U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Norwegian Minister of Defense Ine Marie Eriksen Soreide talk during a meeting at Bodo Air Base, Norway, Sept. 9, 2016. Credit Tech. Sgt. Brigitte N. Brantley, Department of Defense
By Jacqueline Klimas
The Washington Examiner
BODO, Norway — Sitting between Russian’s aggressive behavior and NATO’s attempt to rein it in is Norway, a key U.S. ally that often serves as a bridge between the two groups.
Because of the close relationship that has developed, Norway can provide a window into Russia’s motivations and world view that is “worth gold” to the U.S. as it tries to understand the nuances of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions, according to a senior U.S. defense official.
“They are a bridge in a lot of ways and they help explain their view,” the official said.
Norway shares a land and sea border with Russia, which has forced the two countries over hundreds of years to form a working partnership, including some exercises together before Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. Following Russia’s land grab in Ukraine, Norway cut off most military cooperation, but still maintains a relationship in areas such as border security and search and rescue at sea.
Subscribe today to get intelligence and analysis on defense and national security issues in your Inbox each weekday morning from veteran journalists Jamie McIntyre and Jacqueline Klimas.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter spent Friday in Norway, receiving briefings on what Norwegians are observing in the Arctic and seeing some of their capabilities firsthand. During a press conference in Oslo, he thanked Norwegian Defense Minister Ine Marie Eriksen Soreide for “showing me this beautiful as well as incredibly capable country.”
The visit included a ride in a rigid-hull inflatable boat in the coastal town of Bodo that left Carter and other U.S. officials impressed with what Norway can do.
“They’re quiet, but they are probably some of the most competent and capable allies we have,” the senior U.S. defense official said.
During Carter’s trip, a Russian jet came within 10 feet of a U.S. surveillance plane over the Black Sea in a move the Pentagon called “unsafe and unprofessional.” It’s only the latest in a series of buzzes, in addition to regular verbal clashes between Putin and President Obama.
But the U.S. defense official said Norway’s relationship with Russia proves that it’s possible to deal with Putin if you’re willing to put in the patience and work.
“They sit there and work it through until it’s done,” the official said.
Norway was liberated after five years of Nazi occupation during World War II by Russia, which then pulled back and gave the land back to the Norwegians. The incident is the reason Norway joined NATO, the Norwegian official said. While staying neutral had worked during World War I, the takeover by German troops prompted Norway to join the alliance so such a takever could never happen again.
Because of that history, a Norwegian military official said Norway’s relationship with Russia has “always been quite respectful in all domains.”
“We have a very different situation from what you see in the Baltics,” the Norwegian official said. “We have had incidents of buzzing, but those are things we report back to Russians. … It’s not a thing, more a pilot error or hothead pilot.”
Still, the official emphasized that while Norway has a good relationship with Russia, it is also a strong partner in NATO, which has condemned Russia’s actions in Crimea.
“Norway does not feel threatened by Russia … but if one of our allies in NATO feels threatened, we feel threatened. That’s what NATO is about,” the official said.
The Norwegian NATO quick reaction force is stationed in Bodo to scramble on a 50-minute alert if something is detected in Norwegian airspace. So far in 2016, the Norwegians have identified 15 aircraft and had to scramble jets 11 times. That’s on track to be a decrease from recent years, the official said.
For comparison, 2015 saw 51 identifications and 30 scrambles, while 2014 had 74 IDs and 49 scrambles. The official said at the height of the Cold War, the numbers were in the hundreds, while in the years after, there were almost zero issues.
The drop can be attributed to much of the airpower that used to fly in the Arctic heading south to fly missions over Syria, the official said.
While air intercepts are decreasing, Norwegian surveillance of Russian naval activity is on the rise as the Kremlin conducts more training with new naval assets, like submarines. The official also said they are seeing the Russians undertake more complex exercises that use air, sea and land forces together, and are modernizing their equipment.
While Norway’s proximity to Russia gives it a key role to play in efforts to end Russian aggression, the partnership between Norway and the U.S. goes far beyond that. Norway is a member of the coalition fighting the Islamic State, including training Peshmerga troops in Irbil, Iraq. In addition, Norwegian special operators will begin deploying to Jordan in the fall to advise and assist local Syrian forces, the official said.
Norwegian troops are also still in Afghanistan, helping the special police in Kabul. They responded and helped rescue hostages during this summer’s attack at the American University of Afghanistan, according to the official.
Norway is also a partner for the U.S. defense industry, and its biggest purchase is Lockheed Martin’s F-35. Norwegian pilots are training on the new joint strike fighter at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, and are set to receive their first jets in their home country next year. The F-35 will reach initial operating capability in 2019 and will be stationed at Orland Air Force Station, a Norwegian defense official said. It will reach full capability in 2022.
The country is investing substantial funds into changing the infrastructure at the base to accommodate the F-35, the second official said, including building new aircraft shelters, increasing base protection to protect American interests in the jet, and extending runways.
Asked if problems with the jet’s software system are giving the Norwegians pause about their investment, the official said “I have no doubt that the system already is splendid and will be just perfect. All new systems will have problems of some kind.”
Norway has not yet met the NATO goal of spending 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense, but Carter said during a press conference in Oslo that what matters more is that the country is investing in the “right way.” About 20 percent of Norway’s defense budget goes to buying equipment, including new platforms like the F-35 that will strengthen Norway’s ability to both itself and contribute to NATO, Carter said.
Norway is also replacing its fleet of P-3 Orion surveillance planes and is considering buying the P-8, which is made by Boeing.
“We are not yet at a stage where we can say what kind of platforms we can acquire and the number of platforms, but that will be done in due course,” Soreide said.
Tags: aircraft shelters, Ash Carter, Bodo, Crimea, F-35, Ine Marie Eriksen Soreide, Lockheed Martin, NATO, Norway, Norway knows Russia's motivations, Norway's border with Russia, Norway's defense budget, Norway's relationship with Russia, Norwegian defense, Norwegian Minister of Defense Ine Marie Eriksen Soreide, Norwegian NATO quick reaction force, Norwegian pilots, Norwegian special operators, Orland Air Force Station, Putin, Russia, Russia's motivations, Russian aggression, scrambles, U. S.