Brussels: More than 4,000 troops from six NATO countries and three non-member states began a major air exercise over far northern Europe Monday in one of the largest military mobilizations of the year. Arctic Challenge is to last two weeks and involves more than 100 warplanes from the United States, Britain, Germany, France, Norway, and the Netherlands, all NATO members, plus Sweden, Finland and Switzerland.
The US Air Force will contribute 12 F-16 jet fighters as well as AWACS radar aircraft. The European countries are contributing their own F-16s as well as Eurofighter Typhoons and Tornado GR4 fighters. Norway’s Chief Brigadier General Jan Ove Rygg, in overall command of the exercise, said it would test “orchestration and conduct of complex air operations, in close relation to NATO partners.”
The exercise is clearly directed against Russia, which borders on Norway, the host country for the drills, as well as on Finland. Both Finland and Sweden have raised the alarm over alleged Russian submarine penetration of their coastal waters in recent months, and tensions have worsened throughout the region because of ongoing anti-Russian provocations over Ukraine and the Baltic states.
On May 20, only five days before the beginning of the drill, Swedish fighter jets intercepted two Russian Tu-22M “Backfire” bombers over the Baltic Sea. While Swedish officials said the bombers were heading toward the Swedish island of Land, south of Stockholm, they conceded that the planes had remained throughout in international airspace.
The military exercise, which lasts until June 5, will include operations over northern Norway, Sweden and Finland as well as the Arctic Ocean, all areas a short flying time from northern Russia and critical military bases such as Murmansk, headquarters of the Russian Northern Fleet.