A Warming Arctic Heats Up US-Russian Military Rivalry

The 40-year-old Polar Star, the Coast Guard’s only operational heavy icebreaker capable of conducting Antarctic ice operations, carves a channel in ice near Ross Island on Jan. 16, 2017. (Chief Petty Officer David Mosley/Coast Guard)
The 40-year-old Polar Star, the Coast Guard’s only operational heavy icebreaker capable of conducting Antarctic ice operations, carves a channel in ice near Ross Island on Jan. 16, 2017. (Chief Petty Officer David Mosley/Coast Guard)

-- Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter @JosephVMicallef.

"The Arctic is the only theater of operations where the U.S. Navy is outclassed by a peer competitor. Russian surface warships have demonstrated the ability to carry out complex combined operations in the High North, while the American Navy maintains a policy that only submarines operate above the Bering Strait." -- Andrew Holland, chief operating officer at the American Security Project.

Historically, the Arctic Ocean has not been a significant military theater of operations for the United States. At the height of the Cold War, U.S. and Soviet ballistic missile submarines hid below the polar ice cap while hunter-killer submarines searched relentlessly for them. Both sides maintained early warning networks defended by Arctic brigades steeled for the cold, inhospitable polar climate, and both sides maintained regular anti-submarine warfare and bomber patrols over the region. Militarily, however, the Arctic's significance was that it represented the shortest flight path for each side's intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear armed intercontinental bombers in the event of a nuclear conflict.

In recent years, marked temperature increases across the Arctic have steadily diminished the extent and thickness of the polar ice cap. Most years, the northeast passage across Russia's Arctic seas can be utilized for two to three months of the year; even longer with the appropriate heavy ice breaker accompaniment. Canada's northwest passage has less infrastructure, is shallower and prone to being clogged by ice compared with the northeast passage, but it too has seen a limited increase of commercial traffic.

With the prospect of Arctic warming continuing, the Arctic Ocean and its periphery is emerging as a theater of Russian/American military rivalry. Moreover, China, which is not an Arctic state, has adopted a self-styled description as a "near-Arctic state" and has announced that it sees itself as, "an important stakeholder in Arctic affairs." In January 2018, a white paper that laid out Beijing's ambition to add a "Polar Silk Route" to its Belt and Road infrastructure development initiative noted that: "The utilization of sea routes and exploration and development of the resources in the Arctic may have a huge impact on the energy strategy and economic development of China."

Beijing already has deployed a Ukrainian built icebreaker, the Xuelong, in the region, ostensibly for scientific research purposes. It has recently launched its first domestically built icebreaker, Xuelong 2, and has announced plans to build its first nuclear powered icebreaker. The latter will be the first nuclear powered surface ship in the Chinese Navy.

Russia and the High North

For Russia, the Arctic is a region that is deeply intertwined with its history, its strategic and security concerns, and with its self-image as a superpower.

Russians were the first to systematically explore the Arctic regions. The first recorded Russian explorations of its northern coast date to the 11th century. Intrepid Russian explorers, over the next eight centuries, would extend their discoveries across the breadth of Siberia and the Bering Strait, in the process laying claim to Siberia, Alaska and the Aleutians. By the early 19th century, Russia had created the nucleus of an Arctic-Pacific empire that extended from the Barents Sea to Alaska, northern California and even Hawaii.

Russia's transpacific ambitions proved short lived. It soon abandoned its settlements in California and the Hawaiian Islands and eventually sold Alaska to the U.S. It's Arctic ambitions, however, remained.

Russia has roughly 20 percent of its land mass, or around 1.3 million square miles, north of the Arctic Circle. Canada has a comparable amount above the Arctic Circle, representing almost 40 percent of its land mass. Russia's Arctic region, however, has far more infrastructure than Canada's Arctic region, even if it is still poorly developed. Moreover, Russia has around two million inhabitants in its Arctic region, compared with only around 100,000 for Canada.

For the Kremlin, Russia's Arctic region plays a twofold role: it represents a key element of its security and it is critical to its ongoing status as a major energy producer and, by extension, its continuing role as a major power.

Historically, Russia's Arctic coast was too harsh and remote to pose a viable security threat. The prospect of a permanent Arctic sea route, especially given the fact that Russia's principal rivers run north to south, could transform Russia from a continental power into a maritime power but at the risk of creating a long maritime frontier it would need to defend.

For Russia, Arctic sovereignty is intimately tied up with its existence both as a state and a major world power. The mineral and hydrocarbon bonanza that Arctic warming may open is seen by many Russians as a "second chance" to regain the global status that was lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Moreover, the Kremlin is looking to its Arctic hydrocarbon deposits to replace declining production in its existing oil and gas fields in order to maintain its role as a major energy exporter.

Russia's Arctic Military Posture

Since 2008, Russia's Arctic deployment has been described by the Pentagon as an "assertive force posture," one "characterized by constant military drilling" and "provocative air maneuvering." Russia maintains four fleets: Baltic, Pacific, Black Sea and Arctic (Northern Fleet). Headquartered in Severomorsk, near Murmansk, in the Kola Gulf on the Barents Sea, the Northern Fleet is the largest of the four Russian Navy fleets; comprising two-thirds of Russia's total naval power.

Currently, it's estimated that the Northern Fleet has 80 ships, although it's not clear how many are operational. It includes 35 submarines and an assortment of surface ships, led by the Kirov-class battlecruiser Pyotr Velikiy. Over the last decade, the Northern Fleet has been expanded and its operational effectiveness has been improved. It is still substantially smaller, however, than its Soviet predecessor. At its peak, the Soviet-era Red Banner Northern Fleet numbered more than 200 submarines and around 100 surface vessels. Starting in 2012, the Northern Fleet has regularly patrolled a 2,000 mile stretch of the northern sea route.

More important, Russia operates a fleet of 40 icebreakers -- more ships than the rest of the world icebreaker fleet combined. The Russian fleet consists of six large nuclear-powered icebreakers, four of the Arktika class and two of the Taymyr class. The balance is smaller diesel-powered icebreakers. The Arktika class icebreakers date to the 1970s and 80s and are in the process of being replaced with newer, even larger, more powerful ships. In 2016, Moscow unveiled the newest ship in the LC-60YA class of nuclear-powered icebreakers. Also named Arktika, the new behemoth measures 569 feet long and 112 feet wide at the beam and cost approximately $1.9 billion to construct.

The new icebreaker can cut through ice up to 10 feet thick. Since the ice pack in the Arctic Ocean averages between 6 and 10 feet thick, the Arktika can theoretically operate anywhere in the Arctic region during any time of the year.

Currently, Russia has five more nuclear powered icebreakers under construction and has announced plans for six more, although given Moscow's current budget constraints some of the planned construction may be delayed. By comparison, Finland has seven icebreakers, Canada and Sweden each have six.

The US has three icebreakers, only one of which, Polar Star, is a heavy icebreaker. A second heavy icebreaker, Polar Sea, suffered an engine fire in 2010 and is not deployable. The U.S. Coast Guard, which is tasked with operating America's icebreaker fleet, has plans to construct six more ice breakers, three heavy and three medium ships, at an average cost of around $1 billion apiece. The first ship, however, is not scheduled for delivery until 2023. The status of funding for the icebreaker program is unclear.

Russia has unveiled a new Arctic command consisting of four Arctic brigade combat teams. A total of 14 Soviet-era airfields and six major military bases have been refurbished and are operational again. Most of the air power assets deployed in the region, however, are Soviet vintage MiG-25s (Foxbat) and MiG-31s (Foxhound). The air bases are protected by S-400 long-range surface to air missiles

The strategic bombers that, intermittently, are used for patrol flights in Arctic airspace, primarily the Tu-95 (Bear) and the new supersonic Tu-160 (Blackjack), are deployed at Engels Air Base near Saratov in southern Russia.

In addition, Russia has modernized 16 deepwater ports along the northern sea route. It has also established ten search and rescue facilities from Murmansk to Anadyr Bay, which are manned by Border Guard troops of the FSB, and which contain ten Mi-8c and Ka-27 helicopters, as well as an unspecified number of Il-76 and An-74s airplanes. An additional ten border posts, also manned by Border Guard units, have also been established.

America's Arctic Deployment

The U.S. has no major military bases north of the Arctic Circle. Thule Air Base, located in Greenland, approximately 750 miles north of the Arctic Circle, is the northernmost military base operated by the U.S. It provides missile warning, space surveillance and space control to North American Aerospace Defense Command and Air Force Space Command, and is manned by the 821st Air Base Group. Although the U.S. conducts regular ASW and bomber patrols over the Arctic, it is unlikely that it could establish and maintain air superiority over the region for a sustained period.

Four of the five Arctic powers -- the US, Canada, Denmark and Norway -- are members of NATO. In recent years NATO has carried out several Arctic military exercises. The most recent, its largest to date, Trident Junction 18, was carried out in Norway and Iceland in October 2018.

The U.S., however, lacks an integrated military command covering the Arctic region. Currently, responsibility for the Arctic region is divided between EUCOM, NORTHCOM and PACOM, none of which are focused on the Arctic region and all of which see that region as ancillary to their large military theaters of responsibility.

In addition to the lack of icebreaker support, military and naval operations in the Arctic Ocean are complicated by a lack of logistical and support facilities in the region. Canada has announced plans to build a naval facility in Nanisivik on Baffin Island in the Arctic to protect the eastern entrance to the northwest passage. The facility is slated to be operation in the summer of 2019. In addition, Canada operates a radar facility on Resolution Island and a signals intelligence intercept facility in Alert, Nunavut. At 82°N, the Alert facility is the northernmost inhabited place on Earth.

Moreover, given that most navigational and communications satellites are in equatorial orbits, access to communications and navigational satellites is inconsistent. For now, the US Navy relies on submarines to conduct regular patrols in Arctic waters. It lacks the ability, however, to conduct sustained surface operations in the Arctic Ocean. Although, to be fair, the prospect of year around surface operations in the high Arctic are still several decades away.

Polar Geopolitics: An Assessment

The U.S. needs to prepare for the day when surface warships will need to operate for extended deployments in the Arctic Ocean. That mission will require access to naval bases above the Arctic Circle, a fleet of heavy icebreakers, improved access to navigational and communications satellites as well as backup supply and logistical capabilities. It will also require a broader troop deployment in the region. NATO is the logical organization to assume responsibility for the security of the Arctic region, since all non-Russian Arctic territory is controlled by existing NATO members.

Currently, Russia is far better prepared to conduct surface operations, even if its military posture in the Russian Arctic is largely defensive and still far short of what was deployed in the region during Soviet times. Moreover, China, although not an Arctic nation, has signaled that it intends to play a role in Arctic affairs and that the region is an integral part of its broader Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.

Polar politics are entering a new, more confrontational phase. The climate is not the only thing heating up in the Arctic.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

Story Continues