As the US sends more defense resources into the Norwegian Arctic, some projects are raising concerns. Many Norwegians in Northern Norway don’t want to provoke Russia, while a new radar system in Vardø that’s been shrouded in secrecy is making some local residents nervous.
“Vardø residents are worried about the danger of radiation, and that it (the planned radar system) can make them a bombing target,” local politician Ørjan Jensen of the Greens Party told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK).
At issue is a new military radar project described as a “cooperation” between Norway and the US. It will function with the Globus II radar system that’s already perched on a hilltop above Vardø, Norway’s easternmost city in its northernmost county of Finnmark. It’s no coincidence that the location is just a short distance from the Russian border, part of the US’ surveillance system and said to be the most precise radar in the US Air Force.
The system has been criticized for being part of the US’ controversial rocket shield system, even though a series of Norwegian defense ministers have denied that’s true. New US federal budget documents reveal the Globus II system is being upgraded at a cost of around NOK 1 billion (USD 122 million). The two radar systems will operate together and offer increased capacity, according to Norway’s military intelligence unit Etterretningstjenesten (E-tjenesten).
Construction is due to begin next summer and take around three years, according to information revealed by E-tjenesten’s boss Morten Haga Lunde during a recent speech in Oslo. He says the assignments for the “modernized and upgraded” Globus system will be to follow and categorize objects in space, monitor Norway’s areas of interest in the Far North and be used for “national development.”
That hasn’t reassured Vardo residents like Monica Henriksen, who can see the existing Globus II radar from her house. “The Americans build their own radar out in the desert,” she told NRK. “Why do they do that? Why can we have such a radar system as a close neighbour, when they don’t dare build something like this close to their own population?”
Henriksen is also disturbed by what she calls the “hush-hush” mood around the new system. “I know there have been people around here, measuring radiation and such,” she claimed. “But we haven’t received any information. Everything’s been hidden from us. It’s all so ‘hush-hush.'”
She and her fellow Vardø residents aren’t the only ones who’ve been kept in the dark about the radar project. NRK reported that none of the five Members of Parliament from Finnmark, representing a variety of parties, knew about the new American radar system before it emerged in Norwegian media recently.
“No, I didn’t know about this,” Kåre Simensen of the Labour Party conceded to NRK, but he quickly added that he didn’t “feel any discomfort” that Norway’s military intelligence hadn’t shared any details. Nor was Labour’s Helga Pedersen, a former government minister herself, or Jan-Henrik Fredriksen of the conservative Progress Party.
“Vardø has had radar for decades, and it’s no new policy to renew or upgrade a system that’s already there and has been in use for many decades,” Fredriksen said.
Locals want more in return
Local politican Ørjan Jensen maintained that his town was worried and wasn’t getting “much in return for being a bomb target.” He pointed out that the radar systems have hindered development of wind-power plants in nearby areas well-suited for it, because wind turbines would disturb the radar. “If some areas are cut off and other business is hindered, I think it would be natural for the military to contribute to a compensation fund,” Jensen said.
Vardø Mayor Robert Jensen of the Labour Party, Ørjan Jensen’s brother, agreed that Vardø should receive some compensation and has taken up the issue with the military. “For one thing, we can’t collect any property tax when we have a radar installation up on the hill,” the mayor told NRK. “And we miss out on development we could have had, like a windmill park.”
Defense department spokesman Lars Gjemble responded that there was “periodic dialogue” with local authorities regarding the military’s plans in Vardø. He wrote in an email to NRK that a meeting was held in March about the “modernization plans” for the radar system. “We will also of course meet with local authorities in Vardø for more conversations if there’s a desire and need for it.”
Series of defense and surveillance moves
The radar investment is the latest in a series of new US defense moves in the Arctic. The US announced last week it was sending fighter jets to Iceland on assignment for NATO and it also has helped equip Norway’s new “spy ship” Marjata, at one of its own bases. Norway’s old Marjata surveillance vessel was initially set to be retired, but newspaper VG recently reported it will now be re-equipped, renamed Eger and put back in service in the Arctic. The US has also been playing an active role in recent NATO exercises in Norway and the Arctic areas, and Norway seems to be more than accommodating.
It’s all part of the Norwegian military’s renewed attention in the far north as well, at a time when concerns are high that Norway’s defense systems at home are not good enough. Vardø’s mayor said he doesn’t fear the radar system will turn Vardø into a bomb target, though.
“We don’t think that way,” Robert Jensen said. “There are many natural targets, if we head into a war.” He thinks that’s unlikely but claims Norway could at least be better prepared.