Exercising and training in the Polar Regions has been a major preoccupation of militaries in Europe and North America. For much of the last sixty years, spurred on by the Cold War confrontation between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, the Arctic region was a major theatre of operation. In the post-Cold War era, interest in what the Norwegians call the ‘High North’ has returned to public and policy attention with some vigour. This is particularly pronounced in the Arctic states (e.g. Canada, Denmark, Norway and Russia) but also sub-Arctic countries such as the United Kingdom. The former Defence Secretary Liam Fox was particularly concerned with Britain’s Northern Flank. In November 2010 he announced that, ‘We cannot forget that geographically the United Kingdom is a northern European country. Let me be clear, this is not about carving out spheres of influence; this is about working together on mutual interests. For too long Britain has looked in every direction except its own backyard’.
In March 2012, Klaus Dodds and Duncan Depledge (an ESRC funded PhD student) were invited by the Royal Navy to observe a Norwegian-led Exercise Cold Response (EX CR). Since 2006, EX CR has brought together a range of international partners to practice and train for cold weather conditions. Based in Northern Norway, and at times neighbouring Sweden, the Royal Navy (including Royal Marines) were involved in EX CR 2012. We were flown by Lynx helicopter to HMS Illustrious, a helicopter carrier. For an intense 36 hours we witnessed first hand the extraordinary labour involved in maintaining safe flying conditions, liaising between ships and ground-based logistics staff and organizing parties of Royal Marines to disembark via landing craft in order to participate in the exercise itself. This year’s scenario was based around the premise that an international task force (Norway and allies) gathers in the waters of the Arctic as the situation in the ‘Nerthus’ region deteriorates with the forces of ‘Gardarland’ refusing to withdraw its troops from neighbouring ‘Borgland’. The situation then worsened and Norway and its 15 partners were then forced to engage with ‘Gardarland’.
While it is easy to speculate that ‘Gardarland’ might be a coded reference to Russia and ‘Borgland’ to Norway (and thus reviving a thoroughly Cold War-era scenario), our sense was that it was simply a useful pre-text designed to convey a sense of urgency to proceedings. Indeed, the deployment of the ‘exercise’ to rehearse the capability to respond to different sorts of threats has been a dominant form of security in military and civilian contexts since the Cold War. Urgencies form part of the value of the realism of an exercise, often found in simply routine or banal practices that simulate or enact the ‘event’ of emergency or danger.
Cold weather, as we discovered first hand, can play havoc with operating safety as personnel and machines are tested to their maximum endurance. It is not for the faint hearted to work on an exposed flight deck clearing ice and snow. Nor is it straightforward flying a helicopter in poor weather conditions buffeted by strong winds and menacing snow flurries. For the Royal Navy (including Royal Marines), the Norwegian Arctic remains one of the toughest places in the world to operate in and our sense was that the Arctic was as much a testing ground for global operations as it was a specific cold weather exercise. Sadly our time was cut short after a Norwegian vessel accidentally damaged HMS Illustrious and had to leave for Portsmouth in order for emergency repairs to be carried out. At the same time news broke that a Norwegian plane crashed somewhere in northern Sweden, with the suspected loss of 5 lives. Both provide vivid reminders of the operational challenges and dangers posed by cold weather conditions.
In a wider context, Britain’s involvement in EX CR should be seen as indicative of a broader shift in interest in the High North. Britain’s relationship with Norway is critical and goes beyond long-standing military co-operation. Energy security is another area of mutual interest – we depend on Norwegian gas imports. We also have shared interests in polar science and cultural heritage, alongside other commercial activities such as fishing and shipping. If the Arctic is part of Britain’s ‘back-yard’ then being able to talk intelligently and act effectively in it becomes all the more significant. EX CR 2012 was testing Britain’s political credibility as much as it operational effectiveness.