The Arctic: a new military domain?

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The strategic environment of Arctic has traditionally been dictated by its isolation and extremely harsh climate: it was simply an extremely cold, remote, and generally desolate place for humans.

However, global climate change has begun to alter this general view. In particular, the extent and thickness of sea ice has decreased significantly; in recent years, summer sea ice extent has been about 50% less than the previous 30 years, a loss of sea ice roughly equal to one-third of the landmass of the United States.

Although still not a tropical paradise, the Arctic has become much more accessible. Consequently, the reduction of Arctic ice has increased economic interests in the region. The first of these concerns the region’s apparently abundant oil and natural gas reserves. The Arctic is thought to contain up to 25% of the world’s oil and gas reserves; a conservative estimate puts it at over 100 billion barrels of oil, with an estimated value of perhaps $20 trillion.

Equally important, the Arctic is seen as a possible alternative sea route for commercial shipping, potentially competing with the traditional trans-Suez/trans-Straits of Malacca route used by most ships when it comes to trade. between Europe and Asia-Pacific. The reduction in sea ice means that shipping routes through the Arctic region are at least a commercial possibility.

Moscow is particularly interested in the development of the so-called Northern Sea Route (NSR) along the northern coast of Russia. The passage is particularly attractive for shipping via Europe and Asia. The distance from Shanghai to Hamburg is 3,231 miles shorter through the Arctic route than through the Suez Canal and the Strait of Malacca. As the Arctic shrinks in extent and thickness, the National Intelligence Council believes continued global warming could allow the NSR to remain open for 110 days a year by 2030, “transforming global shipping patterns”.

Already, the number of vessels using the NSR has increased from 41 vessels in 2011 to 92 in 2021; between 2010 and 2012, the number of ships using this route increased tenfold and Russia expects a thirty-fold increase in the number of transits over the next few years.

Russia is not alone in wanting to further develop the NSR. China, which has called itself a “close to the Arctic” state, published its official report in 2018 outlining its Arctic policy. In it, Beijing outlined its plans to conduct research, develop infrastructure and dig for resources in the Arctic Circle. China particularly views the Arctic as a critical part of a “Polar Silk Roadto complement its Belt and Road Initiative.

The Chinese icebreaker Xuelong, which has traveled in the Arctic, in Xiamen in Fujian province, China, on June 27, 2010. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

These economic and commercial developments have greatly enhanced the strategic value of the Arctic, which is experiencing some resurgence in terms of its importance as a military domain. Russia zealously guards the Arctic as “its zone” and has the largest military footprint in the region of any Arctic state, with nearly a dozen ports and military bases located along its northern coast. , from Murmansk to Petropavlovsk.

Moreover, no other country has invested more resources in its Arctic forces than Russia. After decades of neglect, Moscow is rebuilding and strengthening its military presence in the Arctic, particularly in the “Great North” around the Kola Peninsula, home of the Russian Northern Fleet.

Since 2008, for example, Russia has established two Arctic Warfare Brigades (composed of around 9,000 soldiers) and reopened naval installations, airbases and radar sites in the Kola and along the Russian arctic coast. Russia now operates around 100 long-range aircraft in the Kola, including Tu-22 long-range bombers and Tu-142 and Il-38 maritime reconnaissance aircraft. These assets regularly carry out reconnaissance and bomb test flights over the Arctic. Russia is also upgrading its Novaya Zemlya airfield to accommodate modern combat aircraft and deploy modern S400 air defense systems.

In particular, Russia has invested heavily in modernizing its Northern Fleet, which is headquartered in Severomorsk on the Kola Peninsula. The Northern Fleet is primarily home to the Russian Ballistic Missile Submarine Fleet (SSBN), which relies heavily on the Arctic for its patrols. This flotilla includes several new Borei-class SSBNs, as well as the Belgorod submarine, which recently made headlines when it briefly “faded away“, raising fears that he is off on some kind of apocalyptic mission.

China is not yet a military power in the region, but the “partnership without limits with Moscow gives the idea of Sino-Russian cooperation in the Arctic very possible. In particular, China has long-term military plans for the arctic. In particular, the region is seen as a possible future area of ​​operation for China’s nuclear missile-carrying submarines (SSBNs). For all these reasons, Beijing is currently considering building a third icebreaker for the Chinese military.

This, in turn, would create NATO-Russia/China competition in the Arctic. With Sweden and Finland about to join the Atlantic Alliance, all members of the Arctic Council (United States, Canada, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland) except Russia will be NATO members. The Arctic Ocean, along with the Far North of the Nordic region, is likely to become a key military domain for a new Cold War. The need for broader NATO cooperation in the Arctic is more necessary than ever.

The opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Epoch Times.

Richard A. Bitzinger

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Richard A. Bitzinger is an independent international security analyst. He was formerly a Senior Fellow of the Military Transformations Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, and has held positions in the US government and various think tanks. His research focuses on security and defense issues related to the Asia-Pacific region, including the rise of China as a military power, military modernization and the proliferation of armaments in the region.