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A NATO war game exercise in the Arctic no longer seems like just a game


This month, troops from 27 countries wrapped up one of the largest NATO war games since the 1980s in the Arctic. Although it was scheduled two years ago, the Russian invasion of Ukraine gives this NATO exercise a Cold War feel. And despite setbacks in Ukraine, in many ways, the Russian military appears to be ahead of its rivals in the rapidly warming Arctic. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports from the Arctic Circle in Norway.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: It's just dawn, and we're walking down to a fjord which is covered with a thin, thin layer of ice and some open water. And any minute now, we're expecting Dutch troops to make an amphibious landing and help repel this pretend invasion of Norway by a foreign power - Dutch and French troops, actually, on barges from a Dutch warship sailing in the fjord. They rock onto the pebble beach, drop a gangplank and disgorge troops, as well as a few fast-moving, small transports.


LAWRENCE: It's not the D-Day landing. There's no one shooting or being shelled. But the hypothetical scenario - repelling a Russian invasion into neighboring Norway - no longer seems like just a game. Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Store was in the area observing.

PRIME MINISTER JONAS GAHR STORE: Right now, we have a Russia that is engaging in broad land, air, missile war. Attacking a neighbor influences everything. Norway needs an alliance, allies, training, relevant defense to be safe. And that's what we practice here.

LAWRENCE: And it takes some practice.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Please follow me.

LAWRENCE: Below deck on an Italian aircraft carrier floating in another nearby fjord, Italian sailors hosted U.S. Marines at what served as the command center for the operation. The troops are practicing helicopter landings, anti-submarine defense. And this is also where the artillery fire is directed from.

CALEB BROWN: Some of my teams are out there with the Norwegians and with the Netherlands and then the French teams.

LAWRENCE: U.S. Marine Major Caleb Brown is directing close air support across many languages and military cultures.

BROWN: It's a very complex exercise, and that's part of what we were trying to get after was how do we learn to work together well. You know, and you can't just shoot into somebody else's space because you might hurt somebody over there. You have to make sure you do that proper coordination.

LAWRENCE: The cold makes everything more complex, especially since anyone with real combat experience here got it in Iraq or Afghanistan. Troops are learning what really works to keep them warm, how to de-ice helicopters and how quickly arctic weather can stop everything. In fact, while Ukraine has cast this exercise in a new light, it's still about the Arctic, a place Russia and NATO increasingly come into contact.

Sherri Goodman was the first deputy undersecretary of defense to focus on climate change. Now she's at the Wilson Center.

SHERRI GOODMAN: As sea ice retreats and temperatures rise in the Arctic, Russian northern fleet forces have been patrolling close to NATO and other allied member countries. So they are continuing to make their presence felt.

LAWRENCE: The U.S. just ran a similar exercise with 8,000 troops in Alaska, where Russia has stepped up military activity in recent years near U.S. territory. During this year's exercise in Norway, the Russian navy was occupied. Many of its ships are in the Black Sea bombarding Ukraine. Sherri Goodman says Russia still has a huge advantage in the Arctic, though - about 50 icebreaking vessels compared to America's two Coast Guard ships.

GOODMAN: The U.S. let some of that capability atrophy after the end of the Cold War. And now we've, in the last few years, really paid more attention to the need to restore our icebreaker fleet and also to be able to equip our forces to operate in colder weather and more dangerous conditions.

LAWRENCE: Those dangerous conditions on the deck of the Italian aircraft carrier came in the form of a sudden whiteout snowstorm that grounded all the aircraft. But part of the exercise is building camaraderie among NATO troops, so the Italians and the Americans started a snowball fight on the flight line.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News, northern Norway. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.