Norway’s newly expanded Ørland Air Force Base has been kept mostly off limits for Norwegian photo-journalists and many others, but Russian officers were given a tour of it last week. The tour can be viewed as an important move towards easing recent tensions between Norway and Russia, while newspaper Aftenposten described it as a “paradox.”
Defense officials themselves reported late last week that a group of three Russian officers and inspectors had been allowed to “visit and evaluate” the Norwegian Air Force’s 132 luftving at Ørland. It has become a major division for air defense and rescue helicopters but is best known as the base for Norway’s new F35 fighter jets. The new and expanding facilities at Ørland are a product of a merger of squadrons including pilots, technicians and other support personnel for both the F16 and F35 fighter jets.
Norway’s defense department (Forsvaret) wrote in a press release issued Friday that the visit came about after Russian officials submitted a request for an inspection in line with international accords regarding armaments control. The Russians’ request was submitted on November 27, just two weeks after King Harald V, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and top Norwegian government officials were at Ørland to celebrate the arrival of the first F35 fighter jets.
Norway’s foreign ministry responded to the Russians’ request the day after, according to the press release. It then took less than a week before three Russian officers reportedly were welcomed and shown around the new base last Tuesday, December 5.
According to the Norwegian officials, the Russians were accorded “a large degree of openness” during their inspection and evaluation. “The Russian officers had a series of questions during the evaluation,” stated Lt Col Sven Svensson. “They showed, as expected, the most interest in the new F35 fighter jets, but also for the other capacities of the 132nd air wing.”
The Russians were briefed on the organization, defense material, personnel, education and training carried out at the new home of Norway’s fighter jet operation. They were allowed to see various operations and helicopters, while also being oriented about additional building projects underway at Ørland, which is being transformed into Norway’s main air force base after 35 years at Bodø, farther to the north.
Svensson confirmed that it was “the first time the F35s had been shown to Russia.” He claimed there was “good cooperation and a positive tone between the Russian and Norwegian officers” during the entire visit, which ended with the Russians placing a wreath on a memorial at Ørland to Russians who were held as prisoners of war and died during Nazi Germany’s occupation of Norway during World War II.
Aftenposten reported, however, that the Norwegian officials’ willingness to show the Russians around Ørland seemed at odds with an unwillingness shown Norwegian media. The newspaper claimed its reporters and photographers have long wanted “to show how Norwegian taxpayers’ money has been spent at Ørland,” which plays a huge role in what Aftenposten has calculated as a total investment of NOK 80 billion (nearly USD 10 billion) in air defense. Both its photographers, however, have been denied access to the new facilities at Øland, as have those from other Norwegian media, apparently for security reasons.
Aftenposten acknowledged that the defense department has offered to take photos of its own, as it often does of a wide range of military activity, and share them with the newspaper. That hasn’t satisfied the newspaper.
Top military officials at Ørland, asked by Aftenposten whether they “see the paradox that the Norwegian press is denied insight while Russian officers received an ‘open’ guided tour,” declined to comment. The defense department’s own account of the Russian visit noted, however, that the three Russian officers were “under escort” during their entire time in Norway by a team from the armament control’s office within the Norwegian military. Svensson also stressed that the Russians are entitled to an inspection under international accords and that “all information and photography (during the Russians’ visit) were under Norwegian control, and within the framework of declassified information.”