The Royal Norwegian Air Force (RNoAF) Lockheed Martin F-16AM/BM Fighting Falcons are in such bad shape that Oslo is not willing to send them to war.
According to Norwegian media a request by the US government for fighter aircraft to combat ISIS in Syria will be turned down. What Norway will offer is still unknown, but it will likely not involve any aircraft.
Earlier this year Norwegian defence minister Ine Eriksen Søreide already gave a heads-up of the situation to quality newspaper Aftenposten. “There are problems with the F-16s. Cracks in the wings is one of them.”
According to sources within the Norwegian military there is no money to keep enough F-16s airworthy for an operation abroad. Almost all available funds go to the purchase of the new Lockheed Martin F-35A Lighting II stealthy multi-role fighter.
RNoAF F-35s at Luke
The first RNoAF F-35s have arrived at Luke AFB in Arizona to start training of Norwegian pilots and ground crew. Two more aircraft will follow in 2016. Eventually seven of the 52 projected new jets will be based there. The Norwegian parliament has already cleared the purchase of 22 of them, which covers the orders until FY2019.
F-35 operating bases in Norway
In 2017 the first F-35 will arrive at main operating base Ørland in Central Norway, while Evenes Air Station in the far north will be upgraded to host a small forward operating detachment of F-35s – mainly to serve as Quick Reaction Alert for the Russian air threat with about 4 to 6 F-35s based there.
Ørland is already an F-16 base. The second, Bodø, will be decommissioned as active fighter base.
Norway is aiming to have its pilots flying the first two Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning IIs just before Christmas 2015, the Norwegian Ministry of Defence confirmed. The aircraft, called AM-1 and AM-2, are planned to make their delivery flight from the production plant in Forth Worth in Texas to Luke Air Force Base in November 2015.
Together with a third and fourth aircraft to arrive in 2016, the two Royal Norwegian Air Force next-generation multi-role fighters will be part of the so-called “international pool” to train aviators and aircraft technicians.
Current RNoAF combat pilots flying the F-16 will go through conversion training on the new type in 2015 and 2016. From 2018 on forward Norway will have at least 6 trainees – aspirant-pilots that have never flown the F-16 or similar aircraft before – at Luke. At the same time the RNoAF will start decommissioning its facilities at Tuscon in Arizona, where Norwegian fighter jocks-to-be now go after basic training on Sheppard AFB.
Meanwhile Ørland Airbase near Trondheim in Norway is getting ready to accept the first F-35 in 2017, with a new simulator division and maintenance division. The first RNoAF Lightning II is planned to be operational in 2019, with all planned 52 F-35s reaching full operational capability by 2025.
While Ørland will be the F-35s only Main Base, Norway will fly its Quick Reaction Alert on NATO northern flank with F-35s based at Evenes on a rotating basis. Until 2021 F-16s will fly the mission from Bodø – initially on a rotating basis with the F-35s until the QRA task will be fully transfered to the new stealthy jet ahead of full decommissioning of the Fighting Falcon.
Kleppe has been flying the F-16 for 22 years. “Even after so many flight hours in the sky, the job is still exciting,” the combat pilot says. He flew missions during several international operations, including over Kosovo in 1999-2000 (the first Norwegian combat deployment in a war zone since the Second World War), in Afghanistan in 2003 (the first time in modern history the RNoAF flew with air-to-ground weapons into combat) and over Libya in 2011.
Kleppe has even flown the Northrop F-5 from Rygge Air Base for then 336 Squadron, the year before he reached full fighter pilot status in 1993.
The number of Russian military aircraft saying “privet” to NATO off the coast of Norway is not higher than in the past eight years, Lt. Gen. Morten Haga Lunde – chief of operations at the Norwegian military headquarters (Forsvarets operative hovedkvarter) – says in a recent news release of the Norwegian Armed Forces.
While the nations at the Baltic Sea do report more Russian air activity, out in the Barents Sea and Northern Atlantic it is business as usual, according to the general Haga Lunde. “The situation in the northern area today is normal, similar to recent years despite the fact that there are more tensions between Russia and NATO.”
Looking at the numbers. This year the Royal Norwegian Air Force executed 43 scrambles (defensive reaction to intrusions or almost intrusions of NATO airspace) plus 69 identification of Russian airplanes off the Norwegian coast. In 2013 it were 41 scrambles and 58 identifications, in 2012 41 scrambles and 71 identifications. Compared to the statistics of the 1980s today’s situation is quite relaxed, as the RNoAF has 500 to 600 ID-flights on record yearly for that hot period of the so-called Cold War that ended in 1991.
NATO decided on Thursday 4 September 2014 to permanently increase the number of fighters to protect the Baltics to 18 jets and to give the three current bases a more or less permanent status, although the aircraft and units assigned to these bases will still rotate amongst the NATO member states.
Thereby what more or less started as a French initiative to train with Polish forces and back-up NATOs flank on the shores of the Baltic Sea will officially become more a steady base of operations: Malbork, or 22. Baza Lotnictwa Taktycznego (22.BLT; 22nd Tactical Air Base) of the Polish Armed Forces. The Polish Air Force’s 41. Eskadra Lotnictwa Taktycznego (41.elt or 41 Tactical Air Squadron) operating MiG-29A/G/GTs will have permanent guests rotating every three or four months. Currently the Royal Netherlands Air Force has a quartet of its F-16 fighter jets operating from this delta area at the Baltic sea, with the airbase only 42 miles (68 km) southwest of Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.
With a new status deal signed with Sweden and Finland, it will become more easier for NATO to operate from these previously officially neutral countries as well. The Finnish Air Force itself provides irregular air cover and combat air patrol with its F-18Cs and the Swedish Air Force flying JAS 39 Gripen planes from the Ronneby Airbase near Karlskrona. Like earlier this week the Swedes put additional air cover on the strategically located island of Gotland, but with current budget restrains the standard alert response force of 6 to 8 aircraft has been downsized to a pair of Gripens only and their deployment to Visby airfield at Gotland has so far only be temporarily at times. But both the Finnish and Swedish air forces are no part of the military structure of NATO but can be if those countries decide to put some of their units at NATOs disposal, the Fins even have a fully NATO-certified fighter unit.
NATO’s slightly tougher stand – many experts believe still not a big match if Russia decides to take control of Estonia and/or Latvia and/or Lithuania and/or Gotland – might even influence Norway’s future air force organisation. Oslo has been keen to reduce the number of main operating bases for its future F-35 Lightning II fleet from two to one: Ørland. But with such a vast country and Russia recently starting to improve its official civilian settlement on the Norwegian territory of Svalbard, upgrading its bases near the Scandinavian borders and re-establishing its military bases in the Arctics, keeping Bodø as the second main air base for the future fighter fleet of Norway doesn’t seem such a bad idea after all. Especially with increasing Norwegian economical interest in offshore oil and gas fields in the North Pole area.