The reports about modernization of the Arctic states’ armed forces and military exercises they conduct have triggered off an avalanche of publications on a new bout of arms race for redistribution of the resources hidden in the Arctic.
That said, the analysis of the Arctic states’ military capabilities and their plans testifies to the contrary.
Not a single Arctic state is masterminding a military conflict but each state is preparing itself for emergency situations.
The reports about modernization of the Arctic states’ armed forces and military exercises they conduct have triggered off an avalanche of publications on a new bout of arms race for redistribution of the resources hidden in the Arctic. That said, the analysis of the Arctic states’ military capabilities and their plans testifies to the contrary. Not a single Arctic state is masterminding a military conflict but each state is preparing itself for emergency situations.
To make the case for militarization of the Arctic, references are often made to military exercises which recently have been held more frequently and the Arctic states’ armed forces modernization plans. However, the analysis of the coastal states’ military capability suggests quite the opposite: there is a trend towards gradual de-militarization, not to militarization in the Arctic. Coastal states are not preparing for an armed conflict.
There isn’t a single military contingent deployed in the Arctic. The only exception is 100 ships-strong Russian Northern Fleet. It was created in the cold war times for the strategic purpose to contain USA and NATO. It is this strategic thinking that determines military importance of the Arctic. Trajectories of Russian and American ICBMs go over this area. In Alaska, Kola and Chukotka peninsulas there were set up bases for strategic bombers. U.S., French and British multipurpose submarines enter the Arctic Ocean on a regular basis. Air defense and anti-submarine systems as well as anti-missile defense radars are deployed here.
Over the last two decades Russian and American military activity in the Arctic has scaled down manifold. It has resulted in gradual de-militarization of the region.
Other naval activity of the coastal states is insignificant. USA and Canada don’t have their Navies deployed in the region confining themselves to coast guard forces only. Two Danish frigates and fishery inspection boats patrol off the shores of Greenland.
Large in terms of the Arctic region fleet of five frigates, six submarines and some support ships is owned only by Norway. All this is not surprising. Severe Arctic climate dictate its terms to the countries. For navigation in the Arctic ice vessels must have special design and equipment.
Just because of Navies absence in the Arctic experts very often would compare aggregate naval capabilities of the Arctic states believing that with melting of the Arctic ice they will be able to re-deploy here their fleets from other areas. But this assumption is actually not sustainable. USA, Canada, Norway and Denmark (http://books.sipri.org/product_info?c_product_id=442) possess ships capable of patrolling in northern latitudes. But they are neither designed nor equipped for navigation in the Arctic ice. Only four Danish patrol frigates can break one meter thick ice. However, even they fail to patrol adjacent Canada-Greenland waters in winter.
The situation is unlikely to dramatically change in the wake of the Arctic Ocean long-standing ice-fields shrinkage. For during the major part of the year Arctic water areas are covered with seasonal ice.
The states are not preparing themselves for a military conflict
The analysis of the Arctic states military programs suggests that they don’t even plan to deploy here their naval forces capable of addressing urgent military tasks in the Arctic conditions let alone having them.
Canadian Navy is only planning to build from six to eight new ships by 2017 to patrol in the Arctic waters. Norway has a plan to build two frigates. But neither patrol ships nor the frigates are designed for navigation in the ice-fields.
Canada plans to replace eighty fighters F/A-18 by sixty five aircrafts F-35 by 2020. They are designed for safeguarding the air space of the country from unauthorized intrusion. Norway is also going to replace sixty fighters F-16 by fifty six aircrafts F-35 but it lacks air-refueling crafts which reduces the scope of their use in terms of range. There are also plans to move the major Norway’s air-base from the north to the south of the country.
Canada and Denmark have no ground forces deployed in the Arctic area. Canadian territory is guarded by 5000 rangers. In Greenland similar functions are discharged by small Danish units, and in the USA by 1850 people-strong National Guard of Alaska. Canada and Denmark have in the pipeline to create only small rapid-reaction emergency units for operating in the Arctic zone. Similar American units are not designed for carrying out operations in the Arctic conditions. Norway also has plans to reduce twofold the strength of its “northern brigade” instead of decreasing it.
Main vectors of the Arctic capability modernization are as follows:
- Deployment of information systems monitoring actual situation in the Arctic waters;
- Training of mobile rapid reaction units operating in emergency situations;
- Creation of bases in the Arctic area for maritime and air patrolling (Canada).
Russia pursues similar goals: to create coast guard forces, build up border security forces, to create a complex system of monitoring the situation in the region and set up rescue centers with the Ministry of Emergency Situations.
This is actually all what is meant by the so-called the Arctic “militarization” program. The coastal states are preparing themselves not for a military conflict in the region but for the necessity to be able to promptly respond to an emergency situation.
Regulating military activity in the Arctic
There are no special regimes in force that regulate or restrain military activity in the Arctic. Universal rules are applied to the region, for example comprehensive ban on deployment of nuclear weapons on the sea and ocean bed.
The Arctic territories do not fall within the scope of the international maritime law. It defines the legal status and legal regime of a sea area – internal and territorial waters, special economic zones of coastal states, open sea and beyond it areas. The rules of free peaceful passage of ships including military ones through territorial seas, passage through international straits, free navigation and air traffic in open seas are applied to the Arctic water area.
Another thing is that the possibility to enjoy these rights is limited by climate conditions. But in the Declaration adopted in 2008 in Ilulissat (Greenland) the coastal states unambiguously reaffirmed their commitment to comply with the international maritime law provisions.
Russian naval nuclear capability falls under the limitations of the Russian-American START treaty signed in 2010, while American nuclear submarines also subject to the treaty do not patrol in the Arctic waters.
In 1991 and 1992 both Russia and the USA unilaterally committed themselves to decommissioning and partial destruction of tactic nuclear devices. This decision concerns above all Russia’s Northern Fleet which has developed a significant number of this weapon application’s systems.
European part of the Russian and Norwegian Arctic zones used to fall within the scope of the CFE Treaty. Its provisions limited the possibilities of NATO member states to conduct military exercises in Norway. Although Russia in 2007 de-facto withdrew from CFE Treaty and NATO states ceased to comply with part of its provisions in 2011 it hasn’t resulted in armament build-up in the region. The strength of Norwegian Army and the number of combat aircrafts are currently much lower than the ceiling allowed by the Treaty.
OSCE confidence building and security measures are applied to the European Arctic zone and namely – exchange of information, early notification about large military exercises, invitation of observers, inspection missions, etc. But they do not embrace naval activity.
Cooperation in security sphere
Four coastal states – USA, Denmark, Canada and Norway – are NATO members. They closely cooperate in military sphere. In the Arctic it’s the USA and Canada that interact most closely. Therefore, speaking about cooperation in security sphere we mean above all the establishment of such cooperation between Russia and other Arctic states.
After the end of the cold war this previously closed for strategic reasons region started to gradually open up. Russia’s collaboration with USA, Canada, Norway and other countries on the utilization of Russian decommissioned nuclear submarines and maintaining security of nuclear sites was of an utmost importance.
Over the last years the cooperation has mostly been developing along new emerging in the wake of climate change and growing economic activities in the Arctic threats and challenges lines.
Such issues as security of maritime navigation, sea pollution, the scope of illegal trans-border activities, for example, illegal migration, international organized crime and terrorism have recently started to come to the fore.
This suggests not reducing but enhancing and modernizing coastal guard forces and surveillance systems. Lately the Arctic states have taken first steps aimed at cooperation on addressing regional security problems.
In 2008 the Council of the Barents Euro-Arctic Region (CBER) member-states signed an Agreement on cooperation in the field of preventing and countering emergency situations. Many more joint exercises are conducted in the region to this regard.
In 2011 countries - members of the Arctic Council signed an Agreement on cooperation on air and maritime search and rescue operations in the Arctic. The areas of the countries’ responsibilities in conducting such kind of operations were defined. Besides, that year the decision was made to draft an Agreement on cooperation in the field of preventing and countering oil spills in the sea. The need for establishing cooperation of coast guard services which have only started to conduct joint exercises is growing. Russia-Norway exercises including the naval ones remain to be the only example of Russia’s military cooperation in the region with NATO members.