The U.S. Air Force is preparing to deploy bombers to Norway for the first time. A detachment of B-1Bs, accompanied by more than 200 personnel, is set to arrive at the country’s Ørland Main Air Station in the near future as the U.S. military intensifies its focus on the strategically important Arctic region.
U.S. European Command (EUCOM) announced today that an advance team was about to head to Ørland ahead of B-1Bs touching down, but did not say specifically when the bombers would arrive. There are reports that the aircraft could make their way across the Atlantic later this week, while the first airmen have already arrived in the country. The aircraft and airmen assigned to this Bomber Task Force (BTF) will all come from the 7th Bomb Wing at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas.
“Operational readiness and our ability to support allies and partners and respond with speed are critical to combined success,” Air Force General Jeff Harrigian, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Africa, said in a statement. “We value the enduring partnership we have with Norway and look forward to future opportunities to bolster our collective defense.”
The BTF is also of note in relation to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. According to EUCOM, the deployment is “in keeping with force health protection measures aligned with the Department of Defense, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Norwegian policy.” This means all Air Force personnel will be medically screened in Texas prior to arriving in Norway and will undergo a 10-day quarantine. Only last week, the Norwegian government canceled a military exercise after a spike in coronavirus cases, leaving 1,000 U.S. Marines in Norway, where they had arrived earlier this month.
U.S. Air Forces Europe (USAFE) routinely hosts a variety of U.S. aircraft, including BTF deployments. However, bombers have almost exclusively operated out of RAF Fairford in England, which serves as a dedicated bomber forward operating location in Europe, in the past. That being said, there have been efforts to expand the number of operating locations in the region for U.S. bombers in recent years.
While Ørland is located just over 300 miles from the Arctic Circle, the deployment signals the Air Force’s increasing commitment to working alongside NATO allies and other partners on Russia’s northwest borders as well as its ability to work in the High North. The Norwegian base is otherwise home to the Royal Norwegian Air Force’s expanding F-35A stealth fighter fleet and also periodically hosts NATO E-3A Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft from Geilenkirchen Air Base in Germany.
Last July, the Air Force announced a new Arctic Strategy that calls for an increased presence in the region to counter the threat posed by Russia. The wider region has been identified as a potential flashpoint, as climate change sees a scramble to secure the potential wealth offered by natural resources, as well as new maritime trade routes that are no longer constrained by year-round sea ice.
“The Arctic is among the most strategically significant regions of the world today — the keystone from which the U.S. Air and Space Forces exercise vigilance,” said Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett. “This Arctic Strategy recognizes the immense geostrategic consequence of the region and its critical role for protecting the homeland and projecting global power.”
Until now, bomber missions over the Arctic have been staged out of RAF Fairford, while on other occasions nonstop missions have been flown from airbases in the United States. The upcoming deployment to Ørland will bring these aircraft much closer to the operating area and send a powerful signal to Moscow.
Moreover, there is a significant value in the ability to deploy bombers to different locations from the perspective of distributed operations. Having only one base in the region where bombers are sent regularly is predictable and makes those assets vulnerable. The War Zone has, in the past, also examined the increased risks posed to established bases. Despite that, we still don’t know if U.S. bombers will become a regular feature at Ørland and whether the base has the facilities required to support them for longer periods.
Placing bombers in Norway, albeit on a temporary basis, is clearly in line with this new posture. The first BTF in Ørland also continues the U.S. military’s expanding relationship with its Norwegian counterpart, which last summer included high-profile joint maneuvers by six B-52H Stratofortress bombers, flying from RAF Fairford, together with Norwegian F-35As and F-16 fighter jets. Similar missions were flown the previous year, too, again involving B-52s and F-16s.
As well as joint exercises in the air and on the ground, in the future, this relationship could potentially also see U.S. Navy submarines operate from a cavernous naval base built under a Norwegian mountain. This would be one initiative to help counter increased Russian submarine activity in the nearby Barents Sea and the Arctic region. Navy submarines are already active in the region anyway, however, and last summer the U.S. Navy took the unusual step of releasing a number of pictures of the first-in-class USS Seawolf surfaced in a fjord near Tromsø, Norway. This very rare public appearance in Scandinavia seems to have been intended, at least in part, to send a message to the Russian government about American underwater capabilities in the region.
Among other U.S. military activities directed toward the Arctic, the iteration of Exercise Trident Juncture held in October and November 2018 tested the ability of NATO to defend Norway and was clearly intended to address the resurgent Russian threat. For the first time in more than two decades, the U.S. Navy sent an aircraft carrier, USS Harry S. Truman, into the North Sea to support the exercise.
The Arctic strategy extends closer to home, too, where the U.S. military is also embarking on a significant overhaul of its assets in Alaska. This includes a huge new Air Force F-35 wing at Eielson Air Force Base, which you can read all about here.
For its part, Russia established a new Northern Fleet Joint Strategic Command in 2014, which is responsible for the Arctic, North Atlantic, and Scandinavian regions. It includes the Northern Fleet, assets of which are concentrated on the Kola Peninsula, as well as military garrisons, and airbases. Russian military aircraft are now more frequently operating from forward-located airfields in the High North, facilities that you can read more about in this previous article. The particular long-range conventional strike capabilities offered by the B-1 — in the form of the AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile, or JASSM, and the AGM-158C Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile, or LRASM — would lend themselves particularly to any kinds of missions tasked with holding Northern Fleet targets at risk.
If a crisis or conflict should break out in the Arctic or North Atlantic region, U.S. airpower would be expected to play an important part. This upcoming B-1 deployment to Norway will not only help train for any such eventuality but hopefully serve to dissuade potential aggression in this increasingly contested part of the world.
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