Small Wars Journal

Plugging the High North Gap with Expeditionary Advance Base Operations

Tue, 03/29/2022 - 10:07pm

Plugging the High North Gap with Expeditionary Advance Base Operations


LtCol Brent W. Stricker

            A fallacy of the Cold War was the strategic importance of the GIUK Gap. The GIUK Gap is a 700 mile stretch of ocean between Greenland, Iceland, and Scotland that NATO planners thought Soviet naval forces would have to transit to attack allied shipping in the North Atlantic bound for Europe to fight a conventional land war against Warsaw Pact forces invading Europe. This Third Battle of the Atlantic was based on previous experiences from the Second World War. This fallacy was once correct until more advanced Soviet submarines were developed with longer range missiles. It was not until the 1980s when NATO better understood Soviet “bastion defense” basing their SSBNs in the Barents Sea as a strategic nuclear reserve force and using their own forces to defend the SSBNs from NATO forces crossing the GIUK Gap to attack them. The Soviet Navy was never likely to come south, and faced with the same defensive posture with a reduced naval force Russia is likely to follow the same strategy.  The important gap was and remains in the High North with Norway guarding NATO’s flank where they must be ready to defeat Russian attacks. A consideration of the U.S. Marine Corps Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) in Norway and the legal restrictions upon the Svalbard Archipelago remain relevant as Russian relations with NATO members deteriorates.

            The U.S. Marine Corps is transforming itself in an attempt to answer the long-range precision fires of its pacing threat adversaries that would use a strategy of anti-access/area denial (A2AD) to prevent naval forces from maneuvering in the littoral spaces. The Marine Littoral Regiment (MLR) and the EABO concept are the answer. This strategy emerged in response to the challenge faced by the artificial islands in the South China Sea within the first island chain. The Marine Corps will employ “high-speed, long-range, low-signature craft” operating within an enemy’s weapon engagement zone (WEZ) from Expeditionary Advanced Bases (EAB) that will act as strategic reconnaissance for the fleet and deter or destroy any ship, submarine, or aircraft the enemy sorties before displacing to establish another EAB.

            This new force is meant to “Stand-in” the enemy’s WEZ and turn their A2AD strategy against them. Through a series of dispersed and disguised EABs shifting locations every 48 or 72 hours, the Marines will confuse the enemy through decoys, false electronic signatures, and attacks from unexpected directions that will overwhelm an enemy’s observe, orient, decide, and act (OODA) loop. This transformed Marine Corps has seen it shed its conventional land power in the form of tanks and artillery tubes, to be replaced with rocket batteries and emerging technology in long range fires and reconnaissance. The Navy-Marine Corps Integration will see the Marines acting within the littoral spaces as dispersed network of virtual scout-snipers acting as the eyes of the Fleet and forming joint kill webs employing its own organic or naval based fires. The Marine Corps will take on a new mission of “surface warfare, antisubmarine warfare, air and missile defense, and airborne early warning.”

The U.S. Marine Corps has been preparing to defend Norway since the 1980s keeping one Marine Expeditionary Brigade ready to airlift into Norway and fall in on prepositioned equipment. The plan was to take the war “to the Soviet littoral waters and homeland” if necessary. Marines have prepared for this mission conducting joint training with Norwegian forces ever since. The latest exercise, Cold Response 2022, has the Marine Corps improving its EABO doctrine in the largest Norwegian Arctic exercise since the Cold War.

The problem the Marine Corps may face is getting to Norway in the first place, and this is where GIUK Gap becomes relevant again. In recent years, Russian aircraft have been testing NATO responses by flying missions to the GIUK Gap. Based on the composition of these flights, it is believed their training to defend the gap from surface and submarine incursions by NATO forces. The Russians are continuing the bastion defense of the Soviet Navy. This forward defense of the GIUK Gap is a counter to NATO long distance precision fires and employs its own kill web between Russian submarines and aircraft.

            This EABO concept applied to Norway turns on geography. In a recent case study applying EABO to Norway, two Norwegian Lieutenant Colonels concluded, “Norway is ideal for the EABO concept with thousands of islands, small ports, long coastlines, advanced digital and physical infrastructure.” EABs may be hidden amongst these features and direct reconnaissance and fires at will.

The Svalbard Archipelago stands out when considering EAB locations. Its close proximity to the Russian Northern Fleet Military District that controls Russian military forces “from the Kola Peninsula to the Arkhangelsk Oblast and Arctic archipelago” provides a tempting location for EABs. Unfortunately, the Norwegians are unable to use their own archipelago in this way.

            The Svalbard Treaty was signed in 1920 to settle issues of sovereignty, economic exploitation, and demilitarization of the Svalbard Archipelago, then known as Spitsbergen. Article 1 defines the boundaries of the Archipelago giving sovereignty to Norway. Article 9 of the treaty prevents “the establishment of any naval base in the territories specified in Article 1 and not to construct any fortification in the said territories, which may never be used for warlike purposes.” Norway has stood by this interpretation, but has allowed temporary military presence on Svalbard.

The race to A2AD in Norway will determine success of its defense. If the Marine Corps is deployed during a crisis, but before a conflict, it may be able to establish EABs to deter Russian aggression. If the conflict begins, an integrated Navy-Marine Corps and Norwegian response may be able to “establish sea denial or sea control” plugging the High North Gap. While the Russian Navy possesses long range precision fires that they can deploy from port or the bastion defense of the Barents Sea, the developing weapons systems of the Marine Corps will be able to counter these forces in port or when they sortie. Concealed MLR units may observe, strike, and displace from a number of EABs.  The Russian air and naval forces are then faced with a dilemma of trying to locate and strike an unseen enemy.

The views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the U.S. Marine Corps, the U.S. Navy, the Naval War College, or the Department of Defense.



About the Author(s)

LtCol Brent Stricker, U.S. Marine Corps serves as the director for expeditionary operations and military professor of international law at the Stockton Center for International Law at the U.S. Naval War College.