Pentagon’s Upcoming New Arctic Strategy: "We Talk To Norway, Finland, and Sweden a Lot"

Iris Ferguson leder Pentagons kontor for arktisk strategi og global motstandsdyktighet. Her er hun på besøk ved Elmendorf-Richardson militærbase i Alaska, USA, i mars under øvelsen Arctic Edge 2024. Den handlet om å styrke amerikanske styrkers ferdigheter i et arktisk klima med ekstrem kulde, noe som er en viktig tematikk i forsvarsdepartementets nye strategi for regionen. (Foto: Madisyn Paschal/USAs marinekorps)
Iris Ferguson serves as the Pentagon's Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Arctic and Global Resilience. Here she is on a visit to the Elmendorf-Richardson joint base in Alaska, USA, in March, during the Arctic Edge 2024 exercise. It involved strengthening the American forces' capabilities in the demanding Arctic climate, which is an important theme in the DoD's new strategy for the region. (Photo: Madisyn Paschal / The US Marine Corps)

Washington D.C. (High North News): The US DoD's new Arctic strategy is right around the corner. It has been developed in close dialogue with allies – not least the Northern Nordics, says Deputy Assistant Secretary Iris Ferguson. She expresses admiration for Norway's 'double strategy' on balancing deterrence and reassurance in the North.

Norwegian version.

An important release in the field of Arctic defense is in the works.

“We have been working on the Arctic strategy for almost a year and are now very close to the finish line. We have a springtime frame," says Iris Ferguson, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense in the US Department of Defense (DoD), to High North News.

She heads the DoD's Arctic Strategy and Global Resilience Office, which was established in the fall of 2022. An update of the department's current Arctic strategy from 2019 was announced last spring.

“The process has taken so long partially because we have taken a really concerted approach. We have worked with our allies and partners from the very beginning as we have drafted the strategy," says Ferguson and elaborates:

“After launching the office, we quickly set out to visit all the like-minded Arctic nations to hear from the capitals themselves about what they are thinking around priorities for the Arctic region and the various security interests that they have.”

“So, we have been doing a lot of signals checking with our allies and partners. They are a very significant focus in the strategy; our approach is to act in alignment, together and through them.”

For tida legges siste hånd på arktisk strategiarbeid i Pentagon, bygningen som huser USAs forsvarsdepartement. Denne ligger i Arlington, Virginia, like ved hovedstaden Washington D.C. (Foto: Marie Staberg)
The finishing touches are currently being added to the Arctic strategy work in the Pentagon, the building housing the US DoD. It is located in Arlington, Virginia, just outside the capitol, Washington D.C. (Photo: Marie Staberg).

Input from the Northern Nordics

Can you say a few words about the input you have received from Norway, Finland, and Sweden in particular  the new NATO in the European Arctic?

“Firstly, I experience that there is growing recognition in like-minded states that the Arctic region is changing quite dramatically. Not only because of climate change – as the region is warming up more than three times faster than the rest of the world, followed by growing human activity and impact to our existing infrastructure – but also because of increased activity from potential competitors," responds DASD Ferguson and continues:

“We spend a lot of time talking with these countries on the perception of the threat environment and how Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has changed the strategic context, especially regarding the Arctic region.”

“Many of Russia’s conventional forces that were in the Arctic are now no longer there. At the same time, there is quite an emphasis on strategic assets [nuclear forces, ed. note] that remain there. We talk about threats in the region to create a common operating picture.”

The war in Ukraine has significantly weakened Russia's land forces in the High North, but the naval and air forces have largely maintained a normal level of activity. The Russian Northern Fleet has recently also been strengthened with new naval vessels, such as the strategic nuclear submarine Tsar Alexander III of the Borei-A-class (SSBN). Originally, it was intended to join Russia's Pacific Fleet. (Photo: the Russian Ministry of Defense)

A competent trio

The development of capabilities has also been a recurrent topic in the dialogue between the Pentagon and three Nordic parties.

“For us like-minded Arctic nations, there is now an amazing opportunity to collaborate with one another because of the geopolitical alignment. Norway, Finland, and Sweden also have highly capable militaries. In many ways, these three countries have arguably been operating with higher levels of proficiency in the Arctic than we have over the past several decades.”

She points out that the US, in particular, could learn from Norwegian, Finnish, and Swedish expertise on operating in cold Arctic environments.

“That is why you see US forces exercising so frequently with our Nordic partners. Through this, we learn best practices in cold weather operations as well as about interoperability challenges and opportunities between us. All in all, there is much we can learn from and together with these very capable partners.”

Balancing act

Norway's government sticks to the policy of balancing deterrence and reassurance towards Russia in the North – and elaborates that reassurance is about being predictable and recognizable in the High North. This also has implications for allied military activity on Norwegian territory. What are DoD's considerations regarding this balancing act?

“I have long admired the Norwegian concept of carrying out deterrence and reassurance simultaneously and think this is a very important formulation. It is a bit of a balancing act," answers Ferguson and continues:

“If you look at this region that is changing so dramatically from a physiological perspective, as well as in relation to the human footprint, it is very important to build common understandings and intentions. We work very closely with Norway and our Nordic partners who share border areas with Russia to be informed when they see signals of various threats, but also to become aware of different intentions. So, we are very grateful for the partnership that we have with them.”

“We know that there is certainly a bit of a balancing act in wanting to showcase that we have the right capabilities to operate in the region and are building up our own capacity, but also being mindful of not having it be unintentionally escalatory. This is something that we work quite heavily on here in the office as well.”

See description of Norway's 'double strategy' at the end of the article.

US B-1B Lancer strategic bombers during co-training with Swedish JAS G39 Gripen fighters from Luleå-Kallax Air Station, Northern Sweden, last summer. This base is proposed as one of 17 agreed areas on Swedish soil in a recent US-Sweden defense cooperation agreement (DCA). Finland has also signed a DCA with the USA which includes 15 agreed areas on Finnish territory. These agreements are, like the Norwegian-American one, under consideration in the countries' respective parliaments. (Photo: the Swedish Air Force)

Recent statements regarding Norway's strategic main line in the North

"I am concerned with us sticking to deterrence and reassurance. Some say we must stop reassuring, but I profoundly disagree. Reassurance entails being predictable and recognizable in the long term. I believe we should be that. The deterrence must also be credible, and these things must be in a balance," said Norwegian PM Jonas Gahr Støre during the Kirkenes Conference, Northern Norway, in February.

"We want more allied presence and activity in the North, but we also want that activity to be calibrated. That means we are concerned with stability and predictability," Norwegian MoD Bjørn Arild Gram (Labor) stated during the recent preparedness exercise Øvelse Nord in Bodø, Northern Norway.

Norges forsvarsminister Bjørn Arild Gram (Sp) besøkte nylig USAs forsvarsminister Lloyd Austin (Det demokratiske partiet) ved Pentagon, og presenterte den nye langtidsplanen for norsk forsvarssektor. – USA har en spesiell rolle innenfor sikkerhet i nordområdene. USA er vår mest verdsatte, pålitelige og betydningsfulle allierte. Gjennom langtidsplanen forplikter vi oss til å styrke forholdet vårt ytterligere. Vi investerer mer i vår evne til å støtte amerikansk nærvær i Norge, uttalte Gram. (Foto: Elisabeth
Norwegian MoD Bjørn Arild Gram (Center) recently visited the US MoD Lloyd Austin (Democrats) at the Pentagon, where he presented Norway's new long-term defense plan with a strong High North focus. “The USA has a particular role in High North security. The US is our most valued, trusted and significant ally. Through the Defense Pledge, we are committing to further strengthening our relationship. We are investing more in our ability to support US presence in Norway,” Gram said in a speech. (Photo: Elisabeth Addison/the Norwegian Embassy in Washington D.C.)

Common denominators and new measures

The Pentagon's current Arctic strategy was presented in June 2019 by the Trump administration with James Mattis as the MoD. It replaced a strategy from 2016 by the Obama administration with MoD Ashton B. Carter.

What are the most significant differences between the upcoming and existing strategies?

“There are quite a few differences. But first, what remains the same compared to the 2019 strategy is also very important: Our end goal in developing this type of strategy and creating cohesion with our allies and partners is to ensure that the Arctic region remains stable and secure by working by, with, and through them – as well as certainly also protecting our national interests," says Ferguson.

“What differs is that we address the strategic environment with somewhat different lenses. We focus quite heavily on climate change and how this is driving increased human activity. We also focus on some of our competitors’ activities in the region, including Russia’s increased levels of infrastructure and engagement. We talk about China's interests in the Arctic, as well as the increasing degree of alignment and cooperation between these two countries in the region."

In the existing strategy, climate change is only indirectly referred to, which High North News reported on after its release.

Cracks and depressions on the runway at the US military base on Greenland result from winter weather changes between thawing and refreezing. It was formerly named Thule Air Station and was converted to Pituffik Space Base in April 2023. (Archive photo: US Department of Defense).


“We spend the bulk of the strategy diving into strategic document terms and in which ways and by which means we will get to the end state," continues the DASD. 

“We unpack in a fairly detailed way what we need to invest in, especially regarding domain awareness capabilities: This revolves around what we should be able to observe and how we should communicate – as well as addressing whether we have the right levels of weather forecasting and the right equipment to be able to monitor and respond effectively in the region.”

Utsikt over nordnorsk kyst fra et amerikansk P-8 Poseidon maritimt overvåkningsfly. Norge har kjøpt fem slike fly fra USA, og venter levering av det siste i 2026. Disse har hovedbase på Evenes flystasjon i Nordland, som ble norsk-amerikansk militærbase i 2022. Ut fra denne utvikles samvirke rundt maritim situasjonsforståelse. Amerikanske P-8 utfører også regelmessige overvåkningsoperasjoner ut fra Keflavík flystasjon på Island. (Foto: Onar Digernes Aase/Forsvaret)
The view of the Northern Norwegian coast from an US Navy P-8 Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft. Norway has purchased five such aircraft from the US and is awaiting delivery of the final one in 2026. These have their main base on the Evenes Air Station in Northern Norway, which became a Norwegian-American military base in 2022. From there, bilateral cooperation around maritime situational awareness is developed. US Navy P-8 aircraft also conducts regular surveillance operations in the North Atlantic from the Keflavík Air Station in Iceland. (Photo: Onar Digernes Aase / the Norwegian Armed Forces)

Strategic competition

Just before the aforementioned launch five years ago, the then-MFA Mike Pompeo re-articulated the Arctic region as 'an arena for power and for competition.'

Furthermore, the 2019 Arctic strategy outlines the Pentagon's "strategic approach to protect the US national security interests in the Arctic in an era of strategic competition."

The US's eye for such competition, especially with Russia and China, has not exactly lost momentum since then.

What is the DoD currently paying particular attention to when it comes to Moscow and Beijing's activities in the Arctic region?

“Strategic competition is a focus of mine all the time within DoD. We are seeing pieces of that unfold in the Arctic. Russia certainly places a heavy emphasis on Arctic capabilities. The Russians point to the Arctic as one of their most important strategic terrains, and they continue to invest heavily in their infrastructure in the far north.”

“They do this partly for economic purposes. But when we take note of things, is when their potentially defensive investments could have offensive capabilities. We are keeping a keen eye on some of the investments that they are making in the Arctic region," Ferguson points out. 

USS Gerald R. Ford, USAs og verdens største hangarskip, trente i juni 2023 utenfor kysten av Nord-Norge sammen med britiske og norske styrker. Hangarskipgruppen opererte primært i Vestfjorden, Nordland. (Foto: Jacob Mattingly/USAs marine)
The USS Gerald R. Ford, the US and the world's largest aircraft carrier, trained outside the coast of Northern Norway with British and Norwegian forces in June of 2023. The aircraft carrier group mainly operated in Vestfjorden, Nordland. (Photo: Jacob Mattingly / the US Navy)

Russia-China interaction

“China has long, and especially in recent years, had a strong focus on the Arctic in an attempt, as we see it, to change the governance structure within the region and insert themselves in such a way that their presence becomes somewhat norm-forming," continues the Deputy Assistant Secretary.

In recent years, the US has increased its focus on China as a threat to its own global power position and increasingly engaged in Asia. Now the American binoculars may appear to be turning eastwards, also in an Arctic context.

“Of increasing interest to us is the cooperation taking place between Russia and China, particularly on the Indo-Pacific side of the Arctic – where we are observing increasing levels of interaction between them in diplomatic lanes, economic lanes, and even in military lanes as their forces have been exercising with one another. We are keenly watching some of this growth in interaction, especially regarding military activity," she says.

“We are also ensuring that we are postured alongside our allies and partners to showcase our own presence and deterrence where possible, as well as that we have the right capabilities for such operations.”

Under en rutinemessig maritim patrulje i Beringhavet og den arktiske regionen, observerte den amerikanske kystvakten en gruppe kinesiske krigsskip.
Chinese warships observed by the US Coast Guard outside Alaska, close to the Aleutian Islands, in August 2021. (Archive photo: Ensign Bridget Boyle / the US Coast Guard)

Norway as a valued partner

Now from the spotlight on rivaling great powers' activities and back to the allied small state of Norway:

In the wake of the alliance's expansion in the Nordic region, Norway is no longer alone in being NATO in the European North – and must adjust to also being a transit country for allied reinforcements to Finland and Sweden.

Can you say a few words on the significance of Norway’s ability to receive allies in light of the new Nordic enlargement?

“Norway is such a critical partner for us in many ways. Prior to the NATO enlargement, this partnership has been very front and center in our strategic thinking around NATO’s posture in the Arctic region," Ferguson points out.

“Norway has long been a partner in infrastructure and cold weather training – the rotational marine forces gain immense amounts of expertise from training with Norwegian marines. We have high levels of growing space cooperation as well. For example, Norway is hosting a payload for us to upgrade communications, especially in the Arctic," she notes.

Earlier in April, the US and Norway announced that they will cooperate on developing space-based missile defense in the Arctic, with a base in Andøya, Northern Norway. Arctic broadband satellites with the aforementioned payload are to be sent into space under the auspices of Space Norway this summer.

“I think that our cooperation is only deepening with the enlargement of NATO – and that we are just beginning to unpack the potential around the capabilities that we can cooperate on and develop together," the DASD states enthusiatically.

In later years, American submarines, such as the pictured USS Washington (SSN 787), have used the Port in Grøtsund in Tromsø, Northern Norway, as a logistic hub. In 2023, there were at least seven calls at this port. Icelandic and Faroese territorial waters are also utilized by the US for service visits during submarine operations in the North Atlantic. (Photo: Jonny Karlsen / the Norwegian Armed Forces)

Strategic balancing in a Norwegian context

– Norway's balancing act between deterrence and reassurance toward Russia can be understood as two-part, according to research fellow Nortvedt Bjur at the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies and the University of Oslo.

The first balancing act can be referred to as the small state's calibrated deterrence strategy. Calibration, or fine tuning, involves deterrence with certain moderating or reassuring measures to avoid provocation.

– This concerns, among other things, dialogue with the Russian Northern Fleet, an applied understanding that a Norwegian military presence in the border areas to Russia will be perceived as less provocative than, for example, an American one, and that Norway is seeking coordination of allied military activity in such areas with the aim of low tension.

The other balancing act can be regarded as weighting between deterrence and reassurance as two more separate paths. These can be pursued simultaneously, and measures taken along them can conflict with each other.

– The Ministry of Defense and the Norwegian Armed Forces are often central actors on the "deterrence path," where they can use the aforementioned calibration to dampen the military sting.

– The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is an important institution on the "reassurance path," with political and people-to-people contact and cooperation at the center. A cornerstone of this path is collaboration based on international law, such as the Svalbard Treaty and the Norwegian-Russian Treaty Concerning Maritime Delimitation and Cooperation in the Barents Sea and the Arctic Ocean.

– Deterrence and reassurance can be said to be dynamic, strategic concepts for conflict prevention. The center of gravity and measures in the balancing act has changed, particularly after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

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