Political Signals and Operational Necessity in the Arctic

Kjell Inge Bjerga, Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies

The Commander Armed Forces North Norway in a Regional, National and International Perspective During the Cold War

The main subject of this paper is the operational military management in North Norway during the Cold War. It will focus on the role and function of the northern operational management, which was located at the war headquarters at Reitan, a few miles to the east of Bodø from 1963 onwards. The central position of the headquarters in Cold War strategies, brought Bodø and the entire region of Salten into focus, both nationally and internationally, for nearly four decades.  

The paper consists of three main parts. First, we will take a closer look at the special security problems of North Norway before and during the Cold War, and the evolving idea of integrated defence in the north. Second, there will be a brief discussion of the development of a military management on the operational level in North Norway. The central issue will be the development of an integrated joint staff in support of the Commander Armed Forces North Norway, or Commander Joint Task Force North Norway, as this institution was called in NATO terminology. Finally, we will discuss the political and operational functions of Reitan. We will employ at least three perspectives on Reitan in the discussion: a regional perspective; a national perspective and an international perspective. In these perspectives we will see that Reitan, apart from the obvious operational tasks, had an important function as a political signal on several levels. We will also illuminate the functions of Reitan in a nordic perspective, and emphasize the northern military link between Sweden and Norway.

The Northern Defence Challenge

In the spring of 1940, General Carl Gustav Fleischer was acting as Commander Task Force North Norway. The general, in fact, appointed himself as commander-in-chief. The rationale behind his “self-appointment” was quite clear. The surprising German attack on Norway on the 9th of April 1940, demonstrated the need to coordinate Norway`s modest resources in the north. It was of great importance to unite the highest civil and military leaders in Nordland, Troms and Finnmark under one commander-in-chief. In addition, it became important to establish a unified command with a clearly identifiable commander-in-chief on top of the two single services, i. e. the Army and the Navy. The need for a united command within the armed forces was part of an international trend which became evident during the Second World War. According to General Eisenhower in 1943, separate air, sea and ground warfare was “gone forever”.  

After World War II, however, the idea of an integrated defence structure with a unified command on top has been stronger in the small state of Norway than in USA and other large NATO countries. The need for unity became profound in the northern parts of Norway. The main reason behind this can be identified as “the northern defence challenge”. This challenge consisted of at least two elements. First, after the War the Norwegian government perceived the security challenges in North Norway to be of a larger scale than in any other parts of the country. There was a clear mismatch between the resources in the northern region and the enormous sea and land areas which had to be defended in case of crisis or war. Second, there was a strong ideological element in the northern defence challenge. The civil society in North Norway was perceived as being more heterogeneous than society in the south. Norwegian authorities assumed, among other things, that there was a higher number of hard-line communists in the north. The authorities feared, in particular, that the hard-line communists had strong footholds in several small local communities in the eastern parts of Finnmark. Whether the Norwegian authorities were right in their assumptions about the communist threat, is still an open question. However, it was their fear of hard-line communists that led to the development of an integrated defence structure with united management in the north. With comprehensive civil-military cooperation the authorities were ready to meet political and ideological challenges – external as well as internal threats.

This can be illustrated if we take a closer look at the record from the establishment of a  Commander Armed Forces North Norway in 1949. Admiral Trygve Briseid, the Commander Naval Forces North Norway was then giving a brief in Oslo about the current situation in the north. The admiral was worried. He pointed out that there was a feeling of defeatism in North Norway. Among other things, ordinary people were suspecting that the authorities had decided not to defend Finnmark. He thought that it would be psychologically wise to appoint a military commander-in-chief North Norway.

Great Power Interests, Threat Perceptions and Defence Concepts

We shall now turn to the second part of this paper, which will identify different periods in the development of the armed forces and a unitary operational management in North Norway. First of all it is important to highlight some factors which have determined the development of the northern defence structure in a historical perspective.

The first, and probably most important factor, was the great powers’, i. e. the Soviet Union’s, USA’s and Great Britain’s, interests in the Arctic. During the whole Cold War period the small state of Norway, geostrategically speaking, was in the focal spot between the East and the West. However, North Norway first became geostrategically important when the international community turned their attention to the Arctic in the early fifties. Then arrangements were made to build a solid defence in the north. In the post-Cold War years the international interest in the Arctic area waned. Other areas and issues became topical, such as the Middle East, the Balkans and the war against terrrorism.

The second factor was the Norwegian authorities’ perception of the threat against North Norway and South Norway respectively. Both during the international crisis in the spring of 1948, and when the Cold War reached a peak during the Korean War, Norwegian authorities concluded that there were certain security problems regarding the northern areas of the country because of their proximity to Soviet Russia. In a similar way, the authorities believed the threat to North Norway was reduced after the break-up of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in the early nineties.

The third determining factor was the authorities’ choice of defence concept. In a wide and geographically challenging country like Norway, it was necessary to consider where the defence should be concentrated. In practical terms the choice stood between North Norway or South Norway. Until the early fifties, the defence was concentrated in South Norway, but after this point, as we shall see, Norway started building up its military strength in the north. Another question was whether the nature of the defence concept be defensive or offensive? The military leaders disagreed on this topic. Air Force General Finn Lambrechts insisted on using offensive air power to eliminate Soviet bases as early as possible in a war. In this air strategy, Bodø, the aviation town in the north, became the centre of gravity. On the other hand, Army General Odd Lindbäck-Larsen insisted on a clean-cut defensive concept with the centre of gravity located in the Troms area, where Norwegian armed forces should be deployed to halt a Soviet invasion through Finnmark or Finland. From the sixties and onwards Lindbäck-Larsens concept and the Troms area gradually became the centre of gravity in North Norway. In fact, the Troms area became the centre of gravity also on a national level, and to some extent internationally because of the areas function in the Norwegian-Allied military preparations in the north.     

Keeping these three factors in mind: the great powers’ interest, domestic threat perceptions and choice of defence concept, we will identify three periods in the evolution of the defence structure and operational management in North Norway. 

The first period with a commander-in-chief and a joint staff in the north was from 1949 to 1953. During these years there was hardly any international interest in the arctic area at all. However, the Norwegian government established a joint military staff in Harstad, the traditional “army capital” of North Norway. Each of the three single services was represented in the joint staff and the commander-in-chief gained an important function as official Norwegian representative, both in a regional, national and international perspective.

The second period can be identified as the years between 1953 and 1971. During these years the international interest in the Arctic and the great powers’ engagement in the region boomed. Moreover the idea of integration between the single services matured in the armed forces. In a similar way, the idea of closer civil-military coordination and cooperation grew stronger in this period. The commander-in-chief was moved to Bodø, the “air force capital”, where his joint staff was expanded, and he was given increased authority.

The third period, from 1971 to 1991, opened with the establishment of Defence Headquarters North Norway at Reitan, about 25 kilometers east of the town of Bodø. In the seventies and eighties this headquarters developed into an important high-level institution in the north. With  400 employees, the headquarters at Reitan became a Norwegian-Allied competence centre for joint military operations.

Hesitating Efforts 1949–1953

We will now examine each period more thoroughly, bearing in mind the regional, the national and the international perspective. In the first period, until 1953, the Norwegian government hesitated to strengthen the defence structure in North Norway. The government had a rather diffuse perception of the security needs in the north. As a matter of fact, Norway had never been at war with the Russian bear. Besides, the northernmost Soviet border areas were thinly populated and, generally speaking, desolated areas which hardly contained any military threat to Norway.     

However, the northern defence challenge was perceived as a reality, and as the East-West tension increased in the late forties, Norway initiated several measures to strengthen her northern front line. One measure was to establish a commander-in-chief with a small joint staff. This measure was made after reflecting on the experience of General Fleischer and the German attack on 9th of April 1940. As the government saw it, the commander-in-chief of 1949 would to some extent compensate for the lack of a proper force structure – at least the initiative would have certain  operational and political effects. An important rationale behind the establishment was the geographical distance between Oslo and North Norway, and the necessity of regional operational management in case of crisis or war. It was feared that North Norway would be isolated from the central authorities in a crisis or war. Moreover the appointment of a commander-in-chief served as an explicit signal on several levels; most important in 1949 was the signal effect to the civil population of North Norway, namely that the government’s security policy involved all parts of Norway. We will return to other aspects of this political signal later.

Norwegian-Allied Build Up 1953–1971

In the years 1953 to 1971, the Arctic attracted much attention from the Western great powers, mainly USA and Great Britain, because of the Soviet Union’s military build up on the Kola peninsula. The build up included air force as well as sea force, tactical as well as strategic power. From the Kola peninsula or the Barents Sea, the Soviet forces had a unique access to the Atlantic Ocean and the essential lines of supply between USA and Europe. In this period, the Arctic also attracted attention as an air strategic centre in the northern hemisphere. In addition, USA and NATO became highly interested in North Norway as a forward intelligence and early warning base next to Stalin’s closed and enigmatic empire.

An important consequence of the awakening international interest, was that Norway moved her concentration of military power from the south to the north. This military movement coincided with a national programme of support to the three northernmost counties: Nordland, Troms and Finnmark. The joint civil-military efforts made for significant growth in all parts of the northern society, and this deeply rooted civil-military tradition is probably one of  the reasons behind the close civil-military relations in North Norway. As a matter of fact, these relations have proved to be closer in the north than anywhere else in the country.

In 1953 Norway established two centres of gravity in the north. The first one was established in Troms, consisting mainly of an army brigade in Indre Troms and a headquarters in the town of Harstad. Basically, this centre of gravity was based on what we can term a “Norwegian defence tradition”, which stressed a line of defence forces in Troms and south to the Ofoten area. The commander-in-chief was located in Harstad, and functioned both as regional Army Commander and Commander Armed Forces North Norway. His main task was operational management of the joint defence effort against an eventual invasion from the USSR. The integrated defence structure was concentrated around the ground forces in Troms with naval forces as a buffer against invasion from the sea, and with the air force giving close air support.

The second centre of gravity was established in the Salten region in Nordland. This centre became the basis for further development of a joint staff under the commander-in-chief, thus special attention will be paid to the development in the Salten region. The centre of gravity consisted mainly of Tactical Air Command North Norway and the air force’s fighter squadrons at Bodø airfield. Moreover, the region became a very important point of support in USA’s and NATO’s nuclear strategy. It is important to emphasize that the Salten region became much more vital to USA and the Alliance than the population of Bodø ever realized during the Cold War. Salten became vital to NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, SACEUR, who had North Norway within his area of responsibility. In a similar way, the region became important to NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic, SACLANT, located in Norfolk, USA. The Atlantic command had North Norway and the Arctic within its sphere of interest. The Allied point of support in Salten consisted, among other things, of headquarters, communications facilities, and a comprehensive infrastructure with hangars, docks, runways, storehouses, shields and barracks.

In 1955 Norway and NATO agreed on locating all the high-level military commanders of North Norway in the Salten region. The construction of a Norwegian-Allied war headquarters capable of surviving a full scale atomic war, and of carrying on with the operational management in a post-nuclear war environment, started in the autumn of 1958. Five years later, in the summer of 1963, Rear Admiral Skule Storheill, Commander Armed Forces North Norway, declared the war headquarters opened, and the commander with his staff of about twenty officers moved from Harstad to Bodø on a permanent basis.

Let me elaborate a bit further on the connection between the great powers’ nuclear strategy and the establishment of a centre of gravity in the Salten region. During the years with the strategy of massive nuclear retaliation, which means the fifties and the early sixties, USA and NATO drew up war plans which included a large-scale nuclear attack on the Soviet homeland. In a hypothetical situation, on the launch of a massive nuclear attack eastward, the high-level military commanders had to be assembled at the same location from the very first hour. From a military point of view this was a matter of operational necessity to ensure a united and coordinated war effort.

All the chiefs of the Norwegian Defence Staff in the fifties pointed out the utmost importance of having the commanders of North Norway, including the commmander-in-chief, assembled in one place. Lieutnant General Ole Berg expressed it this way: “A co-location of the commanders is a matter of necessity with regards to the ability of exploiting nuclear weapons on the right spot to the right time”. The Norwegian generals and admirals were here in complete agreement with the Alliance. In 1956, NATO’s Northern Commando at Kolsås stated that: 

 “[Commander Armed Forces North Norway] must obviously be in close touch with as many of his subordinate commanders as possible if he is to fulfill their efforts. This is especially important when the employment of an air delivered atomic weapon in a tactical role requires a swift decision from all three service commanders”.

However, when the war headquarters at Reitan was finished, the massive retaliation strategy was de-emphasized. In 1961, the Norwegian government refused to arm the Norwegian forces with nuclear weapons in peacetime, and later on in the sixties NATO’s strategy shifted permanently from massive retaliation to flexible response.

Focal Point Reitan 1971–1990

We have now reached our third and final period. This period started in 1971 with the establishment of Defence Command North Norway (DEFCOMNON) at Reitan as regional military headquarters, covering the three northernmost counties. The period ended with the termination of the Cold War around 1990. In 1971, the Norwegian government realized that the military operational management near the presumed front line in Troms would have to be strengthened. Also, the government acknowledged the value of a headquarters with a high-ranking officer as commander-in-chief in peacetime. This commander and his headquarters could take care of all kinds of crises and prevent minor crises from escalating out of control. Sending several high-ranking military commanders northwards during a crises would probably have an escalating effect. To avoid this, the officers would have to be permanently stationed in North Norway in peacetime.

From 1971 to the end of the Cold War, Defence Command North Norway at Reitan became an increasingly important institution in the north. Its growing importance resulted from changes in the military-strategic environment in the second half of the Cold War. The most important factor was the Soviets’expansion of the Northern Fleet, and particularly their strategic nuclear submarines capable of targeting the American homeland with MIRVs launched from positions in the Barents Sea. In short, the Soviets’ strategic deterrence became more dependent on the Northern Fleet than ever, and the Norwegian authorities feared increasingly that the Russians planned enlarging their security zone around the Kola bases, which in turn could imply that Finnmark and Troms were exposed to a Soviet “land grab”.

This fear, among other factors, resulted in an increased Norwegian, as well as Allied military build up in North Norway, mainly concentrated on the centre of gravity in Troms. Norway now gave full priority to an integrated anti-invasion structure, relying heavily upon external support. The Norwegian forces were concentrated in Indre Troms, and the main task was to delay a Soviet invasion until national and allied reinforcements could deploy in the area and prevent the Soviets from gaining a foothold in Troms. The ambitious integrated anti-invasion structure was totally dependent on a unitary and competent operational mangement, and the headquarters at Reitan, altough it was located outside the centre of gravity in Troms, became responsible for leading and coordinating the integrated anti-invasion structure. In peacetime, this was done through frequent Allied war exercises, which were planned, directed and evaluated from Reitan. In this way, the headquarters developed a unique competence, both nationally and internationally, in running complex large scale joint military operations.  

Apart from anti-invasion, several other tasks were added  to the new Defence Command’s  responsibilities in the seventies and eighties. According to the international law of the sea, Norway expanded her economic zones at sea to 200 miles. The new economic zones resulted in larger geographical areas of responsibility for DEFCOMNON. In size, these areas corresponded to six or seven times the Norwegian mainland. The headquarters at Reitan became the exercising authority and was responsible for maintaining sovereignty in the new sea areas. In addition, the headquarters had to manage any crises in the north. The larger areas meant a larger potential for crises, and it proved the importance of the presence of official representatives in the north to handle minor crises, such as the Hopen incident in 1978, the Komsomolets loss in 1989 and the Kursk loss in 2000. The high level commanders at Reitan lived in the Arctic and had first-hand knowledge of the special challenges in the region. This also made the commanders ambassadors of the north, both in a national and international context.    

Political Signals

We have so far mainly dealt with the different operational tasks connected to the commander-in-chief and DEFCOMNON. We will now highlight the political signals and see that Commander Armed Forces and DEFCOMNON also had important functions on the political level in the second half of the Cold War.

In an international perspective, the signal was directed towards the Soviet Union. In 1971 the Norwegian government strengthened the operational management in North Norway and thereby demonstrating its will and ability to deal firmly with the Soviets in the Arctic. During the Cold War there were tense relations between the Commander Armed Forces North Norway and his Soviet counterparts in the Leningrad Military District. However, there was a Norwegian-Soviet dialogue on a lower, official level through the arrangement with border commissionaries. In the post-Cold War period, the Norwegian-Soviet dialogue was to be elevated, and DEFCOMNON established close contact with the commander-in-chief of the Northern Fleet in Leningrad. This contact became an important part of the bilateral Norwegian-Russian cooperation at the end of the 1990’s, a period with lower tension in the Arctic.

Moreover the signal was directed towards USA and the Alliance. By giving priority to the operational management in North Norway, the Norwegian government demonstrated that it perceived the Arctic area as important. Within the Alliance, an important addressee for the signal was SACEUR in Brussel, and the connection between DEFCOMNON and the European headquarters became important, not  least during the planning and running of the frequent Allied exercises in the north. However, the most important connection was between Commander Armed Forces North Norway and Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic, SACLANT in USA. This connection originated in the early fifties and was re-vitalized in the seventies by the Norwegian general Sverre Hamre, who was commander-in-chief at Reitan in the years from 1975 to 1977. Hamre established a particularly close connection with the American admiral Isaac Kidd, who was SACLANT in the seventies.

In a Nordic perspective, the operational management at Reitan promoted a special relationship with the Swedish army general in charge of Sweden’s northern military district. The contact was established in 1947, when the future Norwegian alliance policy was still an open question and a Nordic defence league was an alternative to a defence treaty with Great Britain and USA. From the beginning the contact was kept top secret. In practical terms the cooperation between the Swedish and Norwegian military authorities in the north focused on practical-operational issues and was nurtured by the conviction that the two countries would not end up on opposite sides in a East-West conflict. 

After Norway joined NATO in 1949, the Norwegian-Swedish link was maintained, still focused on practical issues and surrounded by secrecy. One of the issues might have been to discuss the force structure and military capabilities in North Norway and North Sweden. In the ongoing defence planning each of the commanders would have had great advantage of roughly knowing each other’s capacities. However, and unfortunately, there are no records from the Norwegian-Swedish meetings in the Norwegian archives, so it is necessary to rely upon oral sources. On the other hand, it is confirmed that the meetings took place during the entire Cold War, and that these contacts among the generals and admirals stationed in the north, flourished in the post-Cold War period. Formal or informal contact on a practical-military level between neighbouring countries is today seen as a stabilizing factor, which it certainly also was during the Cold War.    

In a regional and national perspective, the political signal was directed toward the civil population of North Norway. As we have seen, the signal effect towards the northern population was an important factor when a commander-in-chief was appointed in 1949. In the forties it had been crucial for the government to convince the civil population in the north that their security requirements were taken seriously by the central authorities. The government was especially concerned with preventing hopelessness within the population, which in turn could lead to “un-national” attitudes and, perhaps, the expansion of the communist movement in the north, as the government saw it.

The signal effect on the regional level was also important when DEFCOMNON was established in 1971. It was then still important for the Norwegian government to assure the population in the north that Norwegian security policy also included the three northernmost counties. In the seventies, it was especially necessary to give the signal that the security requirements were taken seriously. The geographical distance between Oslo and North Norway was a security challenge. There was an obvious possibilty that the northern parts of Norway could be isolated from the central authorities in crises or war time.

We have now followed the institutional development of the Commander Armed Forces North Norway. To sum up, we can argue that in a national perspective the operational necessity of the commander-in-chief weighed heavily during the build up in the north. At the same time there were important political signals connected to the commander-in-chief and the headquarters in Bodø. The political signals were important both in a regional and a Nordic perspective, and, moreover, in a wide international perspective.    



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