As Trump Shakes Up America’s Military Footprint in Europe, the US and Russia Are Making Moves in the High North

 In U.S. Air Force, Europe, CIS, Russia, EMEA, U.S. Navy, Norway

The Seawolf-class fast attack submarine USS Seawolf (SSN 21) conducts a brief stop for personnel in the Norwegian Sea off the coast of Tromsø, Norway, Aug. 21, 2020.

The Seawolf-class fast attack submarine USS Seawolf (SSN 21) conducts a brief stop for personnel in the Norwegian Sea off the coast of Tromsø, Norway, Aug. 21, 2020.

(U.S. Navy photo)

Editor’s Note: This arti­cle orig­i­nal­ly appeared on Business Insider.

United States mil­i­tary activ­i­ty around Norway this month reflects the con­tin­u­ing strate­gic value of NATO’s north­ern­most member, even as the Trump admin­is­tra­tion changes the U.S. foot­print there and across Europe.

The U.S. and Norwegian mil­i­taries have longstanding ties, but mil­i­tary activity in the area has increased as the region grows more acces­si­ble and ten­sions with Russia remain high. Mid-August saw a flurry of such activ­i­ty by the United States.

On August 17, guided-mis­sile destroy­er USS Roosevelt stopped in Tromsø in north­ern Norway after a 50-day patrol in the high north, where the Roosevelt and other U.S. ships “have received stead­fast sup­port from Norway,” the Navy said.

On August 21, the West Coast-based attack sub­ma­rine USS Seawolf made a brief stop near Tromsø after trav­el­ing across the planet to oper­ate around Europe.

The Navy rarely announces the where­abouts of its subs — espe­cial­ly one of the sophis­ti­cat­ed Seawolf class, designed to take on the Soviets — indi­cat­ing this was likely meant as a mes­sage.

“The arrival of Seawolf com­pli­ments our already robust under­sea war­fare capa­bil­i­ties and demon­strates our con­tin­ued com­mit­ment to pro­vid­ing mar­itime secu­ri­ty and deter­rence through­out the region,” Rear Adm. Anthony Carullo, com­man­der of the Naples-based Submarine Group 8, said in a release.

The action wasn’t lim­it­ed to the sea. Norwegian fight­er jets trained with U.S. Air Force B‑52 bombers before the bombers’ August 22 arrival in the UK for a bomber task force rota­tion.

“Training out­side the U.S. enables air­crew and airmen to become famil­iar with other the­aters and air­space” and to build on exist­ing skills and rela­tion­ships, an Air Force spokesper­son said in an email.

Flight track­ers appeared to show the bombers flying north from North Dakota, trav­el­ing over Greenland and through the Arctic before approach­ing the UK over the Norwegian Sea. The Air Force spokesper­son declined to com­ment on the bombers’ route, citing oper­a­tional secu­ri­ty.

‘We are wherever we want’

Norwegian soldiers patrol Norway's side of the border with Russia, in Pasvik valley, Finnmark county, Norway, October 23, 2019.

Norwegian soldiers patrol Norway's side of the border with Russia, in Pasvik valley, Finnmark county, Norway, October 23, 2019.

(Reuters/Maxim Shemetov)

As Russian mil­i­tary capa­bil­i­ties in the Arctic eroded after the Cold War, NATO’s focus on the region “rapid­ly faded,” said Heather Conley, senior vice pres­i­dent for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Interest in the Arctic has grown recent­ly as it becomes more accessible. Russia has refo­cused on the region as eco­nom­ic and mil­i­tary imper­a­tive “for well over the past decade,” Conley said. “The U.S. and NATO have only recent­ly arrived at the redis­cov­ery phase about two years ago.”

Russia, which has the world’s longest Arctic coast­line, has been refurbishing military facilities there and con­duct­ing more exer­cis­es.

The US has “grown steadi­ly con­cerned” about Russia’s moves, par­tic­u­lar­ly its submarine activity in the North Atlantic as well as flights far­ther south by its long-range bombers, Conley said. The U.S. has increased its Arctic activ­i­ty, includ­ing military exercises not done since the Cold War.

With the recent activ­i­ty around Norway, “the U.S. is sig­nal­ing, with its NATO part­ners, that it will deter and defend NATO’s north­ern flank and the North Atlantic,” Conley said.

Actions by one side in one part of the Arctic are often matched by the other in anoth­er part. Conley point­ed to a recent Russian mil­i­tary exer­cise near Alaska as con­text for events around Norway.

A Russian sub that sur­faced during those drills was “a signal” that “we are wher­ev­er we want,” a former Russian navy chief of staff told Russian state media.

There is uncer­tain­ty on both sides about the other's intentions in the Arctic, and a proper forum is “urgent­ly” needed to pro­vide trans­paren­cy for increas­ing mil­i­tary activ­i­ty there, Conley said.

NATO’s eyes and ears

U.S. Marine 1st Lt. Aidan Frombach conducts patrolling drills during cold-weather training in Porsangmoen, Norway, February 20, 2017.

U.S. Marine 1st Lt. Aidan Frombach conducts patrolling drills during cold-weather training in Porsangmoen, Norway, February 20, 2017.

(U.S. Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Victoria Ross)

The increase in U.S. activ­i­ty in Europe’s high north comes as the U.S. revis­es its mil­i­tary foot­print around the con­ti­nent.

In July, top U.S. defense offi­cials announced that thou­sands of U.S. troops sta­tioned in Germany would return home or move else­where in Europe, saying the moves improved oper­a­tional effi­cien­cy and posi­tion­ing.

Critics argued the changes didn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly improve readi­ness and point­ed instead to President Donald Trump’s dis­dain for Germany as a motive, which Trump himself basically confirmed.

The U.S. Marine Corps also said this month that it was adjusting its presence in Norway, ending the back-to-back rota­tions of sev­er­al hun­dred Marines that it has con­duct­ed since 2017 and shift­ing to an “episod­ic” pres­ence aligned with mil­i­tary exer­cis­es there.

The risk of a con­flict start­ing in the high north is still con­sid­ered low, but Norway and its neigh­bors have noted increas­ing Russian mil­i­tary activ­i­ty, par­tic­u­lar­ly its tests of new weapons.

“As a close neigh­bor to Russia in the north, Norway is wit­ness­ing an increas­ing­ly potent Russian mil­i­tary capa­bil­i­ty,” Tone Skogen, state sec­re­tary at the Norwegian Ministry of Defense, said in June.

Russian exer­cis­es have shown “how Russia is increas­ing­ly coming closer to our coasts [and] how they are increas­ing­ly far­ther south,” Skogen said.

With those exer­cis­es, Skogen added, Russia has been able “to more or less suc­cess­ful­ly demon­strate” an abil­i­ty to close off the Scandinavian Peninsula to pro­tect its mil­i­tary instal­la­tions on the nearby Kola Peninsula, where the pow­er­ful Northern Fleet is based.

Though new mil­i­tary capa­bil­i­ties have changed what a conflict with Russia might look like for Norway, the Nordic coun­try’s strate­gic impor­tance hasn’t changed.

“Norway has and con­tin­ues to be vital to the pro­tec­tion of Europe and North America through the ‘avenue of approach’ from the High North,” Conley said. “Norway is NATO’s ‘sentry’ in the North and its eyes and ears to detect Russian mil­i­tary activ­i­ty near and around the Kola Peninsula and Russia’s Northern Fleet.”

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