A new chill settled over Norway on Tuesday, after the president of neighbouring Russia made it clear that his war on Ukraine won’t be ending any time soon. That raises ongoing concerns about Norway’s own defense, even as it’s sending weapons to Ukraine, and it may lead to participation in a new Arctic air force.
Norway recently wrapped up deployment of four of its new F35 fighter jets to Iceland. NATO reported that the deployment was aimed at securing Iceland’s airspace, with the Norwegian F35s on standby and ready to be scrambled if unidentified aircraft came too close.
It was all part of a continual “NATO Air Policing” mission meant to “preserve the security of Alliance airspace.” Norway was taking part for the second time with its fifth-generation fighter jets. Now the head of the Royal Norwegian Air Force is keen on formation of a new Arctic air force command made up of the US, Canada and all the Nordic countries including Finland and Sweden, which are poised to join NATO as soon as possible.
Major General Rolf Folland thinks the next “natural” step would be establishment of a Nordic center for air force operations. “The thought has been met positively by my colleagues in Sweden and Finland,” Folland told newspaper Aftenposten this week. He thinks there’s “clear interest in a regional initiative for a joint air force command on NATO’s northern flank.”
Folland’s remarks came just before Russian President Vladimir Putin held a lengthy annual speech on Tuesday in which he defended what he still calls his “special military operation” in Ukraine. Putin, who ordered the invasion of Ukraine a year ago, now claims Russia’s own existence is under threat. He also rejected any new inspections of atomic installations and declared that the “New Start” agreement to do so was on ice. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, the former Norwegian prime minister, responded by saying that it was clear Putin is preparing for more war.
Folland said a so-called “Arctic operations center” would encompass nearly 250 modern fighter jets and gather expertise among players familiar with conditions in the far north. “We have a lot to learn from each other,” Folland said, noting that the initiative could assemble a lot of coordinated defense, and integrate Sweden’s and Finland’s air forces in an area where Russia also has a major presence.
Norwegian Prime Minster Jonas Gahr Støre, who just won an overwhelming majority in Parliament to send NOK 75 billion worth of defense and civilian aid to Ukraine, has also cautioned that Norway must always balance its military donations with its own defense needs at home. Norwegian defense budgets have been underfunded for years, since officials believed the Cold War was over, only to see Putin fire it up again.
“We have to constantly evaluate what we can give of our own capacity,” Støre told news bureau NTB. Eight of Norway’s Leopard tanks will now be sent to Ukraine “but we must maintain Norwegian security,” said Støre, who spent the past weekend at the Munich Security Conference, where Putin’s war on Ukraine dominated the agenda. Russia was not invited this year.
Ukraine has been asking for fighter jets from NATO allies, but Norway hasn’t offered any of its 57 retired F16s as of yet. NTB reported recently that 44 have been sold, several to Romania last year, and the remainder are no longer operative.
Norway’s military intelligence agency E-tjenesten, meanwhile, had seemed to boost its recently issued threat evaluation regarding Russian military presence in the Arctic. The intelligence report noted that “a central portion” of nuclear weapons are found on the Russian Northern Fleet’s submarines and naval vessels, and posed “an especially serious threat in several operational scenarios that can involve NATO countries.”
The Kirkenes-based Barents Observer reported how that could mean Russia had lowered the threshold for use of nuclear weapons, also in areas close to Norway. E-tjeneten‘s formulation was later changed to read that “as a consequence of the war in Ukraine, Russia’s conventional military abilities are weaker. That means Russia’s strategic weapons become more important.” Russia’s nuclear submarines are said to remain “central” in the Russian arsenal, but E-tjenesten claimed it sees no change in the arming of other surface naval vessels.
Tormod Heier, a professor at the Norwegian defense college, told newspaper Aftenposten that Russia’s nuclear weapons have become more important since it’s suffered major losses of conventional arms during its war on Ukraine. If threatened, Heier said, Russia may not have many choices. NATO forces must therefore also exert caution in the Arctic, to avoid any misunderstandings.