Surprise and Stability in the High North

Even the world’s most powerful military cannot be everywhere, all the time. With a limited pool of capabilities and forces, the United States must continually make decisions on how and where to deploy its resources. In an effort to maximize the strategic impact of the existing U.S. force structure, the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) introduced the concept of dynamic force employment, aiming to deter adversaries globally by being “strategically predictable, but operationally unpredictable.” Yet for U.S. allies in regions bordering Russia and China, this new emphasis on surprise might be a mixed blessing as it runs counter to valued practices of transparency and predictability. On NATO’s northern flank, Norway appreciates the increased U.S. military presence, but concerns about regional instability remain.

Flexible and Scalable Options

With dynamic force employment, the Department of Defense will “more flexibly use ready forces to shape proactively the strategic environment while maintaining readiness to respond to contingencies and ensure long-term warfighting readiness.” This shift is needed for the United States to prepare for potential large-scale conflict with state competitors such as China and Russia while continuing to execute smaller measures to deter them globally and regionally. Speaking at the Heritage Foundation in October 2020, then-secretary of defense Mark Esper presented dynamic force employment as a way for the Pentagon to balance its need to modernize forces for future high-end conflicts with the demands of current operations. Less advertised is the fact that dynamic force employment may also reflect stretched U.S. military capabilities and strained budget resources.

Activities that have been characterized as dynamic force employment include bomber rotations and sorties, naval deployments, exercises, some troop deployments, and rotational missile defense deployments. Examples in Europe include the December 2018 deployment of the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group in Northern Europe near the Arctic Circle, making it, according to media reports, the first aircraft carrier to sail above the Arctic Circle since the early 1990s. And in May and June 2020, B-1B and B-52H bombers flew into the Sea of Okhotsk, an area bordered on three sides by Russian territory and one where U.S. aircraft do not usually operate, as part of a NATO air operation that flew over all 30 alliance members in a show of collective defense against recent Russian long-range bomber activity near NATO’s borders.

What all these deployments have in common is the element of surprise. In the past, the duration and routes of carrier and bomber deployments were planned months in advance. In contrast, the above-mentioned deployments were shorter and followed unexpected routes. For example, the Truman deployment lasted three months, rather than the usual seven, and it omitted the customary maritime security patrol in the Arabian Gulf, instead heading to a short visit in the near-Arctic. According to Navy and Air Force leaders, this ambiguity was deliberate and intended to complicate adversaries’ ability to predict and track deployments and to add greater uncertainty and risk into their operational planning processes.

U.S. military planners view dynamic force employment as particularly useful for deterrence in the High North. Political sensitivities, coupled with the harsh and unpredictable Arctic environment and stretched capabilities, make permanent basing unlikely and costly. Rather, deterrence is achieved through enhancements to existing facilities (e.g., Thule Air Force Base in Greenland), increased use of rotational forces for training purposes, forward operating bases, more frequent exercises, and periodic deployment of strategic capabilities. As articulated in the Department of Defense’s Arctic Strategy, “The U.S. Arctic deterrent will require agile, capable, and expeditionary forces with the ability to project power into and operate within the region.”

Critical Contributors

According to the NDS, allies and partners are critical contributors in executing the dynamic force employment concept, foreseeing that together “we will challenge competitors by maneuvering them into unfavorable positions, frustrating their efforts, precluding their options while expanding our own.” However, while allies have participated in activities characterized as dynamic force employment, it is not clear how much they are part of the planning and how much host nation support may be required.

Furthermore, reception of the dynamic force employment concept by allies has been mixed. Japan expressed concern that the end of the U.S. Air Force’s Continuous Bomber Presence program in Guam last year, which guaranteed some U.S. bombers in the Indo-Pacific at all times, signaled a reduced U.S. commitment to regional security and reduced the ability to respond quickly in a regional conflict. Similar worries were privately voiced by European allies in October, when then-acting under secretary of defense for policy James Anderson described elements of the U.S. troop “realignment” in Europe—namely the repositioning of a fighter squadron and elements of a fighter wing from Germany to Italy—as facilitating dynamic force employment.

Among Northern European allies and partners, the reaction has been more muted. On the one hand, these countries rely on visible, credible U.S. presence to deter Russia. On the other, the introduction of unpredictability to complicate the calculations of adversary decisionmakers makes them nervous. Particularly for countries that share land, air, and maritime borders with Russia, this approach runs counter to the widespread emphasis on transparency and predictability toward Moscow. The challenge then is how to ensure dynamic force employment activities are contributing to deterrence rather than increasing regional instability.

Norway’s Dual Policy under Pressure

Due to Norway’s strategic location—bordering waters of great importance to both Russia and the United States—the potential impact of the dynamic force employment approach on its security illustrates this challenge. There is no official Norwegian stance on this particular development in the U.S. doctrine, but as its implementation unfolds, it is clear that the dynamic force employment concept is apt to complicate Norwegian efforts to be both a “good ally” in NATO and a “good neighbor” to Russia.

On the one hand, Norway strives to be in the vanguard of NATO’s deterrence posture in its immediate neighborhood by displaying national military strength as well as deep integration in, and interoperability with, NATO and regional partners Sweden and Finland. On the other, Norway attempts to show moderation and amity to reduce Russian concerns. Norway has always grappled with this dualism, and the concept of operational surprise is difficult to reconcile with the ambition to be a regional guarantor of “stability and predictability”—a goal recently iterated in Norway’s new Long Term Defence Plan and its Arctic Strategy.

Predictably, the increased U.S. presence in Northern waters, and the sporadic Norwegian participation therein, has spurred concerns among some politicians and commentators that Norway is about to abandon its traditional balancing role vis-à-vis Russia. While accepting that the maneuvring of opponents into unfavorable positions might benefit the United States and its allies in a standoff with China and Russia, critics worry that the near-term destabilizing regional effects outweigh the strategic payoff. The main concern is that a relatively stable regional power balance and well-established cooperation structures will be upset.

Recent decisions on participation in allied activities in the Barents Sea suggest that Norwegian decisionmakers are divided on the merits of dynamic force employment and operational surprise. In May 2020, Norway chose not to join U.S. and British ships on a notified maritime security operation along the Kola Peninsula. Norwegian minister of defense Frank Bakke-Jensen justified this decision by saying his country’s participation was not a priority for the exercise, while Tone Skogen, the state secretary at the Norwegian ministry of defense, noted that Norway did not have the necessary capabilities available at the time. Yet according to the chief of the Norwegian Joint Headquarters, General Rune Jakobsen, the principal reason for Norway’s non-participation was to keep regional tensions low. Then, on September 8, the chips fell differently: a Norwegian frigate participated in maritime security operation inside the Russian exclusive economic zone alongside U.S., British, and Danish ships.

Nevertheless, the current activity is not something the Norwegian government wants to—or is in position to—shield itself from. On the contrary, for the past decade, and increasingly since 2014, Oslo has worked to secure continuous NATO interest and presence in the north. Given its fundamental dependence on allies, the government has been reluctant to constrain allied military activity in the region, as such activity is precisely what is required to demonstrate that NATO is still committed to and capable of collective defence. In that sense, the dynamic force concept is a welcome invention—but could benefit from both greater coordination with allies as well as more analysis of its deterrent effect.

The Case for Engaging Allies

While the above example illustrates how one ally, Norway, sees dynamic force employment, this point of view is likely shared by others who are impacted by the U.S. shift in doctrine. Given the incoming Biden administration’s emphasis on revitalizing the United States’ alliances, there is an opportunity to improve upon the dynamic force employment concept by involving allies more closely in the planning and execution of operations.

Specifically, utilizing the situational awareness of regional allies would strengthen alliance cohesion, help shape more targeted operations, and foster a sustainable division of responsibility. During the Cold War, for example, Norway assumed significant responsibility for crucial surveillance activities in the far North. After the downfall of the Soviet Union, Norway retained this responsibility despite a profoundly changed threat environment. This contribution is widely viewed as a stabilizing factor in East-West relations. With great power tensions back on top of the agenda, this type of collaboration among allies is increasingly important.

Given their constant presence in and knowledge of the region, allies and partners are also better positioned to assess whether dynamic force employment activities are in fact having a deterrent effect. On the strategic communications front, they can clearly message to Russia that allies operating in the Barents Sea is natural and signifies a defensive stance. In addition to reducing the risk of miscalculation, this communication can help avoid a cycle of escalation in which allies act and Russia feels the need to respond.

Last, if European allies have a greater say and role in their immediate neighborhood, they will be more likely to allocate adequate resources. For example, by investing in strategic capabilities such as the F-35, P-8A maritime patrol aircraft, and new submarines, Norway signals a willingness to assume responsibility as a reliable ally within certain domains and designated tasks. Becoming more involved in shows of force would prompt European allies and partners to articulate their preferences regarding U.S. and NATO activity in the north.

Taken together, more visible, steadfast allied contributions to dynamic force employment will help balance the potential instability spurred by increased operational unpredictability. And given the global demand for U.S. force structure and downward pressure on defense budgets, it is likely also the best way to ensure a continued, if less predictable, U.S. presence in Europe.

This commentary is written as part of the Security in Northern Europe research program, which is funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Defense and is a collaborative effort of the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Royal United Services Institute, and German Council on Foreign Relations.

Rachel Ellehuus is deputy director and senior fellow with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Johannes Gullestad Rø and Robin Allers are associate professors at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies. Ingeborg Bjur is a fellow and program coordinator with the Security in Northern Europe Program at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2020 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Rachel Ellehuus

Johannes Gullestad Rø

Associate Professor, Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies

Robin Allers

Associate Professor, Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies

Ingeborg Bjur

Fellow and Program Coordinator, Security in Northern Europe Program, Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies