New US bombers sound the alarms

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NEWS ANALYSIS: It was almost as if air raid alarms suddenly started going off, right after four US bombers landed in Norway for the first time last week. There hadn’t been much warning about the 200 US soldiers who arrived just before the bombers either, and loud political debate over more US military presence on Norwegian soil took off.

Here’s one of the four US bombers that landed at Norway’s Ørland air base last week, and set off new debate over increasing US military presence in the country. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Johannes Havn

“This is another example that Norway has become a prominent American military base,” editorialized newspaper Dagsavisen two days after the strategic B-1B Lancers from the 7th Bomb Wing at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas landed at Norway’s Ørland air base west of Trondheim. That’s where Norway also bases its new F35 fighter jets that are still being delivered by US defense contractors.

It’s also the first time that such US bombers are being stationed on Norwegian soil, albeit temporarily. Both the highly sophisticated aircraft and the US military personnel tied to them will be training with their Norwegian NATO allies “for a period,” according to the Norwegian military, reported to be around four weeks. There will be a variety of training missions involving the US’ B-1B bombers and the Norwegians’ F35s: “Cooperation with the US and other partner nations gives NATO a credible and flexible defense that’s ready to tackle all future challenges together,” stated Colonel Øivind Gunnerud of the Norwegian Air Force.

Put base policy under fire
Gunnerud and other Norwegian defense officials have further admitted, even stressed, that Norway’s own defense “is completely dependent on support from our allies” in the case of any crisis or war.  The US Air Force has also conducted “strategic training tours” with its bombers around the world since 2018, acording to Gunnerud, and allied presence in Norway “is nothing new,” claims Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen.

What is new, however, is a steadily emerging pattern of much more regular and constant presence of NATO- and especially US forces in Norway, which critics claim wasn’t seen even during the Cold War. It began around six years ago, just before the US began sending in the Marines to Værnes in Trøndelag and rotating bases around Norway. There’s also been a build-up of defense forces in Northern Norway amidst ongoing NATO exercises and recent controversy over US nuclear submarine dockings just outside Tromsø, where they can change crews.

Norwegian forces will now get a first-hand look at how the US bombers can work with their own F35s, through a series of training missions over the next several weeks. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Johannes Havn

Concerns have risen that it’s all undermining Norway’s longtime policy, dating back to 1949, that neither nuclear weapons nor foreign troops will be placed on Norwegian soil during peacetime. Even a former deputy leader of the Labour Party, which otherwise supports NATO and cooperation with US allies, expressed concern this week: “When and where and by whom was this doctrine phased out?” queried Thorbjørn Berntsen, a former government minister himself, on social media.

Other more predictable critics joining the debate during the past week included leaders of the Socialist Left (SV) and Reds parties, which don’t even support Norway’s membership in NATO. They were busy claiming on radio talk shows, on TV and in print that Norwegian defense officials were obediently doing whatever the US wanted them to, even though that could antagonize Russia and make Norway a target of their potential aggression. Reds leader and Member of Parliament Bjørnar Moxnes was among the toughest: “Allowing the USA to use Norwegian territory to get steadily closer to Russia with steadily heavier fire-power is a dangerous game,” he told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Saturday. “Norway’s politial elite (there’s broad support for both NATO and the US in Parliament) pretend this is all just a continuance of restraint, when any idiot can see that we’re allowing ourselves to be dragged directly into the superpowers’ rivalry, and turning established Norwegian strategy upside down.”

Perhaps most notable, however, were the criticism and warnings from a lieutenant colonel and professor at Norway’s own defense college, Forsvarets høyskole, Tormod Heier. He has publicly stated that Norway risks becoming “a battlefield in a steadily more escalating rivalry between the superpowers.” Russia had already been complaining about the bombers’ arrival all month.

Lt Col Tormod Heier has also spoken out against the bombers’ sudden arrival. He urges more openness and public debate on decisions that affect national security. PHOTO: Forsvaret

What worries Heier most, and which he clearly and rather bravely expressed on national newscasts last week, was the lack of public or political debate long before the bombers arrived last week. The first real public notice of their arrival came only two weeks before they actually landed.

“We have one of the world’s most highly educated and well-informed populations, but major decisions that involve our security are made almost without prior press coverage or open debate,” he also told DN, which published an extensive article on the issue during the weekend, after it had finally exploded. “If we under-communicate the consequences of the country’s own policies, we have a big democratic problem.”

Heier further stated, also on radio and TV during the week, that there’s been a “clear tendency” on the part of Norwegian authorities to downplay the tension and Russian saber-rattling that exists. He readily admitted that he may be accused of “running the Russians’ errand,” which poses a dilemma for researchers such as himself: “It can contribute to muzzling the debate and paradoxically making us more like the Putin regime we like to criticize. We need more openness.”

There has been grumbling over US military presence in Norway before and it was certainly revived last week. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK), which has a correpondent based in Moscow, also reported on the Russians’ strong objections and not-so-subtle threats of further build-up themselves. The Russian Embassy in Oslo issued a statement that it was “registering its concern over how Norway was making its territory available for risky foreign maneuvers.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry had also issued a statement that it was “perplexed” over how (Norwegian Defense Minister ) Bakke-Jensen could state that the US training mission with Norway would have “a stabilizing effect” and that there was no reason for Russia’s negative response. Even though the Russians have been regularly buzzing Norway’s coast from the air and also conducting exercises in nearby seas themselves, they consistently defer blame for currently rising tensions and military activity near Russian borders.

It came as no surprise that the Russians would protest the bombers’ arrival, but so did lots of Norwegians. “American bombers at the Ørland air base amounts to punching new holes in our base policy,” editorialized Dagsavisen. “It’s not right that this hasn’t occurred without a broad political debate in advance. Any change in national base policy is too important that it can be quietly overlooked.”

Local negative reaction, too
DN reported, meanwhile, how the small community around Ørland in Trøndelag was suddenly confronted with “an historic installation of Amerian bomber jets on Norwegian soil.” That was referred to as “a dramatic escalation” of risky rivaly between superpowers in the far north, but which at least a majority in Parliament welcomed.

Even the local chapter of SV had voted in favour of Norway’s air base at Ørland for the new F35 fighter jets “but this (the US bombers) isn’t what we said ‘yes’ to,” local resident and SV politician Øyvind Næss told DN. “We voted for a defense base for Norway, not a pure NATO base, which is what’s increasingly becoming clear is what’s been built. We never meant to have an American air base here.”

Anne Marit Sannan, a local retiree, agreed, commenting that even the local churchyard now looks like it’s next to a prison because of new high security fences that now run right behind gravestones. Both acknowledged that the Norwegian defense department has offered to put up noise barriers and install new windows in local homes to help shut out the roar of the F35s and other aircraft taking off and landing, or even buy out as many as 33 local farms and 176 residential units, but many don’t want to leave their homes.

The weather was relatively calm at the coastal Norwegian air base called Ørlandet when this US bomber and three others landed last week, but they stirred up a storm. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Hamza Saleh

“We’re afraid we’ll become a battlefield here,” Næss told DN, “and that there will be a military build-up, that we’ll become a prominent base for the US. There’s so much uncertainty within the local population here. What’s coming? For how long? What kinds of weapons will they have? What’s next?” It didn’t help that three of the roughly 200 US soldiers arriving just before the jets in early February tested positive for the Corona virus, a problem that ultimately cancelled NATO’s major winter exercises in Norway earlier this year. All of the newly arrived Americans were held in quarantine at Ørland until last week.

Local Mayor Tom Myrvold of the Conservative Party, a former Norwegian Air Force officer himself who’s been stationed in the US, called the negative local reaction and debate “expected” and something to which the local population is accustomed. His job, he says, is to reassure and calm the local population “that for various reasons feels threatened.” He calls Ørland “first and foremost a host for defense forces” and suggests local hospitality is most important: “It’s important we support the alliance with friendliness and acceptance, in accordance with good manners. That’s my primary focus.”

Base policy change denied
Both Norwegian and US defense officials staunchly deny any change in base policy. Professor Heier agrees that having the four bombers at Ørland for four weeks won’t directly violate the policy. Newspaper DN itself editorialized in the same issue as its lengthy coverage of the controversy over US military presence that “four American bomber jets at Ørlandet are no threat to Norwegian security.” Nor are joint training sessions between allies.

“But it’s part of a pattern,” Heier insisted, “where Norway is steadily being actively used (by NATO and the US), for example with rotating troops of US Marines, then then it becomes steadily more difficult to combine the roles of a good (NATO) ally and a good neighour (to Russia).”

He stresses again that all this should be more openly discussed. “More and more of (defense) policy formation takes place behind closed doors in defense committees instead of on the floor of Parliament,” Heier told DN. “The public isn’t getting the necessary information it needs to take part.” That leads to “the classic security dilemma,” with both sides building up their forces in the belief that will make them more secure, “but in reality it’s the opposite. We’re just more vulnerable to misunderstandings.”

Enlightening emails regarding press coverage
The credibility of Defense Minister Bakke-Jensen, who’s from the Conservative Party, was also wounded this week when newspaper Klassekampen revealed how his staff actually asked US officials how he should respond to questions last fall linked to the increased US Marine Corps activity in Norway. Defense ministry staff also formulated his response, after clearing it with the Americans, and basically seemed to feed Bakke-Jensen his lines.

In various emails obtained by the paper, the US Marine Corps spokesman for Europe and Africa who’s stationed in Stuttgart called the issue of foreign bases in Norway “politially radioactive.” It keeps coming up, however, because of the Marines’ own new network of mobile bases in Norway, that according to the Marines’ own leading general David Berger is aimed at supporting American naval operations against Russian submarines in the North Atlantic.

Bakke-Jensen’s response was prepared by the ministry’s communications staff and sent to the Americans before Bakke-Jensen read it himself: “The USA is our most important ally, and our tight defense cooperation, which stretches over more than 70 years, is critical for Norwegian security. We want them to be present in Norway and the surrounding area, and have a constructive and regular dialogue when them about this.” The statement also noted that having American presence in “the enormous ocean areas off Norway” is “a strength for both the allies and Norwegian security.”

It could seem embarrassing for Norway that it was caught formulating, sharing and even clearing Norwegian defense policy with their American counterparts, who in turn had pre-conceived notions about various Norwegiam media outlets and wanted as little press coverage as possible. The communications chief at the Defense Ministry, however, claimed it was “completely normal to discuss both answers to media inquiries, messages and practical matters regarding press events when we cooperate on the activity, like Norway and the US Marine Corps do.” She added it was “natural and mutual to orient each other on media inquiries and to exchange facts and messages.”

US Embassy officials in Oslo, meanwhile, had already branded Klassekampen as a “far left” newspaper, and seemed to discredit it by claiming that its stories on base policy and Marine Corps activity were limited to “the Klassekampen-Socialist Left Party-Red Party echochamber.”

“We should not contribute to the story (about the Marines’ alleged desire for permanent bases in Norway without blatantly violating Norwegian base policy) being more broadly reported,” an embassy official also advised the Marines, according to one of the emails. Any statement by the Marines, advised the embassy, should also avoid “feeding further talking points” to Socialist Left leader Audun Lysbakken. The Marines were advised to keep all answers to Norwegian media inquiries “short and non-committal.”

As noise levels rose last week, Norway’s new Chief of Defense, General Eirik Kristoffersen, said he thinks Norway and Russia must begin speaking more together, in order to lower tensions between them.

“We had dialogue during the Cold War, and we see that the dialogue going on in Afghanistan with the Taliban is critical for us to move forward,” Kristoffersen said during a recent conference in Kirkenes, the Norwegian town located closest to the border crossing between Norway and Russia.

Kristoffersen noted that dialogue won’t necessarily solve anything, but it must be attempted. “The most dangerous thing that could happen for Norway, NATO and the world is an open conflict with Russia,” he said. “Fortunately, that’s not so probable.”

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund