Cross-border Nordic Air Training

During recent visits to Finland and Norway, defence analyst Robbin Laird spoke with senior officials and visited three airbases in Norway. In what one senior Norwegian official calls the “new normal” in dealing with the Russian challenge, it became obvious that new defence initiatives must focus on deterrence in the northern tier.

Keith Eikenes, Director for Security Policy and Operations in the Norwegian Minister of Defence, described working with allies as “crucial” for Norway, and says the integration piece is a key part of the effort. “We have to be able to plug into something larger than ourselves for effective deterrence. We are bordering the largest concentration of non-Western military power in the world in terms of the Kola Peninsula. For deterrence to be effective, we need to have regular allied presence in our area as the new normal as well. Part of the reason why we are strengthening our dialogue and increasing their incorporation with our Nordic partners, Sweden and Finland, is because we cannot view the challenges of the Baltic states as being isolated from the challenges in the High North or the North Atlantic.”

New capabilities are being introduced by Norway, notably new submarines, the F-35 fighter jet, and the P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft. During my visit to Bodø Airbase in Northern Norway, I discussed the situation with Brigadier General Jan Ove Rygg, Chief of the Norwegian Operations Centre, located in the mountain headquarters of the Norwegian Joint Staff.

Rygg confirms that Norway needed enhance its ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance), C2 (command and control), and strike capabilities to deal with this “new normal”. He notes that “with the coming of new ISR capabilities, such as P-8 and F-35, there is a clear opportunity to leverage these new systems to enhance the situational awareness picture and to provide targeted information to decision makers to support crisis management efforts” on the ground.

Norway’s Quick Reaction force operates out of Bodø Airbase with the F-16 fighter force. Similar to British airbases Coningsby or Lossiemouth, from which Typhoon Quick Reaction Alerts are generated, Bodø Airbase provides support to the F-16s for generating QRAs. The Norwegian Air Force has about 200 personnel to support the F-16 base overall and from that force can support the QRA mission as well.

The day I was there, four F-16s took off from Bodø for an air defense exercise being conducted at the F-35 base further south at Ørland. Joining the exercise that day were Swedish Gripens – a decision made just the day before by the Swedish and Norwegian squadron leadership.
The “day before” is really the point. This kind of flexibility is indicative of a new working relationship in the region. And this was a visible manifestation of a very innovative approach to cross-border air training, which has evolved among the Swedes, Norwegians and the Finns. I was able to discuss the emergence and operation of such cross-border training and its significance for defense in the region with Lieutenant Colonel Henning Hansen Homb, Group Commander 132 Air Wing and Base Commander Bodø and also with Major Trond Ertsgaard, a key member of the Air Wing.

The flexibility I had witnessed of the two air forces is notable – the training opportunities are worked out among the squadrons themselves without a complicated day-to-day diplomatic effort.

This is a dramatic change from the 1990s, when the Swedes would not allow airspace entry by the Norwegians or Finns without prior diplomatic approval. My hosts noted that “there was limited cooperation” in the 1970s. “We got to know each other and our bases, to be able to divert in case of emergency or other contingencies, but there was no operational or tactical cooperation. The focus was on safety, not operational training.”

By the 1990s, there was enhanced cooperation, but this was limited to a small set of flying issues, rather than operational training. “When the Swedes got the Gripen, this opened the aperture, as the plane was designed to be more easily integrated with NATO standards.”

Then, in the Fall of 2008, there was a meeting of the squadrons and wing commanders from the Finnish, Swedish and Norwegian airbases to discuss ways to develop better cooperation among the squadrons operating from national bases. The discussion was rooted on the national air forces operating from their own bases and simply cooperating in shared combat air space. This would mean that the normal costs of hosting an exercise would not be necessary, as each air force would return to its own operating base at the end of the engagement.


This Cross-Border Training (CBT) started between Sweden and Norway in 2009 and then the Finns joined in 2010. By 2011, they were operating at approximately one event per week. And by 2012, were engaging in about 90 events at the CBT level.

That shaped a template which allowed more cost effective and regular training, and laid the foundation for hosting a periodic two-week exercise where they could invite other nations to participate in air defense exercise in the region. This regular and flexible cooperation led to the emergence of the Arctic Challenge Exercise (ACE).

Since 2015, the three air forces have been shaping a regular training approach that is very flexible and driven at the wing and squadron level. “We meet each November, and set the schedule for the next year, but in execution it is very, very flexible. It is about a bottom-up approach and initiative to generate the training regime,” says Ertsgaard.

The impact on Sweden and Finland has been significant in terms of learning NATO standards and having an enhanced capability to cooperate with the air forces of NATO nations.

The air space they are operating in is very significant as well. Europe is not loaded with good aviation training areas. The range being used for CBT is a very large and open airspace, which allows a wide variety of training opportunities for the three nations, and those who fly to Arctic Challenge or other training events. The range includes over land and water, so there is an opportunity for multi-domain operational training as well.

My visit to Helsinki provided a Finnish perspective on the importance of the cross-border training and the importance of building out from this to a broader allied working relationships.

“We have enhanced our focus on crisis management and the role of the military within overall crisis management. We have increased our investments in force readiness,” says LGen Kim Jäämeri, former head of the Finnish Air Force and now Deputy Chief of Staff, Strategy for the Finnish Defence Forces.

“With regard to our partners, their enhanced focus of attention on defense, whether it be the actions of Sweden, Norway or Denmark in the region, or by the United States within NATO with regard to the EDI-related investments, has been appreciated. And, as we expand our exercise regime, we are cross-learning with regard to capabilities necessary for our defense. You have to leverage your partnerships more to enhance crisis stability.”

Deterrence is key
In short, Russian actions in Europe and beyond have certainly captured the attention of the Nordics, and they are enhancing their defense capabilities and refocusing their societies on the importance of deterrence.

As Keith Eikenes says the question is “What type of assets, forces, structures, and cooperation with allies do we need in order to have effective deterrence in the future? But we must never lose sight of the fact that what we are trying to do is actually avoid a conflict. Getting the deterrence piece will be extremely important to shaping a way ahead.”

Robbin Laird is a defence analyst based out of Virginia.