Arctic Capabilities
© 2016 FrontLine Defence (Vol 13, No 5)

As global warming improves access to the region and its potential natural resources, improvements to Canada’s air, land, and sea military capabilities in the Arctic are covered in a five-nation review of the prospects of increased tensions. Published by the respected Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the review also looks at the capabilities of three other Arctic littoral states that are NATO members – the United States, Denmark and Norway – as well as Russia. The bottom line is that Russia is the only state that has “significantly” upgraded its Arctic military capabilities.

In the report entitled Military Capabilities in the Arctic: A New Cold War in the High North, Siemon Wezeman, a Dutch senior researcher in SIPRI’s arms and military expenditure program, points out that the Arctic littoral states have tended to have a “relatively restrained approach” to overlapping claims in the Arctic. He notes, however, that increases in the various military forces “provide cause for concern” and should be clarified.

“Forecasts of far-reaching climate change in the Arctic have stimulated new thinking about the security situation,” Wezeman says. “Some have identified the region as heading towards conflict, notably over natural resources, and official documents […] refer to the potential for military confrontation and indicate a perceived need to increase military capabilities accordingly.”

While affirming that all of these states have bolstered their military presence in the Arctic or increased capabilities for Arctic use, and are planning further strengthening of their military capabilities beyond their national territories, he suggests that while there is official recognition of the need to improve security and policing, the official positions stop short of a militarization of Arctic security issues.

Canadian Coast Guard Ship (CCGS) Pierre Radisson sails past an iceberg in the Hudson Strait off the coast of Baffin Island during Operation Nanook.
Canadian Coast Guard Ship (CCGS) Pierre Radisson sails past an iceberg in the Hudson Strait off the coast of Baffin Island during Operation Nanook. (Photo: Sergeant Kevin MacAulay)

This, despite the “dramatic” extent to which Russia-NATO relations had deteriorated in recent years, a situation which Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev described as “a new cold war.” Russia’s intervention in Ukraine since early 2014, and its more assertive and even aggressive foreign policy had increased the other Arctic states’ concerns about Russia’s long-term goals.

In Canada’s case, the former Conservative administration in Ottawa had adopted a “use it or lose it” stance in pressing for economic exploitation of the Arctic. The 2008 Canada First Defence Strategy put renewed emphasis on defending territorial sovereignty in the increasingly accessible Arctic. The Conservatives’ Northern Strategy the following year was matched by a limited expansion of special Arctic forces, increased training, and a limited amount of new equipment.

In the U.S., the Republican administration, as one of its last acts, in January 2009, updated a 1994 Arctic policy, which the Democrats essentially echoed in a National Strategy for the Arctic Region policy document in May 2013. “However, Arctic security concerns play only a minor role in overall U.S. defence policy,” Wezeman says, citing a 2010 National Security Strategy and a 2011 National Military Strategy which he says “mention the Arctic only in passing” and 2012 and 2015 strategy documents that effectively ignore the region militarily.

As for Denmark-Greenland, he notes that defence documents have included special mention of the Arctic, but that funding had not kept up with the vision.

In October 2012, the Greenland and Faroe Islands commands were merged into a new joint military Arctic Command headquartered in Nuuk, Greenland. “The Danish state auditing agency, Rigsrevisionen, concluded in October 2013 that the government had over the previous nine years provided insufficient funds and equipment for the Danish forces to fulfil their Arctic tasks, in particular SAR and environmental protection.” That situation is expected to be addressed in a “comprehensive analysis” sometime in 2017, including options for cooperation with the other Arctic countries.

March 2012 – Canadian soldiers  regroup after conducting an attack  on an enemy position in the mountains  near Gratangsbotn, Norway during Exercise  Cold Response, a Norwegian-led, invitational ­military exercise with participants from 14 nations.
March 2012 – Canadian soldiers regroup after conducting an attack on an enemy position in the mountains near Gratangsbotn, Norway during Exercise Cold Response, a Norwegian-led, invitational ­military exercise with participants from 14 nations. (DND Photo: Cpl Stuart MacNeil)

Turning to Norway, Wezeman affirms that its relations with Russia had been considered “very good”, with increased Arctic cooperation, including joint military exercises, but added that Russia’s military modernization and more assertive policies in Europe had “created uncertainty.”

A 2015 strategic military review, the “Norwegian Armed Forces in transition” outlines a stronger military presence in Finnmark, the northern part of Norway. The Norwegian defence budget has increased in real terms since 2009, and is projected to increase further until 2017 to cover the costs of ordered equipment (mainly F-35 combat aircraft). A new Defence White Paper is planned for 2016, which is expected to indicate a real-term decrease for 2018-2020.

Norwegian defence policy remains guided by the 2007 Soria Moria Declaration on International Policy, which gave priority to the north of Norway and Svalbard (often referred to in Norway as the ‘High North’) within national defence. Although strongly focused on Russia, it has shifted from emphasizing a potential threat to the whole of Norway to the potential for conflicting interests in the Arctic area. However, the increased military capabilities outlined in the 2015 review are mainly directed at a threat against Norwegian territory in the High North, and not in the extra-territorial Arctic. In August 2009 its armed forces headquarters moved from Jåtta in the south to Reitan, just north of the Arctic Circle; the headquarters of the Norwegian Army is even further north, in Bardufoss. While the Norwegian Navy remains based mainly in Bergen, in the south, the coast guard headquarters was moved north to Sortland in 2010.

Since 2006, Norwegian, NATO, and other allied troops have held biannual large-scale ‘Cold Challenge’ exercises in northern Norway. These have been directed at unspecified threats in cold environments but have also been good training opportunities for potential Arctic operations. In 2013 and 2015 Norway was the lead country for a new set of large military training exercises in the north of Scandinavia called the ‘Arctic Challenge’ (ACE). Involving Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, and other NATO air forces, ACE is to be held every two years.

Russia’s position on the Arctic has been set out in a couple of policy documents which look out to 2020 and beyond and highlight the region’s importance as a key source of natural resources and security issues resulting from increasingly long open-water periods that are generally attributed to global warming.

While those documents focus mainly on non-military challenges and ostensibly underline the importance of cooperation among all Arctic countries, others specifically highlight protecting military interests. “For the first time, the December 2014 Russian Military Doctrine includes the task of ‘protecting Russian interests in the Arctic’,” Wezeman points out. “The July 2015 Maritime Doctrine outlines specific security concerns, with a strong focus on security of the bases and units of the Northern Fleet in the Arctic.” Moreover, these documents make clear that Arctic forces would have protection of the northern regions of Russia as their main task.

To underline the growing importance of Arctic military security, on 1 December 2014 the Russian forces in the Arctic were included in a new Joint Strategic Command North. In addition to expanding the size of the Russian forces in the Arctic and modernizing their equipment, Russia has also increased Arctic training.

A substantial increase in its Northern Fleet capabilities is also ongoing. Many of the new ships can operate effectively in the harsh Arctic environment and are probably meant as escorts for the more active ballistic-missile-capable, nuclear-powered (SSBN) fleet of submarines. Indeed, the reduction in Arctic ice under which the SSBNs can hide is likely to further increase the need for escorts and patrol aircraft. Plans for new amphibious ships to increase power-projection capabilities have been seriously disrupted with the cancellation by France in 2015 of two Mistral amphibious assault / helicopter carrier ships ordered in 2010 and 2011, one of which was due to be included in the Northern Fleet.

Yamal, one of six Russian Arktika-class civilian, nuclear-powered icebreakers built between 1975 and 2007, break through ice for cargo ships and other vessels along the Northern Sea Route.

Capability Perspective
Even before the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea in early 2014, some media, politicians and researchers had begun to portray the changes in the capabilities of the Arctic littoral states as a significant military build-up and potential threat to security. Such messages seemed to be validated by the events in 2014 and the subsequent Russian intervention in support of rebels in eastern Ukraine.

While these and other actions have strained East-West relations to a level of distrust and tension not seen since the end of the cold war, the overall picture in the Arctic remains an almost shining example of proper state behaviour over contested claims.

The 2012 SIPRI review of the then ­current and projected military forces in the Arctic region pointed to a process of modernization and creation of new capacity to address challenges associated with environmental, economic and political changes anticipated for the region, rather than as a response to major threat perceptions in the Arctic. Conventional military forces, specially adapted to the harsh Arctic environment, were projected to remain small-scale, especially given the size of the Arctic region, and would remain in most cases considerably smaller than cold war levels.

This latest review of the existing and planned Arctic military capabilities of the five Arctic littoral states was undertaken in the context of increased East-West tension – the ‘new cold war’ as Medvedev described it. Like the previous review, it concludes that the changes in military forces, structure, and policies in the Arctic do not undermine the commitment of all five states to settling Arctic issues in multilateral discussions, negotiations and cooperation. Certainly, all five have continued the modernization, and in some cases expansion, of their military capabilities in or for the Arctic. However, these remain limited and have proceeded slowly.

Some of the changes – for example, the acquisition of new combat aircraft by Norway and Denmark, the strengthening of the Canadian Rangers, the main Norwegian land units moving to the north of Norway, or the new Russian Arctic units – have little or nothing to do with power projection into the areas of the Arctic with unclear ownership. Rather, they are for the purposes of patrolling and protecting recognized national territories that are becoming more accessible, including protection against illegal activities. Other changes – such as new but unarmed icebreakers – have more to do with protection of the environment, civilian shipping, and civilian research in support of national claims to an ‘extended continental shelf’ under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

While aircraft and ships play a much more important role for Arctic security than land forces, most of the extensive changes – such as the acquisitions of new combat aircraft or large surface combat vessels by Canada, Denmark and Norway – have a much more general rationale than increasing worries about potential military threats in the Arctic region.

HMS Illustrious (foreground) and HMS Bulwark near Harstad, Norway, participating in Exercise Cold Response.
HMS Illustrious (foreground) and HMS Bulwark near Harstad, Norway, participating in Exercise Cold Response. (MOD Photo: Martin Carney)

Russia’s expansion of its Northern Fleet and other land and air forces in the Arctic, the largest military force stationed in the region, also appear to be more a matter of providing protection for its SSBNs – as the Soviet Union did during the 1970s and 1980s – than a programme building up for a military struggle over Arctic resources.

This main conclusion notwithstanding, an increase of military forces in a region where several states claim maritime zones expected to contain extensive natural resources does give reason for concern, including the potential for unnecessary incidents and misunderstandings between claimants. In the general security environment since early 2014, of increasing tensions and mistrust between Russia and most of the rest of Europe and North America, responses to real or imagined threats and insults could certainly escalate. Moreover, there is the risk that the security tensions between NATO and Russia elsewhere may spill over into the Arctic region. Russia’s unscheduled large-scale exercises held in response to ACE 2015 are one example of how the security situation has changed since early 2014.

Thus, in order to help mitigate negative perceptions about security policies in the region, as well as the possibility of misunderstandings, the Arctic littoral states need to be even clearer about their military policies, doctrines and operational rules, and should include more military confidence-building measures in their bilateral or multilateral relations associated with the Arctic.

Could such positive steps in the Arctic also provide an impetus to duplicate this ‘Arctic spirit of problem-solving through cooperation and international law’ in other regions or issues of the current East-West confrontation? Time will tell. 

Ken Pole is a contributing editor at FrontLine magazines.