Baltic Sea

US special operations drills in Alaska, Sweden reveal chokepoint concern


  • US special forces conducted exercises on opposite sides of the world in late October.
  • The exercises reflect concerns about being able to operate in vital territory and in key waterways.

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In October, US special forces trained alone and with partners at two key bottlenecks on opposite sides of the world, reflecting an increasing focus on these and similar hotspots given the heightened tensions in Europe and Asia.

In mid-October, US special forces deployed as part of NORAD-led exercise Noble Defender on Shemya Island in the Aleutian Islands in Alaska to “exercise capabilities to secure critical terrain and infrastructure,” said General Glen VanHerck, head of Northern Command and NORAD, insiders said in a statement.

Noble Defender is “a recurring operation” designed to demonstrate NORAD’s ability to coordinate US and Canadian forces in defense of North America, VanHerck said.

US special forces train on Shemya Island beach

US special forces on a beach on Shemya Island, October 2021.

U.S. Northern Command

As the Arctic becomes more accessible, the US military has stepped up its activities around Alaska and sees it as a base for projecting power into the Pacific and Europe.

Training in the Aleutians now has the practical value of recognizing US forces in terrain that did not receive much attention after the Cold War. “It basically means they’re back,” said Rob Huebert, professor and Arctic expert at the University of Calgary.

The training activities of the US specialists on Shemya included the deployment of seagoing vessels, the launch of special reconnaissance drones, hand-to-hand combat, medical evacuation and integrated air defense at short range.

These are skills that “become increasingly difficult in arctic conditions,” said VanHerck, adding that the troops had demonstrated “their professionalism and ability to operate successfully” throughout the exercise.

US special operations with Stinger on Shemya

With Cobra Dane in the background, US special forces train with a Stinger surface-to-air missile on Shemya Island in October 2021.

US Special Operations Command

The US has had military facilities, including the Cobra Dane radar, the Northern Command, on Shemya, which is closer to Russia than the US mainland, since World War II called “a key sensor for detecting ballistic missile launches.”

Cobra Dane was built in the 1970s and has regained its prominence with the proliferation of air threats such as marching and hypersonic missiles. “The further you can go beyond your opponent in terms of your monitoring ability, the better your systems are,” said Huebert.

In view of the military importance of the region, the training on Shemya Island was “not a big surprise,” said Huebert.

“It’s an obvious message,” Huebert told Insider, “because if you want to do an exercise in the Aleutians and keep it quiet, it’s not very difficult.”

“A hot piece of real estate”

Air Force MC-130J Command Sweden

U.S. and Swedish Air Force members fly over Sweden in an MC-130J assigned to the 352nd Special Operations Wing, October 26, 2021

U.S. Air Force / Tech. Sgt.Westin Warburton

While US special forces trained on Sheyma, their colleagues in Europe trained with Swedish commandos in southern Sweden and on the Swedish island of Gotland in the heart of the Baltic Sea.

Her training included deploying and firing an M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System on Swedish territory for the first time.

The deployment of HIMARS demonstrated the ability of the US and Swedish armed forces to “deploy long-range precision fire throughout the theater quickly and at a time and location of our choosing,” said the US Air Force’s 352nd Special Operations Wing.

MC-130J unloads HIMARS on Sweden-Gotland

An MC-130J unloads a highly mobile artillery missile system on the island of Gotland on October 23, 2021.

U.S. Army / Sgt. Patrik Orcutt

Swedish forces train regularly with the US and other NATO militaries, but Sweden is not a NATO member and it is uncommon for US forces to train on Baltic islands like Gotland, which is considered a “hot piece of real estate,” Mathieu Boulègue said, a research fellow in the Russia and Eurasia program of the British think tank Chatham House.

Gotland and other small islands that make up Sweden and Finland have always been “the soft belly of security” in the region and are viewed as likely targets if Russia should expand or attempt to expand its military presence, giving NATO and its partners freedom of movement to refuse in the Baltic States, said Boulegue.

The deployment of HIMARS demonstrated “the continued efforts of the US and Sweden to maintain interoperability and rapid response in the region,” said the 352nd Wing.

A major Russian move against Gotland would be apparent almost immediately, but more subtle activity is suspected. A massive raid by Finnish police on one of the country’s islands in late 2018 sparked rumors of secret Russian military activity in the area.

Highly mobile artillery missile system HIMARS Sweden Gotland

A HIMARS operated by the Wisconsin Army National Guard prepares for a simulated fire on Gotland Island on October 23, 2021.

U.S. Army / Sgt. Patrik Orcutt

Like its neighbors, Sweden has increased defense spending, re-emphasized civil defense and plans to increase its military in response to tensions with Russia. Sweden has also stepped up the defense of Gotland and expects it to be attacked at the start of a war.

Russia has built up its military and “has shown that it is ready to use it,” said Sweden’s ambassador to the United States, Karin Olofsdotter, in an interview with Insider in the spring.

“If we feel that our European security order and so on is threatened, we get nervous,” said Olofsdotter. “That is why we are expanding our security capabilities, and the United States is of course an important partner for this.”

Increasing threats

Shemya Island runway of US military aircraft

A U.S. military aircraft approaches Shemya Island in October 2021.

U.S. Northern Command

Both the Baltic Sea and the North Pacific have seen more military activity amid tensions between NATO and Russia. Close encounters in the Baltic Sea are common, and the Bering Strait is expected to gain importance as the Arctic becomes more accessible.

Last month’s exercises also mark a growing awareness of maritime bottlenecks, where peacetime disruptions can turn the world economy upside down and where war blockades could allow a military to trap its enemy.

US lawmakers have taken note of the risk. A provision in a version of the US defense budget for 2022 would require the Pentagon to submit a report on the “security of global maritime bottlenecks” against “hostile kinetic attacks, cyber disruptions and other forms of sabotage”.

A message from the Gotland exercise was that if Russia planned to “achieve military superiority by denying NATO access to the region – particularly through the Danish Strait, which is the access point to the Baltic Sea – then we can help you too.” keep up in terms of speed “. Reaction and willingness, “said Boulègue.

The increasing attention to the Bering Strait and the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap, which are difficult to reach and difficult to operate, is “very specific to the growing Russian threat,” said Huebert, but it reflects “a growing appreciation of the geopolitical” Concerns that arise between the United States and its allies and China and Russia. “