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Security and Defence in the North Atlantic – a Norwegian Perspective

Jacob Børresen
Jacob Børresen

Here is the text of  Jacob Børresen´s contribution to the Conference on Putting the North Atlantic back into NATO. Reykjavik 23 June 2017.

Jacob Børresen is Commodore (R) Royal Norwegian navy.  Military Secretary to the Minister of Defence 1986 – 1988. Assistant Chief of Staff for Operations in Defence Command North Norway 1990 – 1993. Deputy Assistant Chief of Operations and Logistics at SHAPE  1995 – 1997. Chief Navy Staff at HQ CHOD Norway 1998 – 2000. Since 2000, Consultant in Defence and Security Policy and Strategy. 

Excellencies, Admirals, Ladies and Gentlemen!

Thank you for the invitation to come to Reykjavik to comment on the security situation in the North Atlantic. To be on the safe side: I am not here as a representative of the Norwegian Government, nor as a representative of the Norwegian Navy. I am here in the function of Private Consultant, and the views here expressed are exclusively my own.

The significance of the North Atlantic, its relevance to the security, peace and stability in the Northern Region, cannot be understood unless it is studied in connection with the adjacent coastal states.  I will therefore initially make a short general geostrategic description, of what I call the High North, from a Norwegian perspective, before I conclude with an assessment of the requirement for naval presence and capabilities in the North Atlantic.

It is a bone of friendly contention between Iceland and Norway that for the Norwegians the North Atlantic stops at the Greenland- Iceland- UK-Gap. The ocean to the north of this boundary we in Norway refer to as the Norwegian Sea, while our Icelandic friends call it the North Atlantic Ocean. I have a feeling that when we have been invited to Iceland to discuss the security situation in the North Atlantic, the focus of our Icelandic hosts is as much, and maybe more, on the oceans north of the GIUK-Gap than on the oceans south of it. So, my comments this afternoon will primarily relate to what we call the Norwegian Sea and also include the Arctic- and the Barents Seas.

What are the main geostrategic characteristics of the High North?

Firstly, it is an area of key military strategic importance, both to Russia and to the United States and NATO. It is base- and deployment area for Russia’s strategic submarines, which constitute Russia’s second-strike capability and as such are a key factor in the strategic nuclear balance between Russia and the United States. The shortest distance between North America and Russia, as the crow flies, is across the North Pole. For intercontinental ballistic missiles and air attack the threat direction is North, both as seen from Russia and from America.

The Russian military base area on the Kola Peninsula, just east of the Norwegian-Russian border, is the world’s largest concentrated base area, home not only to strategic submarines, but to the entire Russian Northern Fleet, its Air Arm and its amphibious forces, as well as to Air defence fighter squadrons, bombers and Army units. The primary role of the Northern Fleet is the protection of the strategic submarine deployment areas, the so-called Bastion, which encompasses the Barents Sea and the Norwegian Sea perhaps as far south as the Lofoten islands. Anti-Access and Area Denial in the North Norwegian and Barents seas are thus key tasks for the Russian Northern Fleet. The primary role of the Army and Air Force units based on the Kola peninsula is the protection of the Northern Fleet base complex against attacks from the air and on the ground.  It is a matter for concern to Norway, that to the extent that Russia, in the case of conflict, succeeds with her strategy of Anti Access/Area Denial, much of North Norway will find itself behind the forward Russian line of defence, and allied reinforcement of Norway will become challenging.

But to the Northern Fleet, in particular to its attack submarines and its major surface units, the Norwegian Sea also is an avenue of approach to the Atlantic Ocean, and with that access to the North Sea, the Baltic Sea and the Mediterranean, where it serves as an important instrument of Russian diplomacy and foreign policy.

In case of armed conflict with NATO, the Norwegian Sea is avenue of approach to Northern Fleet surface, subsurface and air-units that may threaten the transfer of reinforcements and supplies from North America to Europe – just like in the Cold War. The political circumstances may be different, but geography is constant. In this lies the military strategic importance of the Norwegian Sea to the United States and NATO, as well as to Russia.

To Norway, neighbour to Russia and coastal state to the Arctic ocean and to the Barents- and Norwegian seas, the military strategic importance of the area both to Russia, to Britain and to the United States is the reason why Norway broke with our traditional policy of neutrality and non-alignment and joined NATO back in 1949. One of the things we had learned during the second world war was that anyone who wants to establish sea control in the Norwegian Sea, or deny access to the Norwegian Sea, control of the coast of Norway, or at least assurance that the enemy does not control it, is important, if nor crucial. It convinced us that in another war between a major European land power and a major naval power, Norway could not hope to be able to stay out of the fray. Better then to side with the major Sea Power with whom we shared both values and interests. And it is also infinitely more comfortable to a small state to be allied to a major power on the other side of the ocean as opposed to a major power which is your next-door neighbour.

When that is said, as neighbour to Russia we share a whole host of common interests with the Russians ranging from scientific research and resource management, and search and rescue, to trade and cultural exchange. Both Russia and Norway share a common interest in low political tension in the north, and to avoid that North Norway becomes an area of confrontation between Russia and the West in times of tension. From a Russian point of view this primarily has to do with the vulnerability of the Kola base complex. From a Norwegian point of view as a small state, because low political tension translates into more favourable conditions for cooperation within areas of common interest.

Norway thus, during and after the Cold War, have practiced a policy based on a fine balance between deterrence and reassurance of Russia.

Deterrence in the sense that Moscow must be brought to believe that an attack on Norway would be tantamount to war with the United States.

Reassurance in acknowledgement of Russia’s experience from World War Two, when in June 1941 she was attacked from German occupied Norway, to make sure that Moscow is not given reason to fear that the USA or NATO are planning operations on Norwegian soil directed against Russia, in order to remove any temptation on the Russian side, in a crisis situation, of a pre-emptive attack on Norway.

This brings me to the second main characteristic of the High North: The Norwegian and Barents seas are extremely rich in natural resources: petroleum, protein and minerals.  To Norway, with the longest coastline and the largest EEZ and continental shelf in Europe, these resources, primarily fish, natural gas and oil, constitute our main source of income, basis for our wealth and well-being. Norway thus cannot, or should not, if she can help it, let military strategic issues trump issues of resource management and exploitation in the north, in cooperation with our neighbouring coastal states, primarily Russia.

It is, therefore, a blessing that the Norwegian-, Barents- and Polar seas, and their associated natural resources, are extremely well regulated in that the EEZ of the Arctic coastal states cover most of the area, and in that the delineation of continental shelves and EEZs in the region have, with a few exceptions, been defined.  The signing, on September 15, 2010, of a treaty on maritime delineation and cooperation in the Barents Sea and the Arctic Ocean between Russia and Norway is therefore regarded by the Norwegians as one of the most important political events in the region of this century.  The potential for armed conflict over resource management and control can thus be regarded as negligible.

This brings me to a third, emerging, trait of potential geostrategic importance: the Norwegian Sea may become a major sea route between the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans, highlighting the responsibilities for the Arctic coastal states in accordance with the International Law of the Sea, and increasing the number of associated tasks.

The coastal state responsibilities and sovereign rights in their EEZs and on their continental shelves are not issues where NATO has or should have a role, in my view. NATOs primary role, the way I see it, should be Naval presence in the form of regular and routine exercise activities combined with high profile harbour visits, like the one here in Reykjavik this week-end.

The purpose should be both to establish maritime situational awareness, by way of surveillance, intelligence-gathering and information-exchange; to deter Russia; and to reassure the NATO member states in the region, that NATO is there for them. From a Naval point of view, Deterrence and reassurance requires a credible ability to contain the Russian Northern Fleet.

Two roles which NATO has successfully undertaken in the past in the Mediterranean and in the Gulf of Aden, and presumably could also undertake in the North Atlantic and the Norwegian Sea, is embargo operations to prevent shipping of illegal goods, maritime interdiction operations to enforce economic sanctions, and the protection of international shipping against piracy. While the requirement for embargo- and interdict operations cannot be excluded, the threat of piracy in these cold and inhospitable waters has been and probably will remain negligible bordering on non-existent.

But, let us be clear. It is neither the treat of piracy nor of international terrorism which has convinced the member nations that the Alliance should return to the North Atlantic and the Norwegian Sea. It is the emergence of Russia as a more self-asserting and unpredictable nation which regards NATO as a primary threat to her interests and security. In the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and her involvement in the civil war in Eastern Ukraine, deterrence of Russia has thus moved up on the list of Alliance priorities. Especially the Baltic states, with their recent history as Soviet Republics, and with large Russian diasporas within their borders, are concerned about Russian apparent willingness to use armed force to bring about political change and adjust international borders in her near abroad. As a result of that effort we may, in my view, have been guilty of exaggerating the threat from Russia, of painting the Russians ten feet tall. For let us be honest: what is this Russia that we fear?

No doubt Moscow has undertaken a considerable rearmament. Over the last ten years Russia’s defence budget has more than doubled in size, and Russia’s armed forces have undergone major refit and modernization. She currently uses about 5 percent of her GNP on defence. Most NATO nations use less than 2 percent of theirs. But Russia’s economy is not that big. Nominally Russia ranks no. 12 in the world, substantially behind countries like Germany, U.K., France and Italy about at the same level as Spain. 5 percent of Russia’s GDP amounts to a defence budget of about 51 billion U.S. dollars, as compared to the U.S. defence budget which last year stood at 622 billion. The Russian defence budget is never the less the third largest in the world, behind the U.S. and China, but ahead of Britain in fourth place.

Russian economy is extremely dependent on the price of oil and gas, and the falling petroleum prices in combination with Western sanctions in the aftermath of the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, has hit Russia hard. Last year, for the first time since 2009, Moscow decided to reduce the defence budget.  Russia simply lacks the economic muscles needed to be able to match NATO in conventional forces, not to speak of the economic resources needed to build a defence capable of meeting all the various threat situations along her extremely long borders.  Only part of Russia’s conventional armed forces is available to match NATO and the U.S. in Europe, and frankly, they are no match.

Russia is the largest country in the world measured in square kilometres, and her borders are riddled with unrest and potential threats. Seen in this light, the Russian rearmament after the economic crisis and the almost complete collapse of her armed forces in the 1990ies, does not strike me as neither very unreasonable nor very threatening.

Much has been made of the fact that Russia has established an Arctic Command in Archangel and has restored several previously abandoned military bases in the Arctic. In my view, this has got nothing to do with aggressive rearmament and the projection of power, but more to do with establishing control with their own borders, as the Arctic is opening up as a result of climate change.

The Russian Navy is suffering from block obsolescence. Out of 20 “operational” surface combatants in the Northern fleet (they are flying an ensign in order that their crew may get paid – how many really operational units there are I don’t know), 15 were constructed or built in the 1980-ies. Out of 17 “operational” SSNs, four were constructed and built in the 1980ies and 12 in the 1990ies, only one, the Severodvinsk, was built in 2014. The first of the 20 plus Admiral Gorshkov class frigates that were to replace the old Krivak-class, have not yet been commissioned due to problems with their gas turbines. The Kuznetsov group that deployed to the Mediterranean last year, despite carrying considerable fire power, was not very impressive.

Russian SSNs, and their modern air independent propulsion conventional submarines which are beginning to come on line, armed with the SSN-30 Kalibr cruise missile, do on the other hand, constitute a considerable threat. NATO does currently not have the ability to track these boats continuously, especially not in areas like the Norwegian Sea with its demanding sound propagation conditions. They could provide the Russians with a credible anti-access/area denial capability in the Norwegian sea.

It never the less remains a fact that Russia as such is hardly a threat to NATO, other than with nuclear weapons. But as escalation to nuclear war will render all that we have talked about till now irrelevant, I will not elaborate further on the nuclear threat, other than state that the threat of nuclear war makes it all the more important that we are able to manage challenges and threats to our security and our interests in a way that does not inadvertently provoke armed conflict which could escalate to exchange of nuclear weapons. Were that to occur, we will all have lost.

Ten years ago, NATOs focus was more in the line of maritime cooperation in order to strengthen NATOs partnership with Russia. In my view, we should return to that aim. There is no viable road to lasting peace and stability in Europe without Russia. The question is, how can that be done?

As a Norwegian, I have a strong belief in the combination of deterrence and reassurance. The Russian historical experience is that they have been attacked from the west on average once every 100 years for the last 500 years, by Lithuanians, Poles, Swedes, Frenchmen and Germans. Now NATO has moved into their historical buffer zone to the west, into Russia’s near abroad and traditional sphere of interest. The Russians feel surrounded and insecure, painfully aware that they are inferior to NATO in conventional weapons, as well as in technology and economy.  Just as we in NATO did during the Cold War, when we were inferior in conventional forces, they now threaten with first use of nuclear weapons.

Since the Crimean crisis Norwegian security policy has taken a distinctive turn away from reassurance of Russia to more emphasis on deterrence. And NATOs forward presence in the Baltic is intended to reassure the Central- and Eastern European NATO-members and deter Russia. I am not sure how wise this is. In my view NATO should desist from aggressive posturing and unnecessary forward deployment, and chose not to retaliate in kind when provoked. Instead of taking it for a given that Moscow knows that NATO harbours no aggressive plans against Russia what so ever, we should take pains to reassure Russia that this is the case, both in our rhetoric and in the way that we exercise and deploy.

While staying unpredictable and keeping the opposition guessing is important to deterrence, predictability is key to reassurance.  The problem with predictability is that it is boring. Politicians tend to lose interest, and funding tends to disappear, when nothing happens. NATO should never the less, in my view, and given the fact that geography is constant, while political tensions come and go, take the long view and maintain regular and routine naval presence for example in the GI-UK Gap, as opposed to withdrawing from the area every time tension between Russia and the West is low, only to surge back when tensions increase. By maintaining a regular and routine exercise programme that demonstrates the NATO nations will and credible ability to work together, instead of reducing exercise levels when tensions are low, and increasing them when tensions rise. And by inviting the Russians to take part in our exercises.

Deterrence is a form of communication. And as all communicators know, you don’t make contact unless you are tuned in on the same frequency. A necessary precondition for reliable deterrence is that we are familiar with the opposition’s values, aims and priorities, that we are able to place ourselves mentally in Moscow and understand what NATO looks like from that direction. That we relate to the real Russia and not a cover. Only then will we be able to send signals which are correctly understood in Moscow, and only then will we be able to understand the signals Moscow emits through its behaviour and posturing.

I welcome the return of NATO to the GIUK-Gap. It sends a justified and prudent signal to Russia that we are concerned, while at the same time it does not in any way constitute a threat to Russia. My hope is that the presence of NATO ASW-units in these waters will become a regular feature, a routine event, a reassuring sign of commitment and capability to the NATO member nations of the north, and a demonstration to Russia of Alliance resolve and of the credible will and ability of the NATO navies to operate together in an efficient and effective manner.

Thank you for your attention.





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