Norway Expands Key Arctic Port for More US Nuke Sub Visits

 In CIS, Russia, Forces & Capabilities, U.S. Navy, Norway, Threats, NATO

USS Seawolf during a stop for personnel off the coast of Tromsø, Norway, Aug. 21.

WASHINGTON: A key Arctic port in Norway has been improved and addi­tions made to pave the way for increased visits by US nuclear sub­marines, pro­vid­ing a major new jump­ing off point for watch­ing Russia’s active Northern Fleet as it tran­sits into the North Atlantic.

Twice over the past year, the US Navy has made public dis­plays of its nuclear sub­marines dock­ing in Norway, send­ing a clear signal to Russia about the American pres­ence in the region and pro­vid­ing a rare glimpse into the secre­tive world or under­sea deploy­ments. Of course, Norway would have been asked to approve those releas­es, send­ing its own signal to the Russians. But those visits were brief, and mostly for effect. The new work will allow American and NATO sub­marines to pull into the port and replen­ish, allow­ing for longer deploy­ments to the crit­i­cal Arctic region.

A senior US defense offi­cial speak­ing on back­ground told me, “the US and Norway have a great rela­tion­ship, and our abil­i­ty to use facil­i­ties in and around Tromso would pro­vide a strate­gic loca­tion for our visits,” which happen about four times a year. “It would give us flex­i­bil­i­ty for not only the US but allied coun­tries to exer­cise in the High North.”

The work done at Tromso, which sits about 190 miles above the Arctic Circle, has been com­plet­ed, but local offi­cials “are now doing nec­es­sary adjust­ments and changes to var­i­ous local reg­u­la­tions and plans,” Marita Isaksen Wangberg, a spokesper­son for the Norwegian mil­i­tary told me via email. “This work has to be final­ized before nuclear sub­marines can visit the actual harbor.” Getting the reg­u­la­tions squared away is the last step, as “the phys­i­cal adap­ta­tion of the port facil­i­ties has been com­plet­ed,” Wangberg added.

Tromso has long been a hub of mil­i­tary activ­i­ty given its prox­im­i­ty to Russia’s Kola penin­su­la, home to Moscow’s pow­er­ful Northern Fleet. 

On August 21, the US fast attack sub­ma­rine USS Seawolf parked off the coast of Tromso to take on new crew mem­bers, the Navy acknowl­edged in a rare state­ment com­ment­ing on the activ­i­ties of its secre­tive sub­ma­rine fleet. The name­sake boat of just four Seawolf-class fast attack sub­marines which spe­cial­ize in intel­li­gence col­lec­tion, the Washington-based sub­ma­rine was likely oper­at­ing under the Arctic ice before stop­ping off the coast of Tromso.

Just days before the visit, the Navy also pub­li­cized the visit of destroy­er USS Roosevelt to Tromso on Aug. 17 as it wrapped up a 50-day patrol in the High North.

“Norway’s sup­port illus­trates how much we depend on our NATO allies to con­duct at-sea oper­a­tions,” Capt. Joseph Gagliano, com­man­der, Task Force 65 said in a state­ment. “Tromso’s sup­port to Roosevelt demon­strates Norway’s com­mit­ment to us.”

Likewise, Seawolf’s deploy­ment from Bangor, Wash., to Norway “demon­strates the Submarine Force’s global reach and com­mit­ment to pro­vide per­sis­tent and clan­des­tine under­sea forces world­wide to exe­cute our unique mis­sions,” Navy Vice Adm. Daryl Caudle, the service’s top sub­ma­rine offi­cer, said in a statement.

Just a day before the Seawolf’s arrival, six B‑52 bombers landed in the UK after flying from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota. The air­craft sub­se­quent­ly flew with the Norwegian air force and passed over each of NATO’s 30 nations in a fly­over that clear­ly caught Moscow’s atten­tion, lead­ing to a series of inci­dents stretch­ing from the Baltic to the Black seas.

On Aug. 28, a pair of Russian Su-27 jets passed about 100 feet in front of two B‑52s over the Black Sea in what US offi­cials described as an “unsafe and unprofessional” pass-by. Days later, anoth­er Su-27, flying from Kaliningrad, briefly chased anoth­er B‑52 into Danish air­space

Just days before these high-flying antics, Russian army vehi­cles injured seven American sol­diers in north­ern Syria when they rammed US MRAPs in a high-speed chase. 

Cold War-style provo­ca­tions are becom­ing increas­ing­ly common, but the chang­ing face of the port in Tromso will likely have long-last­ing strate­gic effects for NATO and how it oper­ates in the increas­ing­ly impor­tant Arctic. 

“The Seawolf deploy­ment, the joint B‑52 flights over Norway last month, and our car­ri­er going north of Arctic Circle for Trident Juncture all speak to a greater show of US pres­ence in the Arctic/High North,” said Rachel Ellehuus, deputy direc­tor of the Europe Program at the Washington-based CSIS. “Interestingly, they all had an ele­ment of strate­gic sur­prise,” she added, “which I’m sure makes our Norwegian allies ner­vous as they prefer pre­dictabil­i­ty in the region. I’d also note that the US is still behind in field­ing some basic capa­bil­i­ties needed to work in an Arctic envi­ron­ment.” 

The last pub­li­cized US sub­ma­rine visit to Norway came back in November, when the US 6th Fleet tweeted photos show­ing MK-48 Advanced Capability tor­pe­dos being loaded aboard the USS Minnesota at Haakonsvern Naval Base. 

The sub showed up just after 10 Russian sub­marines were detect­ed moving into the North Atlantic where they con­duct­ed live-fire tests while play­ing a game of cat-and-mouse with US and NATO subs and sub-hunt­ing air­craft.

More changes for the US pos­ture in the High North may be coming. Washington and Oslo are wrap­ping up a pro­tract­ed nego­ti­a­tion period meant to update their exist­ing defense coop­er­a­tion agree­ment, a doc­u­ment which gov­erns how US forces can pos­ture them­selves within the coun­try, and how the two nations will work togeth­er mil­i­tary. 

Much like the agree­ment just reached with Poland, the pact will push the rela­tion­ship between the two coun­tries into the new era of increased aggres­sive­ness by Moscow, which ranges from dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paigns on social media to unsafe fly-bys and other provo­ca­tions.

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