US military activities in the High North can be seen in relation to a new development in U.S. doctrine in which operational surprise is a central element. Researchers say the introduction of unpredictability may complicate Norway’s Dual Policy.
Over the past years, the United States has increased its engagement in the High North and in Norway’s northern neighborhood. At the same time, the U.S. activity has in many ways had a change of character.
American military vessels have during the past two years sailed further north in the Barents Sea than they have ever done since the Cold War, and B-52 bombers operate closer to Russia than in a long time.
In a recent analysis, researchers at CSIS and the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies (IFS) emphasize that the current American operation pattern in Norway’s northern neighborhood, among others, should be seen in the context of a new U.S. doctrine introduced in 2018.
Within the new doctrine, military flexibility and upredictability are central tools.
The concept was introduced in the 2018 National Defense Strategy. It is called Dynamic Force Employment (DFE) and aims to deter adversaries globally from initiating conflict by being “strategically predictable, but operationally unpredictable”.
Change of operational pattern
Increased threat from both China and Russia, as well as the need to be present in Asia, leads the United States to prioritize differently, explains researcher Ingeborg Bjur at the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies.
Together with Rachel Ellehuus, Johannes Gullestad Rø and Robin Allers, Bjur writes that the shift is considered necessary in order for the US to prepare for potential large-scale conflict with state competitors such as China and Russia, while continuing to execute smaller measures to deter them, globally and regionally.
U.S. military planners furthermore view DFE as particularly useful for deterrence in the High North.
– Military presence in the High North is both costly and demanding due to climate and other conditions in the north. The new elements that the concept introduces makes it particularly useful here as the US can increase deterrence, without increasing its presence. The U.S. only operates in a different way, Bjur says to HNN and adds:
– When adversaries do not know which capabilities that will show up, how long they stay, and when they do not know what exactly goes on, it may increase deterrence.
In May 2020, surface vessels from the U.S. Navy operated in the Barents Sea for the first time since the 1980s, in a joint exercise with Great Britain. The researchers write that Norwegian Minister of Defense Frank Bakke-Jensen, Chief of the Norwegian Joint Headquarters General Rune Jakobsen as well as Tone Skogen, State Secretary at the Norwegian Ministry of Defense expressed different views on why Norway did not participate in the exercise.
A Norwegian fregate did, however, participate together with the U.S., Danmark, and Great Britain in a maritime security operation inside the Russian exclusive economic zone a few months later.
– The Norwegian government must deal with the impact of the new US concept in our northern neighborhood, which is demanding. Knowing how to express deterrence in the new situation we find ourselves in may appear challenging, Bjur says.
The researchers state that the new concept may complicate Norwegian efforts to be both a “good ally” in NATO and a “good neighbor” to Russia.
– The Norwegian Dual Policy has, among others things, been about acting predictably and showing that we have no offensive intentions. When the Americans emphasize unpredictability, it affects Norway’s room for maneuvering. In addition, it is not just about how they operate, but also about what they do. When the Americans fly bombers, it is more offensive than Norway’s preferred defensive line, Bjur adds.
– At the same time, the Norwegian authorities know that it is not a given that the United States should be interested in our immediate areas. Norway's NATO membership will deter Russia, and it will only do so if it is credible that allies come and operate in the north. In this sense, an important consequence of the new concept is that the USA shows presence, something Norway has worked for for a long time.
New challenges and possibilities
Bjur emphasizes that understanding the current deterrence is important to be able to adapt the reassurance measures.
– When the element of unpredictability comes in as part of deterrence in this strategy, it is important to look at what can be reassuring. From a Norwegian perspective, it is precisely the communication of the purpose of Norwegian behavior that is important. Keeping allies at arm's length will not always be what is most reassuring. Engaging in activity to try to influence it, and creating openness and predictability towards Russia, is something we must include in the continuation of the balance dynamics.
– Do you think the Biden administration will change anything about the new development?
– It's not easy to say. Much of the thinking surrounding this concept is probably independent of administration. But the strategy also emphasizes close contact with allies, and one can imagine that Biden will operationalize this even more and consult with allies to a greater extent. Then, Norway can contribute with the regional perspective to a greater extent. This is an advantage for Norway and can also be useful for the USA.