Expert Commentary

Foreign Forces in Norway

Karsten Friis
Senior Advisor and Head, Research Group on Security and Defence, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs

The U.S. this year deployed 330 Marines to Norway. The concept is nothing new; it dates back to the 2005 Oslo-Washington agreement called Marine Corps Prepositioning Program-Norway (MCPP-N). However, Karsten Friis, head of the Research Group on Security and Defence at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, notes it is the first time U.S. Marines will be there, rotating in for six months at a time, on a semi-permanent basis. It is the first time since World War II that foreign forces will be actually posted to Norway. The Cipher Brief’s Kaitlin Lavinder asked Friis why this is the case, and how significant a role a resurgent Russia plays into the calculation.

The Cipher Brief: The U.S. has deployed 330 Marines to Norway’s Vaernes  Air Station. Is this deployment unique or part of a regular protocol stemming from the 2005 Marine Corps Prepositioning Program-Norway?

Karsten Friis: It is related to the MCPP-N, but it’s the first time the USMC has deployed troops on a rotational, semi-permanent basis in Norway. 2017 is a provisional year, and a potential extension will be decided upon later.

TCB: What is the purpose of the U.S. Marines being stationed there? What does each side – the U.S. and Norway – get out of this arrangement? 

KF: For Norway, the presence of NATO allies in training and exercise is important, as our national defense is reliant upon NATO reinforcements. Having allied troop training here is a good preparation to this end. During the Cold War, thousands of allied troops trained and exercised in Norway annually. The semi-permanent presence of USMC is in this context welcome, but I think the symbolic value is as important. The presence of U.S. troops is a signal of U.S. commitment to collective defense, and thereby also sends a signal of deterrence towards Russia. The various U.S. deployments in Europe, including this one, thus both serve a military and a political purpose.

In addition, it cannot be ruled out that the USMC may also visit neighboring Sweden – a non-NATO member – to signal the strong bilateral cooperation that exists also between Sweden and the United States. The symbolism of this is also significant.

TCB: What will the Marines be tasked with tactically during this deployment, and how long will they be in Norway?

KF: I am not sure about the tactical tasks, but I assume training and exercising. As mentioned, it will last throughout 2017 at this stage.

TCB: In October 2016, Frants Klintsevich, of the defense and security committee in the upper house of Russia’s parliament, warned this deployment could make Norway the target of a nuclear attack. This sounds like a bluff. Is it? Or are the Russians really angry or nervous about this?

KF: It is, of course, way out of proportion. Note that it is about 800 kilometers from Værnes to the Norwegian-Russian border. It takes about three hours on a plane, and if you were to drive, about 30 hours. These 330 troops do not under any circumstances represent any military threat to Russia. The Russian response is textbook and predictable, but absurd.

Having said that, in the balance between legitimate deterrence and avoiding unnecessary escalation, one must always assess how things are perceived on the other side. Russian paranoia shouldn’t determine our policies, but we need to do our best to understand their way of thinking – if we one day may hope to get out of the current stalemate. But this is primarily up to the Russian side.

TCB: What message does the deployment send to Russia and to America’s NATO allies?

KF: Allied solidarity, resolve and cohesion. And prudence. It’s not escalatory.

TCB: Anything else you’d like to add?

KF: There has been a debate in Norway about this. We had a so-called base policy during the Cold War, where no permanent foreign bases on Norwegian soil were allowed – in addition to certain other limitations, such as very few forces deployed in the county bordering Russia, no nuclear weapons here, etc. The purpose of this policy was to signal deterrence but also placation towards the Soviet Union. In short, the policy was designed to avoid Soviet fear that Norway could be used as a launching area for attacks on the strategically important bases on Russia’s Kola Peninsula.

So, some critics held that the USMC deployment was in breach of this policy. The counter arguments were that, firstly, it is at any time the government that defines the base policy and how it is to be played out in practice. Secondly, these forces are so small that they are militarily insignificant. And thirdly, the MCPP-N deliberately was placed in mid-Norway in the 1980s in the context of this same balanced policy towards the Soviet Union. The location is so far away from the border that it hardly can be considered a military challenge to the Soviets – or to today’s Russia.

The Author is Karsten Friis

Karsten Friis is a Senior Adviser and Head of the Research Group on Security and Defence at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI). Friis previously worked for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Serbia, Montenegro, and Kosovo, as well as for the Norwegian Armed Forces in Oslo and in Kosovo. He holds a Cand. Polit. in Political Science from the University of Oslo and a MSc in International Relations from London School of Economics.

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