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US, NATO Warships Exercise Off Russia’s Arctic Coast

US, British, and Norwegian vessels held wargames in the Barents Sea, near the HQ of Russia’s Northern Fleet.

USS Ross conducts a refueling at sea with British Royal Fleet Auxiliary Tidespring replenishment tanker, Sept. 5, 2020.

WASHINGTON: An American destroyer is holding naval exercises with Norwegian and British frigates just 115 miles off Russia’s Arctic coastline, capping two weeks of US and Russian maneuvering in the skies above Europe and the waters close to key terrain.

The UK-led drills are taking place in international waters, but inside Russia’s claimed 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone. (These zones restrict foreign commercial activity such as fishing and drilling, but military operations in another country’s EEZ are allowed under international law). The transit is the latest example of what looks to be a new normal for the Navy as more vessels move north into the Arctic, including what US and Norwegian officials say will be more US submarines calling at the refurbished port of Tromso, Norway, above the Arctic Circle.

The UK-led exercise is being led by the Royal Navy frigate HMS Sutherland, joined by the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Ross, British Royal Fleet Auxiliary RFA Tidespring, and Royal Norwegian frigate HNoMS Thor Heyerdahl, and Danish and Norwegian patrol aircraft.

The small task force is  operating off Russia’s Fisherman peninsula, a small protrusion that makes up part of the larger Kola peninsula which houses Russia’s powerful Northern Fleet and the country’s main submarine base, and bristles with missile batteries. 

Though the ships are close to the Russian mainland, “all activity taking place these coming days will be in International waters,” Norway’s National Joint Headquarters spokesman Lt. Col. Ivar Moen told me via email.

That only means so much to the watchful Russians nearby, however. On Tuesday, a Russian MiG-29 fighter jet attached to the Northern Fleet intercepted a Norwegian P-3 Orion over the Barents Sea, the latest in a string of Russian intercepts of Norwegian surveillance planes that have increased tensions in the region. On Saturday, a MiG-31 fighter trailed another Norwegian P-3 over international waters, marking the third consecutive day Russian planes intercepted Norwegian aircraft.

So far, there have been no reports of Russian ships or submarines shadowing the NATO ships.

The British Royal Navy said in a statement that pushing the small task force into the High North “demonstrates the commitment of the UK and its allies to freedom of access and navigation in the region.”

The remark is a nod toward Russian claims in the Arctic, and Moscow’s suggestions it has the right to regulate sea traffic along its expansive Arctic coastline. The Barents Sea along the Kola peninsula is a particularly sensitive area, as it’s how Russia’s Northern Fleet pushes out into the North Atlantic.  

Vice Adm. Gene Black, commander, US Sixth Fleet said, ​​“our maritime advantage continues to be our strong, cohesive partnerships,” said. “Our forces are able to conduct sustained operations in the vital waterways in the Arctic because of the support and cooperation of our international partners, allowing us to be present together where and when it matters.”

​​​​“This opportunity to train with Norway and the U.K. is invaluable to the crew,” said Ross’s commanding officer, Cmdr. John D. John. “Our Sailors have been working with their counterparts on other ships to gain proficiency in maneuvers at-sea, air operations, tactics, and communications and we look forward to carrying this over to our other operations throughout the region.”

The Roosevelt also wrapped up a 50-day patrol to the region on Aug. 27 during which it participated in NATO’s anti-submarine Dynamic Mongoose exercise.

“The realistic and relevant training we are conducting here in the Barents cannot be replicated anywhere else,” said Cmdr. John. “This proves we can operate anywhere in the region with our allies.”

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