In late November, the US and Norway held Reindeer II military exercise above the Arctic Circle, with heavy Abrams tanks moving further north closer to the 200 km long Russia’s border.
Some 300 US Marines may soon be getting a new home in Norway. They are due to be based at the Værnes military base near Trondheim on a rotational basis from January to bolster the readiness of new «pre-positioned» tanks and weaponry stored throughout the year in underground caves. Værnes lies about 1,000 kilometres (600 miles) from the Russian-Norwegian frontier.
The air station also serves as part of Marine Corps Prepositioning Program-Norway, a program that allows the US military to store thousands of vehicles and other major pieces of equipment in temperature-controlled caves ready for combat.
Three hundred is not a great number but the force can be easily reinforced. Maj. Gen. Niel E. Nelson, commander of Marine Corps Forces Europe, said a limited rotational presence would enhance the US military partnership with Norway. According to him, «However, we still need to let the Norwegian government make this decision before discussing any details. If approved by the Norwegian government, a Marine Corps presence in Norway will increase NATO's ability to rapidly aggregate and employ forces in Northern Europe».
The cave complex is back in active use now holding some 6,500 pieces of the equipment – enough to support 15,000 Marines. According to Military Today, it includes M1A1 Abrams tanks, AAV7 amphibious armored personnel carriers, LAV-25 armored reconnaissance vehicles, LVSR heavy high mobility trucks, MTVR trucks and HMMWV light tactical vehicles, recovery vehicles, artillery systems, construction and earthmoving equipment, trailers, towed carriages, generators, bulk fuel, tents, shelters, various tools. Aircraft support equipment includes towing tractors, cranes, de-icing equipment, and so on.
It is known that there are at least 8 of such military caves are in different locations around the region of Trondheim. Three of them are used to store military vehicles; three are storing munitions while two hold aviation support equipment. All of the vehicles, gear and equipment stored there are in good running order and await for their next assignment.
According to Colonel William Bentley, operations officer for the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, «Any gear that is forward-deployed both reduces cost and speeds up our ability to support operations in crisis, so we’re able to fall in on gear that is ready-to-go and respond to whatever that crisis may be».
Building up weapons stockpiles is a key part of US strategy to enhance its capabilities in Europe. There are plans to warehouse tanks, artillery and other fighting vehicles at locations around the Old Continent.
This measure is just a part of a broader picture. There are other plans to beef up US military presence in Norway under consideration. «The former Royal Norwegian Navy base at Olavsvern is ideal for supporting submarine operations in the extreme North Atlantic and Arctic Seas», says a recent report by the well-known Washington-based Center for Strategic and international Studies (CSIS).
The CSIS experts believe it may be possible for Norway to nationalize and reopen a portion of the facility to support the rotational presence of US, UK, French, and Norwegian submarines.
It should be noted that Olavsvern was NATO’s closest naval base to Russia’s submarine bases along the coast of the Kola Peninsula west of Murmansk. .The paper notes that the United States needs to leverage its bilateral relationships with Norway in order to develop and deploy a new generation of undersea sensing capabilities.
Earlier this year, Norway’s new intelligence gathering vessel «Marjata» started to sail northern waters. The vessel has Kirkenes near the border to Russia as homeport and the sophisticated electronic intelligence collection equipment on board is delivered by the United States.
In summer, Norwegian media reported that a study group from the US Navy visited both Andøya and Evenes airports in northern Norway. The task was to see if any of the two airports could be suitable to serve as a base for American P-8 Poseidon patrol aircraft.
It’s not the US only. In November, the UK and Norway signed an agreement on Maritime Patrol Aircraft, ensuring Norway’s support for UK exercises. British Defense Secretary Sir Michael Fallon visited Norway’s Bodø Main Air Station, home of two F-16 squadrons and a squadron of Search and Rescue Sea King helicopters to sign a new agreement on host nation support for UK military training in the country.
Sir Michael welcomed the fact that British armed forces undertake yearly winter training in Norway, particularly 3 Commando Brigade in Harstad and Evenes and elements of Joint Helicopter Command at Bardufoss. The UK announced that it would procure nine Boeing P8 MPA in last year’s Strategic Defence and Security Review.
Before joining NATO in 1949, Norway promised not to let foreign combat forces deploy on its territory as long as the country was not under attack or threatened with attack. Norway has not publicly announced feeling threatened by Russia or any other country.
The commitment was subsequently amended so that foreign troops could carry out exercises on Norwegian soil. The policy of non-stationing foreign troops even at the height of the Cold War has always been an advantage for Norway as a partner over other members of the alliance.
Norwegian Defense Ministry spokeswoman Ann Kristin Salbuvik said «there is no question of permanent deployment» as the presence of the Marines would be temporary, though no timeline has been specified. But rotating Marine Corps units does not make the deployment «temporary» as Norway will always have a contingent of foreign forces on its soil. Oslo appears to abandon the policy that served it so well for so long.
«We don’t understand why something like this is being done, in a time of peace», Maria Zakharova, the Russia’s Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson, told Norwegian NRK TV channel. «The fact that the Norwegian authorities say these troops will be rotated doesn’t especially ease our concerns», she noted. «It only means that the soldiers will be shifted out, while the base will lie there permanently».
One does not have to be an expert on defense matters to realize that the only purpose for the deployment is preparation for an attack against Russia. After all, the Marines are the first strike force. Russia does not deploy its first strike units near US national borders but America does send its Marines to be based in the proximity of Russian borders.
The deployment of NATO forces to Norway is clearly a provocative act directed at Moscow. Norway shares a 121 mile border with Russia, while the Russian Northern Fleet is based in the Murmansk region, approximately 100 miles from the border. This provocation is taking place at the time the Russia-NATO relationship is at the lowest ebb.
These steps are taken against the background of other much talked about plans to boost NATO’s presence and intensify its military activities in the proximity of Russia’s borders.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has recently warned that Russia will not sit idle, it will respond. The countries that host forces and weapons systems destined to strike Russia inevitably become targets themselves. Shifting away from the «no foreign forces on national soil» true-and tries policy presupposes responsibility for the consequences. Steps hostile to Moscow provoke a response. Russia did not start it. There is still some time left till January 2017 before the US Marines are deployed on Norwegian soil. The ball is in the court of Norway’s government.