Helsinki — Norway, responding to resurgent spending by Russia to rearm its forces in the Kola Peninsula, expects to lay the groundwork for a next-generation stealth-class submarine acquisition for an estimated $5.5 billion to $6 billion.
The rapid strengthening of Russia’s submarine capability and firepower on Kola, which borders northeast Finland and shares the Barents Sea with Norway, and the deployment of the first of eight Borey-class ballistic stealth submarines in January, will likely push Norway to replace the Navy’s existing Ula-class fleet, said Svein Roald Hansen, the first vice chair of the Norwegian Parliament’s Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defense.
“There is broad political support in Parliament to retain the submarine fleet as a key part of the Navy. The benefits of having the best-in-class subs at our disposal are obvious. A decision to extend the life of the present Ula-class would mean keeping them in service until 2040. They would be 50 years old by then,” Hansen said.
Norway’s German-built Ula-class fleet entered service between 1989 and 1992 and has undergone several life-extending upgrades.
Any decision to acquire a new sub class must be accompanied by a political commitment to boost the Navy’s budget to ensure the submarine fleet remains fully operational at all times, said Lars Myraunet, a senior member of the opposition Conservative Party’s Defense and Security Policy Commission.
“There must be an absolute commitment to funding from government in this regard. It would be of paramount importance to ensure new subs had fully trained officers and crews, and are not docked in port due to underfunding. If funding is an issue, it might be best to extend the life of the Ula fleet,” Myraunet said.
While the first steps to renew the sub fleet began in September with a request for information (RfI), one potent recent trigger occurred in mid-January when Russia announced 24 defense-strengthening programs in Kola with a capital spend requirement of $40 billion. This coincided with the commissioning of the Yuri Dologoruky, the first of the eight planned Borey-class ballastic subs.
Another irritant, coinciding with the sub launch, emerged in the form of a blog by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who stated, “Norwegian politicians should seriously rethink the implications” of aligning with NATO decisions, such as a ballistic defense structure for Europe, which he said could “escalate military threats in Europe.”
Norway’s submarine fleet renewal project kick-started in September, when the Norwegian Defense Logistics Organization (NDLO) forwarded an RfI to pre-qualified shipyards under the Ministry of Defense Submarine Capability Beyond 2020 project.
The RfI was sent to five yards in Europe and Asia: DCNS (France), Fincantieri (Italy), Navantia (Spain), Kockums AB (owned by HDW, a subsidiary of ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems, Germany), and Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering (South Korea).
The NDLO is due to complete phase-one project definition meetings with all five companies, in Oslo, by the end of February.
“Our existing submarines will reach the end of their service life after 2020. This process will enable us to decide how to best secure the continuation of a Norwegian submarine capability beyond this point. This process is due to deliver its recommendations in 2014. An actual investment project is expected to reach Parliament in 2017,” said Defense Minister Anne-Grete Strom-Erichsen.
Despite Norway’s improving cross-border relations with Moscow, the continuing flow of risk assessment reports from military intelligence agencies in neighboring Sweden and Finland, which underline the potential threats linked to Russia’s rearming in the High North, is a source of growing unease within Norwegian and Nordic political and military circles.
The Finnish Ministry of Defense’s “Russia of Transformations” risk report, released in January, estimates that as much as 30 percent of Russia’s projected $745 billion spend on military modernization projects up to 2020 could involve submarine and air power procurement and infrastructure improvement centered on the Kola Peninsula and the Barents Sea, within Russia’s Western Military District.
Russia’s rearming in the High North, NATO, ballistic missile testing in the Barents Sea and the potential for bilateral defense cooperation featured high on the agenda when Strom-Erichsen met counterpart Sergey Shoygu and military commanders from Russia’s Western Military District on Feb. 12 during a three-day visit to Moscow, the first by a Norwegian defense minister in 10 years.
Russia’s Kola-centered modernization will include the replacement of MiG-31 aircraft, upgrades to strategic military air bases, the modernization of radar-location systems at Rogachevo, the establishment of a specialized Arctic Motorized Infantry Brigade under the Northern Fleet’s command, upgrades to Delta-IV-class submarines armed with Sineva missiles, and the commissioning of eight Borey-class ballistic submarines armed with 16 to 20 Bulava ballistic missiles and 120 to 200 nuclear warheads.
The Borey is the first new strategic submarine to be deployed by the Northern Fleet since 1992, and the number of strategic nuclear warheads deployed at Kola is increasing for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The Borey-class subs will operate from a home port at Gadzhiyevo, less than 62 miles from Russia’s land border with Norway.
“What is clear is that Russia’s rearming of its northern territories and strategic military installations on Kola is making Norway and fellow Nordic countries uneasy,” said Karl Demotte, a Brussels-based political analyst. “The acquisition [by Norway] of a new modern stealth and Arctic-class sub fleet is not just regarded as a good idea, but a very necessary investment as Russia flexes its muscles in the High North.”
With more than 1.25 million square miles of ocean territories to monitor, Norway cannot afford to go down the Danish route and discard its submarine capability, Demotte said.
“Denmark, for what were largely economic reasons, scrapped its submarine fleet in 2004, and is now one of the few NATO countries not to have a submarine capability. Norway has, in every defense capacity assessment conducted since 2007, established that a strong submarine arm is fundamental to national defense and is a viable deterrent,” Demotte said.