UPDATED: Norway seems to be relying more than ever on the US for its defense, now through base policy and fleet agreements that go beyond Norway’s membership in the NATO alliance. For the first time ever, one of the country’s four frigates has been put under US command for the next nine months, while Norwegian crew on board will gain valuable naval experience.
The Norwegian Navy itself publicly documented the departure of the frigate KNM Fridtjof Nansen when it sailed from Norway’s Haakonsvern naval base in Bergen on August 25. There was plenty of pomp and circumstance as naval chief Commodore Trond Gimmingsrud waved goodbye to the frigate and its crew when the vessel set off for the US’ huge naval base at Norfolk, Virginia, to take part in the US Navy’s Carrier Strike Group 8.
The so-called “Cooperative (COOP) Deployment” is part of expanded cooperation between Norway and the US. Newspaper Aftenposten calls it an example of how Norway is steadily tightening its ties to US defense forces. It’s a process that picked up speed a few years ago with regular and controversial rotations of US Marines at Norwegian military bases and, more recently, accommodation of US nuclear submarines outside Tromsø. The presence of US bomber jets in Norway last spring also sounded some alarms.
New challenge for a new government
The cooperation is hailed by many, harshly criticized by others and likely to become yet another challenge to the formation of a new left-center government coalition. Both the Labour Party, which will lead such a coalition, and the Center Party generally support such defense efforts while the Socialist Left party (on which both Labour and Center rely to form a majority in Parliament) has never even wanted Norway to be a member of NATO. The Socialist Left (SV) is also highly skeptical towards what’s become an ongoing presence of US troops on Norwegian soil.
Still others are certain that the frigate pact is primarily in the best interests of the US and another example of how the US is asserting itself around the world. Norwegian media have been full of stories recently about how Norway and other NATO allies have criticized how the Biden Administration handled the military withdrawal from Afghanistan and then landed in a diplomatic crisis with France after taking over a submarine deal with Australia. Many Norwegian commentators are questioning whether the US is “cooperating” with other countries and its own allies or rather simply continuing former US Donald Trump’s controversial “America First” campaign.
Russian officials have also staunchly opposed the expanded defense cooperation between Norway and the US, the latter of which gains Norwegian expertise in the Arctic and access to Norway’s important Arctic areas where Russia also has keen interests. Aftenposten noted how Norwegian officials have dismissed Russia’s complaints by claiming that its powerful neighour in the north “has always marked dissatisfaction with allied activity in Norway and our cooperation with central allies.”
Norwegian government officials still routinely refer to the US as Norway’s “most important ally.” The extent of the new expanded cooperation nonetheless needs changes in the law that both the Norwegian courts and state auditor must evaluate. American soldiers potentially will be able to operate in Norway just as if they were at home in the US, Aftenposten noted, and now the US will have full control over a Norwegian frigate, something that’s never happened before.
The Nansen will, for the next several months, be part of the US Navy’s mighty aircraft carrier fleet, heading out on exercises as part of defense around the USS Harry S Truman, for example, and being part of its escort group. Commodore Gimmingsrud told Aftenposten this week that those on board must be prepared for attack at sea, from the air and from under water. American aircraft carriers are charged with protecting western security interests, with the group in which the Nansen is participating mostly operating in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. He told Aftenposten that it was “highly unlikely” Norway’s frigate would be involved, however, in the US’ recent shows of force farther east in the South China Sea.
Norwegian defense officials think it’s all worth it, since Norwegian sailors on board the Nansen will gain “invaluable experience” tied to national security if Norway ever lands in military conflict. “We have trained and prepared for this for a long time,” one Nansen crew member said before sailing for the US. “I think we’re lucky to be part of it.”
Norway isn’t the only ally involved in such US naval exercises. “Our entire defense concept is based on being able to get allied support,” Gimmingsrud stated in a press release in August. “This is an important reason for us to integrate with American forces.” Norwegian government and defense officials have also stressed that they can pull the frigate out of US service at any time. In the meantime, the operation illustrates that the US and Norway together will engage in the case of any crisis in the far north.
Gimmingsrud has since confirmed that it was the US that initiated the expanded cooperation and wanted Norway to be part of it. It will put pressure on Norway’s reduced fleet of frigates. After the embarrassing loss of the frigate KNM Helge Ingstad three years ago, which sank after colliding with a tanker, Norway’s has just four frigates left. Aftenposten noted that one is always supposed to be on patrol along Norway’s lengthy coastline, while another is supposed to be in the Arctic. Since the frigates also need regularly scheduled maintenance and often repairs, the Nansen’s absence may well cut into the other frigates’ operations.