During my visit to Norway in April 2018, I had a chance to meet with and discuss the Norwegian way ahead on airpower with Brigadier General Aage Longva, Vice Chief of the Norwegian Air Force.
We met at his office at Rygge Air Station south of Oslo.
The BG has lived through and been a key participant in the standup and evolution of the F-16 as the backbone Norwegian fighter. He began his training on F-16 at Sheppard Air Force base in Texas and has been part of the migration of Norwegian F-16s from being an air-to-air platform to becoming a multi-mission platform.
He noted that at the time of the Balkan operations by NATO, the Norwegian Air Force was able to participate but only in an air-to-air role.
With the acquisition of new targeting pods and weapons, the Norwegian F-16s evolved into an air-to-ground fighter as well so that when the initial NATO operations in Libya began, the Norwegians were there from the beginning.
He also noted that the Norwegian commitment to F-16 modernization led their aircraft to get levels of modernization even more advanced than the USAF was flying at the time of the Libyan operation.
The Cold War experience has been foundational for the Royal Norwegian Air Force. After its official founding during World War II, the Norwegians in the Cold War were at the cutting edge of dealing with the Soviet threat operating from Kola and moving out into the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap.
After the end of the Cold War, the skill sets of NATO were redirected and several of those were attentuated.
During my visit last year to Norway, my interview with the Chief of the Norwegian Navy underscored however that Norway was more focused than many in NATO on the remaining threats which Russia could generate and kept capabilities alive to deal with these threats.
For example, the Norwegians did NOT redirect their P-3s towards overland missions; but kept them focused on ASW.
In my interview with the Chief of the Norwegian Navy, he underscored the importance of this focus:
The Rear Admiral noted that the Norwegians have never stopped flying their MPAs, in this case their P-3s, over their areas of interest in the North. They did not send their P-3s to the Middle East, nor did they retire their MPAs as did other P-3 users in NATO.
“We have kept this competence not only alive but focused on the key areas of interest to us in the region.”
The P-3s have been “critical to understand the underwater domain for our forces.
“We are buying the P-8 because of its capability and the priority to focus upon this capability.”
For the Norwegians, and this point was clearly driven home in the interview with Brigadier General Longva, there is a clear sense of urgency to enhance Norwegian defense capability and its ability to work effectively with allies in the post-Crimea political-military environment.
In this sense, not only is the F-35 not simply a replacement aircraft for the F-16, it is a strategic asset around which Norway will build out core capabilities to deal with the evolving challenges in the region.
In building out the new base for the F-35 at Ørland Air Force Station, where he was the Wing Commander prior to coming to his current position, the Norwegians are building a base that is built to operate during crises and conflict.
They are focusing on base protection, rapid repair capabilities, hardening of shelters and other means to ensure that the base can operate in difficult conditions.
And with the revival of the total defense concept, Norway is looking as well at ways to operate in conditions where leveraging capabilities to operate in other manners is possible as well.
The standup of the F-35 is different from the F-16 in an important way:
“We are standing up the aircraft at the same time as the USAF. We are training in a squadron made up of Norwegian, Italian and USAF pilots.
“We are on the ground floor working with the USAF to shape the concepts of operations for the aircraft with the USAF.
“And the USAF has been very open in working with us as well.”
Operating in Norwegian conditions is challenging; and the potential threat is there every day generated from the Kola Peninsula.
“It is not like operating from Luke; when we fly, we see and can engage targets on a daily basis.”
His perspective was very reminiscent of what the former Chief of the Israeli Air Force had to say about flying his F-35 in his region:
Major General Eshel was then quoted as underscoring a unique quality of what the aircraft provides the IDF.
“When you take off in this plane from Nevatim [base], you can’t believe it.
“At 5,000 feet, the whole Middle East is there for you in the cockpit.
“You see things, its inconceivable.
“American pilots who visit us haven’t seen anything like it, because they fly over Arizona or Florida, and here they suddenly see the [entire] Middle East as a combat zone – the threats, the different players, at both close range and long range.
“Only then do you grasp the enormous potential of this machine.
“We’re already seeing it with our eyes”
The Norwegian version of this challenge is clearly the bastion posed by the Russians on the Norwegian border.
The Russians have modernized and are modernizing their air and sea capabilities as well as enhancing their ground missile defense and attack capabilities on the Northern borders of Norway.
How to deal with the bastion threat and to have a credible response?
“One of the rationales for acquiring F-35 is that we are not able to use the F-16 against the Bastion threat in ways we need to.
“The F-35 will allow us to do so.”
The F-35 is a key element in building out that response and working with allies as well.
Notably, the UK is now flying the same aircraft as Norway, the P-8 and F-35, and can work with other allies in the region and shape a foundational F-35 enterprise as part of the driver of change and innovation necessary to provide a credible crisis response capability in the region.
Brigadier General Longva focused on the IOC process for the F-35, which was targeting having a QRA aircraft able to be supported and to operate in a sovereign manner.
There are clear challenges to standing up the first F-35 squadron in Norway, but they are doing so as the Royal Air Force and Navy do so in the UK and the US will be doing at RAF Lakenheath.
And from the BG’s perspective, this is a work in progress but when in which the allies are working through similar problems at the same time and are providing cross-learning in the process of standing up the new air system.
“We are not that far behind the USAF; we are advanced to the point where we can make our own mistakes to learn from as we standup the aircraft.”
He emphasized that the strategic goal with regard to the F-35s operating in the region is to have as much of a common approach as possible.
For it is through a common approach that costs are reduced and capability enhanced.
The sustainment side of this is broadly challenging as the US has built the aircraft with a global supply chain and working with a number of industries in Europe.
And with a shift from a traditional approach towards a more global one, working through the details will be both important and difficult.
But at the end of the day, Norway’s strategic location and the threat it is dealing with is central to the US and NATO, and how the Norwegians stand up their F-35 squadrons and build out from them to shape other capabilities will clearly be important and not just to Norway.
An interesting piece of this is the development and acquisition of the Norwegian Joint Strike Missile, which will be deployed on air, ground, and naval systems and can provide a significant missile capability, which can be leveraged by the F-35 as the sensor-shooter lead.
And because the missile is compatible from the ground up with other F-35As, partners in the global enterprise, notably Japan and Australia are joining into the opportunity to work with Norway on the Joint Strike Missile as well.
In short, Norway is working defense modernization in a way symmetrical to deal with the core threats facing it. And in so doing, will generate lessons learned for other allies in Europe and beyond.
As the current Chief of Staff of the Royal Air Force put it during his presentation at the Williams Foundation in Canberra in March 2018:
You asked me to speak about high-intensity warfare in Europe.
Perhaps I’ve not really provided that much of that specific geographical context.
But then as I said right at the start, I don’t believe that what I’ve described can be bracketed within a particular geography.
The challenges I’ve described are truly global and truly common to us all.
The featured photo shows a fly over of Norwegian F-16s and F-35s last November when the F-35s arrive at Ørland, Air base. Credit Photo: Norwegian Ministry of Defence