Nora Lorek to NPR
In March, a U.S. Marine Corps general aboard an Italian aircraft carrier floating in an Arctic fjord instructed French troops to launch an amphibious attack from a Dutch ship to repel the occupation of Norway.
It was just a simulation – part of NATO’s “Cold Response” exercise, which takes place every two years. This year, however, the exercise, with all eyes looking over Norway’s border with Russia, felt a little more real.
“Having a great power in Europe that engages in a broad land-air war, attacks your neighbor, affects everything,” said Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, who observed the war games. “Norway needs an alliance, allies, training, relevant defense to be safe. And that’s what we practice here.”
Troops from 27 countries participated in one of the largest NATO war games since the 1980s. Although planned two years ago, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine gave this NATO exercise a Cold War feel – and a renewed mission to deter Russia from believing that any NATO country could be a soft target.
“We want the whole world, anyone who wants to take on a defensive alliance like NATO, to understand that it is ready to defend all its members. Unequivocally,” said USMC Brigadier General Anthony Henderson, who led the exercise from the Italian aircraft. transporter Giuseppe Garibaldi, where hundreds of Italian sailors hosted U.S. Marines.
In recent years, Russian ships have closely overshadowed the operation, even testing missiles nearby. Russia’s northern navy, including nuclear submarines, is stationed just across the border from Norway. This year, that fleet is occupied and is bombing Ukraine from the Black Sea. But in this region, the “high northern” Russia is still seen as ahead of its rivals.
“The United States let some of that capacity atrophy after the end of the Cold War. Now, in the last few years, we’re really paying more attention to the need to restore our icebreaker fleet, and also to be able to equip our forces to operate in colder weather and more dangerous conditions, “said Sherri Goodman, former deputy secretary of defense.
Goodman says Russia still has a huge advantage in the Arctic – about 50 ice-breaking ships compared to the United States’ two coastguard ships. And she is concerned that melting sea ice, new shipping routes and a race for new mining and drilling in the Arctic provide opportunities for crisis with Russia. Especially since Vladimir Putin is now a pariah.
“We have entered an era in the Arctic with cold peace at best, where Russia is less tied to the Arctic institutions that have provided stability in the last quarter of a century. Although that does not mean we are heading into a armed conflict, we are heading into an area where deterrence and defense will play a greater role, “Goodman said.
At the same time as NATO was practicing in Arctic Norway, the United States was conducting a similar exercise with 8,000 troops in Alaska along the Bering Sea, where Russia has stepped up military activity in recent years.
Working in the Arctic is inherently complicated – these conditions may have contributed to the deaths of four US Marines in Norway when their Osprey tiltrotor crashed during the exercise on Friday 18 Marchth. Search and rescue were hampered by a sudden snowstorm, something that happened almost daily during the three-week war game.
Equally complicated is directing close air support to 27 different national forces spanning many languages and military cultures.
“It’s a very complex exercise, and it’s part of what we were trying to come up with, ‘how did we learn to work well together?’ You can not just shoot into someone else’s room because you might hurt someone over there. You have to make sure you do the proper coordination, “said U.S. Navy Major Caleb Brown, who directed – simulated – artillery from on board. Giuseppe Garibaldi.
Across the NATO force, the only real combat experience comes from a very different kind of war, in Iraq or Afghanistan or possibly Syria. So “Cold Response” was just as much about learning to stay warm, de-icing aircraft and dealing with extreme weather.
When a sudden white-out blizzard grounded all the planes on the deck of the Italian aircraft carrier, several crews were left waiting for a completely ready one. But part of the exercise is to build camaraderie among NATO troops, so the Italians and Americans started a snowball fight on the airline.