Amid hidden militarization charges, Norway rejects Svalbard satellite station’s military use by U.S. and Turkey

The Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard in the Arctic Ocean is located roughly halfway between Norway's northern coast and the North Pole.

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Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P. Chacko is the publisher of Frontier India, portal publishing news and current affairs. He holds an M.B.A in International Business from the Maharishi University of Management, Iowa, USA. Twitter: @chackojoseph *views are Personal.

Norway’s National Communications Authority (Nkom) has rejected applications, from the United States and Turkey, to use the Svalsat satellite station on Svalbard for the first time in over ten years. Both countries had hoped to use the satellite station in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic. Previously, a U.S. company was denied permission to use the Norwegian Antarctic station Trollsat, which can only be used for peaceful purposes.

According to Nkom, the Norwegian regulator, the U.S. Air Force funds the U.S. satellite EWS Rapid Revisit Optical Cloud Imager, RROCI. The satellite company writes on the official website that its goal is advancing military technology. The satellite is associated with the U.S. Space Force’s (USSF) Space and Missile Systems Center. 

Bent André Styva, section manager at Nkom, described the case as “special.” 

According to a Nkom official on national broadcaster NRK, the ground station cannot be used to send or receive data from a satellite solely for military purposes.

The Turkish high-resolution Earth observation satellite IMECE was also denied access to Svalbard. According to the Norwegian regulator, IMECE is a direct continuation of another Turkish satellite project, GOKTURK, which has a stated military purpose. IMECE satellite attracted attention as it is the first Turkish satellite to have a sub-meter resolution. This satellite’s high-resolution images will be used for both civil and military purposes, as per the Turkish press.

Svalbard satellite station

Svalbard satellite station, or Svalsat, is located near Longyearbyen on Platberget. Kongsberg Satellite Services (KSAT), a joint venture between Kongsberg Defense & Aerospace and the Norwegian Space Center (NSC), has operated the station since 1997. Svalsat and KSAT’s Trollsat station in Antarctica are known to be the only ground stations in the world that can see a low-altitude polar-orbiting satellite on every revolution of the earth’s axis.

Svalsat’s customers include the ESA (European Space Agency), EUMETSAT (European Organization for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites), NASA and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).

The 1920 Svalbard Treaty recognizes the sovereignty of Norway over the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, at the time referred to as Spitsbergen. The treaty also regulates its demilitarization. Therefore, Norway is obliged not to create nor allow the establishment of any facilities that are used for “warlike purposes.” Oslo has also declared the goal of maintaining low tension in high latitudes.

The location of Svalbard

The Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard in the Arctic Ocean is located roughly halfway between Norway’s northern coast and the North Pole. It was originally used by whalers as a base, then for coal mining, but it is now mainly used for polar exploration and climate research. Svalbard, with a population of fewer than 3,000 people, is a free economic zone and a demilitarized zone. It is mostly known as a place with more polar bears than humans and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which is a long-term seed storage facility built to withstand the test of time and preserve the world’s largest collection of crop diversity.

Russia accuses Norway of hidden militarization

Moscow has previously expressed serious concerns about steps taken by Oslo toward militarizing the polar archipelago. 

In November 2011, the Russian Foreign Ministry highlighted Norway’s “hidden militarization” of the archipelago through Coast Guard patrols, the use of the SVALSAT satellite tracking station, which is technically equipped to perform dual-use tasks, and the practice of Norwegian military transport aircraft using Longyearbyen Airport.

The Russian Foreign Ministry pointed out the extension to Svalbard of the Norwegian Law on Ports and Fairways, which implies the use of the archipelago’s infrastructure in military planning, including the reception of reinforcements from the country’s NATO allies.

The Russian ministry also mentioned a legislative initiative by Norwegian authorities to limit access to information about the seabed in the Svalbard region, with exceptions for Norwegian military and NATO partners.

The visit of the frigate “Thor Heyerdahl” to Longyearbyen in late October, described by the local newspaper Svalbardposten as a “rare sight” and “peaceful visit,” was the immediate trigger for Moscow’s reaction.

Norway defended the frigate’s visit by stating that the country must be able to train in harsh conditions and defend Norwegian sovereignty on Svalbard. Norway has the right and obligation to protect sovereignty in the territorial waters of the islands of Spitsbergen, Hopen and Bjrnya, said Commander Frode Rte of the frigate KNM Thor Heyerdahl to the local newspaper Svalbardposten.

On the other hand, the Russian Foreign Ministry was alarmed by the warship’s visit to the demilitarised archipelago.

Moscow emphasized that the visit violates the spirit of the 1920 Svalbard Treaty, which defines the archipelago’s purely peaceful use, and Oslo’s stated goal of maintaining low tension in high latitudes.

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