US, NATO Warships Exercise Off Russia’s Arctic Coast

 In Sea, CIS, Russia, U.S. Navy, Norway, P5

USS Ross conducts a refueling at sea with British Royal Fleet Auxiliary Tidespring replenishment tanker, Sept. 5, 2020.

WASHINGTON: An American destroyer is hold­ing naval exer­cis­es with Norwegian and British frigates just 115 miles off Russia’s Arctic coast­line, capping two weeks of US and Russian maneu­ver­ing in the skies above Europe and the waters close to key ter­rain.

The UK-led drills are taking place in inter­na­tion­al waters, but inside Russia’s claimed 200 nau­ti­cal mile Exclusive Economic Zone. (These zones restrict for­eign com­mer­cial activ­i­ty such as fish­ing and drilling, but mil­i­tary oper­a­tions in anoth­er country’s EEZ are allowed under inter­na­tion­al law). The tran­sit is the latest exam­ple of what looks to be a new normal for the Navy as more ves­sels move north into the Arctic, includ­ing what US and Norwegian offi­cials say will be more US sub­marines calling at the refurbished port of Tromso, Norway, above the Arctic Circle.

The UK-led exer­cise is being led by the Royal Navy frigate HMS Sutherland, joined by the Arleigh Burke-class destroy­er USS Ross, British Royal Fleet Auxiliary RFA Tidespring, and Royal Norwegian frigate HNoMS Thor Heyerdahl, and Danish and Norwegian patrol air­craft.

The small task force is  oper­at­ing off Russia’s Fisherman penin­su­la, a small pro­tru­sion that makes up part of the larger Kola penin­su­la which houses Russia’s pow­er­ful Northern Fleet and the country’s main sub­ma­rine base, and bris­tles with mis­sile bat­ter­ies. 

Though the ships are close to the Russian main­land, “all activ­i­ty taking place these coming days will be in International waters,” Norway’s National Joint Headquarters spokesman Lt. Col. Ivar Moen told me via email.

That only means so much to the watch­ful Russians nearby, how­ev­er. On Tuesday, a Russian MiG-29 fight­er jet attached to the Northern Fleet inter­cept­ed a Norwegian P‑3 Orion over the Barents Sea, the latest in a string of Russian inter­cepts of Norwegian sur­veil­lance planes that have increased ten­sions in the region. On Saturday, a MiG-31 fight­er trailed anoth­er Norwegian P‑3 over inter­na­tion­al waters, mark­ing the third con­sec­u­tive day Russian planes inter­cept­ed Norwegian air­craft.

So far, there have been no reports of Russian ships or sub­marines shad­ow­ing the NATO ships.

The British Royal Navy said in a state­ment that push­ing the small task force into the High North “demon­strates the com­mit­ment of the UK and its allies to free­dom of access and nav­i­ga­tion in the region.”

The remark is a nod toward Russian claims in the Arctic, and Moscow’s sug­ges­tions it has the right to reg­u­late sea traf­fic along its expan­sive Arctic coast­line. The Barents Sea along the Kola penin­su­la is a par­tic­u­lar­ly sen­si­tive area, as it’s how Russia’s Northern Fleet pushes out into the North Atlantic.  

Vice Adm. Gene Black, com­man­der, US Sixth Fleet said, ​​“our mar­itime advan­tage con­tin­ues to be our strong, cohe­sive part­ner­ships,” said. “Our forces are able to con­duct sus­tained oper­a­tions in the vital water­ways in the Arctic because of the sup­port and coop­er­a­tion of our inter­na­tion­al part­ners, allow­ing us to be present togeth­er where and when it mat­ters.”

​​​​“This oppor­tu­ni­ty to train with Norway and the U.K. is invalu­able to the crew,” said Ross’s com­mand­ing offi­cer, Cmdr. John D. John. “Our Sailors have been work­ing with their coun­ter­parts on other ships to gain pro­fi­cien­cy in maneu­vers at-sea, air oper­a­tions, tac­tics, and com­mu­ni­ca­tions and we look for­ward to car­ry­ing this over to our other oper­a­tions through­out the region.”

The US and UK oper­at­ed togeth­er in the Barents in May, when the destroy­ers USS Donald Cook, USS Porter, and USS Roosevelt were joined by the Royal Navy’s HMS Kent in a series of exer­cis­es.

The Roosevelt also wrapped up a 50-day patrol to the region on Aug. 27 during which it par­tic­i­pat­ed in NATO’s anti-sub­ma­rine Dynamic Mongoose exer­cise.

“The real­is­tic and rel­e­vant train­ing we are con­duct­ing here in the Barents cannot be repli­cat­ed any­where else,” said Cmdr. John. “This proves we can oper­ate any­where in the region with our allies.”

 

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