April 8, 2021

Growing Military Activity in the Arctic and Baltic Regions

U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Anthony Hetlage
Two U.S. Air Force F-15C Eagle aircraft assigned to the 48th Fighter Wing fly in formation with two German air force Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft after receiving fuel from a U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft assigned to the 100th Air Refueling Wing during exercise Baltic Trident over Finland, March 17, 2021. Exercise Baltic Trident focuses on strengthening alliances and partnerships to deter aggression, maintain stability and ensure free access to common domains in accordance with international law.
Two U.S. Air Force F-15C Eagle aircraft assigned to the 48th Fighter Wing fly in formation with two German air force Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft after receiving fuel from a U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft assigned to the 100th Air Refueling Wing during exercise Baltic Trident over Finland, March 17, 2021. Exercise Baltic Trident focuses on strengthening alliances and partnerships to deter aggression, maintain stability and ensure free access to common domains in accordance with international law.

The last six months have offered numerous examples indicating that the level of military activity in the Arctic and Baltic regions continues to increase slowly but steadily. Russian and Western forces have in different ways increased their presence in these contested regions and nations are strengthening relevant military capabilities.

Ambitious New Development Plans

In early December 2020, the parliament of Norway passed a new long-term defence plan for 2021–24 that will strengthen and modernise capabilities in all domains and increase readiness supported by higher defence spending. Brigade Nord, earmarked for the defence of northern Norway, will be further developed with a fourth manoeuvre battalion. The brigade will be equipped with new main battle tanks, mobile air defence systems and long-range precision firepower. The Finnmark Land Command, in charge of safeguarding Norway’s northernmost land territories and the land border with Russia, will also be strengthened.

In December 2020, the Swedish parliament approved a new armed forces development plan that increases the planning target of the wartime force structure from 55,000 to 90,000 personnel and the defence budget by 40%. Part of this increase will see new forces and capabilities being trained and equipped for use in northern Sweden in a subarctic environment. The government expressed its intention to identify even more capabilities tailored for the Arctic that could contribute to the trilateral defence cooperation between Sweden, Finland and Norway in time for the next development plan in 2025.

On 1 January 2021, the status of Russia’s Northern Fleet was officially elevated to that of a military district, meaning that it is comparable with the Western, Southern, Central and Eastern military districts. The Northern Fleet now consolidates a large part of Russia’s Arctic capabilities under one roof and contains territory of the Republic of Komi, the regions of Arkhangelsk and Murmansk and the Nenets Autonomous Region. This decision signals the strategic importance of Russia’s Arctic military assets, including the nuclear second-strike capabilities concentrated on the Kola Peninsula.

Deployments, Exercises and Messaging

On 22 February, four US Air Force B-1B Lancers from the 7th Bomb Wing at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas arrived at Ørland Air Station in central Norway to conduct theatre and flight training across Europe until 25 March. During their deployment, they flew nine missions in areas including the international airspace of the North Sea and Baltic Sea and integrated with Danish, German, Italian, Norwegian, Polish and Swedish fighter aircraft. The B-1s, alongside members of US Special Operations Forces, provided support to Norwegian and Swedish joint terminal attack control training and conducted the first-ever hot-pit ground refuelling operation of a B-1 in Europe in Poland and in Bodø, Norway, the latter marking the first time that these bombers have landed in the Arctic. On 16 and 19 March they were joined by USAF B-2 Spirit aircraft from the 509th Bomb Wing, Whiteman AFB, Missouri, to fly bomber task force missions off the coast of Iceland.

On 1 March, the USAF announced that it had conducted a Combined Joint All-Domain Command and Control demonstration in international waters and airspace in and around the Baltic Sea. Participation included assets from US Naval Forces Europe–Africa/US 6th Fleet, US Army Europe–Africa, US Strategic Command, the UK’s Royal Air Force, the Royal Netherlands Air Force and the Polish Air Force. The demonstration was designed to test and observe the ability of the joint force, allies and partners to integrate and provide command and control across multiple networks to multiple force capabilities. USAF F-15C Eagles and F-15E Strike Eagles from the 48th Fighter Wing, RAF Lakenheath, UK, conducted a targeting scenario using Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile employment tactics over the Baltic Sea. The JASSM is a long-range, conventional, air-to-ground, precision standoff missile designed to destroy high-value, well-defended targets.

The event demonstrated the joint and combined force’s ability to converge assets from all domains and across NATO allies into the Baltic Sea. This will generate firepower inside an area that an adversary believes to be protected through anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities. US and allied military exercises in the Baltic Sea enhance regional stability, and combine readiness and capability with NATO allies and partners.

This event was followed only weeks later, on 15-19 March, when USAF F-15Cs and F-15Es from the 48th Fighter Wing participated in Exercise Baltic Trident and were based at Ämari Air Base in Estonia. The exercise focused on the Agile Combat Employment concept of operations to minimise reliance on prepared airfields by enabling the dispersal of smaller units to various locations while still meeting operational needs and to enhance the 48th Fighter Wing’s flexibility to support and engage with NATO and partner forces in the Baltic region. The F-15s conducted low-flying exercises aimed at coordination with forward observers and commanders and other tactical and target exercises, as well as cooperation with personnel from Finland, Germany, Lithuania, Poland and the UK in addition to Estonia. The eight F-15s were joined by two Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker refuelling aircraft.

At the end of March, three Russian nuclear ballistic missile submarines surfaced simultaneously, breaking the ice during an exercise near the Franz Josef Land archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. The fact that this manoeuvre was said to be carried out by submarines “for the first time in the history of the Russian Navy” and that it was announced by the commander-in-chief of the Russian fleet at a meeting with president Vladimir Putin signals the great importance that Moscow places on this region.

In September 2020, British, Norwegian and US naval vessels conducted maritime security operations in the Barents Sea. This was the first time since the 1990s that NATO surface warships had conducted operations inside the Russian exclusive economic zone in the Barents Sea without the participation of ships from the Northern Fleet. Such operations comply with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and are probably aimed at signalling to Russian authorities that foreign navies can and will continue to exercise the freedom of navigation irrespective of the A2/AD capabilities that Moscow has built up in recent years in the Arctic, the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea regions. This can be compared to the freedom of navigation operations that US, British, French and Japanese navies conduct in the South China Sea to uphold the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea recognised in international law.

US Special Operations Forces have been training with their Scandinavian and Baltic counterparts for years, but in recent months the public messaging has been stepped up. In November 2020, US special operations forces exercised in Sweden to rehearse how they would jointly confront an enemy force in the Baltics. Navy SEALs, Green Berets, special boat teams and aircraft took part in the exercises to test the ability of US and Swedish forces to contend with an imminent threat. The training also incorporated the Navy destroyer USS Ross and the UK-based USAF 48th Fighter Wing and 100th Air Refueling Wing. One of the more spectacular elements involved US personnel being transported in a Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft escorted by US, Swedish and German fighter aircraft from Sweden via the island of Gotland to Estonia, where the exercise continued. This exercise sent a message not only to Moscow but also to the population in northern Europe that free and democratic Western nations are developing their ability to fight together, should this be necessary.

This year will see a number of large-scale exercises take place, despite the ongoing pandemic. DEFENDER-Europe 21, which involves 30,000 personnel from 27 countries, will bring some 1,000 airborne troops to Estonia, despite focusing on the Black Sea region and the Balkans. The exercise will also incorporate the recently reactivated US Army V Corps, whose forward command was established in Poland in late 2020. DEFENDER-Europe 21 will be associated with Steadfast Defender – a new series of NATO exercises focused on the transatlantic reinforcement of Europe.

Zapad-2021 is the next of Russia’s annual strategic large-scale military exercises, due to culminate in September 2021. Despite focusing on the strategic direction west as seen from Russia, all other military districts, including the Northern Fleet, are expected to participate and contribute with forces and capabilities. As in previous years, Russia is expected to claim that the exercise involves fewer than 13,000 personnel, despite the number of seemingly linked exercises taking place during the build-up phase and the active phase of up to 100,000 troops. Two aspects to keep track of are the presence of Russian forces in Belarus after the exercise and the possible participation of Chinese forces.


First, US leadership is vital for ensuring security in Europe and elsewhere. When the US deploys strategic bombers, naval vessels or strike fighters, other nations follow and contribute with their forces. No European nation has the political will and military tools comparable with the US.

Second, the fact that US forces regularly exercise both with NATO allies and with partner nations Finland and Sweden demonstrates that these countries regard the security of northern Europe from Russian aggression as a common goal regardless of whether the nations involved are members of NATO. This implicitly means that Russia, too, sees Finland and Sweden as potential adversaries.

Third, increasing defence spending will lead to more modern forces and capabilities being deployed to the Arctic and Baltic regions in the next five years. Both Russian and Western forces are likely to exercise more actively. Allied and partner nations are improving their ability to counter Russian aggression and to ensure that Western reinforcements can be deployed rapidly.


Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).