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Interview with Rear Admiral Nils Andreas Stensønes, Chief of the Royal Norwegian Navy.

In October and November last year, Norway hosted Trident Juncture 18. More than 50,000 participants, 150 aircraft, 60 naval vessels and up to 10,000 vehicles from 30 nations came to Norway for the biggest NATO exercise held in Norway since the Cold War. The exercise has also been a NATO show of force in the Northern region, where the military situation is rapidly changing.

Since Wold War II, the Royal Norwegian Navy has been a key player in the North Atlantic and the Barents Sea. Rear Admiral Nils Andreas Stensønes and his staff are working hands-on to develop and prepare the Norwegian Navy for what appears to be an uncertain and complex future in the Navy’s main area of operations, an area not only crucial to Norway but to all of Northern Europe.

ESD: Apart from the accident of the FRIDTJOF NANSEN class frigate HELGE INGSTAD, what is your assessment of the past year for the Royal Norwegian Navy (RNoN)?
Admiral Stensønes: The Royal Norwegian Navy (RNoN) assesses that the security landscape is rapidly changing. This landscape is characterised by high-readiness forces, more modern submarines, long-range precision weapons and the use of hybrid means, which create more instability, complexity and uncertainty. This has led to an increased operational tempo for the RNoN fleet and growing demand for naval presence and security in our region. The Coast Guard (CG) is an integral part of the RNoN. Not only security threats, but also environmental changes affect fishing and maritime transportation routes in the High North, leading to increased need for law enforcement assets. Both the Fleet and CG have therefore seen an increase in budgets, shorter reaction time and increased operational time both domestically and abroad.

A more competitive security environment may have regional influence; therefore defending Norway and Norwegian interests starts with operations abroad, primarily with our fleet. Taking part in NATO’s standing maritime groups and operations abroad with close allies is the normal situation, and the RNoN has contributed both in the SNMG 1 and SNMCMG 1 during 2018. As of today, the RNoN have currently 151 personnel deployed in the following out-of-area missions; the KNM MAUD (Pacific Ocean, en route to Norway), the STATSRAAD LEHMKUHL (Naval Academy at sea en route to Norfolk), and the Coastal Rangers Commando (Afghanistan).

Domestically, Norway’s position in the High North offers extensive room to exercise and allows military units to train effectively in challenging conditions. Exercising regularly with allies in and around Norway is also the normal situation. In the autumn of 2018, Norway hosted NATO’s high-visibility exercise Trident Juncture, where the Alliance successfully trained its core task: collective defence. Trident Juncture was the main focus during 2018, and all available naval assets were used. During the exercise, Russian activity in the area of operation increased as expected. Dedicated assets for dealing with this activity formed part of our national exercise plan. Our assessment is that both the exercise and the way the Russian activity was handled were successes.

A SKJOLD class SES Corvette/Fast Patrol Boat in Northern Norway. The SES technology offers superior mobility capabilities combined with excellent sea keeping capabilities. (Photo: Torbjørn Kjosvold/ FMS)

ESD: From the perspective of the Navy: What was the reason for the above HNoMS HELGE INGSTAD accident? Have lessons been learned? Will HNoMS HELGE INGSTAD be replaced, cannibalised or repaired?
Admiral Stensønes: The results of the ongoing investigation performed by the police, the accident investigation board and our own internal investigation group will conclude the cause of the accident. Identified deviation from our current rules and practices will be implemented as necessary. Currently, no decision has been made regarding the future of HNoMS HELGE INGSTAD. Firstly, the vessel has to be safely lifted and transported to Haakonsvern Naval Base. Secondly, the vessel will be investigated further before a final decision about her future will be made.

ESD: With the SKJOLD, OKSOY and ALTA classes, the Norwegian Navy operates three different types of Surface Effect Ships (SES). What are your experiences and lessons learned from the use of SES in MCM and FAC applications?
Admiral Stensønes: In general, RNoN is satisfied with the application of the SES concept for the SKJOLD (FPB) and OKSOY/ALTA (MCM) vessels. The selection of the GRP sandwich SES concept has proven successful within several major design features. For the FPBs, the superior mobility capabilities, combined with excellent sea keeping capabilities, have together provided the RNoN with a workhorse along our long and rugged coastline. The SES concept has also provided ample topside and deck area for sensors and weapon systems. On the negative side, as for all SES concepts, the weight margin is tight. This is especially challenging over the lifetime of the vessels, when updates and upgrades inevitably are implemented.

For the MCM vessels we have experienced excellent capabilities since the class was FOC in 1994. The Norwegian MCM vessels are amongst the very best within the NATO Alliance. Their combination of mobility and reduced underwater signature has provided the RNoN with an important capability in the maritime domain. Mine sweeping and mine hunting are important to control our waters. The mine threat is clear and present and will challenge our ability to maintain sea control.

Our Navy is presently developing a promising autonomous MCM capability. The system will not be unmanned, rather take most of our operators out of the assumed mined area. The concept is maturing and brings new technology into the theatre with enhanced capabilities. One of our challenges is to avoid capability gaps between the existing and the new MCM concept. Furthermore, we have to maintain mobility also for the autonomous MCM concept.
In total we are very pleased with both classes of SES vessels. We have experienced strengths and weaknesses and have managed to exploit the strengths and suppress the weaknesses to meet the warfighters’ needs in all operations.

ESD: What are the most important procurement programmes for the RNoN – current and future?
Admiral Stensønes: The most important procurement programmes are a new submarine capability to replace the ULA class, new CG OPVs to replace the NORDKAPP class, the newly commissioned AOR HNoMS MAUD IOC, the introduction of autonomous capabilities in all dimensions, and last but not least an increase in the sustainability in all dimensions of our Navy. The latter meaning more spare parts, enhanced maintenance, increased readiness and more weapons and ordnance. The reaction times are clearly reduced in the Norwegian areas of interest, and this means that our Navy must be ready to operate on very short notice. What is not available for operations today is simply not relevant.

The Norwegian Frigate HNoMS HELGE INGSTAD sank following a collision with the tanker SOLA TS on the morning of 8 November 2018. In late February and early March, the frigate was raised and transported to Haakonsvern Naval Base. (Photo: Jakob Østheim/ FMS)

22 January, the Norwegian Chief of Defence stated in his annual speech in Oslo that the size and capability of our armed forces is too small. He referred to our Navy specifically, with the expression “quality satisfactory but quantity insufficient”. This is naturally also a concern of mine. I want to emphasise that the RNoN needs to be present in our areas of interest. If we are not there, other actors will fill the vacuum.
Norway is NATO in the North Atlantic; Norway is NATOs northern flank. This means something; we have obligations to the alliance.

ESD: Norway and Germany have agreed on the joint procurement of identical Type 212CD submarines. In the scope of this programme, what are the particular requirements of the RNoN and what advantages do you expect from the programme to be brought along for Norway and the RNoN?
Admiral Stensønes: Norway and Germany have agreed on common requirements for the Type 212CD, and a common procurement of six identical submarines. This means harmonising requirements to take into account both German and Norwegian needs. The requirements have taken into account developments in technology and the present security situation along with other important factors.

Working together with Germany, we have developed common plans for training, manning, lifetime management, and so on. This will reduce costs for both nations during the lifetime, and it will also benefit both nations through improvements and updates during the lifetime of the boats.

ESD: From the perspective of German industry, the 212CD partnership has the potential to be extended to include additional partners – like the Netherlands or Poland. Would that be in accordance with your preferences?
Admiral Stensønes: Both nations are welcoming additional partners. In order to maximise the benefit of additional partners, identical submarines will provide the most benefit for all partners, but similarities of most of the systems will also provide benefits.

ESD: In view of the forthcoming Brexit – many European countries are considering realignments of their armed forces. Will Brexit – provided it happens – have an
effect on the RNoN?
Admiral Stensønes: Brexit will imply few changes for the Royal Norwegian Navy. NATO is the backbone of European Defence and will remain so regardless of Brexit. The Norwegian and the Royal Navy cooperate in various arenas. I do not believe Brexit will have an impact on our relations.

HNoMS UTSIRA late at night. UTSIRA is one of six ULA class submarines to be replaced by the joint German–Norwegian CD212 submarines. (Photo: Cedric Artiques/NATO/ FMS)

ESD: Has NATO’s new alignment towards national and Alliance defence had an effect on the RNoN’s procurement allocation? Do you anticipate the budget to increase over the next few years?
Admiral Stensønes: First, it has reoriented our focus towards high-end warfare against near-peer adversaries in the Euro-Atlantic area. It also revitalises our focus on interoperability. It is important in all warfighting areas, but particularly in a theatre approach to Anti-Air Warfare (AAW) as well as Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW). Potential adversaries are improving; this means that most nations in the Alliance cannot meet the emerging threats on their own. The RNoN is fully committed to participating with our allied partners with the capabilities we have at our disposal against any state or non-state actor as directed by our government.

The interview was conducted by Björn Domaas Josefsen and Jürgen Hensel.