American bombers will be deployed to the Ørland Air Base during the course of February. Crews numbering some 200 airmen have already arrived at the base, the Norwegian Armed Forced stressed, finally confirming previous reports.
"The planes will arrive in February, depending on how long it will take to get through preparations for crews, among other things with regard to infection control and coronavirus", the head of 132th Air Wing at Ørland Air Base, Øivind Gunnerud, told national broadcaster NRK.
This will be the first time in recent history that American bombers are deployed at a Norwegian air base. The Air Force has practiced together with US bombers in Norwegian airspace before, but only in the air. The planes will now be stationed at Ørland for some time to come.
"The planes will be here for a month, but it can be shorter or longer. Depending on how this goes", Gunnerud said.
The Norwegian Air Force didn't reveal how many bombers will arrive. According to the Dutch aviation magazine Scramble, there are four B-1B Lancers in question. The bombers will be supported by Norwegian F-35s. While Ørland has extensive experience in training with alliance partners, such as NATO's AWACS surveillance aircraft usually stationed in Germany, Gunnerud confirmed that it is special for US bombers to be stationed at the base.
"It's not typical for them to come here and operate from here", Gunnerud said.
Mayor of the Ørland municipality, Tom Myrvold, said the area has been looking at the arrival from two angles. One is infection control, where, the municipality admittedly has good routines in place. Earlier this year, Norway cancelled the 10,000-strong international drill Joint Viking over fears of a mutated COVID strain. The other is the security aspect of the bombers coming.
"We have no qualms. We feel well informed and taken care of. We are used to allied training at the air base", Myrvold said.
The news of the bombers' arrival brought forth concern from several political parties.
"The Socialist Left is against stationing US bombers in Norway. More American military activity on Norwegian bases is not in Norway's interest. This is especially true at a time when we are experiencing a negative spiral of ever-increasing tensions between the US and Russia", Socialist Left leader Audun Lysbakken said.
The Reds went even further in their criticism.
"Now it's time to call a spade a spade and a bomber a bomber. This is an escalation of American activity on Norwegian soil, and it is unacceptable to hide behind words such as joint training and exercise, which makes it sound less serious than it is", Reds leader Bjørnar Moxnes said.
Tormod Heier, a professor at the Norwegian Defence College, earlier argued that Norway's chances of becoming a battlefield between US and Russia will increase the more the Americans use Norwegian soil.
Defence Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen of the Conservative Party said he is not surprised by the scepticism from the two left-of-centre parties who are NATO opponents. At the same time, he underscored that Russia has been notified of the coming exercise, calling it a "stabilising moment".
"We practice openness about what we are going to do, also towards our neighbour to the east. So this type of exercise is no reason for Russia to react more", Bakke-Jensen said.
The Russian Embassy in Norway earlier said that the activation of a foreign military presence in Norway, including the placement of US strategic bombers, doesn't contribute to overall stability in the region. It also pledged to monitor the situation and vowed to implement measures to defend the security of its country and region.
The traditional partnership between Norway and Russia has been undermined in recent years by sanctions, reciprocal accusations of spying, and military build-ups. Norway has also been placing a greater emphasis on NATO cooperation and US assistance, listing Russia among its greatest threats alongside China.