With the war on terror melting away, military activity is picking up in the frozen seas of the Arctic, as the United States continues its pivot to so-called Great Power competition with Russia and China.
On June 9 President Donald Trump ordered a new fleet of at least three heavy icebreakers potentially nuclear-powered to be built in the next decade, to add to the current fleet of just two. The memo is the latest indication of growing strategic interest in the Arctic, where Russia already has 27 ocean going icebreakers, nine of them nuclear-powered.
Last month, the first U.S. Navy ships since the Cold War sailed into the Barents Sea in Russia’s maritime backyard.
Two years earlier, the USS Harry Truman became the first aircraft carrier to sail to the Arctic Circle since the Reagan administration.
That carrier visit also broke with the previous clockwork cycles of deployment, showcasing a new strategy known as “dynamic force employment” aimed at keeping adversaries on their toes.
“In many ways, it’s a return to Cold War form,” Sidharth Kaushal, a Naval Defence Analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, said. “During the last decade of the Cold War, the Reagan administration really pushed this kind of forward maritime strategy where the U.S. Navy and its allies would in peacetime and wartime really pursue a forward posture in the Arctic rather than just defending the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap.”
Theatre of Great Power Competition
Since 2018, U.S. defence policy has officially marked countering a revanchist Russia as a top priority, second only to revamping to compete with China.
Officials reject the notion that the shift marks a return to the Cold War, but some of the key naval dynamics remain the same as 40 years ago.
“Rather than just playing defence and trying to prevent Soviet submarines from trying to break into the Atlantic, for example, there was an increasing emphasis on holding Soviet assets at risk in their Arctic bastions,” says Kaushal.
That same strategy now appears to be returning.
Other dynamics, however, have changed, with China showing increasing interest in the region, and with the potential of the sea route north through the frozen Arctic sea of Russia.
“I think there has been a shift in the sense that this administration’s more willing to specifically point out China as being a competitor and somewhat of a threat in the Arctic,” Luke Coffey, a senior foreign affairs analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said.
“Before, the Obama administration would dance around this issue. Secretary Pompeo in his speech at the Arctic Council meeting in Finland last year, explicitly targeted China and China’s malign role in the region.”
However, he says that the challenges from China and Russia in the region are different.
“With Russia, it is more of a military security challenge in terms of the threats to the U.S. and to NATO in our allies. Whereas with China, it’s more about economic and sort of soft power to try to build up a reservoir or a presence in the region that they can maybe tap into at a future date if they ever need to focus more on security issues.”
“They’re investing a lot in infrastructure, energy projects and science, scientific missions, and that sort of thing.”
China has also cooked up the notion of “near-Arctic status” as a means to stake a claim in the region, something which Coffey describes as “absurd.”
“Using that definition, if you picked China’s most northern point, and measured the distance to the Arctic Circle, that would also mean Kazakhstan, Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, the UK, and Ireland are also near-Arctic states.”
With Russia, the issue is more military, says Coffey.
A Pentagon report stated last year that, “Russia has gradually strengthened its presence by creating new Arctic units, refurbishing old airfields and infrastructure in the Arctic, and establishing new military bases along its Arctic coastline.”
“There is also a concerted effort to establish a network of air defence and coastal missile systems, early warning radars, rescue centres, and a variety of sensors,” said the report.
Sending a Message
Last month, three U.S. destroyers joined a British warship in the Barents Sea for a week-long exercise.
“Ordinarily, deployments to the Arctic would not be on the list of common deployment areas from U.S. naval forces,” Bryan Clark, a senior defence analyst at the Hudson Institute, said. “With dynamic force employment, you’ve seen less naval force presence in the Middle East, in particular carrier forces’ presence, and that’s freed up carriers to go to Europe, the Mediterranean, the northern Atlantic, and go to the Arctic Circle.”
According to Clark, the exercises were mostly about showing the Russians that U.S. vessels can keep Russian attack submarines in check.
“The new classes of Russian attack submarines are very quiet. There are as capable if not more capable than U.S. Virginia class submarines, which is the newest U.S. class.”
“They could potentially evade U.S. anti-submarine warfare efforts and operate off the U.S. coast. The concern is that a small number of Russian submarines carrying nuclear cruise missiles or even conventional cruise missiles could launch a sneak attack on the United States. Obviously that’s not going to win a war against the United States, but the threat may be enough to make the U.S. back down if it gets into a confrontation with Russia,” he said.
Kaushal agrees that the submarines are an important part of the dynamic.
“You’ve seen more submarine patrols from the Russians in the last few years than we have at any time since the Cold War,” Kaushal said.
The attack submarines and guided-missile submarines are usually with Russia’s Northern Fleet, based in Murmansk in the Arctic Circle, he says, and would have to head through the Arctic Ocean before they could reach the Atlantic.
“If you think of how a conflict between Russia and NATO would play out, of course, American troops and resupply would have to cross the Atlantic. So they’re facing the same problem they did in the Second World War from the U-boat threat.”
Coffey said that the exercises last month in the Barents Sea were mostly about sending a message to Russia. “Of course, the Chinese are watching, so it’s slipping a secondary message to Beijing.”
“It also was done as COVID was really taking off, where a lot of international focus was on COVID and NATO was cancelling exercises in Europe. So it showed that the U.S. could walk and chew gum at the same time.”
Desert Heat to Frozen Seas
Beyond the geopolitical chest-beating, the exercises have their own value.
Both crew and equipment alike need to be tried and tested in the harsh cold.
For example, says Clark, the hydraulic fluid in hundreds of components such as elevators, cranes, and winches don’t work properly in colder temperatures, and lubricating fluids also start behaving differently. “Equipment is going to seize up,” he says.
There’s the question of crew acclimatization as well, says Kaushal.
“Whether it’s the Arctic or mountaineering, generally speaking, one needs to exercise crews months and years in advance to acclimatize them to these sorts of extreme conditions,” Kaushal says.
In addition to training, the exercises allow mapping maritime geography, he says.
The exercises are probably also used to place sensors on the seabed.
“The Russians have been doing this for years in the Arctic, using their special purpose submarines like the Belgorod, to place the sensors on the Arctic seabed to give themselves a greater situational awareness in wartime.”
Similar efforts by Western powers are by nature classified, he says. “But almost certainly a lot of work done is done in terms of placing seabed sensors.”
Russia’s Arctic Toll-Road
Further complicating the shifting dynamic is the potential opening up of the sea ice above Russia’s northern coast, known as the northern sea route, open for four months a year.
That passage is maintained by Russian icebreakers, because most of it lies within their Exclusive Economic Zone, with some even within their 12 nautical mile territorial water zone.
Russia demands a permit and a fee from all ships passing through the passage. Whilst this is not strictly illegal, it is in a legislative gray area and has ruffled feathers, says Clark.
“Normally, people don’t charge a fee to make a passage through an international waterway. This is just a unique situation where that waterway would not be passable without Russian icebreakers,” says Clark.
In theory, the route cuts journey times from Shanghai to some European ports like Rotterdam by around a third.
However, it carries only a tiny fraction of shipping and has not opened up as some anticipated.
“It’s definitely opening up more because of melting ice, for sure,” says Coffey. “But the ice is not melting as quickly as people thought.”
Twenty-six million tons of cargo passed through the northern sea route last year, he says, and just 400,000 tons made the full journey from Europe to Asia.
In comparison, 1.1 billion tons passed through the Suez Canal, carried in around 20,000 ships. When it is open, the passage isn’t stable enough for the regimented schedules demanded by just-in-time supply chains, says Clark.
“Until the Arctic is essentially ice-free in the summer, the challenge with the northern sea route will always be that the ice is somewhat unpredictable.”
The northern sea route is also part of China’s so-called “Polar Silk Road” the northern branch of Beijing’s Broader Foreign Policy push that falls under the moniker of the Belt & Road Initiative or OBOR.
The State Department has started to warn that the same pattern of debt-traps and militarisation on China’s existing Belt & Road could be repeated in the Arctic.
“Do we want crucial Arctic infrastructure to end up like Chinese-built roads in Ethiopia, roads that fall apart after just a few years?” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on May 6 last year. “Do we want the Arctic to transform into a new South China Ocean, with increasing militarisation and competing territorial claims?
Do we want vulnerable Arctic climate to be exposed to the same ecological destruction that has been caused by the Chinese fishing fleet in the oceans around the coast of China?”
Whilst Moscow is currently cozying up to Beijing over the initiative, they are most likely grateful that the Western powers are keeping China’s Arctic ambitions in check, says Coffey.
“Russia is dependent on China to access foreign investments and to work collaboratively on big infrastructure and energy projects, because of the economic sanctions over Ukraine. And China knows this, so they know that they’re kind of in a stronger position… and the Chinese are deeply involved in a lot of Russian energy projects in the Arctic.”
But he thinks Moscow is hesitant to allow Beijing a bigger role in Arctic governance and will be grateful that accepting China would require the Arctic nations to agree unanimously. “Russia will be able to hide behind the U.S. veto, for example.”
But the opening of the northern sea route also has military implications.
Russia itself had only a couple of ports that are accessible year-round. That was one of the strategic advantages of annexing Crimea, with its large port complex, and of their presence in the Mediterranean port of Tartus in Syria.
Coffey says that not enough attention has been paid to the strategic implications of a future opening up of the passage.
“The reduced amount of ice, I think, would allow Russia to be more flexible in moving fleets from the Atlantic theatre to the Pacific theatre in a time of major war.”
But opening the northern sea route is a mixture of opportunity and risk for Russia, says Kaushal.
“On the one hand, there are distinct economic and geopolitical advantages if the Arctic becomes a really important sort of sea route both because they dominate it militarily and because economically everyone going through it will rely on their icebreaker fleet.”
On the other hand, he says, it also makes them more vulnerable, “because it becomes easier for foreign powers to potentially launch sorties in the Arctic.”
Coffey says that the strategic significance of the Arctic in itself isn’t high compared to many places. But he thinks it is still overlooked, making it a potential gap into which geopolitical levers will find their way.
“I think we should treat the Arctic with the same level of importance as we treat the Mediterranean. NATO is required to defend Tromso, which is a city above the Arctic Circle in Norway in the same way that it’s required to defend Tallin in Estonia.
“But there are a lot of war plans for Tallin, but there’s nothing for Tromso,” he says.
“NATO doesn’t have an Arctic policy. And NATO essentially refuses to even use the word ‘Arctic’ in any of its official documents like summit decorations and strategic concepts because there’s an internal dispute between Norway and Canada.”