The Mågerø air defense monitoring base is inside a mountain at the end of an unmarked country road two hours south of Oslo, Norway. With only a rudimentary sentry box, a simple draw gate and a lone soldier guarding its entrance, the installation looks more like the set for a movie about the Nazi occupation of the country than a key link in the country’s state-of-the-art defenses.
At the end of a long, narrow tunnel into the mountain, in a cavernous room filled with computers and radar monitor screens, intelligence specialists stare at blinking icons marking the movement of aircraft around Norwegian airspace. On an all-too-typical afternoon recently, they watched as two nuclear-capable Tu-95 Russian Bear Bombers floated like fireflies across the top right of their monitors. A few desks away, an airman picked up phone and called Bodø, a military base on Norway’s northern coast. Moments later, two F-16s rose to eyeball the intruders.
It turned out the Russian bombers were just practicing some kind of circling maneuver outside of Norway’s Arctic air space. But on January 28 two more Tu-95 bombers, escorted by tankers and Russia’s most advanced MiG-31 fighter jets, showed up off the coast. One of them was carrying “a nuclear payload,” according to the London Sunday Express, which cited intercepted radio traffic. And last fall, a Russian Tu-22 supersonic bomber skirting Norway’s northern airspace was photographed carrying a cruise missile in launching position, according to the Barents Observer blog. Similar examples abound.
Although Moscow isn’t threatening the West with anything near the number of warplanes deployed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War, its air sorties around Norway have increased dramatically each year since 2007, when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his strategic bombers to resume flights in international airspace.
But late last year, with the world’s attention riveted on Ukraine, Putin put a little-noticed exclamation mark on his Arctic strategy. For the first time, the Kremlin’s announced military doctrine included instructions to prepare to defend Russia’s interests in the Arctic. Plans for two new Arctic army brigades were drawn up. An abandoned military base at Alakurtti, Russia, less than 30 miles from the Finnish border, was reopened. And military construction crews began refurbishing a string of Cold War–era bases on islands in the Arctic. “Our main objective is research and evaluation of conditions in the Arctic and the suitability of our weapons and equipment this far north,” Vladimir Kondratov, commander of the surface ships group of the Northern Fleet, told Russia Today.
Picture: RIA Novosti archive, image #842936 / Grigory Sysoev / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons