US Strategic Bombers and Aircraft Carrier Gerald R. Ford Participates In Arctic Challenge Exercise

Amerikansk B-1B Lancer strategisk bombefly
An American B-1B Lancer strategic bomber takes off on Monday from Fairford Air Station in the UK heading north. Two such aircraft, belonging to the US Air Forces in Europe, participate in a counter-maritime mission during the Arctic Challenge Exercise in the High North. (Photo: Josiah Brown/the US Air Force)

On Monday, American B-1B strategic bombers and USS Gerald R. Ford's air wing co-trained with Norwegian F-35 fighters in the High North. This took place within the framework of the major Nordic live air exercise Arctic Challenge. 

Norwegian version.

On Monday, Norway's F-35A fighters co-trained with an American Carrier Strike Group for the first time – and more concretely the world's largest aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford with embarked air wing, as well as accompanying destroyers and missile cruisers. The carrier strike group is now under NATO's command.

Together with American B-1B Lancer strategic bombers, the Norwegian fighters and the carrier strike group conducted training activities in the High North within the framework of the Arctic Challenge Exercise 2023 (ACE).

This large-scale Nordic air exercise, which is held every two years, mainly takes place in the north of Norway, Finland, and Sweden until the 9th of June.

American fighters of the types F-35A, F/A-18E and F/A-18F Super Hornet also participated in the aforementioned activities, as well as P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft and EA-18 Growler aircraft for electronic warfare – which partly belong to the US Air Force and partly to the aircraft carrier.

This was reported by the Norwegian Air Force and the US European Air Forces on Monday evening.

On the same day, a Russian group of Tu-95 strategic bombers, MiG-31 fighters, and II-78 tankers carried out a flight over the Western Barents Sea.

Three Norwegian Air Force F-35 fighters wait in formation in Arctic airspace on Monday while the rest of their team receives fuel from an Maine Air National Guard KC-135R Stratotanker. (Photo: Andrew Sinclair/US Air National Guard)

By the Nordland Coast

The American bombers came north from the British Royal Air Force's air station in Fairfield, while the Norwegian fighters operated from Ørland Main Air Station in Central Norway – this year's only Norwegian ACE base.

The aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford was observed in Vestfjorden, Northern Norway, on Saturday (in which an area has been marked with a no-fly zone from the 2nd to the 7th of June) and has likely sailed there or further north off the coast of Nordland county.

The aircraft carrier's air wing also practiced in northern Norway on Saturday (see photo gallery). Specifically, one of its MH-60S Seahawk maritime multipurpose helicopters was in Ramsund in the northern part of Nordland during a training activity, according to the US Navy.

Ramsund Naval Station is an Norwegian-American "agreed area" after a bilateral agreement on defense cooperation that entered into force in the summer of 2022.

The NOTAM (Notice to Airmen) map for Monday suggests that the exercise with the American bombers and the aircraft carrier's air wing, as well as the Norwegian fighters, primarily took place off the Helgeland coast in Northern Norway – as previously notified by the Norwegian Armed Forces with regard to ACE.

"It is not every day that we can co-train with an aircraft carrier group like this. When we now integrate, we will become even better and we will stand stronger in regard to the defense of our areas. This is a very important part of the defense of Norway," says Lt. Colonel Martin Thu Tesli, chief of Air Wing 132 at Ørland Main Air Station, writes the Norwegian Air Force on Facebook.

Restricted areas

On Monday, three areas in Northern Norway were marked as restricted in the NOTAM map associated with military activity:

  • A polygonal danger area in the sea off the coast of Lofoten and northward in latitude west of Finnmark – from the 1st to the 12th of June.
  • A rectangular restricted area in Vestfjorden where all (other) flying is forbidden – from the 2nd to the 7th of June.
  • A circular danger area in the sea centered west of Brønnøysund, Helgeland coast – from the 6th to the 8th of June. (The overlapping circular danger area to the south is centered west of Trøndelag and applies to the same time period).

Today, Tuesday, another three restricted areas have been marked in the north:

  • A circular danger area encompassing islands in Vesterålen and the sea beyond them – Tuesday, June 6th from 08.50-19.30.
  • A circular military operational area in coastal areas and on land north in Nordland and Midt-Troms – Tuesday, June 6th from 08.50-19.30.
  • A circular danger area in Vestfjorden and along and off the Helgeland coast – Tuesday, June 6th from 08.50-17.30.
  • * (All these areas were marked correspondingly on Saturday and Sunday)

The small red circular areas in the NOTAM map on the Helgeland coast show the drone ban on Tuesday connected to the Norwegian royal visit to Leirfjord and Vevelstad.

The orange areas by Røst and Verøy in Vestfjorden, as well as Grytøya outside Harstad, mark flights with unmanned aerial vehicles (drones). The activity in the latter area is probably taking place under the auspices of the Norwegian Coastal Ranger Commando of the Norwegian Royal Navy.

Other allied ships in the north

The USS Gerald R. Ford and its fleet group are more specifically under the command of NATO's premier maritime battle staff STRIKFORNATO.

On Friday, this staff reported that the Gerald R. Ford Carrier Strike Group is to carry out activities in the Norwegian Sea with other maritime forces from allied nations this week – with Norway as the host nation. (Norwegian only)

According to the US Air Forces in Europe, allied marine resources participated across the North Sea participated in the mentioned ACE activities on Monday. Perhaps the allied naval forces that STRIKFORNATO is referring to are cooperating with the carrier strike group from sea areas south of Northern Norway.

Of other allied ships in Northern Norway, only the Italian military research vessel NRV Alliance was visible on Marine Traffic on Saturday. This sea chart shows ships with the AIS turned on – the Automatic Identification System.

The mentioned vessel, which is primarily used by NATO's Centre for Maritime Research and Experimentation, was then docked in Tromsø. It sailed from the city on Sunday and is no longer visible in the sea chart.

Ability to integrate

According to the US Air Force, the Arctic Challenge Exercise contributes to "serves to advance arctic security initiatives and enhance interoperability in the increasingly dynamic and contested region."

"The U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy routinely conduct operations in the High North alongside the Finnish, Swedish, and Norwegian Air and Naval Forces, and Arctic Challenge provided enhanced opportunities for NATO Allies and Partners to integrate with strategic U.S. bombers and the Ford-class aircraft carrier in a new environment," writes the US Air Forces in Europe.

Furthermore, it is pointed out that Monday's combined air, sea, and land operations follow a successful deployment of US and allied marine forces during Formidable Shield – the missile and air defense exercise that partly took place off Andøya, Northern Norway, in May.

This exercise was led by the US Sixth Fleet and STRIKFORNATO.

"The strategic coordination between air and naval operations through exercises in the High North demonstrates the U.S.’s ability to integrate with global Allies and Partners and the inherent flexibility of U.S., Allied, and coalition forces to operate anywhere, anytime," concludes the US Air Forces in Europe.

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This article was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated by Birgitte Annie Molid Martinussen.