U.S. Army Comes Ashore in NATO’s High North

By Sean Carberry

Sean Carberry photo

This is part of a multi-story series on the future of NATO as it marks its 75th anniversary.

NARVIK, Norway — A whining mechanical sound pierces the quiet morning in a small port ringed by snow-capped peaks. The ramp of a massive blue and white cargo ship gradually unfolds and lands with a thud on the pier.

Then, diesel engines rumble to life as U.S. Army soldiers wearing hard hats and neon yellow vests over their fatigues line up in the crisp Arctic air to offload some 500 vehicles and containers of equipment from the 228-meter Arc Integrity cargo ship.

The 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division and its combat vehicles were a long way from balmy Fort Johnson, Louisiana.

The deployment involved many “firsts” for the brigade, the U.S. military and its Nordic NATO allies, said Brig. Gen. Steve Carpenter, commanding general of the 7th Army Training Command.

“With the addition of Finland and Sweden, the opportunity presented itself to go ahead and offload a brigade combat team here at Narvik. It has never been done before,” he said.

And a U.S. Army brigade had never transited by land across Norway and Sweden to conduct a combined exercise in Finland. “You’re going to have 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, a storied brigade, a storied division, fighting underneath the NATO banner underneath a Finnish land component.”

The conditions on April 24 were permissive, both in terms of the clear skies and the lack of an adversary trying to stop the soldiers from coming ashore as the 838th Transportation Battalion and the 627th Movement Control Team color-tagged vehicles and containers and staged them next to the ship. That allowed the U.S. Army and its Nordic allies to assess the port infrastructure and layout should U.S. forces need to deploy to the High North in the heat of battle.

“I think we can learn from this,” Carpenter said. “At the end of the day, if war would break out in Europe between NATO and Russia — and whoever decides to partner with Russia — everything’s contested. Our ports in the United States are contested. The transatlantic movement is contested. Africa is contested.”

Thus, NATO needs multiple ports it can use in a crisis “so you can do things like deception, as an example, or heaven forbid if you start losing some of these ships, to have enough mass coming,” he said. “When it comes to large-scale combat, it’s not just how rapidly we move and position forces, but our ability to mass” forces simultaneously.

The port operations in Narvik were part of NATO’s Steadfast Defender 2024 exercise — the alliance’s largest post-Cold War exercise to test allied and partnered capabilities to conduct a large-scale fight, he said.

The multi-month exercise included 17,000 U.S. troops and 23,000 more from 20 NATO and partner countries and involved operations and activities in 13 European countries. Steadfast Defender comprised three series, Carpenter explained. The port exercises fell under the second series, Immediate Response, the “deployment, reception, staging and onward movement of a division’s worth of combat power across Europe,” he said.

The choice of Narvik for Immediate Response was not accidental. The strategic port deep in the fjords of the Arctic Circle has history. A cemetery not far from the port is the final resting place for British, French, Polish and Norwegian service members who died fighting the Nazi invasion of the port in 1940.

Today, Germany is one of the largest powers in NATO, and the U.S. military relies heavily on German ports to move troops and equipment in and out of Europe. But that’s changing, said Maj. Vonnie Wright, public affairs officer for the 21st Theater Sustainment Command based in Germany.

“We keep just using Germany ... the easy button,” he said. “Then, let’s say a crisis kicks off and you can’t use it, where else are we going to go? We haven’t really, truly tested a lot of ports.”

That’s why the Army started an aggressive effort a few years ago to find alternatives, he said. That involves determining what a port can handle in volume and size of equipment and evaluating whether the adjacent road and rail networks can handle the load.

“And then if we can’t do as much as we would like to, what do our NATO partners need?” he continued, saying the Army is messaging allies, “Hey, in order to assist to defend Europe as a NATO partner and ally, we need to try to help expand your rail network or expand your road network.”

The United States has been pushing for more infrastructure investment in Europe, he said.

“We have to be more interoperable to where any unit, any country’s set of vehicles can transport all over the different roads, road networks, rail networks,” he said.

And that’s why a significant aspect of the exercise in the High North was evaluating the roads, bridges and railways in the Nordic countries to determine if they could handle the U.S. vehicles, Wright said. It was a comparatively easy test given that the 10th Mountain’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team is light infantry and doesn’t roll with Abrams tanks or Stryker combat vehicles.

As part of the operation, U.S. Navy Seabees came to Norway to construct a temporary bridge to test in case NATO forces need to quickly replace a bridge taken out during a conflict.

While the United States is working with NATO partners to assess and improve infrastructure, the Army is also assessing its equipment, Wright said.

“We’re always looking at modernization — how to adapt, especially here in NATO because here the roads are a bit more narrow,” he said. “So, there are always different aspects of how we need to modernize our own equipment to be more interoperable because the whole deal with interoperability, and we keep preaching, is we want to be able to use each other’s networks, each other’s equipment and want to be able to fight alongside each other seamlessly. So, there is always a look at how we can adapt to European standards and then them to our standards.”

Among the many firsts of Immediate Response was the reliance on Norway, Sweden and Finland to provide port security and sustainment so the 10th Mountain forces could deploy combat power, or tooth, with minimal sustainment and logistics resources, or tail, said Col. Ryan Barnett, commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of 10th Mountain Division.

“The big portion from a NATO perspective is, how quickly we can use a port in Norway — under a non-contested environment right now — what are the requirements here, and how quickly can we get the tooth to the border to a defensive posture to help out our Finnish partners and allies?” he said.

While the conditions at the port were permissive, the Army was assessing the potential multi-domain threats, he said. “How do we do this if we’re contested in the cyber domain? How do we defend ourselves? How do we defend the port?

“The other is the drones … making sure that we can keep the surveillance off this port and off the staging areas. And then the next piece is obviously the artillery and long-range missiles that are being demonstrated in the war in Ukraine. How can we defend ourselves against that?” he said.

Much of that would fall to Norway and its 9,500 active-duty army soldiers and 40,000 Home Guard forces.

“It’s about scale,” Barnett said. “How can we integrate them into operations? I mean, this is a great example of how Norway can help assist the alliance, right? Just secure ports to allow us to bring in combat power, forward position it and then ultimately move it to the east.”

Norwegian officers responsible for providing security, logistics and sustainment said the exercise was similar in nature but larger in scale than many they had performed before.
“For us, it’s the security part of it — do we have enough for that?” said Col. Bjornar Erickson, district commander of Norway’s Home Guard 16, the unit responsible for port security.

“We try to learn it enough compared to the threat we are in now,” he continued. “So as of now, it’s quite low-threat here. But you also have to adapt to the situation.” They had ammunition and supplies stored “so we are capable to escalate if we need.”

Aside from the size of the unit arriving at the port, there was one other major difference to the exercise: the direction of the movement, he said.

“Before Sweden and Finland became part of NATO, it was solely focused north-south,” he said. “Now, it’s more focused east-west. This port, the railway and this is going to make it even more important [because] the NATO border is pushed eastwards towards Finland.”

“I need to also cooperate with the Swedish Home Guard on the border and coordinate with them, and so that’s the difference,” he said.

Once the 3rd Brigade Combat Team arrived in Finland, the exercise plan was to spend a month in Finland integrated with Finnish troops in person and through virtual and constructive technology to conduct the largest ever U.S. Army exercise with the Finns, Barnett said.

“Part of this exercise is to determine what we need to do to get our communication systems both at the unclassified level and at the classified level” integrated, he said.
And the U.S. Army will be taking orders from the 3rd Finnish Division, he said.

“We’ll integrate our fires in Finland,” he said. “We’ll integrate our dismounted infantry in Finland, and we’ll really learn from each other how the 10th Mountain operates in the High North, how the Finnish fight, how they would fight … should adversaries cross the border, and then how we integrate in that process.” ND

NATO Special Report

Sweden Readies Launch Facility for Orbital Missions

NATO Allies Get on Same Page During Biggest Exercise

NATO Going Commercial to Develop New Tech

Sweden Brings Defense Industrial Might to NATO

VIEWPOINT: To Maintain NATO Unity, Stay Calm, Play Long Game

U.S. Army Comes Ashore in NATO’s High North

Topics: International