So far, the story of the US F-35 fighter aircraft in Norway has been a drama of epic proportions. Soon after the first jets landed on Norwegian soil, it was discovered that the expensive warplanes designed to be the backbone of Norway’s defense lack adequate protection and will have to be stored in tents for lack of hangars.
Following the reception of the much-anticipated F-35 fighter jets, a volcano of criticism erupted in Norway, as the Ørland airbase outside Trondheim was slammed for its inability to offer any adequate protection for Oslo’s prized possession against enemy airplanes and long-range missiles.
Researcher Ståle Ulriksen at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) and the Naval War Academy minced no words as he said he was “scared” and “shaken” by the flagrant unpreparedness, as the arrival of the jets was planned many years in advance. Later, Norwegian chief of defense admitted serious security shortcomings, undermining the efficiency of the jets, the Aftenposten daily reported.
“A lot is left to be done before all the F-35s are fully operational and Ørland is complete as the new combat airbase,” the head of Norwegian Defense Håkon Bruun-Hanssen admitted in a speech to the Oslo Military Society. Bruun-Hanssen said that priority has been given to “critical infrastructure,” such as maintenance buildings and extended runways, while admitting to receiving reprimands over deficient security measures at Ørland from the US itself.
One explanation provided by the Norwegian Air Force is that Ørland initially was planned as a “peace base” that apparently did not need protection. The other explanation is purely an economic one. As the costs for the whole F-35 project were already sky-high and tempers in the debate were already boiling over, it was feared that new security demands could jeopardize the entire plan.
At present, Ørland is being reinforced with a double barbed-wire fence around its perimeter to the tune of NOK 750 million ($98 million), a cost outside the original budget. Other “unplanned” expenses include a NOK 1.1 billion ($130 million) contract for the construction of 12 shelters, signed by the Norwegian Defense shortly after the first F-35 landed.
On the ground, Ørland is currently covered by a 200-strong “protection unit,” which is not a combat unit in terms of military. This has led critics to underscore the vulnerability of the base, Aftenposten reported.
In terms of a more significant air defense, the Defense Research Institute (FFI) is currently in the final stage of a project for enhanced security and protection. As of today, though, Norway has two air protection units. Due to sharper security requirements at Ørland, both of them were transferred here, meaning that Bodø, which until 2020 houses Norway’s fleet of F-16s that still serves as the Nordic country’s main protection, is left without any air defense whatsoever.
Plans to buy F-35 fighter aircraft were first voiced in 2008. In 2011, the then-Chief of Defense Harald Sundnes argued in favor of “putting all the eggs into one basket,” aggregating all combat aircraft operations at Ørland, mainly to save money, despite warnings from the Air Force.
Ørland was chosen for a number of factors, including its proximity to NATO stocks in central Norway and a number of allied countries conducting military drills in the area. Last but not least, the level of noise emitted by the F-35 significantly exceeds that of the F-16, which made Bodø a less desirable alternative due to its proximity to the city and its civil infrastructure.
As a contributor to the international Joint Strike Fighter project which ultimately resulted in the F-35, Norway decided to acquire 52 new F-35 fighter jets to the tune of NOK 81 billion (close to $10 billion). Lifetime costs associated with this project are estimated at 270 billion ($33 billion).
The new shelters will be completed by winter or spring 2020, by which time Norway will have received over 15 F-35s. Long-range air protection is not expected before 2025. In the meantime, the F-35s will be stored in plastic tents as a temporary solution.