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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

US and Norway mounted a show of force in the North Sea

Top Norwegian defense officials, the US ambassador to Norway and two Norwegian government ministers were all on board when the US’ huge new aircraft carrier USS Gerald R Ford sailed through the North Sea bound for Oslo this week. It was a major show of force that the Russian Embassy in Oslo quickly branded as “illogical” and damaging.

Fighter jets on board the world’s largest aircraft carrier, with a Norwegian frigate alongside, have made an unusual power statement in Norway’s sector of the North Sea. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Torbjørn Kjosvold

The USS Gerald R Ford is the largest warship ever built. It carries a crew of 4,500 Americans along with 75 fighter jets and, more than a dozen helicopters and other attack vessels. They’ve been lined up on deck since the aircraft carrier sailed from its homeport in Norfolk, Virgina on May 2, arriving first in the Danish sector of the North Sea and then the Norwegian on Monday afternoon. It’s due to arrive in Oslo on Wednesday.

Fighter jets lined up on board the USS Gerald R Ford while sailing in the North Sea on Monday. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Torbjørn Kjosvold

The nuclear-powered vessel’s visit wasn’t announced until Monday and details have been sketchy for security reasons. Neither its exact time of arrival in Oslo on Wednesday, where the vessel will lie nor how long it will be in port were revealed. A special military zone was to be set up around the ship and the area where it will anchor up, with all other vessels ordered to stay at least 500 meters away from the warship when it sails in and out of Oslo.

Since the USS Gerald R Ford is nuclear-powered, the Norwegian Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (DSA) has taken part in preparations for the visit, along with defense and preparedness officials. Norway has a long history of restrictions and skepticism towards nuclear-powered vessels but US nuclear submarines have recently been allowed to dock and change crews in Tromsø, and now this.

It’s all a sign of the times, as tensions keep rising with Norway’s Russian neighbour in the far north that invaded Ukraine last year. “This is Norway’s security,” Defense Minister Bjørn Arild Gram of the Center Party told news bureau NTB while sailing on the aircraft carrier in the North Sea. It’s home to Norway’s offshore oil and gas industry, which has become a critical source of energy for Europe since Russian gas supplies were cut off following Russia’s invasion and war on Ukraine.

Norwegian Defense Minister Bjørn Arild Gram on board the world’s largest warship on Monday. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Torbjørn Kjosvold

One of Gram’s party colleagues, Ola Borten Moe, was along for the ride. Moe is a former oil minster and now serves as Norway’s government minister in charge of higher education and research, but it was unclear why he was on board instead of ministers or officials more closely tied to defense and foreign affairs. Both were among those greeted by the US aircraft carrier’s commanding officer.

It was easier to explain why the head of Norwegian armed forces, General Eirik Kristoffersen, and the head of the Norwegian Navy, Admiral Rune Andersen, were on board and among those watching some take-offs and landings of fighter jets at sea. The Norwegian frigate KNM Roald Amundsen is also sailing alongside the USS Gerald R Ford as part of the aircraft carrier’s military escort.

Norwegian Defense Chief Eirik Kristoffersen was welcomed aboard by the aircraft carrier’s Commanding Officer Rick Burgess. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Torbjørn Kjosvold

Kristoffersen told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that Norwegian forces “would be training a lot” with the aircraft carrier’s crew while in Oslo, but denied Norwegian fighter jets would land on board. Defense officials said on Tuesday that the US warship’s visit offered a “unique opportunity to further develop cooperation and work closer with our most important ally, the USA.” Several exercises were planned throughout the week involving both the Norwegian army, navy, coast guard, air force and special forces.

The US Ambassador to Norway, Marc Nathanson, was also aboard the aircraft carrier as a civilian host for the Norwegian visitors. He told NRK that the vessel’s visit “says something” about the close friendship between the US and Norway. Nathanson, a longtime supporter of US President Joe Biden, noted how Norway was among the founders of NATO, the defense alliance that was supposed to prevent any further invasions in Europe or North America. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has now put NATO on high alert as member countries individually contribute to Ukraine’s defense. Nathanson called Norway an ally of “critical” importance to the US that made it a natural place for the aircraft carrier to visit.

Visitors on board were also able to witness some takeoffs and landings of the fighter jets on board the huge aircraft carrier, which was making its first operational voyage to Norway. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Torbjørn Kjosvold

It’s the first time, though, that a US aircraft carrier has visited Norway since 1959, and it follows a visit by the British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth last fall. Admiral Greg Huffman, commander of the entire aircraft fleet to which the USS Gerald R Ford is attached, told NRK that he said crew granted liberty while the warship is in port looked forward to visit Oslo, especially since it was forecast good weather through the weekend.

Others would remain on board for the military exercises. Unlike during the British aircraft carrier’s visit, when local residents could walk right up to the also-huge vessel, security will be much tighter. The defense department issued a long list of restrictions on Tuesday. In addition to keeping boats 500-meters away while sailing in and out of Oslo, they’ll be ordered to remain 1,000 kilometers away while the vessel is anchored up. A no-fly zone will be set up over the ship to an altitude of 3,000 feet and a wide area of the pier near the Akershus Fortress and Castle is due to be cordoned off. Military guards will be out in force.

“This is a very concrete sign of the security guarantee Norway has through NATO,” Norwegian Defense Minister Gram told NTB. He later told state broadcaster NRK that the visit and invitation for all the Norwegians to come on board also symbolized “the tight cooperation and partnership we have with the USA.”

Defense Minister Gram (right) posing with Defense Chief Eirik Kristoffersen and US Ambassador Marc Nathanson on board the USS Gerald R Ford before it arrived in Oslo. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Torbjørn Kjosvold

Gram said it’s important that Norway’s allies sail, train and patrol along Norway’s vast coastline and in its territorial waters, where oil, gas and pipeline installations are now under much higher security. Another reason is the “serious security situation” that Russia’s war on Ukraine has created.

“This is an important part of deterrence,” Gram said, using the term avskrekking that literally can translate to scaring something off. “This all shows that we stand together with our allies.” After visiting Oslo, the aircraft carrier will sail back down the Oslo Fjord and farther along the Norwegian coast and what was described as “areas close to Norway.”

The visit seemed to disturb Russian officials. The Russian Embassy reacted on Tuesday through a message to NTB, in which the US aircraft carrier’s voyage with Norwegians on board was called “illogical” and a “damaging” demonstration of power.

Embassy spokesperson Timur Tsjekanov wrote in the message to NTB that there are no issues in the northern areas that demand a military solution, nor any themes that require interference from abroad. Tsjekanov claimed that officials in Oslo had admitted that Russia poses no direct military threat to Norway, making the show of force illogical and destructive.

All of Norway’s intelligence services have, on the contrary, branded both Russia and China as posing the greatest threats to Norway.

NewsinEnglish.no/Nina Berglund

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