2017-02-16 By Robbin Laird
Prior to attending the 2017 Norwegian airpower conference, I had a chance to talk with Keith Eikenes, Director, Department for Security Policy and Operations in the Ministry of Defence of Norway.
He has spent many years in Washington and came back to Oslo three years ago.
We focused on the new security environment and the Norwegian way ahead.
Question: Three years can be a long time.
How do you see the changes in just three years with regard to Norwegian defense?
Eikenes: It is a significant period of change.
When I was in Washington, we were primarily focused on out of area operations, counter insurgency and counter terrorism.
Now with the Crimean crisis and the modernization of Russian forces, questions of national defense and protecting the North Atlantic have returned to the fore.
We are seeing a Russia that is becoming less predictable, more assertive about its interests, and also, undergoing a fundamental military in modernization, which makes it far more militarily capable than it was.
And indeed, Russia is modernizing more rapidly than many anticipated.
And those new capabilities are being joined to a growing debate about sea control and sea denial strategy.
Question: Clearly part of this is the Arctic challenge.
When you put the territorial defense challenge with the Arctic one, what do you see?
Eikenes: As you know, the High North is a strategically important area for Norway.
We have jurisdiction over ocean areas that are roughly seven times the size of our land mass and which are almost the size of the Mediterranean.
Obviously with that kind of maritime challenge we are looking to shape enhanced capabilities, and that is one reason we are buying the P-8, coast guard vessels, F-35s and new submarines.
Question: The UK seems to have returned to the North Atlantic defense area.
How important is that bilateral relationship for Norway?
Eikenes: It is very significant.
We have a small number of allies, the US and the UK being especially important ones, shaping new capabilities for North Atlantic defense.
We are looking at ways to enhance that working relationship.
Even when the North Atlantic defense part took a dip after the end of the Cold War, the working relationship with close allies remained.
We are building on that experience and trust as we add new capabilities.
It will help as well that we will fly the same aircraft as the RAF and the Royal Navy for the first time in a very, very long time.
The P-8 piece is crucial as well as with indications that the US Navy will operate P-8s out of Keflavik and collaborate with the UK and Norway in joint operations over the North Atlantic.
For us, these bilateral relationships have always complemented our NATO membership and will continue to do so.
We are starting to put in place some key pillars for shaping 21st century defense architecture for the North Atlantic.
Question: If we return to Russia, it is clearly and engagement strategy that you are pursuing for working with Russia is important as well.
Could you discuss this aspect of your policy?
Eikenes: Our policy is to engage with Russia where it’s possible, and we do have examples of pragmatic good cooperation that we’ve had historically, and in some areas, that it’s still ongoing.
For example, we cooperate on safety incidents at sea, and on fisheries with regard to common management, and cooperation.
We also have border guard cooperation, so there are certainly areas where we can have a pragmatic cooperation as well.
Question: When the French planned to sell the Mistral to Russia, I raised concern in many venues about this transaction and its impact on Norway as well as upon French interests in Northern Europe.
Fortunately, this did not happen.
How have the French responded to the new situation?
Eikenes: We’ve seen an increase in French interest on engagement and presence in the North Atlantic.
They have stated their vision is to be more present in the North Atlantic.
They have some very significant capabilities to contribute in the area.
It is clear that there has been a return of geography so to speak.
The GIUK has returned as a key issue.
We have to take Northern European defense seriously in the wake of Russian actions, capabilities and unpredictability.
And we are building on our close allied relationships to shape new capabilities into a new template to provide for defense in our region.