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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat

Joint U.S.-Norwegian Bases Are a ‘Tripwire’ Russia Won’t Like

Carl Gustav Recoilless Rifle
A coalition force member fires a Carl Gustav recoilless rifle system during weapons practice on a range in Helmand province, Afghanistan, Feb. 16, 2013. Coalition force members test fire various weapons systems on the range to check accuracy. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Benjamin Tuck/Released)

Over at Reuters, Terje Solsvik and Nerijus Adomaitis report that the Norwegian government has consented to let the U.S. military construct facilities at three of its airfields and a seaport. Spokesmen for Prime Minister Erna Solberg hastened to add that the agreement conforms to a longstanding tradition whereby Oslo forbids foreign armed forces to establish their own separate bases on Norwegian turf or stockpile nuclear arms in the country. U.S. units will cohabit with their Norwegian comrades.

Good.

Solberg & Co. may just be trying to appease domestic sentiment. Patriots, Norwegians included, naturally look askance at admitting foreign forces to their midst—even when those forces wear the uniform of a close ally and friend. But even if local politics did drive its basing decision, Oslo backed into a policy that makes eminent strategic sense.

In fact, U.S. military chieftains should make it their standing goal to merge U.S. with allied military installations whenever a host government seems agreeable.

Here’s why.

The aim of any alliance is to deter coercion or attack, and allied solidarity is the keystone of deterrence. An indivisible alliance is a formidable alliance. If partners stand together an antagonist must overcome their combined capabilities and prowess; if not the antagonist can deal with each partner separately—simplifying its problem. This is Strategy 101, and it’s why scribes such as the Chinese general Sun Tzu advise sovereigns and commanders to spare no effort to prevent, degrade, or break enemy alliances.

Mingling allied forces the way the U.S.-Norwegian basing covenant envisions would disabuse hostile governments of any notion that they could strike at discrete U.S. bases without hitting indigenous armed forces, and thus avoid picking a fight with the host nation. The same applies in reverse. An aggressor might target host-nation bases while exempting U.S. bases from attack, in hopes Washington would remain idle rather than come to its ally’s aid.

Stationing U.S. forces in a country under threat puts them in harm’s way, ensuring that the United States would fight if that country came under assault. The U.S. Army kept a “tripwire” brigade in West Berlin throughout the Cold War to put the Soviet leadership on notice that America would take up arms to defend that Western enclave behind the iron curtain and, by extension, would uphold its treaty commitments across Europe and the globe. Joint U.S.-Norwegian bases will perform a similar function vis-à-vis Russia today.

Set the tripwire.

James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.

James Holmes
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James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”

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