By Robbin Laird
As the Nordics work through how to best integrate their forces, a key element to consider is how to shape a basing structure involving the Nordics which will enable an enhanced Northern European and North Atlantic defense.
When I visiting Norway in 2018, I witnessed one of the foundation stones for enhanced Nordic defense, cross-border air operations, something which will now involve the question of the bases involved and their integration with sea basing and land base operations as well in order to shape enhanced capabilities for strike and defense capabilities.
During a visit to Bodø Airbase on April 25, 2018, we discussed the cross-border air training, which Norway is doing with Finland and Sweden with members of the Norwegian Air Force The day we were there, we saw four F-16s take off from Bodø and fly south toward Ørland airbase to participate in an air defense exercise.
The day before this event, the Norwegians contacted the Swedes and invited them to send aircraft to the exercise, and they did so. The day before is really the point. This is a dramatic change from the 1990s, when the Swedes would not allow the Norwegians or Finns to enter their airspace without prior diplomatic approval. Maj. Trond Ertsgaard, Senior Operational Planner and Fighter Pilot from the 132 Air Wing, provided an overview to the standup and the evolution of this significant working relationship.
The core point is that it is being done without a complicated day-to-day diplomatic effort: “In the 1970s, there was limited cooperation. We got to know each other, and our bases, to be able to divert in case of emergency or other contingencies. But there was no operational or tactical cooperation. The focus was on safety; not operational training.”
By the 1990s, there was enhanced cooperation, but it was limited to a small set of flying issues, rather than operational training. As Ertsgaard noted: “But when the Swedes got the Gripen, this opened the aperture, as the plane was designed to be more easily integrated with NATO standards.”
Then in the fall of 2008, there was a meeting of the squadrons and wing commanders from the Finnish, Swedish, and Norwegian airbases to discuss ways to develop cooperation among the squadrons operating from national bases. The discussion was rooted in the ability of the national air forces to operate from their own bases and simply cooperating in shared combat airspace.
This would mean that the normal costs of hosting an exercise would not be necessary, as each air force would return to its own operating base at the end of the engagement. The Cross-Border Training (CBT) started between Sweden and Norway in 2009 and then the Finns joined in 2010. By 2011, Ertsgaard highlighted that, “we were operating at a level of an event a week. And by 2012, we engaged in about 90 events at the CBT level.”
That created a template which allowed for cost-effective and regular training and laid the foundation for then hosting a periodic two-week exercise where they could invite nations to participate in air defense exercises in the region. From 2015 on, the three air forces have shaped a regular training approach, which is very flexible and driven at the wing and squadron levels. “We meet each November, and set the schedule for the next year, but in execution it is very, very flexible. It is about a bottom-up approach and initiative to generate the training regime,” Ertsgaard said.
Now with the anticipated inclusion of Finland and Sweden within NATO, the countries can go beyond cross-border training to shaping a basing eco system to provide for distributed integrated operations.
In an article made available to me recently by a Norwegian colleague and published by LUFTEND in December 2022, the focus on a “flexible and resilient Nordic air base concept” was the focus of attention.
The article concludes:
“Finland and Sweden are compatible with USAF’s Agile Combat Employment approach and similar regimes among allied air forces. Norway might reintroduce the principle of protection by dispersal and unpredictability.
“There is a need for regional Cross Border Basing versus national dispersal only. Common Nordic Air C2 is an important enabler for Cross Border Basing of Nordic air forces. In particular it needs to be studied and trained in peacetime with agreed upon frameworks allowing for the usage of spares, munitions and fuel across the different fleets.
“In particular this will provide value to the Finnish and Norwegian F35 operations, as it allows movement between bases closer to the frontline or using strategic depth to provide flexibility in the air war over the Nordic countries. The implementation of Swedish fighters into the mix is valuable from an operational and tactical point of view, as these offers different capabilities compared to the Finnish and Norwegian fighters, though naturally the deep integration of these in a joint base concept will be more difficult considering that they do not share spares and munitions.
“However, other assets can also benefit from the joint basing, such as the C130J Super Hercules fleet of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden (and where Finland has recently signaled potential interest in acquiring the type).
“It is important to consider that even if Nordic aircraft disperse and rotate to survive in crisis and war, at the same time the main air bases can be congested with allied air force reinforcement units and also APOD related flights. They too will need protection and preferably a GBAD shield. Norway is currently the only Nordic country with GBAD units in the air force structure with a main mission to protect the air bases. A flexible and resilient Nordic air base concept should have a borderless regional approach and include solutions for both Nordic air forces and GBAD units plus all allied reinforcements.”
This is clearly a key way to shape the way ahead for enhanced survivability but enhanced lethality can be provided by integratability of such fixed or mobile land bases with the firepower which sea bases can provide as well.
The entire engagement of allied and Nordic maritime capabilities can provide mobile bases which supplement, compliment, and can be used as part of the protection of such a joint air basing approach.
With an integrated force operating across various air land bases, both fixed and mobile, as well as ground-based missile defense and strike nodes, along with sea bases, common missiles like NSM or JSM can be used as a coalition kill web strike and defense force.
Having distributed strike but focused effects for a distributed force is a key element of shaping a way ahead for Nordic, Northern European and North Atlantic defense.
Author’s Note: The quote with regard to cross-border training was taken from the following book:
For example, see the following: