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Sunday, September 25, 2022

Putin’s ‘ruthlessness’ fires up Norwegian defense

Norway’s Andøya Air Base, located at the tip of a stratregically important island in the north, is due to reopen as a permanent base to receive NATO forces. The reopening is part of a series of changes being made in Norway’s long-term defense plan, as part of the response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine.

“Through his ruthless assault on the Ukrainian people, Putin has shown his real face,” Norwegian Defense Minister Odd Roger Enoksen of the Center Party stated at a press conference on Friday. “The Russian invasion of Ukraine has great consequences for Norwegian security.”

A military aircraft heads in for landing at the Andøya Air Base in Norway, which now seems poised for a new spurt of activity as Norway boosts its defense. PHOTO: Forsvaret

Enoksen noted that Russia has “considerable security interests” of its own in the Arctic, where Norway and Russia share a border on land and at sea. “That affects Norway and NATO,” he said. “It will demand more of Norway in maintaining influence in our northern areas.” It also means a potential need for more NATO presence, especially in the form of US troops, and a clear gateway where Norway can quickly receive NATO forces in the event of a Russian attack.

Finance Minister Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, also of the Center Party, had confirmed to NRK Thursday evening that the Andøya Air Base would be re-established as a permanent base for receiving NATO troops. It was controversially being phased out after the former Conservatives-led government opted to base surveillance aircraft at the nearby Evenes airfield between Harstad and Narvik, from which Norway’s new F35 fighter jets are also based for rapid take-off when needed.

Now, Vedum told NRK, the government also sees a need “to strengthen our ability to take in allied troops and equipment. There will still be a military base at Andøya, because we think it’s important for our country.”

Vedum noted how Andøya “is so well-located. It’s important for Norway that we are members of NATO and that we can receive allied forces. Andøya is a very good entry point.”

It’s also been attractive to US defense forces, which have been gaining a steadily larger foothold in Norway even though Norway has long had a policy of not allowing bases for a foreign country’s military operations. Asked whether Andøya would now become “an American base,” Vedum said it would not, but there’s likely to be US presence at both Andøya and Evenes.

US forces are also controversially expanding at Norwegian Air Force bases located in Rygge south of Oslo, Sola south of Stavanger and at Ramsund near Evenes, while Tromsø has controversially become the site of US nuclear submarine crew changes and replenishment services. Enoksen said on Friday that he had just forwarded the new agreement on “defense cooperation between Norway and the US” to Parliament, where it’s expected to be approved.

The agreement will even allow the US to build its own facilities on portions of the four bases at Evenes, Ramsund, Rygge and Sola. The US already was allowed to store an entire military field hospital inside a mountain in Evenes, and now will be allowed to store ammunition as well. “The agreement was correct and important for Norway when the former government signed it in April last year,” Enoksen said. “The war in Ukraine has not made it less important.”

Bigger budgets but tough priorities
The Center Party, meanwhile, was among those protesting the loudest when the former Conservatives’ government decided to cut military costs by consolidating Air Force operations at Evenes in cooperation with US forces. Now defense budgets are quickly being expanded in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Concerns have also arisen that the pending closure of another major Air Force base in Bodø should be reconsidered.

Lots of questions remain over how the new NATO “reception base” at Andøya will function, how much of its large areas north of Andenes will remain under military control and how much economic impact it will have on the local community. Residents had felt abandoned when Parliament voted to close the base in 2016, and are only cautiously optimistic now.

Odd Roger Enoksen of the Center Party, who hails from Northern Norway, took over as defense minister last fall when Center and the Labour Party formed a new minority government. PHOTO: Defensedepartementet

Defense Minister Enoksen, meanwhile, also criticized other aspects of the former government’s long-term defense plan and reported that changes were underway. He said delivery of new submarines is delayed, that the costs of expanding the Air Force bases at Evenes and farther south at Ørland had risen and that problems tied to new NH90 helicopters have not been solved. That in turn causes problems for Norway’s four remaining frigates and the coast guard.

Enoksen also noted how introduction of the new F35 fighter jets and new surveillance aircraft will strengthen Norway’s defense in the long run, but also “challenge operational ability.” Norway simply doesn’t have enough highly trained military personnel to fly and service them.

Enoksen also cited poor maintenance of both military buildings, property and other assets around Norway. Even though the government is boosting military spending by around NOK 3 billion this year alone, Enoksen said the defense ministry will need to reset priorities both now and in the future. “We need to strengthen our defense capability in the short term, but we must also develop and strengthen our forces over the long term.” Andøya, he said, can be a “good location for drone- and satellite-based services,” and will be the only base with “relevant infrastructure” when or if the air base in Bodø is shut down in accordance with current plans to expand the city itself.

Member of Parliament Ine Eriksen Søreide, who served as both defense minister and foreign minister in the former Conservatives-led government, downplayed Enokesen’s “changes” in Norway’s long-term defense plan. She claimed that the current Labour-Center government was “to a very large degree” following the plan approved in 2019. She also claimed that it opened the possibility of using Andøya as a reception base for NATO troops. She suggested Center was now simply reviving that idea, in an effort to please its voters who were disappointed when the base was ordered shut down.

“The Conservatives turned around a very negative trend (of reducing Norwegian defense) by adding NOK 16 billion extra for defense, after many years of decline when Center last sat in the government (from 2005-2013),” Søreide said.

Political sniping aside, Norway is boosting its defense in close cooperation with what most Norwegian politicians call the country’s “most important ally,” the US. Since Putin invaded Ukraine, Norway doesn’t seem nearly as concerned any longer about the risk of provoking its neighbour in the north, which suddenly has re-emerged as a major threat. As one military commentator in Norway said earlier this week, “we are back in the Cold War.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund

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