More than 20,000 soldiers from nine NATO countries are in Norway for this year’s military winter exercises, Joint Viking 2023. Russia’s war on Ukraine has shown “how important preparedness and well-trained military forces are,” note defense officials, especially for a “strategically important” country like Norway.
Norway’s defense department (Forsvaret) stressed how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a year ago “greatly worsened the security situation” in Europe. “Given today’s situation, the exercises are more relevant and important than ever.”
Most of the soldiers participating in Joint Viking are from Norway but they’re joined by troops from Canada, France, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Germany and the US. Sweden and Finland are also participating, after deciding to move away from decades of military neutrality and join NATO. The exercises are linked to the British naval exercises “Joint Warrior” going on simultaneously, and to a home guard exercise called Jøssing in the southern counties of Rogaland and Agder.
Most of the Joint Viking exercises are taking place in Northern Norway, specifically around Setermoen, Bardufoss and Nordskjosbotn. “We’re training to defend and protect Norway and our territory,” wrote Forsvaret. “We must be able to fight back and stop anyone who challenges our borders, our values and our democracy.”
This year’s program also includes air defense exercises over Oslo, in an effort to protect the air space over the Norwegian capital. “The public doesn’t need to be worried,” said Gen Maj Rolf Folland, chief of the Norwegian Air Force. “This is part of our training and there’s no known threat against either Norway or Oslo.” In addition to using Norwegian surface-to-air missile systems now being used in Ukraine, some of Norway’s F35 fighter jets “will be seen or heard over the capital” from Wednesday to Friday this week.
The NATO exercises will run through March 16 and come just after the US Defense Department confirmed major investment in Norway’s Rygge air station south of Oslo, where Norwegian Bell 412 military helicopters and some of the country’s F35s are now based. Search and rescue helicopters are also based at Rygge.
The US’ investment is not without controversy, given Norway’s long-standing position against having any US bases on its territory. Government officials insist the US is still not setting up its own base, rather a location for its equipment and supplies as part of NATO’s defense strategy.
“This further development of our defense cooperation with our closest allied forces are first and foremost about taking care of Norwegian interests and Norwegian security,” said Defense Minister Bjørn Arild Gram of the Center Party. “At the same time, the US is contributing towards strengthening NATO’s ability to defend Norway and Europe,” especially areas that share a border with Russia like Norway does in the far north.
The US has estimated its investment at Rygge to be around NOK 2 billion (USD 200 million), all of which will become Norwegian property with user rights granted to the US forces. They include four fighter jet “shelters,” barracks and support facilities, increased capacity for munitions storage and warehouses, plus fences and patrol roads around Rygge, which long has had military activity but also served as a local airport owned by the nearby city of Moss. The US investment projects are due to be complete by the end of 2027.
“Russia’s invasion of and war on Ukraine pose a threat to Norwegian and European security,” said Gram. “Russia’s actions have again made war and brutal use of military force in Europe a reality. We have to adapt to that, and that we’re facing a more dangerous and more unpredictable Russia.”
Some opposition politicians in Parliament are skeptical, with Freddy André Øvstegård of the Socialist Left Party (SV) claiming the project “won’t contribute to increased security but rather to a military build-up that is not in Norway’s interests.” He prefers building “a strong defense in cooperation with our neighbours” such as Sweden and Finland.
There’s no question that the heightened military investment and exercises will be highly visible for many Norwegians around the country this week, after decades of peace. “We are heading into new times,” Gen Lt Yngve Odlo told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “NATO is immersed in an operation to keep the war on Ukraine from spreading. We must take care of our own security. Then we need to train, especially in the winter. The security situation has been permanently changed.”