Counter-Messaging to Russian Aerospace Forces

United States Military Academy and American Military University Alumni. Victor covers flash military, intelligence, and geo-political updates.

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This analysis concludes the three-part series on how the Russian Federation uses its VKS forces in the High North to influence NATO decision-making. The first analysis focused on the VKS as a whole, while the second analysis focused on the 45th AFADA in the Northern Fleet OSK. This final installment will focus on NATO’s response to that messaging.

When Norway joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949, it was the only member of the alliance to share a land border with the Soviet Union. That decision sent ripples throughout the international community as policymakers in Oslo decided to rest their future with the West following the Soviet-backed coup in Czechoslovakia. Since then, the Soviet Union, now Russian Federation, has engaged in a significant Information Operations campaign to influence the people of Norway by targeting the Norwegian military and, most importantly, NATO forces stationed throughout the country.

The primary lever that the Russian Federation uses to exert hard and soft power on Norway is the Aerospace Forces of the Northern Fleet Joint Strategic Command (OSK). As discussed in the first analysis, since the fall of the Soviet Union, the VKS has assumed a much more defensive role. Although recent operations in Ukraine demonstrated its ability to project power regionally, the soviet-era strategic ambitions of a globally deployable aerospace force have largely collapsed.

However, the Soviet Union, now Russian Federation, has continuously operated with

impunity in the White Sea, Norwegian Sea, and North Sea, with only a slight retraction of power projection after the fall of the Soviet Union as opposed to other theaters. This is due to the cultural and ethnic ties between the two nations, especially in the Svalbard

Russia’s Bastion defense concept. Courtesy of the Norwegian Ministry of Defence.

Archipelago. In 1920, Norway, Imperial Russia, and other signatories agreed that Svalbard would be open to free immigration for anyone that could find work, causing an influx of ethnic Russians into territory belonging to Norway.  In 2022, the Russian Federation still has a competing interest to dissuade NATO infrastructure from being built in Northern Norway, especially Svalbard. Enter the 45th Air Force Air Defense Army, charged with the military deception campaign to complement the Foreign Ministry objective of protecting Russian interests in the High North.

Goal of NATO

The primary goal of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is to “safeguard the Allies’ freedom and security by political and military means. NATO remains the principal security instrument of the transatlantic community and expression of its common democratic values.” In the High North, specifically in Norway, the alliance seeks to create a durable forward-deployed presence that not only ensures the survival of Norway’s civilian leadership and military during a pre-emptive strike but maintains a significant enough presence to flow reinforcements into the country against a Soviet/ Russian Federation ground invasion. This policy has generally been referred to as “securing the Northern Flank”.

As of 2022, NATO has expanded to let in three former Soviet states and all of the former Warsaw Pact countries.
Bryn Bache | CNBC

NATO accomplishes this mission by maintaining several military bases within the purview of the Norwegian Armed Forces. Norway’s most significant NATO base is at the Orland Main Air Station, Bodo Air Base, Evenes Air Station, and Stavanger Air Base. Orland Main Air

Global Security map of Norwegian military bases.

Station has hosted some of the most significant NATO forces, including U.S. nuclear-capable B-1 bombers, which are instrumental in combatting Russian VKS messaging. Bodo, for many years, has served NATO and the Norwegians by acting as the home station for the NATO Air Policing mission in the High North, deploying F-16s to intercept Russian VKS aircraft. Bodo also served as the headquarters for multiple NATO exercises, including Cold Response and Trident Juncture, which are critical to the messaging campaign of NATO forces in the High North. Stavanger Air Base serves as the only out-of-U.K base for the United States Air Force 501st Combat Support Wing; it also hosts the NATO Joint Warfare Center for planning operations in the High North.  These installations serve as focal points for NATO to project power and its strategic messaging throughout the High North.

The NATO forces deployed to these bases constantly intercept Russian VKS aircraft as part of the policing mission in the High North. These media posts from these intercepts fuel an Information Operations battle in both the NATO and Russian spheres. For example, on February 3, 2022, several Russian aircraft were intercepted by NATO F-35s, which American media characterized as a “calculated probing of NATO air defenses in the face of Russian buildup near Ukraine.”  Russian state-owned media characterized this as a routine flight that was “shadowed by NATO aircraft” in an attempt to not only normalize the violation of NATO air defense identification zones (ADIZ) but also paint NATO as the aggressor in these scenarios.

Norwegian military planes intercepted and identified Russian aircrafts in the Barents Sea area on Feb. 3, according to a NATO press release. The Norwegian planes responded to the NATO Quick Reaction Alert.

The Counter-Message

As identified in the messaging analysis of the VKS, the Russian Federation seeks to project strategic messaging so that its military can act with impunity deep into NATO-controlled areas and destroy NATO combat power if needed. Their primary audience for this messaging is NATO policymakers to dissuade them from taking actions that would provoke Russia. In contrast, the secondary audience is the civilian populations of NATO countries to dissuade them from electing hawkish decision-makers.

The counter-message to this from NATO forces is that Russian aircraft will be intercepted long before they can launch their munitions against targets in Norway. Many intercepts over the Norwegian and North Sea have involved un-escorted Russian Long Range Aviation assets such as the old Tu-95 and their tankers. At the same time, the intercepting aircraft are 5th-generation NATO fighters such as the F-35. The severe mismatch and superiority of NATO aircraft have done well thus far to serve the Information Operations battle for NATO, with Western media claiming that these flights were successfully intercepted.

NATO forces also benefit from the Information Operations environment by flying deep reconnaissance missions into the Russian ADIZ. In August 2022, six months into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a British RC-135 Rivet Joint made a reconnaissance flight on the Kola Peninsula which reportedly was not intercepted by Russian aircraft but observed by open-source analysts. This flight, made from the U.K. and conducted deep into historically Russian-controlled airspace, did well to serve NATO that their spy aircraft could fly unmolested through the Russian ADIZ without interception. At the same time, NATO interceptors escorted all Russian flights through their ADIZ.

How the Message Would Work

Much like how Russian aircraft executing military deception through decoys, rehearsals, exercises, maneuvering of forces, and demonstrations provides tier I persuasion that can be turned into higher tier influence, NATO air operations in the High North accomplish the same goal. Russian messaging relies on the Western confirmation bias of Soviet and Russian Federation military power and the normalcy bias of prolonged world peace between great powers. NATO forces have a two-pronged problem with being on the defense of scrambling to intercept Russian flights. The first is that while Russian VKS flights into NATO identification zones can reinforce preconceived notions of Russian military power, they can also show the military weakness of NATO forces. That is why it is vital in the Information Operations environment to intercept every Russian flight, no matter the military threat or lack thereof. Also, when NATO conducts its flights deep into Russian identification zones, those heuristics and biases concerning nuclear war must not be tripped to a point where NATO forces seem like the aggressor, lest Russian state-owned media can then convey that message.

The headlines from the August RC-135 flight are perfect examples of how executing their long-range flights provides enough material to counter the Russian messaging campaign that their VKS have air superiority and tip the scales towards NATO when they are not intercepted. By employing MILDEC operations such as demonstrations and executing rehearsals, NATO aircraft in the High North can continue to convey the counter-message to Russian forces that they cannot act with impunity in the air and waters near Norway. However, one way that NATO public affairs personnel could take this further is to instruct their pilots to take images of Russian interceptors, which can be used in graphic presentations with captions emphasizing the collective defense of NATO members. The August 2022 RC-135 flight lacked that aspect.