Forces: Fighting For Finnmark

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May 16, 2019: Norway is increasing its military forces along its 193 kilometer border with Russia. This buildup comes eight years after Russian did the same on its side of the border. On the Norway side, there are a lot fewer people (75,000 in Finnmark). This comprises the largest (48,000 square kilometers) county in Norway and the only one above the Arctic Circle. For two months a year the sun never comes up in Finnmark and the major economic activities are fishing, reindeer herding, tourism and oil and natural gas production. There are also a lot of government jobs, like maintaining the largest military firing range in Norway and the NATO Arctic Warfare training center.

Another major military activity in Finnmark is keeping watch on Russian troops. Across the border is the Kola Peninsula where there are several naval bases for the Russian Northern Fleet. Norway has a major military radar station on the north coast of Finnmark as well as an ELINT (electronic intelligence collection) ship permanently stationed up there in addition to maritime patrol aircraft. The military expansion in Finnmark mainly consists of restoring some of the forces that were removed in the 1990s after the Soviet Union dissolved. A military base near the Finnmark firing range will be revived and a 400 man mobile (cavalry) battalion stationed there. The initial cavalry force is 150 troops and it will take a year to get this battalion unit to full strength. Another 200 rangers will be added to the border patrol and arrangements are being made to bring more Home Guard units to Finnmark if there is an immediate threat.

The Home Guard (a reserve force trained, equipped and organized for rapid mobilization) has 45,000 troops countrywide but several thousand of these are organized as rapid reaction forces and some of these are now training to quickly move to Finnmark. Most of the Home Guard are assigned to local defense in wartime. For many rural areas some of the Home Guard, consisting of people who work as herders or hunters, are organized for operating in thinly populated areas, like Finnmark and along the Russian border. Norway only has 5.3 million people so these numbers mean a lot more than they might indicate. The active duty armed forces are only 17,000 personnel and about a thousand of them are the active duty component of the larger Home Guard. In wartime, with all reservists and Home Guard activated, total military personnel reaches 63,000.

For nearly a century the main threat to Norway was Russia. The German attack and occupation during World War II were unexpected but the Russians have always been right on the border. Since 2011 there have been more armed Russians on the border. Because of growing oil and natural gas discoveries along Russia's northern border, the Russians ordered the formation of a special brigade of arctic troops to patrol the vast region and be ready to deal with any problems that might require military force. The 8,000 troops in the Arctic Brigade were stationed in the Kola Peninsula, near the borders with Finland and Norway. The Kola Peninsula has long contained key air, naval and army bases. The new brigade took a few years to get organized and trained and Norwegians began to take notice. The need for more troops in Finnmark became obvious in 2014 when Russia invaded eastern Ukraine and made it very clear that NATO was considered an active and growing threat to Russia.

For their Arctic Brigade Russia looked to other arctic military powers for ideas, and sources of the best equipment available. This was part of a trend in Russia, to seek new military equipment wherever it can be found, and not depend on the, often second-rate, stuff produced by Russian defense firms. That ended in 2014 when sanctions were placed on Russia because of its aggressive military moves towards Europe and the West in general. By then the Arctic Brigade had its equipment and some of it was airmobile. There were also specialized vehicles that can move over snow and ice. Many of the communications are satellite-based, and everything is able to handle the extreme cold found along Russia's northern coast.

All Arctic nations have specialized units like this, which often contain a large proportion of tribal peoples long native to the Arctic. The United States, for example, has a Winter Warfare School in Alaska, and a reserve brigade there organized and trained to deal with situations in the vast Alaskan backcountry. Canada also has an Arctic Warfare School, and troops recruited from native (Inuit/Eskimo/First Nations) populations. Finland has a similar system, and now Russia sought to implement something similar. While there are about 100,000 Sami people (similar to the Aleuts of North America and northeast Russia) in northern Europe a few (several thousand) are in Russia. Most are in Norway and Sweden, which was more tolerant of the traditional Sami lifestyle (fishing, hunting and herding reindeer). Thus Norway has a lot of Sami Home Guard and reservist personnel who are available to monitor what Russian armed forces might do along the border in wartime. Northern Finnmark and the Russian Kola Peninsula are not conducive to large scale military operations. Even during World War II, when the Soviet forces advanced into German occupied Norway at the end of the war, they did not advance far into Finnmark once they realized the Germans had withdrawn and burned down most of the civilian structures and forced most Finnmark civilians to move south. Most of Finmmark had to be rebuilt (and cleared of land mines) right after the war. That has not been forgotten and was one of the reasons the Home Guard was formed in 1946. Norway became a member of NATO and created a rather formidable air force relative to its population size. Norway is getting the new F-35 and its pilots have always been trained to head to Finnmark to deliver some air support for the troops (and National Guard forces) up there. With the advent of smart bombs in the last two decades that air support became even more effective, especially when delivered by a stealthy F-35. Norway received its first four F-35s in 2017 and will have 52 by 2025. These are replacing 56 modernized F-16s. With the F-35 (and any other NATO warplanes in the area) the small number of Finnmark troops have far more firepower available than at any time in the past.

 


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