Norway cancels Arctic military exercise over COVID-19 safety concerns

The nearly 3,000 NATO soldiers already in Norway will leave without participating in the 2021 Joint Viking exercise.

The Joint Viking exercise in northern Norway next month was to have included about 3,000 NATO soldiers. (Thomas Nilsen / The Independent Barents Observer)

Norway on Tuesday called off a major Arctic military exercise with NATO allies because of concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.

The Joint Viking exercise and other allied winter training in northern Norway was to have involved about 3,000 NATO soldiers from the Netherlands, Great Britain, Germany and the United States.

But with Oslo and neighboring municipalities imposing social lockdown with red level alert after an outbreak of a more transmissible coronavirus variant first identified in the UK, military activities in the north of the country are also affected.

The Barents Observer reported earlier in January about a spike in COVID-19 cases among U.S. Marines arriving for winter training to Setermoen camp in Troms. The American soldiers were, together with other allies and Norwegians, training cold climate snowy warfare. It was all supposed to culminate in the Joint Viking 2021 exercise in the end of February with about 10,000 soldiers.

“Norway is facing a very demanding situation. Infection control measures [in the outbreak areas] are the most intrusive since the start of the corona pandemic,” said Minister of Defense, Frank Bakke-Jensen. “We must avoid the spread of the mutated virus, and after a comprehensive assessment of the situation, we have decided to cancel the allied activities in Troms,” the minister said.

No new forces from other countries will travel to northern Norway. Forces that are already in place will make a controlled withdrawal, according to the defense ministry.

The means about 2,900 soldiers will have to pack up and go home. Of those are more than 1,000 from the United States, just under 1,000 from Great Britain, some 600 from the Netherlands and about 200 from Germany.

In total, 3,400 allied soldiers were supposed to come to Joint Viking before start on February 28.

About 45 of the U.S. and British soldiers tested positive for COVID-19 after arrival a month ago and where isolated at the camp in Setermoen. The virus did not spread to others.

Northern Norway have relatively few cases, but the government fears the mutated virus causing lockdown near Oslo could spread to other parts of the country. The same fear has triggered Norway’s Nordic neighbors, Sweden and Finland, to close their borders to Norway.

Last winter, the even larger exercise Cold Response was cancelled after 10 days, as the first wave of COVID-19 infections hit Norway. Then, the 15,000 soldiers from Norway and nine allied countries had to put down their weapons and pack up.

Due to the outbreak of the mutated virus, the Armed Forces have introduced restrictive measures on personnel coming from red zones in southeastern Norway. This entails a halt in the drafting of new recruits from these municipalities for the time being, and commuter-travel to and from these zones is suspended for now. All scheduled leaves for Army personnel are halted until further notice. To maintain national readiness, however, national training and exercise activity will still be conducted in the Troms region, within current strict COVID-19 preventative measures.