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First Person: Arctic Security in Flux
Monday, June 11, 2018

By Alex Tiersky, Senior Policy Advisor

As the Helsinki Commission’s global security and political-military affairs policy advisor, I regularly travel to observe and evaluate changing security conditions that have a direct impact on the interests of the United States. 

In May, following an invitation to join a group of senior U.S. security experts in Norway to study the security challenges of NATO’s northern flank, I found myself in one of the northernmost towns in the world: Longyearbyen, on the archipelago of Svalbard, Norway. The delegation of government officials, independent experts, and journalists was organized by the Atlantic Council of the United States.

We met with a variety of government officials and non-governmental experts over two days in Oslo, before flying more than 1,200 miles north to Svalbard, an Arctic archipelago halfway between the Norwegian mainland and the North Pole. In Svalbard we met with the Norwegian Coast Guard, the Svabard Satellite Station (SvalSat), the Norwegian Polar Institute, and the Svalbard Governor’s office.

Among the many strands emerging from the week of off-the-record discussions, several stood out as key takeaways.

Maintaining Close Relations with U.S. and NATO

Norway’s security is inextricably linked to its defense relationship with the United States and with NATO more broadly, interlocutors told us. This distinguishes Norway from its neighbors Sweden and Finland, both of which have sought to provide for their defense primarily on a national basis.  As a result, Norway puts a premium on predictability in its relationship with the United States and with NATO, and would consider any threat to NATO cohesion as a national security concern. Maintaining unity is among the highest Norwegian priorities for the July NATO Summit in Brussels.

Norway will continue to invest carefully in its defense capabilities and in its relationship with the United States, we were told. Norwegian officials hailed the long-standing defense relationship, exemplified by the pre-positioning of U.S. Marine Corps equipment in Norway since the 1980s, and more recently by the $35B Norwegian purchase of F-35s. Norway also is purchasing new conventional submarines, and replacing aging P-3 Orion and DA-20 Jet Falcon maritime patrol aircraft with the Boeing-built P-8A.

The presence of more than 300 U.S. Marines performing cold-weather training in Norway, while still politically sensitive, is seen as a success by most political parties and was recently extended by Norway through 2018.  Independent analysts suggested that there was a strong likelihood the arrangement would likely be extended beyond 2018—and quite possibly lengthened in duration to a multi-year agreement—as well as increased  to include greater numbers of Marines (a move that was subsequently publicly announced).

Concerns over Russian Activities

Russia’s increased military activities in the north featured prominently in our discussions.  Norway’s Russia policy will continue to rely on a dual-track policy of deterrence and reassurance vis-a-vis its neighbor to the east, interlocutors suggested. However, they underlined that Norway must consider the rapidly advancing capabilities of the Russian armed forces, even if they are not directed at Norwegian territory.

Norway closely monitored the major Russian military exercise ZAPAD 2017, which I witnessed in person.  While the exercise did not result in the direst scenarios feared in the Baltic region, its components in the north were significant and raised many concerns.  During the maneuvers, Russian armed forces demonstrated an ability to move land forces over strategic distances quickly and stealthily; cover them with an anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) bubble through measures including electronic warfare (which impacted civilian air traffic in the area), and deploy a follow-on deterrent in the dual-capable (nuclear/conventional) ISKANDER tactical ballistic missile.

In addition to the increased tempo of Russian operations in the north, one particular concern is a new class of Russian submarines, the Yasen-class, which demonstrates a greater capacity for stealth and formidable armament, potentially holding much of Europe and the North Atlantic sea lanes at risk.

The strategic Russian Kola Peninsula, only 140 miles from Norwegian border, represents the largest concentration of non-western military power in the world, interlocutors reminded us. This area also represents the heart of the Russian “bastion defense” concept.  Norway’s unique location and relatively tension-free relations with Russia allow Norway to play an important role in providing its allies with important intelligence and situational awareness on Russian activities in the North Atlantic region.

In a larger context, interlocutors suggested that we should anticipate that Russia will continue to develop its arctic coastline, rich in natural resources and with increasingly accessible shipping to Asian markets.  This development, they argued, including the reinforcement of military infrastructure and ice breakers, makes sense in the context of protecting and enabling this economic potential and need not be seen as threatening.

Svalbard is accessible to citizens and companies from all signatories to the 1920 treaty granting full sovereignty to Norway, an agreement that also forbids naval bases and fortifications on the archipelago (but not creating what some have misunderstood as a “demilitarized zone”).  Its “extreme northern location” offers a number of advantages, the delegation learned at the Svabard Satellite Station (SvalSat), the world’s largest commercial ground station for satellite control.  The station provides satellite coverage to owners and operators of polar orbiting satellites, linked by fiber-optic communication links between Svalbard and mainland Norway.

Rising Temperatures in the Arctic

Norwegian interlocutors emphasized that the Arctic should be recognized by all Allies as NATO territory in the north. As a result, the rapid warming of the Arctic, and the acceleration of the changing climate in the region that was witnessed in Svalbard, merited Alliance-wide attention, they argued.  A senior Norwegian Polar Institute scientist who has worked in Svalbard for 30 years told the delegation that the temperature change in the Artic was measurable, demonstrated, and greater than even the most pessimistic predictions of only a few decades ago, a dynamic he attributed directly to levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

The delegation had the opportunity to board a Norwegian Coast Guard vessel for a briefing on the guard’s responsibilities, which include monitoring an area seven times larger than the Norwegian mainland.  The distances involved posed significant challenges for the relatively small number of vessels to meet the Guard’s the goal of remaining “always present,” and fulfilling its responsibilities in the areas such as monitoring fisheries and search and rescue.  These challenges are becoming more acute, as the warming climate makes the waters increasingly accessible to maritime traffic of all sorts.

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