The USS Harry S Truman, and her escort ships entered the Norwegian Sea on Friday, marking the first time a US aircraft carrier has operated above the Arctic Circle in nearly 30 years. The last time was in September, 1991 a few months before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. USS America moved north of the Circle while taking part in the NATO exercise Northern Star. Coincidentally, the reason for Truman’s venture north is also to participate in a NATO exercise. Trident Juncture 18 is scheduled to officially begin on 25 October.
In the last decade of the Cold War, US aircraft carriers operated north of the Arctic Circle in the Norwegian Sea on a fairly regular basis. If hostilities had ever broken out between NATO and the Warsaw Pact back then, the Norwegian Sea would’ve been a hotly contested piece of water. The US Navy’s Maritime Strategy had called for multiple carrier battlegroups to operate in the Norwegian Sea, in close proximity to the Soviet mainland. The concept at the time was for the carriers to eventually bring the war to Soviet soil with heavy airstrikes against military targets on the Kola Peninsula. Back then, whenever a US carrier moved north of the Arctic Circle ostensibly to take part in an exercise, it was also there to send a message to Moscow.
The same could very well hold true today. Truman’s journey north serves as a reminder of the US Navy’s global reach, and striking power at a time when tensions between Russia and the West remain high.
Later this month NATO will begin its largest series of exercises since 2002. Trident Juncture 2018 is set to begin in late October and run through early November. The field exercise phase of TRJE 18 will run from 25 October through 7 November and take place mostly in Norway. Land operations will take place in a zone extending from south of Trondheim to Rena Camp. Air operations will be conducted in Norwegian, Swedish, and Finnish airspace, while seaborne operations and activity will occur in the eastern reaches of the Baltic Sea, North Sea, Norwegian Sea, and North Atlantic. TRJE 18 will conclude with a command post exercise ( CPX) scheduled to take place at the Joint Warfare Center in Stavanger, Norway from 14-23 November.
Many of the troops, and units expected to take part in the exercise have already arrived in Norway. The deployment phase of the exercise has been underway since August. TRJE 18’s forces will be made up of 45,000 troops from NATO nations, as well as from Sweden, and Finland, 10,000 land vehicles, 150 combat aircraft, and 60 ships. It will be the largest military exercise to occur in Norway since the annual NATO Ocean Venture exercises in the ‘80s. Much like Ocean Venture, TRJE 18 is designed to send a message to Moscow about the current readiness level of NATO forces. In fact, NATO has invited Russia to send observers to monitor the exercises. It is unknown at present if Russia has accepted the offer or not.
TRJE 18 comes at a time when tensions between NATO and Russia remain heightened. The US Ambassador to NATO has made comments recently about Russia’s continued violations of the INF Treaty. Ambassador Kay Bailey Hutchison stoked alarm among journalists, and some diplomats when she spoke of ‘taking out’ the Russian SSC-X-8 missile, a platform built in direct violation of the INF Treaty’s terms. At present, Russia has two battalions equipped with the missile deployed in close proximity to its western frontier. Hutchinson apparently misspoke and the phrase ‘take out’ was referring to the US developing countermeasures to neutralize the advanced cruise missile should it be launched in anger against US or NATO targets.
An expanded US military presence on NATO’s Eastern Flank will be a major topic of discussion next month at the NATO summit. In recent weeks, a number of NATO member-states let it be known they would welcome additional US troops on their soil. Last Friday Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia called for a discussion on increasing the NATO military presence in the region. The hope is for talks to take place at the NATO summit. Norway and Poland have gone beyond this. Both nations have been vocal in their desire for US troops to be permanently based in their countries. At present, US troops are deployed in both nations on a rotational basis.
Norway intends to ask the US to double the number of troops currently on Norwegian soil. There are 330 US Marines there at present. Oslo would like to see that number increased to 700, and for the troops to be stationed closer to the Russian border than the present rotation of troops. Russia responded sharply to the Norwegian plan, promising there will be ‘consequences’ if Oslo and Washington move forward with the plan. The Russian embassy in Oslo released a statement saying a rise in the number of US troops in Norway “could lead to rising tensions and trigger an arms race, destabilizing the situation in northern Europe.”
Poland has taken it a step farther. Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak has held discussions with US officials about a permanent US military presence in Poland. The present US military setup there is centered on the periodic rotation of a US armored brigade. Warsaw wants to build on that and have an entire US armored division permanently based in Poland. In the view of Poland’s senior military officials, and politicians, having a US armored division stationed on Polish territory would be the ultimate hedge against future Russian aggression. As a sign of their willingness to bring a deal together, the Polish government is offering $2 billion to be placed towards building an infrastructure for a permanent US military presence.
On Friday the Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson, announced the reactivation of the US 2nd Fleet, which was the US Navy fleet responsible for operations in the North Atlantic until it was deactivated in 2011. Its AOR, and operations were taken over by the 6th Fleet, which covered both the Mediterranean and Atlantic during the time. The move has been expected for some time now. As relations between the United States and Russia began their downward trend after the 2014 annexation of Crimea, Russian naval activity in the North Atlantic increased. In the later years of the Obama tenure, the US Navy began to take a hard look at the possibility of standing up 2nd Fleet once again. The prospect did not begin to gain momentum until 2017 when the Trump administration and then-new Secretary of Defense James Mattis began to take a hard look at the US military and the changing geopolitical realities around the world
Richardson alluded to that in his remarks. “Our National Defense Strategy makes clear that we’re back in an era of great power competition as the security environment continues to grow more challenging and complex.” This move is a clear indication that the Pentagon has placed a high priority in countering Russia’s heightened military activity. A large part of this strategy includes a US pivot back to Europe and the North Atlantic.
Increased Russian naval activity in the Atlantic over the last 2-3 years has been a concern for NATO as well as the US Navy. In a nod to the Cold War days and SACLANT, NATO’s new Atlantic Command will join the 2nd Fleet as being headquartered in Norfolk.
Attention is focused on Washington DC today as the world waits to see how the United States chooses to respond to the suspected chemical weapons attack in Douma, Syria on 7 April. This morning it was announced that President Trump will not be attending the Summit of the Americas in Peru, or traveling to Bogota, Columbia afterwards as planned. Instead, the president will remain in Washington to “oversee the American response to Syria and to monitor developments around the world” according to the White House. This recent development has increased speculation that US military action could be coming soon. Reports that Trump has been in consultation with London and Paris suggest a broader Western military response is possible as well.
In fact, the possibility of British involvement at the very least is growing. A short time ago I spoke to an associate of mine who lives a short distance away from RAF Akrotri, the British airbase on Cyprus. He verified that the level of activity there has increased over the past few hours and shows no sign of dropping off. Right now I am trying to obtain more information from him. If I do, I will pass it along.
On the military front, numerous reports surfaced yesterday that the destroyer USS Donald Cook was moving into waters near Syria, and Russian aircraft were conducting low level flights nearby. The Pentagon denied the reports and they were never confirmed by any major independent media outlets. If Cook is in the vicinity of Syria it makes sense for Russian aircraft to harass any potential TLAM shooters, and keep a close eye on them as the situation unfolds. It should also be noted that given the range of the TLAM, Cook does not have to be anywhere close to the Syrian coastline. She could launch cruise missiles from practically anywhere in the Mediterranean. However, given political considerations and such, it does make sense to volley TLAMs as close to Syria as the situation allows.
It is mid-afternoon here in the eastern United States and there is much happening with regards to Syria from Washington to Europe, and the Med. I’ll try and post another update early in the evening and offer some thoughts about if or when military action against the Syrian government might begin.