as far afield as Afghanistan and Libya, Oslo is now having to face threats closer to home. NATO also has a major role in the defence of Norway and the surrounding region, but despite recent advances in its efforts in Eastern Europe, serious questions remain over the progress it has made in meeting the challenges on its northern flank.

The Cold War

During the Cold War, Norway held the dubious distinction of being one of only two NATO nations to share a border with the USSR. It also faced defensive challenges that at least matched those of Western Europe. In the event of conflict, Moscow’s priorities would have centred on destroying or capturing Norwegian airfields to prevent them being utilised for offensive operations against military assets based in the nearby Kola Peninsula. Were an offensive by Moscow into northern Norway to succeed, not only would these facilities be further secured, but Norway could then have been used by the USSR as a base for offensive air and naval operations against NATO forces in the North Atlantic and north-west Europe.

Political complications in Oslo – in large part centred on a reluctance to antagonise Moscow – prevented foreign forces from being permanently stationed in Norway. As a result, defence contingencies rested on a complex plan for national mobilisation and the arrival of reinforcements from other NATO states. At the end of the Cold War, the Norwegian Army was structured to be able to grow from a peacetime force of 20,000 personnel to a fully mobilised strength of 160,000 troops in thirteen brigades and dozens of independent units. The Royal Norwegian Air Force (RNoAF) fielded approximately ninety combat aircraft, and the Royal Norwegian Navy (RNN) focused its efforts on countering amphibious landings, fielding a large number of small vessels designed to operate in local waters, as well as a network of coastal fortifications.

NATO’s late Cold War plans to support Norway on land, centred upon the early high speed deployment of up to four brigades. The Allied Command Europe (ACE) Mobile Force (Land) acted as NATO’s rapid reaction formation, and whilst in theory a ‘go anywhere’ force, it would probably have headed to the Alliance’s northern flank in a crisis. This would have been joined by the United Kingdom/Netherlands Amphibious Force, the Canadian Air-Sea Transportable Brigade Group (CAST) and the American Norway Air-Landed Marine Expeditionary Brigade. Around two hundred combat aircraft were assigned to support these units. In time, the US Marine deployment would likely have grown into a full 50,000 Marine Expeditionary Force. Off the Norwegian coast, the late Cold War saw NATO’s efforts peak with the US-led Maritime Strategy: this envisaged multiple carrier battle groups taking up defensive positions in Norway’s fjords, before advancing to strike Soviet bases in the Kola Peninsula as part of a drive towards what was referred to as “favourable war termination”. Maritime control of the region also played a vital role in ensuring that NATO’s Atlantic sea lines of communication (SLOC) were not successfully interdicted by the USSR’s submarine fleet and air assets.

After the Wall Fell

Following the conclusion of the Cold War, force levels on both sides contracted significantly. The prospect of an outright Russian invasion of Norway is now non-existent – despite the international popularity of the Norwegian television drama Okkupert (Occupied). During the Soviet era, two motor rifle divisions, an airborne division, an airborne brigade and a naval infantry brigade – around 35,000 troops – were available to move against Norway at short notice, with the Leningrad Military District able to provide a further nine divisions within two weeks. Currently, only two Russian brigades sit opposite the Norwegian border, with a third unit further south. The Russian Northern Fleet and Russian Air Force have similarly contracted in size.

Against this backdrop, the western Alliance stood down much of its defensive provisions in the region. The Norwegian Armed Forces was drastically reduced in size as it moved away from the home defence mission to a more expeditionary posture. Notably, the Norwegian Army is now capable of fielding only a single major formation – Brigade Nord. The RNoAF fighter fleet, built around F-16s, is around two-thirds its previous size. The RNN has focused on deploying high-quality equipment such as the force’s five Fridtjof Nansenclass frigates rather than maintaining a numerically strong, resilient force structure, while all coastal defence fortifications have been abandoned.

Similarly, of the NATO forces that would have been deployed to Norway, the ACE Mobile Force and the CAST have been disbanded. The United Kingdom/Netherlands Amphibious Force is still in existence and could in theory be joined in Norway by the recently formed Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, but in practice the limited size of the NATO force stationed in Eastern Europe means that in times of tension or war, any quickly deployable units are likely to head east rather than north. The only relatively dedicated NATO commitment to Norway is that made by the US. Currently, as part of the Marine Corps Prepositioning Program-Norway (MCPP-N), the US Marines maintain a stockpile of sufficient material to support a Marine Air-Ground Task Force of 4,500 personnel (and augment a Marine Expeditionary Brigade of around 15,000) in a series of underground and surface storage facilities in the centre of the country. Out at sea, NATO units continue to conduct exercises, but on a vastly reduced scale: it has been many years since a US aircraft carrier entered Norwegian waters.

The New Reality

As with much of the rest of Europe, Russia’s actions in Ukraine spurred Oslo to undertake a revaluation of its defensive requirements. The first step in this process came with the appointing in December 2014 of an independent Expert Commission on Security and Defence Policy, with the Commission submitting its report in April the following year. Although not exclusively concerned with the challenge from Moscow, the report stated that the Operational Concept for the country’s security must recognise that “our relationship with Russia is the single most important factor in Norwegian defence planning”. The assessment claimed that the Russian intervention in Ukraine marked “the end of the ‘deep peace’ in Europe”, and highlighted the substantial Russian military build-up in its Arctic region as well as wider force modernisation efforts, including the establishment of a new Arctic Joint Security Command. It was also noted that in the event of a conflict between Russia and NATO, northern Norway would – as in the Cold War – fall within the inner layer of the Barents Sea Bastion Defences; protecting Russian Navy ballistic missile submarines patrolling from bases in the Kola Peninsula. The outer layer of the Bastion – consisting primarily of Russian Navy attack submarines with long-range maritime strike aircraft such as the Tu-22M in support – would extend deep into the Norwegian Sea.

Source: Expert Commission’s Report/Norwegian Ministry of Defence

Key new or upgraded capabilities now facing Norway include the deployment of long-range S-400 surface-to-air missiles and Bastion-P land-based anti-ship missiles near the Norwegian border, giving Russian forces the ability to seriously disrupt air and sea access to the north-east of the country through the use of an anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) strategy. On land, the brigades facing Norway are being equipped for Arctic operations, Russian Airborne units are increasingly focusing on the Arctic as a training area, and the formation of three new divisions designed for operations in the Arctic is planned.

At sea, the Russian Navy’s power remains limited in contrast to NATO as a whole, but current estimates indicate that the Russian Northern Fleet possesses six conventionally powered and ten nuclear powered submarines (both attack (SSN) and cruise missile (SSGN) types) that are operational, together with a mixed force of two cruisers, seven destroyers and a somewhat rickety aircraft carrier. The nuclear strike capability of the Northern Fleet is provided by half a dozen ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) of the Delta IV and Dolgorukiy-class. Many of these units are either being modernised or slowly supplemented by more capable new ships, such as the Severodvinsk-class SSN, as part of the State Armament Plan for 2011-2020. Air power located near Norway is limited to a handful of Russian Air Force and Navy fighter and strike squadrons, but Moscow’s operations in Syria have demonstrated the availability of long-range bombers armed with precision-guided cruise missiles to commanders in the region.

The Expert Commission’s report recommended measures to improve defensive readiness in the north of Norway, enhance command and control arrangements, increase deterrence capabilities and force sustainability, and augment the ability of Norway to receive follow-on forces from NATO to support defensive efforts. There was also acknowledgement of a need for a substantial increase in defence spending. These recommendations fed into the subsequent 2016 Long Term Defence Plan.

Domestic Reforms

The 2016 Long Term Defence Plan represents the Norwegian government’s vision for the future of the country’s defence forces. Informed by both the Expert Commission and a supporting Strategic Defence Review put forward by the Norwegian Armed Forces, the Plan identifies the five core strategic areas in need of investment as fighter aircraft, ground based air defence systems, submarines, maritime patrol aircraft and intelligence assets. This was accompanied by a budget increase of $862m over the next four years to take expenditure to $7bn per year by 2020. However, this figure will still only amount to about 1.6 per cent of Norway’s GDP – some way short of the NATO 2 per cent target.

Despite previous doubts over affordability, the RNoAF will receive 52 F-35A aircraft. Norway’s existing NASAMS II SAM system will be upgraded with extended range missiles, and a new air defence system with long-range missiles will be procured. These SAMs will primarily be used to defend the Ørland and Evene air bases – the facilities that will host the F-35s – as well as the staging areas for NATO reinforcements. The RNN’s existing fleet of six small Ula-class submarines will be supplanted by four larger vessels built in collaboration with Germany. The current six P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft are to be replaced by new jets: following the Plan’s publication, Norway placed an order for five P-8 Poseidon aircraft, giving Norway a common system to the US and UK. Finally, although most details of intelligence spending are classified, it is notable that the Norwegian Intelligence Service has recently taken delivery of a new surveillance gathering ship. However, instead of retiring its predecessor as planned, the decision has been taken to refit the older vessel for further service, doubling the number of ships available.

In contrast, land force enhancements have been limited to a small uplift in the size of the Army’s border guard unit. This falls short of the Strategic Defence Review’s recommendations that additional troops be deployed closer to the border with Russia, although the government does propose a more thorough review of the Norwegian Army in the medium term.

Key amongst the new equipment purchases is the F-35A. These will replace the current F-16 aircraft on an almost 1-for-1 basis – a phenomenon almost unheard of in post-Cold War European fighter procurement. This is a major investment: a purchase of 52 of these $100 million aircraft by Norway – a country with a population of only 5.2 million – is the equivalent of the UK buying 641 of the jets (against a notionally planned British purchase of 138 F-35Bs to supplement and then partially replace the RAF’s 156 Typhoons). This will result in Norway possessing, on a per capita basis, the most powerful air combat air in Europe.

The importance Norway places on the F-35A in the context of Russia can be seen in two additional guises. Firstly, Oslo has invested $1.3 billion in the development of the Joint Strike Missile (JSM) – a weapon that will give Norway the only stand-off anti-ship and land attack missile that will be able to fit inside the F-35A’s bomb bays, and hence maintain its stealth qualities. The JSM – with a range of up to 300 miles – was developed from the Naval Strike Missile, which in turn was intended to replace the Norwegian-designed Penguin missile in the anti-shipping/counter-amphibious landing role. The JSM therefore follows a pattern of Oslo developing weapons tailored for its defensive needs. Although not officially acknowledged, it can be speculated that the F-35A/JSM combination will be tasked with providing Norway with a conventional deterrent to an offensive from Moscow by giving the country the option of striking sensitive targets in north-east Russia. Poland has recently adopted a similar strategy through purchasing JASSM/JASSM-ER missiles for its F-16s.

Secondly, the notion that Moscow is the driving force behind the F-35A purchase is also supported by the recent unconfirmed leaking of the modelling which led to the figure of 52 aircraft being arrived at. The only scenario in which the full force was needed was in a conflict with Russia, with aircraft being tasked with air defence, anti-shipping and ground attack missions. The other two scenarios tested – the deployment of 12 aircraft outside of Norway whilst also handling a brief domestic crisis, and peace time operations, did not demand the same number of fighters.

For all of the glossy equipment promised, a great deal of the additional cash pledged will have to be put into bringing the existing force up to an acceptable level of serviceability. Both the Strategic Defence Review and the Long Term Plan stated bluntly that aging material, personnel shortfalls, a maintenance backlog and a lack of spares and ammunition stockpiles have all contributed to a deterioration in military readiness. Reports that the RNN’s frigates are regularly tied up due to maintenance requirements and lack of crew support this claim.

It must also be noted that not all of the policies advanced by the Norwegian government in the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis have been positive. Many of the efficiencies outlined in the Long Term Plan are prudent, but others seem counter-productive. Most notably, as originally drafted, the Plan envisaged disbanding the Coastal Ranger Commando – a force ideal for countering infiltration by Russian Special Forces units – and decommissioning the RNN’s six Skjold-class corvettes. In the final adopted version, the Commandos were granted a reprieve, but the intention to remove the corvettes from service “when the F-35 has sufficient overlapping capacity” was retained – a remarkable decision given that the ships are the only small combat vessels Norway possesses. This plan may also be reversed in time, but carrying it through would strip Oslo of a capability that none of its allies could replicate. Not taking measures to preserve the soon to close Bodø Air Station – a facility equipped with underground hangars and command facilities – for future use in an emergency is also a questionable decision.

The Role of NATO

If the defence policies of Norway have steadily adapted to the new reality faced, the action NATO has taken in addressing the issues presented both in Norway and the surrounding maritime region has been comparatively glacial. Understandably, the Alliance’s initial efforts have been focused on the challenges in Eastern Europe, with the 2014 NATO summit in Newport and the 2016 summit in Warsaw both seeing additional commitments to the land and air defence provision of this front. Both NATO’s northern flank and the maritime environment in general have so far been seen as secondary considerations.

NATO takes a dual role in Norway and the surrounding region. Firstly, it provides Oslo’s core territorial defence capability: Norway is unavoidably dependent on support from its allies, and outside reinforcements are a vital part of crisis response contingencies. Therefore, in the most intense scenarios, the role of the Norwegian military remains the same as that in the Cold War: hold the defensive line to the greatest extent possible, whilst also facilitating the arrival of NATO forces.

However, as previously highlighted, training exercises to actually test this are currently limited. Notably, the Cold War Teamwork series of exercises saw the Alliance rehearse the defence of Norway. Teamwork 80 witnessed 54,000 NATO personnel deployed to the region. In contrast, the far more limited Cold Response 2016 included only 15,000 participants. By way of comparison, Russia was able to mobilise 45,000 personnel during a 2015 Arctic exercise. However, this pattern should begin to reverse in 2018, when Norway is scheduled to host Trident Juncture 2018, the second of a series of post-Afghanistan NATO exercises held in a different location every three years. Trident Juncture 2015 – which took place in Portugal, Spain and Italy – was attended by approximately 36,000 personnel, and the 2018 exercise is expected to be of a similar scale.

Secondly, NATO is tasked with addressing the security of its northern flank in the context of both securing the SLOC between North American and Europe, and managing how actions in the High North would impact on a general European conflict overall. During the Cold War, maintaining control of the region was vital to the Alliance, with the Ocean Safari and Northern Wedding exercises testing the ability of NATO to defend convoys from Soviet attack and reinforce Europe. Norway and its maritime surroundings were central in this scenario, as Moscow’s attacking forces would almost all have to pass through the adjacent Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) Gap to reach their targets. Were the Soviets able to eliminate Norway, this task would have become infinitely less difficult. In contrast, the securing of Norway by NATO not only made interdicting Moscow’s anti-SLOC effort easier, but it also became theoretically possible to force the USSR to fight on the defensive in the region by advancing into the Soviet Bastion region – a concept that became the basis of the US/NATO Maritime Strategy of the late Cold War.

In contrast to NATO’s plans to regenerate its experience within Norway itself, initiatives to defend the wider theatre and exploit the northern flank’s potential to force a more defensive strategy by Moscow are still lacking. Allied Command Atlantic, which was tasked with coordinating maritime efforts, was disbanded in 2003, with NATO’s emphasis shifting to smaller scale expeditionary operations. So far, no significant effort has been made to re-establish the capability to conduct maritime operations in the northern region on a large scale. In part, this is because many of the forces required for this task no longer exist – the decline of the Royal Navy’s anti-submarine force being a particular case in point – but the loss of institutional knowledge and capacity has also been severe.

There are early signs of a dawning realisation of the need to take action. The communique released following the 2016 Warsaw Summit stated that “In the North Atlantic, as elsewhere, the Alliance will be ready to deter and defend against any potential threats, including against sea lines of communication and maritime approaches of NATO territory”. NATO is currently in the process of updating its contingency plans for the defence of Norway and the surrounding region. On a practical level, the US is taking cautious steps to re-establish a presence in the region following the 2006 closure of Naval Air Station Keflavik in Iceland by recommencing periodic deployments of maritime patrol aircraft to the former base, and the UK is regenerating its fixed-wing ASW capability with the purchase of the P-8 Poseidon aircraft. However, much remains to be done.


Owing to factors beyond its control – chiefly its small population, geographical isolation and proximity to a far larger potential foe – Norway will never be able to stand alone. Since 1949, NATO has been the linchpin of its defensive efforts, with Oslo’s own unique capabilities combining with the overall power of the Alliance to fashion a credible deterrent. The latest policy shift by Norway has shown that this tradition holds today. Always pragmatic and never seeking to antagonise Russia without necessity, the country remains a major source of stability in Northern Europe.

However, while Oslo has stepped up its efforts, concerns must remain about how NATO views the role of its northern flank in the latest round of tensions with Russia. Although the Alliance took a major interest in the region throughout the Cold War, it was only in the era’s closing years that it was concluded that Norway and its surroundings were not just either a staging ground for a nuclear apocalypse or a defensive sideshow, but potentially a key factor in ending a war in Central Europe on terms favourable to the West. Now, there is scope to believe that Norway and the region it inhabits may once again have a major role to play both in deterrent and warfighting efforts. However, as demonstrated by the three years that elapsed between Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the arrival of NATO land forces in the Baltic States, policy movement in the Alliance can be painfully slow. There is now a need for NATO to get off the back foot and take the initiative.

The Human Security Centre will be launching a major review of the role of NATO’s northern flank in Alliance security, with publication expected March 2018.

About Rowan Allport

Dr Rowan Allport is a Deputy Director who leads the HSC's Security and Defence team. Rowan holds a PhD in Politics and a MA in Conflict, Governance and Development from the University of York, as well as a BA (Hons) in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from the University of Hull. Specialising in strategic analysis and international security, Rowan's primary areas of interest lie in the defence issues in and around the NATO region, interstate conflict and US foreign policy discourse. He is also the lead author of HSC's recent ‘Fire and Ice: A New Maritime Strategy for NATO’s Northern Flank’ report. Rowan's publication credits include articles and commentary in Foreign Policy, The Diplomat, The Hill, DefenseOne, RealClearDefense, The Strategist, UK Defence Journal, Politics.co.uk and The National Interest. He has previously worked as a lobbyist for the Whitehouse Consultancy in Westminster, and as a Senior Analyst for RAND Europe's Security, Defence and Infrastructure team.