The Air Force has deployed four B-1B Lancer bombers to Ørland in Norway and the Russians are very upset about it. The Lancers come from the 7th Bomb Wing at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas. This latest move signals a shift towards the Arctic by the U.S. military to counter Russia but it also represents a shift for Norway, an important NATO ally.
As reported in High North News, Norway was careful to try and put the Russians at ease about the first-ever deployment of a strategic bomber, like B-1B Lancers, to the country. In a joint telephone press conference with USAFE Deputy Commander Lt. Gen. Steven L. Basham and Lt. Gen. Yngve Odlo, Chief of the Norwegian Joint Headquarters, Gen Odlo stated, “It’s normal military activity between two close allies. The only special thing is that it is the new asset being deployed to Norway. But it is also a quite normal, and an important asset to be able to conduct high-intensity joint, combined operations.”
Yet, the Russians did not react as if this were a normal deployment. On its Facebook page the Russian Embassy in Oslo posted the following:
“The activation of the foreign military presence in Norway and in the North including sending strategic bombers ‘B-1B Lancers’ does not contribute generally in terms of stability… We will continue to monitor the situation and implement measures to defend the security of our country and the region.”
So, is it normal to have strategic bombers in Norway that can reach the Soviet naval bases in the Arctic? No, it isn’t. While these bombers were there they conducted a series of exercises with other NATO partners. Canadian, German, and Norwegian warships and F-35 fighters operated off the coast of Norway simulating electronics warfare and the shooting down of anti-ship missiles. The B-1Bs probably acted in the role of Russian land-based bombers flying down from Russia.
So what is really going on?
For decades, the Norwegians have tried to walk a fine line between being a NATO partner while posturing as a “Good Neighbor” to the Russians with whom they share a common border. Norway does not have a large military but does have thousands of miles of coastline to defend and Russia has not reciprocated Norway’s Good Neighbor policy.
In September 2019, the Norwegian security and defense portal Aldrimer.no claimed that according to sources inside the Norwegian military Russian Spetsnaz troops were found operating inside Norwegian territory, specifically, on the island of Svalbard and on mainland Norway itself.
Additionally, every year there are more than 50 incursions of Russian fighters and bombers into Norway’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). These aircraft have their IFF transponders turned off. This makes them unidentifiable so the Norwegians have to scramble fighters to intercept them.
Since at least 2008, the Russians have shifted their strategic presence to their Arctic region, building new airfields and modernizing existing bases, investing in new long-range missile systems, and repositioning surface ships and submarines to the region.
Russia has also engaged in cyberattacks on Norway’s political parties and election system attempting to influence their elections.
Norway’s announced intention to participate in NATO’s “Nuclear Shield,” program which is a Europe-wide early warning radar system, prompted Russia to declare that Norway had opened itself up to being a target of nuclear weapons by Russia.
Norway appears to be getting serious about the threat posed to it by Russia, even recently declaring that Russia poses a threat to its security equal to terrorism. Norway has increased its defense budget, seeking to buy new weapons like the F-35 from the U.S. and to have some 300 U.S. Marines permanently based in the country.
For the U.S., the deployment of these bombers is a tactic referred to in the 2018 National Defense Strategy as Operational Surprise and Unpredictability. Recognizing that established bases invite preemptive attacks by long-range missiles at the opening of hostilities the Defense Department has undertaken a program wherein U.S. forces are training to be able to move rapidly and redeploy (or disperse) to make them harder to take out in a first strike by an adversary like Russia. Instead of the 12-24 planes of a nuclear-capable heavy bomber squadron, like the 7th Bomb Wing, operating exclusively from their airbase in Texas, they could be split into several operational sections of four aircraft and fly from bases in the U.K., Denmark and Norway simultaneously. This makes them much harder for an adversary to take out and it requires them to attack not only the U.S. but three other NATO countries simultaneously if they want to have any hope of hitting them.
Right now, only the U.S. is capable of dispersing its military assets in this manner and supplying them remotely. At these alternate bases, there would be pre-staged equipment, spare parts, and non-nuclear munitions so that arriving support personnel will be able to sustain a four-plane section of bombers.
This system also allows the U.S. to forego the cost of building and maintaining entire bases in the Arctic region as it once had to do in such far-flung locations as Greenland and Iceland.
So in spite of the “no big deal claims” Norway is making to placate Russia, this first-time deployment of nuclear-capable bombers, like the Lancer, only 700 or so miles from Russia represents a possible shift by Norway away from its Good Neighbor posture. At the same time, it signals that the U.S. has the logistical and strategic reach to put strategic B-1B bombers, each armed with eight nuclear-armed cruise missiles, inside Russian territory in under an hour.