“Security in the Arctic is of Greatest Interest to France,” says French Commander

The French navy is present in northern waters with several vessels at present. A submarine and a military support vessel have recently visited Tromsø – and in the coming weeks a French frigate will escort the British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, which is now operating along the Norwegian coast. Here is a picture of the frigate FS Aquitaine during a previous exercise in Northern Norway. (Photo: Marius Vågenes Villanger/The Norwegian Armed Forces)

The French Navy's nuclear submarine and support vessel which recently docked in Tromsø, Northern Norway, have carried out long-term missions in the North Atlantic. This shows France's allied commitment to security in northern areas and desire to learn more about them, asserts French Commander.

Norsk versjon.

On Wednesday, a nuclear submarine and the support vessel FS Garonne of the French Navy sailed on after a logistics stop in the city of Tromsø, northern Norway.

This was the first known French submarine visit to Grøtsund harbor, which became this city's port of call for allied reactor-powered vessels in 2020 (Norwegian only)

Kommandørkaptein Sébastien Chatelain, militærattaché ved den franske ambassaden i Oslo. (Foto: Den franske ambassaden i Oslo)
Commander Sébastien Chatelain, Military Attaché at the French Embassy in Oslo, Norway. (Photo: Embassy of France in Oslo)

“Tromsø is one of the recurrent harbors for logistic support. French sailors appreciate the welcome and the support of our Norwegian comrades,” writes Commander Sébastien Chatelain, Military Attaché at the French Embassy in Norway, to High North News.

“This short port call allowed a long-term deployment in the Northern Atlantic of the two ships. Their deployment show Allied commitment to security in Northern Europe and France’s desire to gain better knowledge of the area. France conducts more than 20 port calls per year in Norway, with ships operating for the surveillance of critical undersea infrastructures, for NATO operations, or bilateral cooperation with the Norwegian Armed Forces.”

A French nuclear-powered attack submarine similar to this, the FS Perle, was docked at the Port of Grøtsund in Tromsø from Thursday last week to Wednesday this week. (Photo: The French Navy)

Arctic orientation

Chatelain does not wish to name the submarine but says it is an attack submarine. All French submarines are reactor-powered and come in two main types: attack submarines and ballistic missile submarines. The latter can carry nuclear weapons.

“Very few among the allies operate submarines capable of such a long-range patrol, and France is committed with its best assets to the surveillance of undersea activities in Norwegian sea areas, in cooperation with our partners of NATO.”

“The support vessel Garonne has been conducting a three-month long mission in the Arctic – which is of greatest interest to France regarding the issues of climate change and security. She has been involved in several training activities regarding the safety of life at sea in Canada, Greenland, and Norway. Sailing in such demanding conditions requires specific skills, and the cooperation with Norway is of major benefit.”

Garonne recently practiced towing the French cruise ship Le Commandant Charcot in the Scoesby Sound in Eastern Greenland, among other things.

“Non-escalatory behavior”

Chatelain does not answer directly to HNN’s question about the submarine and Garonne joining the British-led multinational carrier strike group now operating off the Norwegian coast but speaks of another participation:

“To enforce a high level of interoperability with all allies, a French frigate will provide an escort to the British aircraft carrier in the following weeks. In the current framework of the war in Ukraine, France contributes to demonstrating the strong resolution of NATO countries as well as the will to maintain a non-escalatory behavior, ” he writes.

With this, the French commander appears to signal that France is interested in calibrated deterrence against Russia.

Norway’s MoD Bjørn Arild Gram emphasized calibration (careful adjustment) of the alliance’s deterrence in the High North at NATO’s military committee’s recent conference in Norway (Norwegian only)

Norway's Chief of Defense, General Eirik Kristoffersen, aboard the French frigate FS Aquitane during a port visit in Oslo this winter. "This temporary stop testifies to the strengthened closeness between Norway and France in the field of defense and in the maritime domain. Thereby, the two allies contribute to strengthening NATO's deterrent and defensive posture in Northern Europe," writes the French Navy about the visit. (Photo: The French Navy)

The French Navy's presence in the north

– The presence of French marine forces in the North Atlantic, and likely also parts of the Arctic Ocean, is referred to as missions in the Grand Nord ("far north") zone. 

– This zone is divided into the North Atlantic ('Atlantique Nord') and the Northwest Atlantic ('Atlantique Nord-Quest') – see infographic below.

– Regular deployments are carried out in the North Atlantic. Keywords for the operations are vigilance, autonomous situation assessment, and strategic depth – and the naval vessels in question are frigates and submarines. Integration within the framework of NATO is also mentioned, and then more specifically with regard to (alternately) participation in the Standing NATO Maritime Group 1 (SNMG1).

– The Northwest Atlantic: In the field of maritime security, there are two deployments a year. Keywords are naval security cooperation and search and rescue training. Relevant units are patrol vessels, Falcon 50M maritime patrol aircraft, and support vessels like the aforementioned FS Garonne. Bilateral cooperation refers to broad-spectrum interaction with the USA and Canada – with deployments of frigates once or twice a year.

– Mentioned ports for logistics support in the Arctic: Hammerfest, Tromsø, Narvik, and Bodø in Northern Norway, Tórshavn in the Faroe Islands, Reykjavik and Akureyri in Iceland, as well as Nuuk in Greenland. The Halifax naval base in Nova Scotia is used for operations in Canada.

– France has participated in several naval exercises in the High North this year: Formidable Shield in May, Dynamic Mongoose in April, and Joint Warrior in March.

Infographic on the French Navy's operations in the North Atlantic, both in the East (the High North) and the West. (Illustration: The French Navy)

Carrier strike group

The French frigate will accompany the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth. 

According to the Norwegian Joint Headquarters, the British aircraft carrier is currently leading an international naval force operating in the North Sea and the Norwegian Sea. The ship's air wing consists of F-35 fighters, as well as Merlin and Wildcat helicopters.

The fleet includes naval vessels from Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, and France, several of which are frigates (Norwegian only)

Norwegian F-35 fighters, American CV-22 Osprey military aircraft, as well as aircraft from Finland and Sweden, likely the fighters F/A-18 Hornet and JAS Gripen, are also involved in the activities.

At the forefront of the Norwegian navy's participation is the frigate KNM Otto Sverdrup, last registered on Marine Traffic sailing south in the Vestfjord on the night of Thursday.

“Now the frigate KNM Otto Sverdrup is sailing together with a British-led carrier strike group. They also train with other naval vessels and military branches,” the Norwegian Armed Forces wrote on Facebook on Thursday morning.

In the NOTAM chart (Notices to Airmen), a circular danger area has been drawn up at sea off Brønnøysund on the Helgeland coast, Northern Norway, from Thursday at 12:00 to Friday at 20:00. This signalizes military training activity.

Of the allied marine vessels known to have operated with the aircraft carrier, only the Dutch frigate HNLMS Van Amstel is now visible on Marine Traffic. Since Monday, it has sailed south from the Trøndelag coast to Bergen, Western Norway. 

The activities partly occur within framework of the British-led Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF). This force includes the Nordic and Baltic countries, as well as the Netherlands.

The aforementioned danger area off the Helgeland coast. (Screenshot from NOTAM Info)

Russian research vessels

The aircraft carrier strike group's operations along the Norwegian coast were announced by the Norwegian Armed Forces last Thursday. This week, two Russian research vessels have operated off the coast of Northern Norway.

Note that there is not necessarily any connection between these activities. Nevertheless, the voyages of these research ships are referred to here, as Russia's maritime doctrine of 2022 allows for the use of civilian vessels for military purposes, such as intelligence.

Yesterday, Thursday, the Russian research vessel Akademik Mstislav Keldysh sailed north off the coast of Nordland, according to Marine Traffic. In the evening, it was outside of Lofoten, heading for Murmansk. When the danger area was established on Thursday morning, it sailed further north (roughly southwest of Bodø).

Another Russian research vessel, Akademik N. Strakhov, sailed off the coast of Finnmark toward Murmansk on Monday morning, while the French submarine was docked in Tromsø. The overview of its former route was limited, showing only a stretch from the north-west of Sørøya to Rolvsøya.

The Rusian research vessel Akademik Mstislav Keldysh's previous route (from Wednesday night) and its position on Thursday night. (Screenshot from Marine Traffic)