Standing Together on NATO's North Flank: UK-Norwegian Defence Cooperation


Dec 9, 2020

UK Royal Navy 3 Commando Brigade land in Norway as part of demanding winter exercises, photo by PO Phot Si Ethell/Royal Navy Open Government License

UK Royal Navy 3 Commando Brigade land in Norway as part of demanding winter exercises

Photo by PO Phot Si Ethell/Royal Navy Open Government License

The UK and Norway share a long and close history, bound by shared experiences as seafaring nations whose political, cultural, and economic development have been shaped in part by their exploitation of the North Sea and North Atlantic. Speaking at a joint naval exercise in the Barents Sea in September 2020, the UK's Defence Secretary Ben Wallace declared, “the UK is the closest neighbour to the Arctic states. In addition to preserving UK interests we have a responsibility to support our Arctic Allies such as Norway to preserve the security and stability of the region.”

The ties between the two countries date back over a millennium. In the medieval period, Norwegian Vikings settled in the British Isles, shaping the culture and language of northern England and the Scottish islands of Shetland, Orkney, and the Hebrides. In the modern era, the UK was quick to recognise the newly-independent Norway after its split from Sweden in 1905, and the new King of Norway, Haakon VII, had a British princess as his queen, Maud of Wales. When the Second World War came to Norway in 1940, the Norwegian King and his ministers relocated to London as a government-in-exile; the British military and intelligence services would work closely with the Norwegian resistance to disrupt and eventually overturn the German occupation. To this day, this wartime partnership is commemorated by the annual gift of a Norwegian Christmas Tree to be erected in London's Trafalgar Square as a token of gratitude for the sacrifices on both sides.

In 1949, London and Oslo joined ten other governments as founding members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), an unprecedented alliance to defend democracy and collective security. Traditionally, one of the UK Royal Navy's principal NATO tasks during the Cold War was control of access and traversal of the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap. Moreover, the UK has an important partnership with the Norwegian military to monitor and protect the “Bear gap” between the Barents Sea and the Norwegian Sea, which is key to NATO's sea-denial efforts. Once Russian Navy surface vessels are deployed beyond this chokepoint during a confrontation, they could threaten sea lines of communication that are critical to NATO in the North Sea and North Atlantic. Similarly, ongoing Russian militarisation of its “bastion” around the Kola Peninsula, where second-strike nuclear assets are based, demands continuing vigilance from Norway, the UK, and other NATO Allies to manage the risks of any escalating crisis. This includes any future standoff emanating from tensions in the region itself or, perhaps much more likely, one spilling over from a confrontation in the Baltics, Black Sea, or elsewhere in Europe.

Adapting to a Changing Environment

Over the next 30 years, the increasing convergence of competing interests in the Arctic and North Atlantic is likely to create a shift from the perception of the region as a benign area of low tension to one of strategic competition. Rising temperatures as a result of climate change are changing the natural environment, making the Arctic more accessible, and drawing increased economic and geostrategic interest in the area. Melting ice is opening new opportunities for oil exploration and shipping. While the UK is not an Arctic state nor on the Arctic Council, any increase in tensions in the region could become a direct threat to the UK homeland—not least given any potential Russian air or naval attack would have to pass around or over Norwegian territories to reach the British Isles, and given the importance of undersea cables, energy imports, and maritime trade to sustaining an island nation during any time of conflict.

The increasing convergence of competing interests in the Arctic and North Atlantic is likely to create a shift from the perception of the region as a benign area of low tension to one of strategic competition.

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Moreover, the growing economic importance of the region is attracting British, Norwegian, and many other nations' business interests. Indeed, as one of the major oil producers and a key source of energy supplies from the North Sea to the UK, Norway announced plans for major expansion of oil exploration in the Arctic in June 2020. U.S., Canadian, and even Chinese ambitions to take advantage of opening shipping routes in the Arctic also add to pre-existing tensions surrounding what Moscow calls the “Northern Sea Route.” In the future, economic competition in the region could escalate into further militarisation—Russia has already been steadily increasing its military presence in the region, especially in and around its “bastion” in the Kola Peninsula and Barents Sea.

For all these reasons, the UK is refocusing on what it calls “the High North”—a concept that includes the Arctic Circle but also more southerly territories, waters, and airspace of strategic interest towards Scotland and into the North Atlantic. Since 2014, the transformation of the UK's relationship with Russia has necessitated renewed interest in threats emerging from this northern flank. In 2018, the Defence Select Committee published a report on the UK's posture and capabilities in the Arctic under the cautionary title of “On Thin Ice”—with British parliamentarians noting with alarm the disconnect between Russia's military expansion in the High North and the focus of the UK on Iraq and Afghanistan over the last two decades. In response to this growing strategic challenge in the north, the UK Ministry of Defence is due to publish a new Defence Arctic Strategy and is exploring ways to build stronger, long-term defence cooperation with key allies and partners such as Norway.

Exploiting New Capabilities

Alongside this shift in defence strategy and policy, the UK is also considering the implications of a changing High North region for its posture, plans, and capabilities. Although the British Armed Forces have no standing presence in the Arctic, Royal Marine commandos have long regularly conducted cold weather training and exercises in and around Norway. Part and parcel of the UK's refocusing on the High North is an intensification of training with the Norwegian Armed Forces—with an annual deployment of 800 Royal Marines and British Army troops for cold weather training already planned through to 2029 and deployments of transport and attack helicopters to these freezing conditions.

As the two militaries deepen their cooperation, there is also growing demand for interoperability across key platforms and equipment. As common operators of the P-8 and F-35, the UK and Norway, along with the United States, have pledged to further improve interoperability and work together on maintenance, training, simulation, and sharing tactics and operating concepts. In line with this objective, UK, Norwegian, Danish and U.S. forces carried out a multi-domain interoperability exercise in the Barents Sea in September 2020 involving over 1,200 personnel.

The growing strategic importance of the High North is generating further demands for new equipment which could in turn lead to lucrative opportunities for UK and Norwegian defence suppliers.

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Furthermore, the growing strategic importance of the High North is generating further demands for new equipment that can withstand the extreme conditions in the region, which could in turn lead to lucrative opportunities for UK and Norwegian defence suppliers. Extremely cold temperatures, high atmospheric moisture, and icy terrain or waters all pose hazards to military systems. In the face of evolving requirements and given rapid innovation in new technologies, both the UK and Norway possess high-tech industries and skilled workforces that make them well placed to work together on developing new technical solutions. This could include areas of interest to other NATO Allies and potential customers, such as the United States, including new equipment for use in extreme cold-weather operations, satellite technologies for polar applications, new systems for manned-unmanned teaming, mine countermeasures, and developing other critical capabilities.

Certainly, the UK does not yet possess all the capabilities it might need for future operations in this gruelling environment and its limited air and maritime assets are also in demand in other parts of the world. The Royal Air Force's combat aircraft are not equipped with specialised drag chutes of the sort that enable Norway's F-35A fleet to land on icy runways and the new F-35B will only be available in relatively small numbers for the foreseeable future. The Royal Navy only has one dedicated ice patrol ship, HMS Protector; the Navy is also busy trying to find the balance between deploying its new carrier strike capability, maintaining numbers of surface combatants for other global commitments, and replacing its submarine-based nuclear deterrent capability.

However, there are some positive signs even amidst uncertainty over the future of UK defence spending after its ongoing Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Foreign, and Development Policy. The P-8 is at last being introduced after a prolonged period where the UK lacked any Maritime Patrol Aircraft capability as a result of scrapping the RAF's Nimrod fleet during the spending cuts of the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review; and the Royal Navy and Marines are aiming to remain first responders, with their U.S. counterparts, able to deploy naval and amphibious forces to Norway in the event of any future threat to its NATO ally.

Deepening the Relationship

Importantly, the UK and Norway do not only share a close relationship and common interest in their immediate backyard. Both London and Oslo have committed to a 360-degree approach to deter wider threats to the Alliance, reflected in the contributions they have made in recent years on NATO's eastern and southern flanks. The two countries are especially active in working together and with other regional players to address security threats emanating from the Baltic region. But they are also both working with allies to address instability in the Black Sea, Balkans, Middle East, North Africa, and Sahel, and thereby to enhance the overall credibility and cohesion of NATO as an Alliance on all fronts.

A key element of the UK's efforts to enhance NATO's deterrence posture has been its ambition to increase the speed and agility with which likeminded allies can respond to an unfurling crisis before triggering a full NATO Article 5 response. Central to this idea has been the creation of a UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF), bringing together Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and the UK. Notably, the involvement of Finland and Sweden—neither of them a NATO member—contributes additional high-readiness forces for potential operations should they and the Alliance determine a crisis merits joint action. This builds on Norway's own deep ties with both countries through NORDEFCO. For the UK, Norway's contribution to the JEF is a valued one and there is a future opportunity for Oslo to take on yet more of a leadership role in shaping strategic thinking and enhancing interoperability within this framework.

Looking Towards the Future

With its Integrated Review still ongoing, the UK today finds itself at a critical juncture, seeking to define its place in the world after Brexit; address the uncertainties thrown up by the COVID-19 pandemic; and understand what role the military instrument of power and deeper cooperation with allies and partners might play in delivering a strategic vision of the UK as “Global Britain.”

Norway could play an important part in shaping London's thinking about priorities closer to home as 'the Arctic's closest neighbour.'

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Even as the UK begins to consider its role and defence posture further afield, including in Asia-Pacific, Norway could play an important part in shaping London's thinking about priorities closer to home as “the Arctic's closest neighbour.” This includes sharing Oslo's experience in working with, but outside, the structures of the EU, and insights into how best to influence Brussels on issues of common interest such as security cooperation, defence procurement, or deconflicting EU and NATO initiatives. The UK Armed Forces are also working up new concepts for amphibious operations and “littoral strike,” both of which will be of direct interest to Norway given potential scenarios for the High North. COVID-19 and growing threats from hostile cyber, space, information operations, and foreign interference in political processes and economic supply chains also entail a growing appetite from UK policymakers to understand lessons from other nations facing similar challenges. In particular, there is considerable scope for the UK to learn from Norway's experiences with Total Defence and implementing measures to enhance societal resilience.

For the UK and Norway alike, then, much could remain to be gained from continuing to deepen and evolve their longstanding partnership to meet the new challenges of the 21st century.

Anna Knack is an analyst and James Black is a research leader at RAND Europe. Ruth Harris directs the Defence, Security, and Infrastructure group at RAND Europe.

This commentary originally appeared in LUFTLED on December 9, 2020.