The case for a transarctic alliance

The case for a transarctic alliance

Russia’s assault on Ukraine – and Ukraine’s defiant resistance – have held the world’s attention for more than a year. But Vladimir Putin’s efforts to rebuild the Russian Empire aren’t confined to Central Europe. The Russian dictator is also making moves in the Arctic. After taking an out-of-sight-out-of-mind approach for too long, NATO is finally making countermoves.

High tensions in the High North Before getting into the steps NATO members are taking in the High North, it’s important to emphasize that these steps are in response to aggressive actions on the part of Moscow. An entire essay – or book – could be devoted to Putin’s reckless and destabilizing moves in the Arctic, but here are some recent highlights:

· U.S. military commanders reported in February that Russia now has six bases, 14 airfields, 16 deep-water ports and 14 icebreakers, girded by precision-guided strike weapons and S-400 air-defense systems – all yielding a “strong anti-access and access-denial capability that reaches from the Arctic to the Baltic.”

· According to the British military, Russian submarine activity in the North Atlantic “has reached Cold War levels.”

· Russia is adding new layers of defenses at an Arctic naval base, increasing activity around Norwegian island formations and adding hypersonic missile systems to its Northern Fleet.

· In early 2023, Putin signed off on a strategy document describing Russia’s goal as “neutralizing the policy of unfriendly states to militarize the region and limit Russia’s opportunities to exercise its sovereign rights in the Arctic zone of the Russian Federation.” And in late 2022, Putin promulgated a strategy announcing that Russia would protect Arctic waters “by all means” – diplomatic parlance for military force.

· CNN reported last December that Moscow is improving, fortifying, and/or expanding radar bases and runways on the Kola Peninsula (a chunk of Russia bordering Finland), in Vorkuta (which sits inside the Arctic circle), and along the Barents Sea.

· Russia is suspected of severing undersea cables linking the Norwegian mainland with key satellite stations based on Arctic islands, as well as other undersea sabotage operations in and around the Arctic Circle.

Some may counter that Putin’s Russia signed a 2017 agreement with fellow Arctic nations committing itself to “maintaining peace, stability and constructive cooperation in the Arctic.” But Putin’s Russia also signed agreements committing to Ukraine’s territorial integrity, vowing not to change borders in Europe by force, pledging not to develop certain kinds of weapons, and promising not to deploy intermediate-range nuclear weapons or conventional forces in certain parts of Europe – and has broken every one of those agreements. In short, words are worthless to Putin. What matters is actions.

Turning north That brings us to the countermoves made by NATO’s Arctic members. With the accession of Finland and (soon) Sweden into the alliance, every Arctic nation – except Russia – is also a NATO member. NATO’s “Arctic Seven” are finally doing what’s necessary to deter Putin in the High North.

Canada – Recent years have seen Canadian forces host U.S. air and ground units for what the Canadian military calls “recurring joint Arctic exercises.” Canada also deploys hundreds of personnel, along with costal defense vessels, fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters and mobile radar systems for training in Alaska. In addition, Canada is standing up a new Arctic radar system to defend North America against hypersonic missiles, and next year it will open a naval-refueling base on Baffin Island (which sits north of Canada’s mainland).

Denmark – Denmark has created a Joint Arctic Command, invested hundreds of millions in Arctic security and surveillance, and is standing up an Arctic Response Force composed of rapid-reaction air, maritime and land units. In addition, Denmark is investing fresh resources into satellites and surveillance drones focused on the Arctic, and the Danes are refurbishing and reopening radar facilities on the Faroe Islands (located between Britain and Iceland). Also, the Danish territory of Greenland hosts a key U.S. base that operates missile-defense radars.

Finland and Sweden – With the addition of Finland and Sweden, NATO will benefit from enhanced awareness of, capabilities along and deterrence throughout the High North.

The Finns hosted large-scale ground exercises this spring dubbed Northern Forest including 7,500 troops from the United States, Britain, Norway, Sweden and of course Finland. The exercise took place above the Arctic Circle “just a two-hour drive from the Russian border,” according to Reuters. And the just-completed Arctic Challenge Exercise 23 featured 120 aircraft from 14 NATO members and partners screaming through airspace across the northern parts of Finland, Sweden and Norway.

Finland hosted this year’s annual Arctic Security Forces Roundtable (ASFR), a gathering of uniformed military officials focusing on Arctic security and defense. (ASFR was established by the United States and Norway in 2010.)

Sweden has committed to investing 2% of GDP into defense by 2026 and will deploy a permanent military unit in the Kiruna municipality (north of the Arctic Circle).

Iceland – Although Iceland has a tiny defense force, it contributes immeasurably to Arctic security through exercises and basing. Exercise Northern Viking, for instance, recently hosted air, land and sea components from France, Germany, Iceland, Norway, Portugal, Britain and the United States. Plus, the U.S. military operates out of Keflavik.

Norway – Even before Putin’s latest spasm of aggression in Ukraine, Norway had moved its military headquarters above the Arctic Circle and based its largest active army unit in the Arctic Circle. Today, Norway is pouring fresh resources into munitions production, upgrading runways and electronic countermeasures at Orland Air Station (located near the Arctic Circle), deploying and operating a constellation of Arctic-focused satellites, and hosting exercise Joint Viking (the largest NATO exercise in the European Arctic this year). A companion exercise known as Joint Warrior – led by the British navy operating in the Norwegian Sea – enfolded maritime operations and landing operations, 14 allies, 16 warships and 58 aircraft.

Although not an Arctic nation, Britain is committed to helping its NATO allies secure the Arctic. As Britain’s new Arctic strategy details, the Royal Navy’s Littoral Response Group North “will periodically operate in the High North alongside allies and partners, the Army will expand its cold-weather training, and the RAF will deploy P-8A Maritime Patrol Aircraft to the region.” In addition, British helicopter assault units and commando units are developing “cold-weather warfare interoperability with Norwegian and United States units.”

United States – Late last year, the Biden administration created a new position within the Pentagon focused on Arctic issues – deputy assistant secretary of defense for Arctic and global resilience – and issued a new Arctic strategy. The strategy makes clear that the United States seeks an Arctic region that is “peaceful, stable, prosperous and cooperative,” while emphasizing that it “will deter threats to the U.S. homeland and our allies by enhancing the capabilities required to defend our interests in the Arctic.” The strategy notes that Russia’s war on Ukraine has “enhanced unity with our Arctic partners.”

As evidence of that, USS Gerald R. Ford in June sailed into the High North during its first deployment – and was even placed under NATO command. U.S. B-52 bombers recently sortied through Nordic Europe, flanked by Norwegian and Swedish fighter-bombers. And the United States joined Norway, Britain and Netherlands in spearheading “extreme cold weather exercises” in Norway, which put 20,000 NATO troops in the field.

Here at home, Army, Air Force and Marine units conducted cold-weather training in northern Michigan in February, while March and April saw the Alaska-based 11th Airborne lead wargames in Alaska involving 8,000 U.S. personnel.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday raised eyebrows last month when he called for the United States and its NATO allies to start holding exercises in the Arctic on par with the RIMPAC exercises in the Pacific. RIMPAC enfolds 30 nations, dozens of warships, nearly 200 aircraft, and thousands of sailors and airmen. “I think that we could do the same up in the Arctic,” Gilday said.

Together Gilday’s words should challenge NATO’s political leaders to elevate Arctic security and fully integrate the Arctic into the alliance’s overall deterrence mission. This is perhaps the best way to signal Putin that NATO has the will and means to block Moscow from turning the High North into an outpost of some reconstituted Russian Empire. If NATO doesn’t start coordinating, unifying and harmonizing the various Arctic efforts of its members, Putin could quite literally divide and conquer.

The good news is that NATO – as an organization – is aware of the threat. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently reported on “a significant Russian military build-up in the High North,” noting that Russia is “reopening old Soviet bases,” “testing novel weapons in the Arctic” and deploying “a new strategic missile-carrying submarine cruiser for Arctic operations.”

Alone, it may be impossible for individual allies to match Russia’s Arctic advantages. Russia, for instance, deploys 57 icebreakers/Arctic-capable patrol ships. Canada deploys 18, the United States just five. But NATO’s Arctic members deploy a combined 47. This serves as a metaphor for the importance of combined, coordinated efforts in the Arctic: By pooling their resources, NATO’s Arctic members can meet the challenge posed by Moscow, ensure that the region’s resources are developed according to international law rather than the law of the jungle, defend alliance interests, and deter war.

“NATO is an Arctic alliance,” Stoltenberg bluntly declared last year.  He believes “a strong, firm and predictable allied presence is the best way to ensure stability and protect our interests.” And he wants NATO’s members to “increase our ability to use airspace in the High North and to operate across the borders in the Nordic region.”

Coordinated All the ingredients for a coordinated NATO approach to Arctic security are in place. The next crucial step is for NATO to formalize and harmonize the efforts of its Arctic members, combine their capabilities, and deal with Moscow from a posture of unity. There are many approaches the alliance could take to achieve that goal.

NATO could create an Arctic Affairs Committee to enhance information exchange and institutionalize Arctic policy. The alliance already has committees focused on conventional weapons, logistics, intelligence, aviation, proliferation issues and other important aspects of transatlantic security.

Another option is a Center for Arctic Security modeled after other NATO centers, such as the cyberdefense center, counterterrorism center, counterintelligence center, air-operations center, joint operations center, mine-warfare center and mountain-warfare center. Interestingly, there is a NATO center focused on cold-weather operations. Since cold-weather ops are only a small part of Arctic security, the cold-weather ops center doesn’t encompass all that’s needed here, but it certainly could serve as the embryo of a Center for Arctic Security.

Another possibility: NATO could stand up an Arctic Working Group. The alliance has working groups that provide recommendations and expertise to specific NATO committees and ultimately to the North Atlantic Council (NATO’s main decisionmaking body).

Working together, NATO’s members can keep the Arctic safe, secure and stable – and demonstrate to Moscow that the transatlantic alliance is committed to transarctic security.