I’m writing this in a British Airways lounge in London, on my way to a quick stop in Poland. Trips like these remind me of the Cold War, but with U.S.-Russia relations being what they are these days, reminders of the Cold War abound. That the United States will soon participate in military exercises in Norway makes the mood all the more familiar.
Norway would have been a major front if NATO and the Soviet Union had ever come to blows. The American strategy was to leave supplies and a sufficient force, allied with the West German army, to slow the Soviets. Reinforcements would be rushed to Europe using commercial aircraft, while trucks, armor, munitions and all the rest would be sent by ship. For the Soviets, as for the Germans before them, the key to victory was attacking and destroying U.S. convoys to European ports.
To that end, the Soviets had two options. The first was to flood the Atlantic with hunter-killer submarines. But that would have required passage through the GIUK gap, the channels between Greenland and Iceland and between Iceland and the United Kingdom. The United States had created a network for detecting Soviet submarines and a powerful anti-submarine war machine. The assumption was that most would die in the GIUK gap, but that some would get through.
The Soviets’ other option was flying long-range strategic bombers armed with early cruise missiles to attack the convoys and the carriers that protected them. The bombers would have had to depart from Russia’s Kola Peninsula, swing north of Norway, then fly down between Iceland and the U.K. They would encounter American fighters based at Iceland’s Keflavik Air Base. But before that, they would have to face Norwegian fighters along the coast. The mission had to be carried out because the convoys had to be stopped if the Soviets had a chance of winning the war. Getting through the GIUK gap would be costly, but facing hundreds of miles of constant intercepts by Norway’s excellent air force would whittle the Soviet air force down to nothing. The convoys would get through, and the Soviets would be defeated.
U.S. intelligence concluded that the Soviets planned to meet the Norwegian air threat head-on by attacking Norway’s North Cape with ground forces, before turning south along the coast to overrun the air bases. Attack aircraft from the Kola Peninsula would support them. The Norwegians did not have a large military, and what troops they had were unlikely to hold off the Soviet advance.
The U.S. came up with a plan. If war broke out, Washington would quickly deploy a force of U.S. Marines to confront the Soviets in the arctic cold of the North Cape. The reasonable assumption was that the Soviets would be throwing their main force into Germany and had only limited force and logistics for a second thrust into Norway. Given the terrain and climate, it was a miserable place to fight, and a significant but not exorbitant number of Marines would hold the Soviets from venturing south, thus saving the Norwegian air force and, by extension, U.S convoys.
I was therefore delighted and appalled to find out that NATO was launching the largest war game since the end of the Cold War. Its name is Trident Juncture 2018. It will involve roughly 50,000 troops from 31 countries. And it will test the rapid deployment capability of NATO (always enhanced by being informed of the deployments months before). It will be conducted in October and November, when the weather is bad but not as bad as it can get. The assumption always was that the Soviets would attack during the dead of winter to take advantage of their cold weather experience, hoping that the weather would ground U.S. aircraft.
To me, Trident Juncture 2018 seems to be replaying scenarios from more than 30 years ago. This makes a certain amount of sense. Topography and climate don’t change too dramatically in that amount of time. The exercise’s participants mean to see if they can secure Norway and block Russian bombers from penetrating the Atlantic. Cold weather training is as tough as they come. Coordinating countries will be eased when many send only 12 people, including three generals who want command.
But Russia, of course, is in no position to fight a high-intensity war in central Europe, alongside a campaign in Norway. Nor does it intend to. In fact, I don’t know that the Soviets ever intended to. They were as risk-averse as we were.
The political use of this exercise is obvious. The value of the training is real. The fact that old war plans are being dusted off is not a problem. And the Russians can always surprise you with a hidden intent. I think that during the Cold War the battle plans were overthought because the planning staffs had a lot of people and all wanted to come up with a great idea.
Wars are complicated. The complexity of thinking and the complexity of planning turn war plans into an extraordinarily precise machine, or at least project the illusion of precision. But I am less in awe of Trident Juncture than I am in the timelessness of it all. Here is a war plan that was never executed but has nonetheless been resurrected in peacetime. As I sit in an airport, life is allowing me to relive the Battle of Norway, a battle that was never fought, much discussed and little noted.