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Partners in Europe’s High North: Norway, the United States, and Great Power Competition on NATO’s Northern Flank

  • Published
  • By Dr. Douglas Peifer

The old diesel-powered ferry boat nudged towards a tunnel opening at the entrance to one of the fjords lining the main channel to Tromsø, Norway. Tromsø, a city of 75,000 inhabitants, lies some 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, and our inveterate band of warrior scholars had made a point of visiting Tromsø as it was the staging point for many of the activities associated with Exercise Cold Response 22. Cold Response is a biannual Norwegian organized cold weather exercise. Planning for the event began long before Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, but war on NATO’s eastern flank had lent a new sense of gravitas and commitment to securing NATO’s northern flank. Some 30,000 ground troops, dozens of naval vessels including the Britain’s aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales, and over 220 aircraft were involved in this year’s exercise.1 Our group had received numerous briefings about the exercise as part of our field study to Europe’s High North, but as we headed into Malangen fjord, our expectation for the day was that we would mainly learn about Norway’s coastal topography, the Arctic environment, and importance of tourism to the economics of the region. As the boat moved closer to the tunnel opening at the foot of one of the mountains abutting the fjord, we were reminded that geo-politics has become a priority once again. The tunnel opening was the entrance to an underground submarine base that the Norwegians had deactivated in 2002, selling off the facility in 2009 for a fraction of the cost incurred when it was constructed at the height of the Cold War.2 In 2002, the Cold War appeared to be over, and Norway like so many other Western nations hoped that adversarial relations with Russia had become a thing of the past. The private company that bought the base facilities, Olavsvern Group Limited, leased them to a commercial maritime surveying company with connections to Russia’s Gazprom consortium. Following Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014 and its support for secessionists in Ukraine’s Donetz-Luhansk regions, Norway and the United States concluded that Putin had no interest in working with the West. Instead, Putin’s Russia was doing all it could to undermine NATO and the West. The Norwegian government quietly ensured that Olavsvern Group ceased leasing the former base to Gazprom affiliates, and Norway’s Defense Logistics Organization negotiated a contract ensuring that Norway’s military has first right of use to the submarine base. As we stared at the tunnel entrance and saw USMC Osprey tilt-wing aircraft and helicopters flying over the waters and in the skies of Norway’s Nordland and Troms regions, we understood in a way that is hard to convey by readings alone how a new era of deterrence has replaced hopes of a cooperative relationship with Russia in Europe’s High North.

Our Air University group was in Tromsø as part of the Air War College’s Regional Security Studies (RSS) program. For over three decades, the Air War College has incorporated a regional studies program into its residential core curriculum. For two months, students learn about a specific region from one of the college’s regional experts, studying its history, learning about its political structure, parties, and arrangements, examining its economy, and analyzing diplomatic initiatives, strategies, and military capabilities and security challenges. Transitioning from the classroom, the seminar and faculty then visit the region where they interact with diplomats from foreign ministries, discuss military challenges, issues, and strategies with civilian and military counterparts and leaders; and visit think tanks, businesses, and historical/cultural sites that explain how our partners view the United States, our allies, and our adversaries. In a typical year, the Air War College sends 13 to 14 groups around the world who capitalize on the insights, readings, and discussions associated with the deep-dive regional security courses that precede the field studies. This year’s RSS program focused on regions and countries that have particular relevance to strategic competition with Russia and China. The RSS course and field study program are executed by faculty and staff from all three academic departments, typically pairing a Ph.D. regional expert with an O-6 military officer who coordinates the trip agenda with the State Department and host country officials.

The Air University group who found themselves outside the entrance to former Norwegian submarine base 200 mile north of the Arctic Circle had been studying the foreign and security policies of the area since early January. Professor Douglas Peifer taught the academic portion of the Air War College’s High North Europe regional studies course, while COL John Kupka, USA, was responsible for organizing the field study. For the academic preparatory course, Peifer assigned readings and led discussions on the cultural and historical landscape of the region, explaining how each country was politically organized, and analyzing the interaction between regional political, military, economic, and cultural (PMEC) factors and US national security strategies. Peifer placed special emphasis on analyzing allied, US, and adversary agendas in Europe’s High North. Students read the Danish and Norwegian foreign and security strategies and plans,3 studied their Arctic strategies,4 examined US Department of Defense and service Arctic strategies,5 and discussed scholarly articles analyzing Russian and Chinese agendas in the Arctic.6 As tensions mounted in February about Russia’s intentions toward the Ukraine, the course adapted to incorporate the onslaught of speeches, statements, and analyses of the unfolding crisis. Shortly before the group left for Norway, Putin ordered Russian military forces into the Ukraine, expecting to rapidly overwhelm Ukrainian forces. Norway borders Russia in the High North, and Norway’s policy of simultaneously cooperating with and defending against Russia appears likely to swing sharply towards defense and deterrence.7

Our traveling group consisted of eleven Air War College students, including representatives from the US Army, the USMC, and the Air Force, and two faculty. The two faculty members, both Ph.D.s, provided different insights based on their professional background (university professor, Army O-6 special force officer), their academic disciplines (European history, US government), and their department affiliation at the AWC (strategy department, international security studies department). The RSS program is an all-hands effort that brings together the entire college. Seminar students, all O-5 and O-6s, arrange travel, lodging, and schedule engagements. The country planner for our trip, Col Gary Thompson, USMC, deserves a special call out for his efforts arranging interactions and engagements with Norwegian officers, officials, and academics in Oslo, Trøndelag, and the Tromsø region.8

Our field study to Europe’s High North started in Oslo, Norway. The US Assistant Air Attaché had arranged a full day of meeting to set the stage for our time in Norway. The morning started with a full spectrum briefing on Norway, with the embassy’s deputy chief of mission, the political officer, the economic adviser, two public affairs officers, and a representative of the Office of Defense Cooperation providing their thoughts on Norway, the new bilateral Cooperative Defense Agreement,9 Norway’s role in NATO, and emerging security challenges in Europe’s High North. Each speaker emphasized how close were US-Norwegian relations, with Norway and the United States aligned on issues ranging from shared concerns about Putin’s agenda to climate change to sustainable development in the Arctic to free market transparency. One of the speakers noted that the relationship transcends Europe and the Atlantic region, pointing out that two flags remained flying at the Kabul airport until the last flights departed: one was the Star Spangled Banner, the other was the red-white-blue Norwegian cross. Norwegian special forces were among the first to join their American counterparts after 9/11, and among the very last to leave. More broadly, Norway contributes more than its share to international development efforts, supports the rules-based international order, and shares our commitment to human rights, democracy, and free expression.

Later in the morning, the group paid a visit to the Norwegian Defence University College (NDUC) housed in the historic Akershus fortress overlooking the city. There we were treated to an array of presentations, with speakers ranging from a senior level adviser from the Department of Security Policy at the Ministry of Defence to the head of the Defence Command and Staff College to Arctic experts to the director of an ongoing NDUC project on “Total Defense Cooperation with Ukraine.” Our Norwegian interlocutors repeatedly emphasized the importance of bilateral relations with the United States, noting that while Norway is in the midst of buying top-notch equipment from the United States ranging from 52 F-35A Lightning II multi-role combat aircraft to five P-8A Poseidon multi-mission maritime aircraft, it counts on the United States coming to its assistance should Russia ever decide to invade. Norway is extremely proud that it was one of the founding members of NATO in 1949, and while it opted against permanently hosting foreign troops on its soil during peacetime, US and NATO contingents practice winter operations, amphibious landings, and air/naval exercises on a rotating basis. The presentation on Norway’s posture in the High North was particularly interesting. While Norway is determined to convey to Russia and others that it will defend its territory, it seeks to deter without unduly provoking the Bear. It notifies Russia of scheduled military exercises, it restricts foreign forces from operating in the Norwegian county (Finnmark) directly adjacent to Russia, and it has established a hot-line between the Norwegian Joint Headquarters in Bodø and the Russian Northern Fleet headquarters in Severomorsk. Our Norwegian hosts reminded the group that Russia’s Kola peninsula, just across the border from Finnmark, has the densest concentration of nuclear weapons in the world (Russian Northern Fleet SSBNs) and that controlling the Barents Sea north of Norway is central to Russia’s strategic force bastion defence concept. Some in our traveling group had wondered whether Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the eve of our arrival in Norway would impact our field study or the long-planned major cold weather exercise in the Troms and Trondelag regions, Cold Response 22. Norway’s government decided to go ahead with the exercise as planned. In times of trouble, signaling that Norway has the will to defend itself, the capacity to do so, and allies and partners who are willing and able to support Norway sends a powerful message.

The next leg of our field study brought home in a way that briefings cannot the investments Norway is making in its own defense and the benefits that the United States reaps from its relationship with Norway. We had been told by our Norwegian officer at the Air War College that we should visit Norway’s Ørland air base if possible. Located a short ferry ride away from Trondheim halfway up Norway’s long south-north coast,10 the airbase was selected in 2012 to be the future main air station for Norway’s F-35 squadrons. Norway has ordered 52 F-35A, and has activated its first squadron with plans to activate as sister squadron as more F-35s arrive. The country has spent a tremendous amount of money upgrading the base at Ørland, and as the 132 Air Wing chief of staff walked us around the facility, one could sense the quiet pride he felt in showing off the base. The new maintenance facilities, lengthened runways, hardened aircraft shelters, and brand-new pilot ready rooms complete with the mandatory billiard tables, bar, and historical paraphernalia impressed everyone. The walk-around was at an unclassified level, but suffice it to say that the entire group walked away from our interaction with the Norwegian Air Force impressed with its training, equipment, readiness, and morale. The Ørland air wing supports two NATO missions in addition to its regular operations: a Quick Reaction Alert force operating out of Evenes air base in northern Norway and the Iceland Air Policing mission.11 Russia has been increasing its air activity in the High North and towards the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap, necessitating a constant state of readiness. Norway’s Air Force is answering the challenge. 

We shifted gears the next day to visit a Norwegian Home Guard unit, and learn about Norway’s Total Defence Concept. In addition to its small but well-equipped regular forces, Norway maintains a Home Guard. In some ways analogous to our National Guard, it differs in that there is no Title 32 (state) versus Title 10 (federal) role separation. Instead, the force resembles the “Minute Men” concept of our colonial period, in that the Home Guard members focus on defending the homeland rather deploying overseas as part of an expeditionary enterprise. Territorially organized, most Home Guard members train to fight where they live, though the organization has a Rapid Reaction Force of 40,000 that can surge to other regions of Norway as needed. In emergencies, the Home Guard commander can commandeer trucks, tractors, ferry boats, and even private vehicles to support home defence.12

Impressed with the Total Defence Concept, we then visited the one of the cavernous caves where the US Marine Corps has prepositioned sufficient ground equipment, munitions, and aviation support material to supply a Marine Expeditionary Brigade for 30 days.13 Conceived at the height of the Cold War in 1981, the original concept was that the Marines would preposition material in Norway so as to be able to rapidly reinforce NATO’s Northern Flank should war break out between the Warsaw Pact and NATO. In less than four years, the Norwegian government built a series of caves to enable the concept, but following the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the collapse of the Soviet Union, cost-conscious US officials began to question whether the program was still necessary. Determined to keep bilateral US-Norwegian military connections alive, the Norwegian government agreed to pay for the upkeep of the caves, maintain the equipment in them, and pay for the salaries of Norwegian maintainers. Our interlocuters claimed that Norway and the United States split the costs of the program 50/50. Under the terms of its memorandum of understanding, the Marine Corps can draw any equipment or munitions in the caves for deployment worldwide as it sees fit. The program, renamed the Marine Corps Prepositioning Program-Norway (MCPP-N, pronounced by those in the know as “McPipin”), has been a great success. The Norwegian officer escorting us pointed out that all the equipment in the cave was “turn-key ready,” explaining how humidity is kept to an ideal level and how Norwegian maintainers follow USMC maintenance protocols to the T. As we walked through the cave, the desert paint on most of the vehicles drove home how the equipment prepositioned in Norway has supported USMC operations from Afghanistan to Iraq to Africa. While Norway trusts that the US and the Marine Corps will come to its aid in a crisis, the terms of the MCPP-N program illustrate how the United States benefit from a unique bilateral agreement.14

Following our encounters with Norwegian airpower, the Home Guard, and the US Marine Corps in the Trøndelag region, we flew North to Tromsø for a real High North experience. Tromsø lies approximately 70 degrees North, and is the third largest city above the Arctic Circle (Murmansk and Norilsk are number 1 and 2). While the weather was surprisingly warm and spouses back home in Montgomery reminded us that it was snowing in Dixie while it was raining in Tromsø, the town exudes a High North aura. The museum at the Arctic University has one of the best exhibits on the indigenous peoples of the region, the Sami. The Polar Museum and the Polaria aquarium teach visitors about the role of Svalbard “winterers” (fur trappers who wintered over in inhospitable Svalbard), whalers and fishermen, polar explorers (hats off to Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nansen), and the rich wildlife of the region. Not to mention that we saw the Aurora Borealis dancing in the sky, adding visual poetry to scientific explanation connecting solar flares, communication difficulty, and the Northern Lights. The fishing trawlers, icebreakers, and cruise boats crowded into Tromsø’s harbor provided a illustration of lectures and discussions on Norway’s petroleum industry, its fishing resources, and how climate change in the Arctic is opening new areas to tourism and trade. Academic lessons about maritime economic exclusion zones (EEZs), environmental change, and search and rescue came to life. Heading inland on our second day in Tromsø, the group had the opportunity to talk to the Norwegian unit supporting Cold Response 22, as well as engage with US Marines undergoing cold-weather training. As we looked to the sky, we saw USMC Osprey tilt wing aircraft moving about, along with “skid” tandems of Hueys and Cobra helicopters. Little did we know how lucky we were in terms of the weather. The day after we departed Tromsø, clouds obscured the heavens and winds picked up to a reported 50 mph. Four marines out of Marine Corps Air Station New River, North Carolina would lose their lives when their MV-22 Osprey crashed shortly after out departure from Tromsø.15 Our hearts go out to their families.

The academic course preceding the field study familiarized the group with Norway and Denmark’s security policies and military plans, provided a good understanding of our partners  politics, economies, and the histories, and examined US and regional Arctic strategies as they relate to Great Power Competition. Having the opportunity to follow up readings and discussions about Europe’s High North by visiting the region was invaluable. The RSS Northern Europe field study group gained an impression of the topography - the mountains, fjords, and caves - of Norway that is impossible to experience by reading about it. In addition, the group engaged with senior Norwegian officials, military officers, and scholars, gaining an unparalleled sense of how much the relationship to the United States means to Norway. The briefs on Russia and China in the Arctic provided insights into how Norway views these power, and candid discussions took place about whether and how Russia’s assault on the Ukraine is reordering the security architecture of Europe, the High North, and the world. The program is well-worth every penny it costs, and incidentally, on at least three occasions, the Air University group encountered Norwegian officers who had spent time at Maxwell. They all reminisced about their time in Alabama, chuckling that they had not forgotten the difference between a “y’all” and an “all y’all.” This confirms that the friendships and connections made at Air University endure long after our international fellows depart the circle. The US-Norway relationship is strong, and the United States needs allies like it who all willing to invest in their defense. Echoing the message conveyed to us at our initial briefing at the US embassy in Oslo, the US-Norwegian relationship is unique, exhibiting a level of trust, friendship, and competence that is hard to match.

Douglas Peifer

Douglas Peifer is a professor in the Department of Strategy at the Air War College, holds a Ph.D. in European history, and is the AWC faculty lead for its Regional Security Studies on Europe’s High North.


1. “Exercise Cold Response 2022 - NATO and partner forces face the freeze in Norway,” NATO Newsroom, 21 March 2022, [accessed 21 March 2022]; “Royal Navy Carrier at the Heart of Cold Response Naval Task Force,” Royal Navy Press release 16 March 2022, [accessed 21 March 2022]

2. Joseph Trevithick, “This is the cave facility in Norway that U.S. submarines could soon operate from,” The Warzone blogsite, 13 October 2020, [accessed 21 March 2022]

3. Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Foreign and Security Strategy (2022), available at [Accessed 28 February 2022]; Norwegian Ministry of Defence, The Defence of Norway. Capabilities and Readiness. Long Term Defence Plan (2020), available at [Access 28 February 2022].

4. Norwegian Government’s Arctic Policy (2020), available at; Kingdom of Denmark Strategy for the Arctic 2011–2020, available at [accessed 21 March 2022]

5. Department of Defense Arctic Strategy, 2019 (June 2019), available at; United States Coast Guard Arctic Strategic Outline (August 2019), available at; Department of the Air Force Arctic Strategy (21 January 2020)  2020), available at; Department of the Navy, A Blue Arctic (5 January 2021), available at BLUEPRINT 2021 FINAL.PDF/ARCTIC BLUEPRINT 2021 FINAL.PDF; United States Army, Regaining Arctic Dominance (19 January 2021), available at

6. Including, but not limited to Pavel Devyatkin, "Russia and the Arctic." In Russian Strategic Intentions. A Strategic Multilayer Assessment (SMA) White Paper, Arctic Institute 2020, available at; Robin Allers, András Rácz, and Tobias Saether, “Dealing with Russia in the Arctic. Between Exceptionalism and Militarization” German Council on Foreign Affairs, DGAP Analysis No.4, October 2021, available at; Rush Doshi, Alexis Dale-Huang, and Gaoqi Zhang, Northern Expedition. China’s Arctic Activities and Ambitions, Brookings Institute Report April 2021, available at; and State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, China’s Arctic Policy (26 January 2018), available at [all accessed 21 March 2022]

7 Trinne Jonassen, “Norwegian Foreign Minister:  The War Changes Norwegian Security and Foreign Policy,” High North News 25 March 2022, available at [all accessed 21 March 2022]

8. In addition, I’d like to thank COL Nicholas Cabano, USA, for his superb trip summary and LtCol Christine VanWeezendonk who made all the travel arrangements. 

9. U.S. Department of State Press Statement on the “U.S. Norway Supplementary Defense Cooperation Agreement,” 16 April 2021, available at

10. Several speakers told us that if one stuck a needle in a map of Norway at Oslo, and rotated the country 180 degrees, the northern most part of Norway would then be situated south of Rome. Put differently, driving from southern Norway to its far North is equivalent to equivalent to driving from Florida to New England.

11. Norwegian Ministry of Defence website. For Ørland support of QRA out of Evenes, see For Royal Norwegian Air Force support of Iceland Air Policing, see [accessed 22 March 2022]

12. For a discussion of Norway’s Total Defence Concept, see The Defence of Norway. Capabilities and Readiness, pp. 16-17.

13. Congressional Research Service, Defense Primer: Department of Defense Pre-Positioned Material (26 November 2021).

14. For a detailed discussion of MCPP-N, see the USMC Prepositioning Programs Handbook, available at [accessed 21 March 2022]

15. Philip Athey, “4 US Marines killed in Norway Osprey crash identified, “Marine Times 20 March 2022, available at [accessed 21 March 2022]

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