MONOCLE interviews the commander of the Norwegian Coast Guard and reports on military deals in Afganistan and Australia.
A fight is brewing in the northern Caucasus, where the president of the Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria has offered to support groups of civilians to fight Islamist insurgents behind grenade attacks on public buildings and the execution of tourists in February. Since then, a group of vigilantes calling themselves the Black Hawks has begun handing out papers stating they plan to fight “bearded Islamists”. The group has been blamed for attacking the house of a suspected militant but that hasn’t stopped the Black Hawks from winning the support of Alexander Torshin, Russian senator and head of the Caucasus Commission.
Australia is looking to lease a barely used Bay-class amphibious assault ship, Largs Bay, from the UK’s Strategic Defence and Security Review-enforced fire sale. Australia’s defence minister, Stephen Smith, dropped off a formal bid for the 16,200-tonne ship during a visit to London in March. The Royal Australian Navy is desperately hoping to replace HMAS Manoora, which had to be withdrawn from service in February after it was found to be unserviceable.
Australia is looking to either buy the ship outright or preferably lease it until the Navy gets the first of its new Canberra-class helicopter-carrying assault ships scheduled to arrive in 2014.
The lease deal could be serendipitous for the UK Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA), which is being forced to retire Largs in April, despite only commissioning it into service in 2006. The RFA is hoping that if it can be rented out, Australia will pay to keep it serviceable until the UK’s strategic and economic position allows it to be brought back into the fold at the end of the lease. Brazil, Chile and India have also expressed interest in the ship.
Afghanistan is set to receive a fleet of up to 54 “Little Bird” helicopters from Boeing, paid for by the US. The new MD 530Fs, with room for a crew of two, are ostensibly to be used as trainers, but Little Birds are widely used by US forces as scouts or for special forces insertion. They can also be fitted with gun and rocket pods.
The MD 530’s roots stretch back to the 1960s, but the new F version has been developed specifically for the thin air “hot and high” conditions over Afghanistan, with a more powerful Rolls-Royce engine and longer rotor blades.
American Forces Radio and Television Service is broadcast to US military personnel, Department of Defense civilian employees and their families stationed in 175 countries and territories overseas, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, reaching an audience of nearly a million.
Morten Jørgensen is the commander of the Norwegian coast guard’s Squadron North, supervising nine ships (including one ice-breaker) and more than 500 personnel. The squadron operates in the high north and is responsible for patrolling a swathe of ocean six times the size of mainland Norway.
What are the biggest challenges to operating in the Arctic? Wintertime is the most challenging period: temperatures drop to -50C and that affects everything we do. You can only stay outside for five minutes at those temperatures. The distances are also huge and there’s an absence of emergency resources – they may be three to four hours away.
How long can you stay at sea in those conditions? The ice-breaker’s normal routine is three weeks operating, then you go ashore and change crew. There are two shifts to give the crews a break. Operating for three weeks in tough weather in the dark wintertime impacts on your mental state.
What kinds of mission do your crews carry out? We have to answer a lot of distress calls. Up to 15,000 people are more or less constantly at sea in the high north. It’s a big area up there and accidents happen almost every day. But our main mission when we are out there is to uphold Norwegian sovereignty and to show the flag. The high north is an important nursery area for Arctic cod and other fishery resources, and it’s our job to monitor those.
Are you worried that Norway could come into conflict with other, bigger countries as climate change opens up the Arctic? The grounding is already laid for good co-operation with Russia and other countries. The main challenge will be the number of ships passing through there. In 2010, we had three commercial ships going into the Northeast Passage; this year, 30 are planning to go there. So there will be an increased probability of accidents.