Call goes out to reopen sub base

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A new report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in the US  claims that neither Norway nor NATO has the ability at present to ward off a potential Russian submarine attack. A senior researcher at CSIS thinks the old submarine base outside Tromsø should be reopened and upgraded to support more submarine patrols.

The submarine KNM Utvær, on patrol off Northern Norway. PHOTO: Petter Brenni Gulbrandsen

The submarine KNM Utvær, on patrol off Northern Norway. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Petter Brenni Gulbrandsen

Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported this week that CSIS sees a clear need to do more than what was discussed at last month’s NATO summit in Warsaw. Even though NATO members approved making Norway’s northern areas a higher priority, CSIS thinks defense capability remains inadequate after 20 years of being downgraded since the Cold War ended.

“More must be done to correct up to 20 years of neglect,” Lisa Samp, a senior researcher at CSIS, told DN. She claimed that large portions of anti-submarine defense systems will quickly be outdated.

“That can’t be fixed at a NATO summit,” Samp told DN. “NATO must make sure that there is political willingness and investment willingness to secure that the alliance can defend itself against potential threats.”

Lack of capacity and cooperation
While Russia has been modernizing its traditional defense capacity, NATO is plagued by a lack of capacity and cooperation among member nations, according to the CSIS report. The report blames the problems on competing priorities and tight defense budgets.

CSIS thus makes a series of recommendations about how NATO can improve defense capability, including reopening of the Olavsvern naval base outside Tromsø in Northern Norway. DN reported how Olavsvern used to be NATO’s most important  naval base in the north, used by both Norwegian and NATO allies’ submarine fleets that patrolled the area.

The base was phased out, however, and ultimately sold in 2013 to investor Gunnar Wilhelmsen’s company Triko for NOK 38 million. Several Norwegian politicians and former military employees opposed the sale, and criticism arose in 2014 when some of Triko’s customers using the facility included Russian vessels.

Uneasy over Russian tenants
Samp and her fellow CSIS researchers were especially disturbed by the Russian tenants. Even though they weren’t part of the Russian military, she said, the Russians’ declared goals for underwater exploration and surveillance raises questions about the presence of Russian vessels in a former Norwegian marine facility.

Wilhelmsen told DN that no Russian vessels are berthed at Olavsvern now, and that the base is used as a terminal for other rentals of berthing space, offices and storage areas.

“The Russian seismic boats were only there for a few months,” he said. “They had been working for Statoil earlier and are in layup in Norway every winter. That time we won the bid. They had no activity (at Olavsvern), they were just lying there in winter uphold.” He said he didn’t know whether the company owning the seismic vessels would be returning to Tromsø.

Base unlikely to reopen
Norway has been showing clear interest in boosting defense capability in the Arctic, with reports surfacing recently that the Norwegian defense ministry intends to buy new surveillance aircraft to patrol its vast northern areas at sea. There also have been some recent submarine sightings off the Norwegian coast, even in fjords, while controversy arose earlier this summer over some reported berthings of a US nuclear submarine in Tromsø. On Friday, newspaper Klassekampen reported that the US wants to lease berth space for its nuclear subs. CSIS thinks Norway now should offer a secure facility where the submarines of NATO countries can berth when they’re not operating in the North Atlantic.

Øystein Bø, state secretary for the Conservative Party in the defense ministry, said the Norwegian government had not received any signals from NATO about reopening the Olavsvern base. Norway’s own military hasn’t made such a request either, he said.

Bø told DN that the Norwegian navy has developed “other infrastructure” in Northern Norway to cover its operative needs, with “considerable investment” made at Ramsund, for example. Norway is also poised, he noted, to renew its own fleet of maritime surveillance aircraft and submarines.

“In light of that, and the time that has passed, it doesn’t look likely to reestablish any military activity at Olavsvern,” Bø told DN.

Øyvind Korsberg, a Member of Parliament for the Progress Party, criticized the phase-out of Olavsvern and isn’t surprised by the CSIS report’s conclusion. He said, though, that Olavsvern had lost its strategic importance.

“The base was sold to private interests and has lost the role it had in its time,” Korsberg told DN. “Norway should rather enter into a dialogue with NATO about upgrading the defense facilities it still has.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund

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