HELSINKI — The Pentagon’s proposed boost in the budget for European defense in 2017 will significantly increase the scale and regularity of US exercises with Nordic and Baltic militaries.
For US forces, the greatest value will be to train and test troops and equipment in multinational joint maneuvers alongside elite Nordic rapid reaction and extreme climate units.
The increasing frequency of exercises has resulted in American forces securing forward location storage depots to house heavy equipment, such as M1A1 Abrams tanks and amphibious assault vehicles in NATO-member Norway.
The prospect for an expanded US presence in training and exercises has been roundly welcomed by political leaders in Nordic and Baltic states.
These governments regard a greater US visibility in the region as boosting security against future "Russian aggression" in the wider neighborhood, at a time when the Kremlin continues to expand its air, land and naval infrastructure and capability near Norwegian and Finnish borders.
These future scale-up exercises will be funded from the European Reassurance Initiative, which is budgeted at US $2.6 billion in 2016 and is scheduled to rise to $3.4 billion in 2017.
US military training with multinational troops in Norway and the High North should not be regarded by Russia as a provocation, said Kåre Simensen, a member of the Norwegian parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
"Norway is part of NATO, so a US presence here is quite normal. We should be able to conduct these types of operations and still maintain good relations with Moscow," said Simensen.
US forces are currently taking part in the Norwegian armed force’s (NAF) hosted Cold Response 2016 exercises, which runs from Feb. 19 to March 22. The US contribution includes mobile artillery, special ops units, Abrams tanks, AAVs, light armored and combat vehicles.
From the Norwegian side, the Cold Response exercise will involve the Northern Telemark Battalion, which includes rapid-response mechanized, mobile artillery, and specialized extreme climate warfare operations units.
The exercise is being held in the mountainous and forested lake districts of
Trøndelag province in Central Norway.
The multinational force will comprise 15,000 personnel, including from Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Latvia, Poland, Germany, France, Britain, Canada, Belgium, Spain and the Netherlands.
"The more we train with US forces, the better we are together. We undertake training based on procedures that this makes us more effective in the challenging operations that we need to do jointly," said Rear Adm. Nils Johan Holte, the head of the NAF’s special forces division.
The ability to operate from localized storage depots in the High North will elevate the ability of US forces to quickly move equipment to where it is needed, while responding in a more efficient way to operational demands, said Col. William Bentley, operations officer for 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade taking part in Cold Response.
"Any gear that is forward-deployed both reduces cost and speeds up our ability to support operations in crisis, so we're able to fall in on gear that is ready to go and respond to whatever that crisis may be," said Bentley.
Storage depots being used by US forces in Norway include formerly abandoned caves and other underground military repositories that had been used by the NAF up to the end of the Cold War.
For US forces, Cold Response will be quickly followed by mechanized land warfare and tactical air exercises scheduled to take place in Finland in May.
This rise in American activity is directly related to the US military’s increased budget for training and defense projects in Europe, said Jussi Niinistö, Finland’s defense minister.
"As a result the US is seeking out exercise opportunities on a broad front. This means we can take advantage of a higher level of US training activity to develop Finland's own defense capabilities," said Niinistö.
Up to 8 F-15C fighters from the Oregon Air National Guard are due to hold squadron-level bilateral training exercises with F/A-18 Hornets operating from the Karelia Air Command’s Fighter Squadron 31 located in Rissala, in eastern Finland.
The joint air maneuvers involving the F-15Cs and F/A-18 Hornets will be conducted in skies over central and eastern territories of Finland close to Finland’s 833-mile border with Russia.
In extended exercises in May, the F-15Cs are also expected to join up with F/A-18s, Swedish Gripen fighters and Norwegian F-16s for cross border training exercises.
In a landmark development, the US is also sending a mechanized unit that includes 20 Stryker armored transport vehicles to the Finnish Army’s Arrow-16 land warfare exercises in May. Maneuvers will include an amphibious landing exercise on the Hanko Peninsula in southeast Finland, which holds a strategic position in the Baltic Sea.
The Finnish parliament’s Committee on Defense (CoD) has criticized the government for providing "inadequate" information around US forces participation in upcoming exercises.
"We should have been given a full briefing once the government reached its decision to approve US participation. Instead the committee was drip-fed details in piecemeal fashion three months after that decision was made. This is not good enough," said the CoD’s chairman, Ilkka Kanerva.
The training visits to Norway and Finland will provide a strategic warm-up for US forces ahead of NATO Baltops-16 exercises in the Baltic Sea in June.
Baltops-16 will be used to demonstrate the interoperability of NATO allies, including Nordic partner states Finland and Sweden.
Given regional tensions, the exercises will be monitored even more closely by Russia this year. NATO intends to use Baltops to assure countries bordering the Baltic Sea of its commitment to the security in the region.
Baltops-16 is expected to be staged on a larger scale than last year when the joint force comprised troops from over 20 NATO and partner nation states and included 49 surface ships, submarines, assault craft, 62 fixed and rotary wing aircraft, over 700 US Marines and Airborne Rangers, in addition to 5,000 supporting personnel afloat and ashore.