Thunder out of the North

BRUCE WALLACE September 15 1986

Thunder out of the North

BRUCE WALLACE September 15 1986

Thunder out of the North


The fleets of fighter aircraft screamed out of the brilliant, clear blue sky, shattering the tranquillity of the high Arctic. For six days last week the autumnal silence of rugged, snowcapped Istindan Mountain in northern Norway, 400 km above the Arctic Circle, yielded to the cacophony of men and machines—Exercise Brave Lion, involving Canada’s largest movement of troops and supplies to Europe since the Second World War. Among Norwegians, the thinly populated Troms county is best known for its salmon fishing and ski trails. But among the Norwegian F-16 and Canadian CF-5 fighter jets that traversed the 69th parallel, Troms is a vital strategic line of Western defence, lying just four minutes’ flying time from Soviet airspace.

Last week’s operation was the first attempt by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to determine whether the Canadian Air/Sea Transportable (CAST) Brigade could live up to its 19-year-old commitment to support Norwegian defences in times of crisis. By week’s end, as 5,500 Canadian troops prepared for joint exercises with Norwegian forces, military officials from both countries enthusiastically called the mission a success. Said Brig.-Gen. James Gervais, of Noranda, Que., head of the CAST Brigade: “The fact that we are doing this exercise is an indication that our commitment to Norway is no longer merely on paper. It’s a reality.” Almost two years in planning, the $20-million airand sea-lift was Canada’s most ambitious mission of the decade. A combination of military and civilian ships and planes successfully moved one-third of the nation’s army to Norway within the 21-day limit imposed by NATO strategists. Among the 15,000 tons of equipment shipped across the Atlantic: 27 helicopters, 1,700 vehicles and accessories ranging from knives and forks to video cassette recorders—to entertain the troops during waiting periods. Said Gervais: “Once we are here, we are an effective deterrent to any Soviet aggression.”

Exercise Brave Lion formally began on Aug. 12 when Ottawa—in a simulated cabinet meeting—ordered the Brigade to Norway in response to a request from the Norwegian government and NATO. Within days merchant

ships began loading 2,421 pieces of equipment for transport to the natural deep-water port of Sorreisa on the Reisafjord, 1,100 km north of Oslo, the Norwegian capital. By Aug. 28 the ships had arrived, after negotiating the fjords off Norway’s western coast.

Over the next five days Brigade troops—most of whom are stationed at Valcartier, Que.—were flown to the northern Norwegian airport at Bardufoss. In mid-September the Brigade will join Norwegian troops in Exercise Bar Frost—war games designed to give Canadian troops exposure to the rough northern terrain. Said Maj.-Gen.

Bjorn Gravdahl, commander of Norwegian forces in the North: “It’s crucial to have a chance to fight alongside one another on the terrain we would have to defend.”

For Oslo, the CAST commitment is a key component of Norway’s defence policy. With a small population (four million), the country’s armed forces have to rely on conscription of men between 19 and 44, who serve 12to 15-month terms. Although 90 per cent of Norway’s inhabitants live in the South, one-third of the country’s 20,000 troops are stationed in the North, facing heavily armored Soviet

forces based in the Kola Peninsula. The two nations share a 196-km common border. And because northern Norway lies along the shortest flight path between the central Soviet Union and North America, the front is one of NATO’s forward warning positions for long-range bombers or intercontinental ballistic missiles. Norwegian ports and airfields also control access to North Atlantic sea-lanes and would be needed to protect Western shipping from Soviet submarines based at Murmansk.

Most military analysts regard northern Norway as a vital strategic asset, but they are sharply divided over whether Canada’s CAST commitment is an effective deterrent against possible

Soviet aggression. Because the Brigade has no amphibious capability to land troops under fire, Canadian forces would have to arrive in Norway before hostilities broke out. As a result, Western strategists are dependent on advance warnings of a Soviet buildup in the North. Based on that intelligence, NATO would then decide whether to summon Canadian reinforcement— a political decision that could be too late. Said Maj. John Macleod, of Stellarton, N.S., who supervised equipment unloading at Sorreisa: “If the enemy is moving out of Murmansk, we are not coming. Because he will be here long before we will.”

Indeed, the Brigade’s viability has been debated at the highest levels of the Canadian mil-

itary establishment since its formation in 1967. One former adviser to thenprime minister Lester Pearson told Maclean's that the CAST commitment was symbolic—designed to deflect criticism from Ottawa’s decision to reduce the number of troops stationed in Europe. But George Ignatieff, Canada’s ambassador to NATO during the mid1960s, said that Ottawa and Oslo had a common interest in protecting the North. Added Ignatieff: “Canadian

troops stood out by a mile as the best equipped to deal with northern defence.”

Still, the time needed to ferry troops to Norway concerns many observers. Said one senior Canadian naval officer, now retired: “We would never get

there in time. The only saving grace is that young Canadian men would not die.” One obvious solution is to preposition equipment, so that troops could simply be airlifted to the front. Although Norwegian defence policy prohibits the stationing of foreign troops on its soil, the nation’s military planners have been pressing for an increase in pre-positioned equipment.

But Canadian forces say that the system would tie up badly needed matériel.

A more urgent issue is whether the CAST commitment should be maintained at all. Canada spends only 2.2 per cent of its gross domestic product on defence, the second-lowest allocation among the 16 NATO countries. And because Canada attempts to fill diverse tasks—peacekeeping missions in the Middle East and a mobile role in central Europe—many officers contend that the forces are spread too thinly. The CAST airlift alone deployed 20 of Canada’s 28 Hercules transport planes. Admitted Lt.-Col. Daniel Clarke of Barrie, Ont., who commanded one support batallion in Bardufoss: “This travelling road show is all smoke and mirrors. The truth is that the blanket is not big enough to fit the bed.”

Logistical problems are just one area that defence planners will address in a long-delayed federal white paper on defence, pledged by the Tories during the 1984 election campaign. Canada has not revised its defence policy since 1971, and most military observers say that the new white paper should determine whether CAST becomes Canada’s principal contribution to NATO—or is abandoned. Said Gervais: “We would get as much or more benefit out of our limited resources by coming to Norway than going anywhere else.”

Other scheduled NATO exercises this month underline the strategic significance of the northern flank. While Canadian troops were unloading Brave Lion’s equipment, 200 U.S. marines practised an amphibious landing on a picturesque beach at Aglapsvik, just 40 km north of Bardufoss. The U.S. operation produced the mission’s only casualties: eight marines died when their helicopter crashed.

Despite the chaos imposed by military convoys which tied up local traffic last week, most residents near Bardufoss welcomed the exercises. The proximity of Soviet forces and compulsory military service give defence issues a high profile in Norway. Said Hildeborg Mokleby, a widow whose two sons served in the Norwegian air force: “We still remember the German occupation, and it is horrible to think of the Soviets coming here. It is necessary to have Canadians exercise in the area where they would have to help us.” And Norwegian military officers said a Canadian withdrawal of its CAST commitment would be a serious setback to the West’s defence. Said Col. Rolf Fremgaarden of the Norwegian military: “The best way for Canadians to defend Canada is to defend northern Norway.”