Countering Russia in the Far North

Conflict with Russia reaches far north. German Bundeswehr upgrades its capacities for operations in the Norwegian Sea to keep Russian warships out of the Atlantic.

BERLIN/OSLO (Own report) - The escalating conflict with Russia is reaching the far north, prompting the Bundeswehr to upgrade and exercise for operations in the Norwegian Sea, according to a recent analysis by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). As the analysis notes, particularly the sea passage between Greenland, Island and Great Britain ("GIUK Gap") is gaining importance. The Russian Navy must cross the "GIUK Gap" if it wants to enter the Atlantic. During the Cold War, the "GIUK Gap" was already considered highly important for preventing potential Soviet attacks on North American supplies to Europe or Soviet naval attacks on the United States. Iceland, located at the center of this maritime region, had "the geopolitical status of a sort of battlefield," noted former NATO Supreme Allied Commander James Stavridis. The Bundeswehr will be provided maritime reconnaissance aircraft and submarines worth billions of euros to operate in the "GIUK Gap." German and Dutch special forces are also jointly preparing for operations in the far north.

"An Arctic Security Dilemma"

The recently published analysis by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) on the Bundeswehr's role "in the Arctic North Atlantic Region," must be seen, on the one hand, in the context of the escalating conflict between the West and Russia, in general, leading to an increase of naval activities on both sides and thus new tensions, and, on the other hand, in the context of increasing tensions specifically in the Arctic. Due to climate change the ice masses are continuously melting, creating new possibilities for shipping, not least along Russia's northern coast, which is ice-free on longer stretches and for longer periods. This prompts Russia to enhance protection of its northern coastline against potential attacks. In this regard, Russia "is taking a defensive position in the Arctic," according to SWP.[1] All the other Arctic riparian countries - USA, Canada, Norway and Denmark (via Greenland) - are increasing their military activities. "Growing military presence, more maneuvers and lingering conflicts over resources and maritime spaces have plunged the region into an unwanted dynamic, creating an Arctic security dilemma," notes SWP.[2]

“A sort of Battlefield”

In its analysis, the SWP pays particular attention to the maritime region east of Greenland and west of Norway, where Russian warships must pass, when the Northern Fleet leaves its port in Severomorsk, in the vicinity of Murmansk, to reach the Atlantic. Strategists pinpoint two tricky spots - those known as the "Bear Gap" and the "GIUK Gap." "Bear Gap" is the rather wide passageway between northern Norway and the Norwegian Svalbard (Spitzbergen) archipelago, in the midst of which lies Norway's Bear Island. "GUIK Gap" is the name given the passageway further south between Greenland (G), Iceland (I) and the United Kingdom (UK). As former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Admiral James Stavridis writes, already during the cold war, it had "decisive strategic significance."[3] Had Soviet ships and submarines succeeded in passing through it in the event of war, they could have obstructed supplies from North America to Europe and possibly even carried out naval attacks on the United States. If the West, on the other hand, succeeded in thwarting passage, the Soviet Northern Fleet would have been blocked in the Arctic. Because of the significance of this maritime region, Iceland had "the geopolitical status of a sort of battlefield," noted Stavridis.

Vanguard Norway

The SWP once again attributes great geostrategic significance to the "GIUK Gap." As in the cold war, this would once again be the area where NATO would seek to deprive Russia's Northern Fleet access to the Atlantic. To achieve this, first, comprehensive military reconnaissance will be indispensable. "In the overall network of allied situation assessment and defense planning, Norway plays a vanguard role in the region," notes the SWP.[4] Currently the Norwegian military is testing their 5 new P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft. For this, according to SWP, they are using their Evenes Air Station, a military airfield in the far north, from where both the "Bear Gap" and the "GIUK Gap" can be easily reached. However, the Norwegian armed forces "will not be able to furnish the allies a comprehensive and nearly seamless situational assessment of that enormous maritime area of the Arctic North Atlantic region," notes SWP. Therefore, allied states, for example Germany, must participate in the far north maritime reconnaissance. Altogether, this not only involves upgrading the "defensive capability," but also "deterrence" in regards to Russia.

Billions in Arms Projects

Also, to facilitate participation of the Bundeswehr in reconnaissance in the far north, the German Bundestag approved, in its last session before the 2021 summer pause, the procurement of five Boeing P-8A Poseidon aircraft, costing €1.1 billion. The maritime patrol aircraft will replace the older P-3C Orion, which was breaking down with growing frequency, due to technical defects. The P-8A Poseidon is, according to SWP, "suited both for modern anti-submarine engagement as well as surface reconnaissance." It is "easily compatible with most of the allies' systems."[5] In addition, Germany's Navy has also acquired new submarines that would be capable of hunting Russian subs in and around the "GUIK Gap." The submarines (the U212 CD, "Common Design") were developed jointly by Germany and Norway. Berlin has ordered two of these from the ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS), while Oslo has ordered four more. This acquisition, costing €2.8 billion, had also been approved by the Bundestag's Budget Committee last June.[6] The first submarine is scheduled to be delivered in 2029. Optimal interoperability is assured with both the joint acquisition, as well as by the fact that both have acquired the same maritime patrol aircraft (P-8A Poseidon).

"High-Intensity Submarine Warfare"

Berlin has also begun to intensify its practical military cooperation with Norway and other countries in the far north. On March 12, 2020, Germany's Defense Minister at the time, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer had proclaimed that the "GUIK Gap" is one of the three maritime regions, where Russia is "a key military challenge."[7] The German Navy had participated in the "Dynamic Mongoose" maneuvers from June 29, to July 10, 2020, where not only "naval warfare in general," but also "high-intensity submarine warfare" was exercised - especially in the waters around Iceland - the "battlefield" (Stavridis).[8] Shortly afterwards, Kramp-Karrenbauer held comprehensive talks with her counterparts from Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark, to push for a greater German role in the far north.[9] In the process, the Bundeswehr is involving the Dutch military for reinforcements. Already in 2019, a German naval infantry battalion carried out arctic training exercises together with Dutch Marines. These exercises are now being regularly held in Northern Norway - most recently in early November. From these exercises, an Amphibious Task Force (ATG) is meant to evolve by 2024, which, as a component of NATO's "spearhead," will be deployable at lightning speed - particularly in the Far north.[10]


[1], [2] Michael Paul, Göran Swistek: Russland in der Arktis. Entwicklungspläne, Militärpotential und Konfliktprävention. SWP-Studie 19. Berlin, Oktober 2021.

[3] James Stavridis: Sea Power. The History and Geopolitics of the World's Oceans. New York 2017.

[4], [5] Michael Paul, Göran Swistek: Deutschland im arktisch-nordatlantischen Raum. Russlands militärische Aktivitäten brauchen Aufklärung. SWP-Aktuell 74. Berlin, November 2021.

[6] Haushaltsausschuss gibt Milliarden für Luftkampfsystem FCAS, U-Boot-Projekt und Flottendienstboote frei. 23.06.2021.

[7] Rede der Bundesministerin der Verteidigung, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, anlässlich des Parlamentarischen Frühstücks der Deutschen Maritimen Akademie am 12. März 2020.

[8] See also Die NATO auf U-Boot-Jagd.

[9] See also Germany in the Far north.

[10] Deutsch-niederländische Zusammenarbeit auch bei der Ausbildung immer enger. 04.11.2021.