Cold War: the challenges of a shifting Arctic

The challenges facing Arctic operations range from climate change opening new sea lanes to clashes over fossil-fuel resources and grand strategy. Harry Lye looks at the region’s strategic importance and how militaries are preparing to operate in the high north.

Delivering a speech to reporters onboard the aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales last October, head of the Royal Navy First Sea Lord Admiral Tony Radakin said: “Climate change is a concern for all of us, but it is opening up new maritime trade routes across the top of the world, halving the transit time between Europe and Asia. And we sit at the gateway to those routes.

“But when China sails its growing navy into the Atlantic, which way will it come – the long route, or the short?”

Earlier in the same year, then US President Donald Trump had ordered a cross-government push to develop a new fleet of icebreaker ships by 2029 that would bolster US presence in the polar regions and help it maintain a critical foothold in the high north.

The backdrop for the First Sea Lord’s concerns and Trump’s desire for new icebreakers is the certainty of increased competition as sea ice melts and new shipping lanes open. Where trade goes, navies tend to follow to ensure freedom of navigation, but also for strategic aims.

Robin Ashby, rapporteur for the Eurodefense Arctic Observatory, said that while melting sea ice meant resources would be more easily exploited, the key geopolitical implication was control of the waters in the Arctic. Here, he said, was potential for ‘tension or conflict’ between China and Russia, as both take different stances on who should control newly opened passages.

Ashby added: “As far as Russia is concerned, these are coastal waters, and they want to control them. So, they are reviving Cold War bases north of the Arctic Circle and investing in new equipment for detection and deterrence/domination.

“China – now describing itself as a "near-Arctic power" – on the other hand, maintains that these are, or should be treated like, international waters. All nations should be able to exercise Freedom of Navigation under the Law of the Sea. China has even sent an icebreaker on a cruise in the region.”

The Arctic region has always been important for NATO.

The reopening of Russian coastal bases in the Arctic and Chinese interest and presence was recently cited by NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg as driving NATO’s own increased focus and presence in the Arctic.

“The Arctic region has always been important for NATO. We have five NATO allies that are Arctic nations. And NATO has always been in the Arctic. But the melting of the ice, combined with increased Russian military presence, they are reopening some old bases from the Cold War,” Stoltenberg said.

“And increased Chinese interest and presence, of course, just increases the importance of the Arctic, also with a potential new sea route, a north-east sea route from Europe to Asia. And all of this matters for our security. So, therefore, NATO is also increasing its focus and its presence in the Arctic,” he added.

Geopolitical significance

Speaking to Global Defence Technology, the Ministry of Defence’s non-executive director for climate change for defence, Lieutenant General Richard Nugee, said that security challenges posed by climate change in the Arctic were not exclusive to the region, and could have wider geopolitical significance.

Nugee said that Russia sees areas of the Arctic as an internal sea, citing its planting of a flag under the North Pole, and added that this was a source of potential disagreement with the US, which sees the Arctic as international waters. He added that overlapping claims could become more important when more is at stake than just ice due to an increase in maritime traffic.

The thawing of the Arctic could also have global ramifications, shifting the world’s economic balance of power and reducing traffic through the existing maritime chokepoints of Suez and Panama. As a Northern trade route opens, even for some of the year, Egypt will see a reduction in revenue, which could have wider geopolitical ramifications.

In some areas of the Arctic, scientists report the ice is thinning at double the speed previously estimated and, on a wholesale basis, sea ice is thinner than previously thought.

Nugee added: "If this becomes a fairly standard sea route, which a very significant amount of trade goes through, that is going to diminish the trade in the Suez Canal and Panama canals, because it will be favourable to going through those canals. That will have an impact on Egypt and Panama, probably the bigger impact will be on Egypt, because they get a huge amount of revenue, especially as tourism has dropped off, a huge amount of revenue from the Suez Canal.

“What you're doing is you're destabilising parts of the world outside the Arctic, by the Arctic becoming a trade route."

The North-East Passage (NEP), the route from the North Atlantic to the Pacific via the Arctic Coasts of Russia and Norway, is significantly shorter than transiting the Suez Canal or taking the long route around the Cape of Good Hope. The route from Yokohoma, Japan to Rotterdam, the Netherlands is 37% shorter via the NEP and negates the average $700,000 per ship toll of using the Suez Canal.

Despite the increased potential for shipping, Ashby said that Western shipping concerns have shown concern about the potential of being under Russian influence or getting caught up in a ‘major power struggle’ and therefore are less enthusiastic about using northern routes despite the reduced transit times.

// Simon Galt is Aurora managing director at QinetiQ about what this means for accelerating defence innovation. Credit: QinetiQ

// Simon Galt is Aurora managing director at QinetiQ about what this means for accelerating defence innovation. Credit: QinetiQ

Strategic response and reducing emissions

Asked what UK defence was doing to meet the challenges of climate change as they occur, Nugee said that, specifically regarding the Arctic, defence was looking at what ‘military response’ is appropriate to the new environment of open water in the Arctic.

Nugee added, however, that conditions in the Arctic won’t offer open water all year round and that in the winter there would continue to be pack ice. As the seasons change, the waters would move from open water to pack ice through a period of disruptive ice – a mixture of water and ice that a thin-hulled frigate would not be able to traverse, but a hardened hull that is not icebreaker quality could.

“This is about freedom of manoeuvre. This is about our ability to operate in an environment, which is changing, which we don't actually have to operate in at the moment.” Nugee added.

For these kinds of conditions, the UK operates one ice patrol ship, HMS Protector. However, that vessel is stationed in the Antarctic. Protector is currently slated to be in service until 2038.

Nugee said the UK had options for expanding its Arctic-capable fleet from building fully-fledged icebreakers to building vessels similar to Canada’s Harry DeWolf-class Arctic offshore patrol vessels that have been dubbed "slush-breakers".

On a general basis, Nugee said that the UK should be doing two things: adapting to a climate-changed world and becoming part of the solution rather than the problem by reducing the UK Armed Forces emissions.

Nugee added: "Where we can and where operationally sensible, we should be reducing our emissions to try and help solve the problem of climate change rather than add to it, which we're currently doing with our emissions."

Arctic NATO Allies are investing in new capabilities, everything from maritime patrol aircraft to submarines.

On a wider basis, at NATO’s summit in June, one of the talking points was tackling climate change, and how melting ice could lead to new ‘geopolitical tensions’.

Ahead of the talks, Stoltenberg said: “NATO Allies, including the Arctic NATO Allies, are investing in new capabilities, everything from maritime patrol aircraft to submarines, and all the other equipment and capabilities we need to make sure that we continue to show the necessary precedence in the high north.”

Despite this, a joint communique published after the event did not include the Arctic and only one mention of the high north.

Elsewhere in Northern Europe, Sweden unveiled plans last year for a massive hike in defence spending that will see the country expand its submarine force. The spending bill cited the importance of the effects of climate change for Sweden as an Arctic nation, adding that ‘a warmer climate with ice melting’ could lead to further confrontations between China, Russia and the US.

The importance of the Arctic was also mentioned, albeit briefly, in the UK Ministry of Defence’s Defence Command Paper, which read: “We [the UK] will increase our commitment to the Black Sea region, the high north, the Baltics and the Western Balkans (where we will implement a new regional training initiative), building and working through multilateral groupings, such as the Northern Group.”

Regaining Arctic dominance

On 16 June, US President Joe Biden met face-to-face with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin for a summit in Geneva. Ahead of the talks, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said Washington was hoping to cooperate with Russia on issues of climate change and the Arctic.

The US also sees the Arctic as a potential enabler. In the foreword to a US Army strategy document titled ‘Regaining Arctic Dominance’, the service’s former Secretary Ryan McCarthy and US Army Chief of Staff General James McConville wrote that seeing the world as a globe, rather than a map, allowed it to see the opportunities of ‘northern routes’ that could speed force generation from Alaska to points around the globe.

While the state of decay of Arctic ice is uncertain and organisations like the UK’s Ministry of Defence are taking steps to put the brakes on climate change, the region is becoming more contested.

Future years could see the People’s Liberation Army Navy use the new route to enter the North Atlantic and tensions could flare as debates develop over who controls what waters and temperatures continue to rise.

More widely, the destabilising effects of climate change and the potential economic shift caused by changing sea routes will have tangible ramifications for the world as migration, droughts and failing crops drive security risks like radicalisation.

// Main image: Futures Lab aims to accelerate the defence innovation cycle. Credit: Crown copyright MOD