A new report by the UK’s Commons Select Defense Subcommittee warns that the Arctic may not remain a low-tension region for long and action is needed to be able to confront Russia’s “aggressive and revisionist behavior.”
The report, “On Thin Ice: UK Defence in the Arctic,” underscores that as receding ice opens more shipping lanes and as more countries are staking interests in the region, Russia has been leading an Arctic buildup including reactivating military bases both on its coastline and on islands within the Arctic Ocean, a buildup of land forces along its borders with Norway and Finland, and “the re-introduction of strategic bomber flights over Northern airspace, progressive installation of long-range missile and air defence systems, and a marked increase in the level of naval activity that projects power from the Arctic into the North Atlantic.”
The committee concluded that the Kremlin’s build-up “goes beyond what would be proportionate to a purely defensive posture and should be a matter of concern,” and flagged increased Russian submarine activity, currently at or above Cold War levels, around North Atlantic entry points as a maritime security threat that “could compromise NATO’s ability to convey reinforcements from North America in the event of a crisis in Europe.”
“The UK’s capabilities to perform these tasks still exist, but they are sustained at a low level and are in high demand elsewhere,” said subcommittee chairwoman Madeleine Moon. “A new level of ambition backed up by adequate resources is required to meet the developing threats we have identified.”
The report comes as the U.S. Coast Guard is hoping funds for the heavy icebreaker chopped off the Homeland Security bill by House appropriators will find their way back into the final conference bill as, in the words of Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz, “we need that ship now.”
The Senate version of the appropriations bill keeps the icebreaker money in there, while the House version reallocates the money in part to fund a border wall. President Trump has threatened to veto a bill that doesn’t have wall money and other immigration provisions, which could lead to a government shutdown at the end of September.
The 40-plus-year-old Polar Star is the only heavy icebreaker in the U.S. arsenal. Russia has more than 40 icebreakers of various composition and ability, and at least eight more are in progress. China is building a nuclear-powered icebreaker to add to its heavy icebreaker.
In its assessment of United States’ policy, the UK report finds that “Arctic security has generally played a minor role in U.S. defence policy and Arctic issues have often had little resonance outside of Alaska,” noting that the 2017 National Security Strategy mentions the Arctic once in a non-defense capacity and this year’s National Defense Strategy doesn’t mention the Arctic at all in the summary.
“As elsewhere, divergent views exist in the U.S. on whether tension is growing in the Arctic and Russian regeneration represents a genuine threat,” the report states, citing a Congressional Research Service briefing that said “U.S. military forces (and U.S. intelligence agencies) are paying renewed attention to the Arctic. This is particularly true in the case of the Navy and Coast Guard, for whom diminishment of Arctic sea ice is opening up potential new operating areas for their surface ships.”
Meanwhile, the Maritime Doctrine of the Russian Federation was revised in 2015 to place “a greater emphasis on reducing the level of threats and increasing military capability” in the Arctic, and its Northern Fleet has reaped the benefits of a major period of Russian naval recapitalization.
“Russia’s latest generation of strategic ballistic missile submarines, the Borei class variants, are being deployed in the Northern and Pacific fleets. The newest class of multi-role nuclear powered submarines, the Yasen class, combines the capabilities of an attack submarine with powerful guided missile systems. Crucially, these new platforms use the latest quieting technology to make them as undetectable as possible,” the report continues. “The Northern Fleet also possesses a number of major surface combatants, although the numbers of these units available for front line service is disputed. The surface order of battle nonetheless appears to be growing, with the Russian Navy’s newest amphibious assault ship reportedly joining the Northern Fleet.”
In June, the Northern Fleet “conducted an unannounced exercise that was its largest in 10 years.”
“Russia has shown itself to be ready to use military force to secure political advantage and the disputed operation of a number of international legal norms in the Arctic is vulnerable to exploitation by a revisionist state,” cautions the report. “The Arctic and the High North are central to the security of the United Kingdom and history has shown that its domination by a hostile power would put the security of the wider North Atlantic Ocean at considerable risk.”
The study stressed the importance of cold-weather warfare training for the armed forces, and criticized UK training cutbacks on financial grounds as “particularly unacceptable.”
“There is a risk that the perception of the Arctic as an area of exceptionalism where unique considerations of governance apply and where the application of general norms of international law are disputed could be exploited by nations who have shown an increasing disregard for the rules-based international order elsewhere,” the report warns.