With all the military activities going on in Eastern Europe, the South China Sea, the Korean peninsula, Sinai, Northern Nigeria, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen, it may have slipped most people’s notice that yet another region is rapidly becoming a zone of military competition. This is the Arctic. Global warming is diminishing the ice that once covered virtually all this region. As a consequence, new, shorter shipping routes between Asia and Europe/North America are becoming possible. Even more interesting, the retreating ice is opening up access to vast deposits of oil, natural gas and industrial metals. There is something of a gold rush going on in the region, led by Russia. The other interested parties – Canada, Denmark, the United States and Norway – have been slower to react.
Just as flags follow commerce, military forces follow the flag. Moscow has made it clear that it not only intends to lay claim to a significant, some will argue unwarranted, slice of the defrosting region, but that it will actively defend its interests. Just this past August, the Russian military conducted a combined arms exercise along its Arctic border that involved 80,000 troops, 220 aircraft, 41 ships, and 15 submarines. Other exercises in the region have witnessed the deployment of advanced, mobile anti-aircraft systems and short range ballistic missiles. The Ministry of Defense is building or upgrading 10 air-defense radar stations, 10 search-and-rescue stations, 13 airfields and 16 deep water ports along Russia’s northern coast. These facilities will support the deployment of Russia’s advanced fighters and bombers. Moscow has stood up a special Joint Strategic Command North which, according to the Deputy Chief of the newly created Aerospace Defense Forces, will eventually consist of units of the Northern fleet as well as an air defense division, two Arctic mechanized brigades, a naval infantry brigade, a coastal defense missile system, and the placement of missile regiments in outlying archipelagos in the Arctic Ocean.
Compared to the Russian military buildup, the U.S. and allied presence in the Arctic region looks not just small but increasingly pitiful. The U.S. Coast Guard has but two aging icebreakers to deal with problems in the Far North. They are decades old and should have been replaced years ago. Russia, admittedly with a longer Arctic coast, has a fleet of some twenty ice breakers, including five nuclear powered ones. Moscow has just ordered a new, biggest-ever nuclear ice breaker.
After years of reduced defense budgets, U.S. and NATO’s military forces in the Arctic region are similarly weak in comparison to what Russia is deploying. There are few bases far enough North to support a significant military presence. The U.S. and its allies have little recent experience in operations in far northern climates.
NATO will regain some of its lost military advantage when not only this country but northern allies such as Canada, Denmark and the U.K. deploy the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. A stealthy platform with advanced avionics, state of the art electronic warfare capabilities and robust information sharing systems, the F-35 can act as a force multiplier to negate Russian efforts to establish air dominance in the Arctic region. When advanced long range air-to-surface weapons such as the JASSM-Extended Range are deployed, the F-35 will contribute to the Alliance’s ability to deter Russian conventional threats.
The Navy and Army are going to have to think anew about deploying forces to the Arctic and operating in this austere and frigid environment. There is going to be more demand for land and sea-based air and missile defenses such as the Aegis BMDS, THAAD and Patriot.
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