Six caves, including Frigard, were carved deep into different mountainside locations in central Norway between 1986 and 1988 for the Marine Corps Prepositioning Program-Norway. The program, now, in its third decade of operation, houses vehicles, ammunition and other gear in more than 700,000 square feet of climate-controlled conditions. (1st Lt. Caleb Eames / Marine Corps)
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TRONDHEIM, Norway — The Corps has used caves carved into the sides of mountains here for nearly 20 years, storing vehicles, equipment and ammunition later shipped everywhere from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to training exercises in Africa.
It's a mutually beneficial relationship first agreed upon in 1981, at the height of the Cold War. The Corps gets access to more than 700,000 square feet of facilities in central Norway, including six climate-controlled caves and two airfields, and a trained Norwegian work force who keep it all running. In return, the Norwegians plan their security knowing that Marines will defend Norway in an attack using everything from Humvees to Howitzers that are already in place.
The program costs less than $20 million per year, with the two sides splitting the costs.
However, with the fall of the Soviet Union nearly 20 years ago, Marine Corps Prepositioning Program-Norway is at a turning point.
The Corps is exploring ways it can turn the program into an operational hub that better supports training missions, counter-insurgency operations and irregular warfare, Marine officials here said in June during the inaugural meeting of the MCPP-N Plans Group, a joint team planning the Corps' future in Norway.
No decisions have been made, but changes could include moving equipment in and out of the country more frequently and placing Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles and Light Armored Vehicles in the caves for the first time.
"Everyone on the Plans, Policies & Operations side of the Marine Corps is excited about taking MCPP-N in a more operational direction and balancing that with the already established logistical foundation that we have with the program," Capt. Matt Mulvey, a representative for PP&O, told the Norwegians.
Norwegian officers said they're open to working out the changes, but there are logistical hoops to jump through.
First, traffic studies must be done to make sure it's feasible to have massive Marine vehicles on Norwegian roads and bridges. Changing the kinds of combat equipment in storage also will require a review of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, which set thresholds for how many weapons systems NATO countries can have collectively on the continent.
Finally, the Corps must assess what the changes could mean in other locations, such as at Blount Island Command, Fla., which oversees the Corps' prepositioned fleet of ships and provides oversight for Marine reservists who deploy to Norway to help maintain the vehicles.
The equipment stored in the caves is supposed to support a Marine expeditionary brigade with only a few add-ons needing to be flown in. The size is relevant because it makes changes to MCPP-N part of a larger discussion about how the Corps should prepare for future wars.
With the Pentagon urging service chiefs to prepare for smaller conflicts rather than large-scale conventional warfare, Marine officials are weighing reshaping what goes in the Corps' three fleets of Maritime Preposition Force ships. The fleets each comprise five ships and typically float in the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian and Pacific oceans, carrying most of the gear and vehicles needed by a MEB.
PP&O officials have proposed dropping two tank companies, an Amphibious Assault Vehicle company and two artillery batteries from at least one of the MPF fleets, which would open space for an additional company of LAVs, two more truck company platoons and additional construction equipment, said Mulvey, the maritime prepositioning officer in PP&O's expeditionary policies branch. The equipment is viewed as essential in irregular warfare, which includes building relationships with civilian populations.
The plan was approved by Brig. Gen. Ronald Johnson, director of operations at PP&O, for review this month by the Corps' three-star generals, Marine officials said. From there, it could be passed up to Commandant Gen. James Conway, scrapped or approved with revisions.
The proposed changes to MPF were outlined to the MCPP-N Plans Group, but the Corps is interested in turning MCPP-N into an operational hub even if the MPF plan is scuttled, said Maj. Robert Meade, head of prepositioning programs in PP&O's expeditionary policies branch.
Norwegians say they're open to all of these changes. In fact, their largest concerns don't revolve around whether the Corps wants to increase the number of weapons stored in Norway, but on when the Corps will hold its next major exercise on Norwegian soil.
Despite a close alliance between the two countries, no major U.S.-led training has occurred in Norway since 2005. That's when the Corps held the last Battle Griffin, an exercise that brought together 14,000 troops from 15 countries, including a Marine battalion.
Norwegian officers used the plans group meeting as an opportunity to pitch the possibility that Norway's training facilities — some above the Arctic Circle — could fit the Corps' needs well, as it prepares to send Marines to frigid, mountainous areas of Afghanistan.
"The philosophy is that if you can handle the climate in northern Norway, you can handle any climate or the weather any place in the world," said Cmdr. Steinar Torjusen, the Norwegian head of the MCPP-N Plans Group.
Marine officials told the Norwegians that an exercise planned for this year was canceled because Ukraine did not approve it in time, a requirement under the CFE treaty. However, the Corps is planning Cold Response 2010, an exercise in Norway that could include a company of infantry Marines and a detachment of trainers with Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command.
"We'd like to train in Norway more, but we just haven't had the manpower," Lt. Col. Mike Targos, strategy and plans officer for Marine Corps Forces Europe, told Norwegians during the meetings.