The Great Power Competition in The North Atlantic

The Great Power Competition in The North Atlantic

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Silje Willassen

Offiser i Hæren. Studert ved Krigsskolen og USMC Expeditionary Warfare School.

The world we know is changing fast, and so are US adversaries. Russia and China are adapting to the emerging new world, with the goal of changing its power balance.[1] According to Christian Brose, this has led to an emerging need for new thinking and “reimagination of ends, ways, and means.” [2] Moreover, every US partner needs to reassess their role. Both the Gerasimov “doctrine” and the Chinese Unrestricted Warfare-based doctrine, “Three-Warfares” bring forward new challenges to the western world.[3] It warrants a response from the US, otherwise, the West and the US can lose the firm grip as a trustworthy security provider.[4] If the world is indeed moving towards great power competition, it is imperative that the US ensures its partners are capable of operating with the Russian Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2AD) threat. Including having the capacity to support a littoral campaign in the High North. The US Joint capability does not have a large and capable stand-in force in Europe, although there are plans and pre-positioned forces to support one. The problem is that they could be too late, getting locked out by Russian A2AD. The answer to this strategic problem could be a closer relation to already trustworthy nations. Norway has optimal geographic position to the area and provides the alliance with access and knowledge about the operational environment – which is imperative in the conceptual development of Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) in the High North. Therefore, the US should consider Norway, with its expertise in winter warfare and access to the area, as a stand-in force, prepared and postured to support a littoral campaign in the High North. The requirement would be interoperability in concept, technology, and warfighting culture.[5]

Without a dedicated force in the North Atlantic, the US and NATO forces face challenges with access due to Russian A2AD capabilities. From their main base in Severomorsk, Russian submarines sail along the Norwegian coastline, or towards the open ocean passing between the Svalbard Islands and Bear Island (Bear Gap) before reaching the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom gap (GIUK).[6] Due to the Russian submarines coupled with the A2AD systems, US and NATO forces no longer have the freedom of maneuver through the Bear Gap, and they are able to present a threat and deny allied freedom of movement towards the major ports in Europe. If Russia don’t need to go south of the GIUK gap, it means the Alliance will have to search for them further north with Norwegian Armed Forces (NAF) since the A2AD contested environment might deny allied forces access to the area.[7] The known combination of Russian submarines and cruise missiles presents a real threat to NATO reinforcements that needs to come in by ship or air. More challenges are present for Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) as the new missiles give the submarine longer weapons range and the ASW a bigger search area.[8] The connecting area between the Barents Sea and the Norwegian Sea is the perfect area to search for Russian submarines, and by building a concept that involves NAF, ASW in the area will build more credibility. In contrast, US can choose to do nothing and end up in a situation where rapid reinforcement of allied countries cannot be guaranteed.[9]

Access to the area of interest is important, but a common operational concept of how the Alliance is to conduct operations is equally important. Therefore, there can be no effective course of action until allies are integrated into concept development since this is the baseline from where all things work. As there is emerging new concepts of how US forces are to deter adversaries like China and Russia, there is a growing problem of understanding how the US Joint Force is going to prepare and posture itself to deter and fight a near peer adversary in the Pacific and the North Atlantic.[10] As of now, allies like Norway do not have a major role in the concept development for a concept that will require access to their territory.[11] While the 2018 National Defense Strategy stresses the need for a joint force that can “out-think, out-partner, out-maneuver and out-innovate adversaries,” there is no clear understanding of what the joint concept will be in the High North.[12]

Another concern that is highly relevant is the challenge of building interoperability within the allied Joint Force within the technology domain. Specifically, how NAF could tie in with the US kill chain to ensure efficiency in prosecuting targets of interest. The new US concept will set the stage for early implementation and exploitation of new technology and key allied partners should be included in the discussion at an early stage. With the emerging new technology, longer weapons range and potentially a change in the character of war, there is a potential change in allied reinforcements. Indeed, where this previously encompassed massive boots on the ground with the staging of equipment and units, the current operating environment it may mean other effects, such as air and long-range fire support. This means that the initial effect should be delivered by long range fires, and for the alliance, interoperable, low signature, and secure communications will be the most important piece.[13] Interoperability in technology ensures that our systems complement each other, and that they speak together – which will strengthen the allied kill chain. This will build credibility which is imperative in the deterrence of a near peer adversary.[14] However, interoperability has proved to be a problem for coalitions, and there is no reason to believe that this will decrease with implementation of more technology.[15]

To ensure the success of interoperability with concept and technology, US forces and NAF require a joint warfighting culture. There is a need to become more synchronized in conducting allied operations to establish a better understanding. The USMC has a long tradition of training in Norway. During exercise Reindeer II the Norwegian commander Maj. Gen Lars Lervik expressed the need to establish a better “mutual understanding of what the different military terms mean.”[16] Culture plays a role in organizations ability to understand the operational environment and the situation. It has a direct effect on the organizations or soldier’s ability to orient, therefore it affects their ability to observe and understand what is going on. The orientation part of the Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act (OODA)-loop controls how people make sense of what they observe, and it shapes their decisions and actions.[17] If culture doesn’t get more focus, US leaders and their allies can find themselves in a situation where they understand a situation completely different – which is something an adversary will see as a vulnerability to exploit.

A solution to the A2AD threat in the North Atlantic is utilizing the Norwegian location and NAF forces as the stand-in force as they are already operating inside the Russian Weapons Engagement Zone (WEZ). By having NAF inside the WEZ able to detect, track, and deliver targeting data, the Alliance will deny Russian submarines the freedom of action they have today. Enabling key nations’ insight with a seat at the table will make sure that the concept is supportable in a joint environment. Therefore, NAF should be invited as a key planner and developer of the new concept. NAF are specialized in operating in the subarctic climate and have an expertise understanding of the operating environment which makes them key enablers of a littoral campaign in the High North. Integration of NAF in concept development will enable them to connect with the US OODA-loop at an earlier stage and enable them to push information to the decisionmakers regarding procuring the right technology at the right time. However, if NAF do not have access to the concepts being developed, or if they are unclear, they will never be able to procure the technology needed to act as the stand-in force in a potential littoral campaign in the North Atlantic.[18]

An enhanced focus on connecting NAF in the US kill chain will result in a reduced need for US boots on the ground. In this way NAF could focus on developing their organization and make sure every part can deliver target data up the chain in a faster, more reliable way than it is done today. By focusing on interoperability, early integration of allies and partners in concept development it will set the stage for a more unified effort towards deterring China and Russia.[19]Nevertheless, the situation needs strong adaptable leaders, in both US and Norway, that are able and willing to take action today, not tomorrow.

By involving NAF in concept development, we can predicate any action with mutual understanding. An alliance provides cognitive diversity, and it strengthens the ability to out-think an adversary as it provides different perspectives and understanding of the operational environment.[20] Therefore it is essential that the cultural differences between US forces and NAF don’t affect cooperation in a negative manner and works against efficiency. According to Leonard Wong and Stephen J. Gerras “a culture provides the underlying foundation for decisions in strategy, planning, organizations, training, and operations,” and must be viewed as a contributing factor for allied effectiveness.[21] Consequently, US forces and NAF should foster a joint warfighting culture to ensure the success on interoperability with concept and technology. If NAF and US forces have an idea of becoming more credible and lethal, they will get an enormous advantage from sharing a warfighting culture. This can be accomplished by focusing more on integration and by enhanced awareness of where our perspectives differ. This is most of all established during planning, training, education and operating together – on a regular basis. The educational arena should be highlighted, and there should be more student exchange on all levels – as this provides vital knowledge about how the different organizations are tied together.

Mutual understanding is even more important today as we have seen adversaries that are widening the definition of conflicts and war and are using new ways of reaching their goals. The hybrid element in all domains makes the situation harder to read, and without a unified strategic culture within between US and NAF there will be room for misunderstandings that will lead to weak reaction. Even if Dr. David Kilcullen is discussing this topic in relation to adversaries and the danger of misunderstanding an adversary due to different ways of defining war and conflicts, it seems like a fair assessment to make that it will apply within an alliance as well.[22]

On the other side one could argue that Norway would take considerable risk if they become more interweaved with US forces, and some argue that a closer relationship will enhance the tension between Norway and Russia.[23]However, a closer relationship with one of Norway’s oldest partners is not new. Still, there is an enormous difference if NAF are to act as a stand-in force in the North Atlantic as it connects them in the US kill chain in a more robust way than it does today. A closer connected kill chain combined with ASW in the Bear-gap will reduce Russian submarines freedom of movement. Moreover, this will affect the known Russian approach of using submarines and surface ships for strikes against any target to intimidate an adversary, or to disrupt reinforcements.[24] This also might force Russian leaders to find a different way of prosecuting liminal warfare as we have seen the contours of in Georgia and Ukraine.[25]

To conclude, this paper has focused on the challenges A2AD poses on littoral campaigning from the Norwegian perspective and its precautious geographic situation in the North Atlantic. In addition, it has discussed how the current A2AD poses a threat to Western freedom of movement, amongst other in the North Atlantic. Norwegian armed forces have the potential of being included as a stand-in force, as a part of US joint concepts, prepared and postured to support a littoral campaign in the High North. But to present a credible solution Norway should take part in concept development as this will support interoperability in technology and warfighting culture. Norway will in this way present Russia with a much stronger deterrence and capability to fight, which also supports the preservation and defense of our long-term viability.[26]

Foto: USMC LAV-25 fra Marine Rotational Force Europe 21.1 beskytter en trang led så en norsk U-båt kan passere trygt under øvelse Arctic Littoral Strike i mars 2021 (Cpl. Andrew Smith / DVIDS)


[1] David Kilcullen, The dragons and the snakes. How the rest learned to fight the west (New York: Oxford Press, 2020), 115-214.

[2] Christian Brose, The Kill Chain (New York: Hachette Book Group, Inc, 2020), 187.

[3] Kilcullen, The dragons and the snakes. How the rest learned to fight the west, 161-164, 210-214.

[4] Brose, The Kill Chain, 249-250.

[5] James C. Boozer, “Allies, Partners More Important Than Ever,” National Defense, last modified on May 26, 2020,

[6] Thomas Nilsen,“American flags in the Barents Sea is "the new normal," says defense analyst,” The Barents observer, last modified on May 8, 2020,

[7] Magnus Nordenman. The new battle for the Atlantic - Emerging naval competition with Russia in the far North. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2019), 148-155, 190, 200-201.

[8] Ibid., 138-139.

[9] Ibid., 140.

[10] Nathan Freier, John Schaus, Al Lord, Alison Goldsmith, and Col. Elizabeth Martin, “The US Is Out of Position in the Indo-Pacific Region,” Defense One, last modified on July 19, 2020,

[11] Terje Bruøygard and Jørn Qviller, “Marine Corps Force Design 2030 and Implications for Allies and Partners Case Norway," Journal of Advanced Military Studies vol. 11, no. 2 (2020), 199.

[12] Robert G. Angevine, “Time to revive joint concept development and experimentation,” War on The Rocks, last modified on January 23, 2020,; Jim Mattis, “Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of The United States of America: Sharpening American Military’s Competitive Edge,” last modified on January 19, 2018,,5.

[13] David H, Berger, Commandant's planning guidance: 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps. (Washington, DC: Headquarters, US Marine Corps, July 2019), 20.

[14] James C. Boozer, “Allies, Partners More Important Than Ever.”

[15] Jun Nagashima, “Transformation of NATO in Distress - Challenges to Greater Interoperability,” International Information Network Analysis, last modified on November 10, 2020,

[16] Christopher Woody, “Marines Training for Winter Warfare in Norway Also Have to Deal With 'Different Military Terms',” Business Insider, last modified on December 7th, 2020,

[17] Headquarters United States Marine Corps, Competing, MCDP 1-4 (Washington, DC: US Marine Corps, 14 December 2020), 4-3.

[18] Terje Bruøygard, and Jørn Qviller, "Marine Corps Force Design 2030 and Implications for Allies and Partners Case Norway," 198-200.

[19] James C. Boozer. “Allies, Partners More Important Than Ever.”

[20] Ibid.

[21] Leonard Wong, and Stephen J. Gerras, "Culture and Military organizations," in The Culture of Military Organizations, by Peter R Mansoor and Williamson Murray. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 17.

[22] David Kilcullen. 2019, "Strategic culture." In The culture of military organizations, by Peter R Mansoor and Williamson Murray. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 33-52.

[23] Norsk Telegrambyrå, “SV og Rødt vil stanse amerikanske militærbaser i Norge,” Forsvarets Forum, last modified on November 6, 2020,

[24] Magnus Nordenman, The new battle for the Atlantic - Emerging naval competition with Russia in the far North, 138-139.

[25] David Kilcullen, The dragons and the snakes. How the rest learned to fight the west, 115-164.

[26] Ibid., 251-255.