The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world which, among other things, is melting sea ice at a rapid rate. This has resulted in fresh expanses of open waters and shipping routes that can slash the time it takes to travel between Asia and the west by twenty days.
This has resulted in an increased militarisation of the region as Arctic nations rush to secure their shifting maritime borders and protect their commercial interests. Tensions have been further amplified by the prospect of vast untapped oil and natural gas reserves made accessible by the melting ice.
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Malte Humpert is a Senior Fellow and Founder of The Arctic Institute, a non-partisan think tank based in Washington DC….
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It was during the Second World War that the region saw its first major military conflicts. Some of these included:
The Winter War – the conflict that began with the Soviet Union’s (USSR) invasion of Finland on the 30th November 1939 and ended three and a half months later with the Moscow Peace Treaty. Finland managed to repel a full invasion of the country but ceded significant border areas including the city of Viipuri (Vyborg) to the Soviet union in the Moscow Peace Treaty.
The Continuation War – fought between Finland and Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union. The conflict began in June 1941 following the German invasions of the Soviet Union, which was followed by the Finnish Defense forces launching their own offensive. It was during this conflict that Operation Silver Fox, a German-Finnish operation, was launched with the aim of capturing the Soviet port in Murmansk. Finland ended its conflict with the Soviet Union when it signed the Moscow Armistice on the 5th of September 1944.
The Lapland War – A conflict fought between between Finland and Nazi Germany during the final stages of World War II. The Finns successfully drove the Wehrmacht out of the country, but the German’s scorched earth and land mine strategies destroyed much of Finland’s northernmost province.
Operation Gauntlet – A successful operation led by Canadian, British and Free Norwegian Forces to demolish the coal, mining and shipping infrastructure on Spitsbergen Island. (25th August 3rd – September 1941).
The Aleutian Islands campaign – a conflict between U.S.-Canadian forces and Japan over the islands of Attu and Kiska, part of Alaska. The Japanese forces occupied the islands for just over a year between June 3rd 1942 and August 15th 1943.
The Cold War ushered in an era of rapid Arctic militarisation as the region became of overwhelming strategic importance to both the United States and the USSR. The geographical proximity that the region offered between the superpowers would prove crucial in the development of long-range missiles and submarine forces by both sides. As the nuclear capabilities became more sophisticated, so did the importance of each side’s defence systems, this began decades of tension in the Arctic.
The end of the Cold War promised to end this Arctic standoff. In 1987, Mikael Gorbachev, gave the famous ‘Murmansk Speech’ in which he defined the region as a ‘zone of peace and cooperation’. There have been significant steps since then, by both sides to reduce the amount of nuclear weapons in the Arctic including the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties. The Arctic Military Environmental Cooperation agreement between Russia, the US and Norway has helped to decommission a large number of former Soviet nuclear-powered submarines.
However, in recent years with the melting ice, caused by climate change, polar shipping routes are becoming more accessible as well as untapped natural resources, which has led to an uptick in tensions. Russia has heavily invested in rebooting its northern military infrastructure as have other Arctic States such as Canada.
Although far from the heights of the cold war; military posturing is commonplace across the region. In 2018, for example, 50,000 participants took part in a NATO-led military exercise that took place across Norway, the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. In September 2019 Russia conducted Tsentr-19 and Grom-19 which involved significant military drills in the Arctic archipelagos of Novaya Zemlya and the New Siberian Islands as well as the Barents Sea.
The Arctic States
It is clear that Russia sees it’s Arctic region as essential to the country’s economic and military security. The Center for Strategic International Studies breaks down Russia’s military presence in the Arctic into three main objectives:
1) Enhance homeland defense, specifically a forward line of defense against foreign incursion as the Arctic attracts increased international investment;
2) Secure Russia’s economic future; and
3) Create a staging ground to project power, primarily in the North Atlantic.
Russia has 24,140 km of coastline along the Arctic Ocean, 53% of the ocean’s total. The majority of its defensive and offensive capabilities are focused along its western Arctic regions. In the past decade Russia has invested heavily in revamping and growing its military capabilities in the Arctic.
On the 1st of December 2014, the Northern Fleet Joint Strategic Command was established to give greater autonomy to the Northern Fleet. The Northern Fleet Joint Strategic Command includes all Russian armed forces located in the Murmansk and Arkhangelsk Oblasts. The Northern Fleet is responsible for naval operations in the European Arctic.
The Northern Fleet is tasked with protecting the coastline up to the Bering Sea as well Russia’s Arctic economic ventures. It is also responsible for protecting the country’s military assets on the Kola Peninsula for the survivability of second-strike nuclear assets. The Kola Peninsula is located in the Northwest of Russia, bordered by the Barents Sea in the north and the White Sea in the east and southeast. Murmansk is located in the peninsula; with a population of around 300,000 it is the largest city above the Arctic Circle. The Northern Fleet contains about two thirds of the Russian Navy’s nuclear-powered ships. In 2018, the fleet welcomed its first icebreaker, Ilya Muromets.
Russia has also invested heavily in protecting its western Arctic territories, deploying a number of radar and air defence systems as well as refurbishing cold-war era airfields.
The majority of Russia’s Arctic military activities are Naval and Aerial, however there has also been a build up of ground troops, in particular the Arctic Brigade stationed close to the Norwegian border.
Temperatures across Russia’s Arctic and Subarctic territory can drop below -50 degrees in some areas. This vast distances and extreme conditions that the Russian military face in the Arctic has led to significant investment in Arctic specific technology, including Arctic-specific land platforms, adapted armoured personnel carriers and a trans-Arctic fibre-optic cable linking military facilities on the Arctic Seabed from the Kola Peninsula in the country’s northwest and Vladivostok in the east. Russia has also deployed specialized UAV units, specifically designed to weather Arctic conditions.
Russia has carried out a number of Arctic military exercises over the past few years designed to project its military strength and maritime control over its Arctic waters. These have included the Vostok-2018 where the Northern Fleet conducted operations off the Pacific coast before twice passing through the Northern Sea Route as well as a 2020 paratrooper military drill involving a 30,000 jump onto Franz Josef Land.
The US military involvement in the Arctic began during the Cold War when the region proved useful for advance warning radar systems and the placement of ICBMs. The Arctic also played a crucial role for both the Soviets and the US, who could operate submarines beneath the Arctic ice sheet providing a nuclear second-strike capability.
After the fall of the Soviet Union the United States’ military interest in the region came to end, and until recently, there was no clear or consistent Arctic strategy. However, in response to Russia’s increased activity in the region the US have begun to adopt a more prominent position in the region.
The country is still lagging behind many of the other Arctic states when it comes to Arctic military capabilities and preparedness. Whilst Russia has more than 40 icebreakers, the US military have only two operational ones. In October 2018, the USS Harry S.Truman carrier and its fleet sailed above the Arctic Circle, the first time a naval unit had since the end of the Cold War.
In 2019, Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, spoke of the need for the US to reverse the decades of neglect in the Arctic.
“we are fortifying America’s security and diplomatic presence in the area… hosting military exercises, strengthening our force presence, rebuilding our icebreaker fleet, expanding Coast Guard funding, and creating a new senior military post for Arctic Affairs inside of our own military.”Mike Pompeo at a meeting of the Arctic Council in Rovaniemi, Finland. 2019
The US military has now reactivated the decommissioned Second Fleet in the North Atlantic. The Barents Sea patrol now makes regular trips above the Arctic circle. Large parts of the Barents Sea lie in Russia’s exclusive economic zone and contain waters that Russian submarines regularly operate in.
The Alaskan Command is responsible for operations in and around Alaska. The Command includes the Eleventh Air Force, the United States Army Alaska and the United States Naval Force Alaska.
The US’ northernmost military base is actually situated on Greenland. Thule Air Base was initially established to protect the Danish colonies from Germany in the Second World War. Today, it operated by the US Air Force Space Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command who use it to monitor space for defence purposes.
The US has also participated in a number of Arctic military exercises and war games over recent years. In March 2020, the US had planned to send 7,500 combat to team up with NATO forces in Norway for a mock battle near the border with Russia. The exercise was cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Although the US has made significant commitments to beefing up its Arctic military presence, the region still remains a significant weak-spot. It will be a while before the US can expect to rival its Arctic neighbours when it comes to military might.
Canada, like the US, had allowed its Arctic military capabilities to fall into decline after the Cold War. It wasn’t until the mid-2000s that the Canadian Army began to train again in Arctic conditions. The initial training exercises, including Northern Bison, which included sending a small force to Churchill, exposed a significant lack of effectiveness and winter warfare skills. Operation Arctic Ram in 2012 highlighted a critical shortage of over-snow vehicles rendering many of the troops immobile in Arctic winter conditions.
In response to these issues, the Canadian Army invested in a series of Northern Operational Hubs along with self-contained mobile units including the Arctic Response Company Groups (ARCGs). These groups are made of reservists still based in the south of the country, which means that it can still take weeks for them to deploy.
The Canadian Military’s permanent presence in its Arctic and Subarctic regions are The Canadian Rangers, a part-time military force of roughly 5,000 personnel, many of who are indigenous. With the country’s Far North making up more than 40% of the landmass but containing less than 1% of the population, the Ranger’s local knowledge of their land is a highly valued asset. The Rangers also train the southern units in essential skills for surviving the northern conditions.
The Navy (RCN) have also invested in infrastructure, technology and vessels which will allow them to operate in the Northwest passage due to their ice-breaking capability. The RCN have ordered six Arctic offshore patrol ships to conduct armed sea borne surveillance in Canada’s waters. The RCN has also built the Nanisivik Naval Facility on Baffin Island in Nunavut. The base, which should be operational towards the end of 2020, will be used for refueling the Arctic patrol ships as well as Victoria-class submarines.
Canada have also invested in improved surveillance programs including the Northern Watch project which provides underwater surveillance from its base on Devon Island. The RADARSAT II satellite can effectively track ships as they move through Canadian waters. The Royal Canadian Airforce (RCAF) also provides additional surveillance with its Aurora aircraft.
Canada’s ability to operate in the Arctic has improved significantly over the past decade. Ground forces are now better trained and more mobile in Arctic conditions; an arctic naval base and arctic vessels are under construction and surveillance has become more sophisticated.
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Despite a population of only 5 million, the Norwegian military plays a vital role in the Arctic. This is largely due to its geographical position. The country borders Russia along the Kola peninsula, where Russia has based a large portion of its Arctic military force.
One third of Norway lies above the Arctic Circle and it is home to around 10% of the population which made it the perfect location for NATO’s Centre of Excellence for Cold Weather Operations. Norway is also home to a purpose-built cave system outside Trondheim used for storing US military equipment.
Due to its strategic location Norway often hosts NATO-led military exercises, including the Trident Juncture in 2018, which involved 50,000 participants from 31 nations. These exercises are designed to secure Norway’s and its allies ability to conduct multinational joint exercises in high-intensity combat scenarios and in demanding winter conditions.
Norway is the only country in the world to have its military headquarters based above the Arctic Circle on the city of Bodø. The Norwegian Army is one of the most experienced in cold weather conditions. The Norwegian Navy operates anti-submarine frigates and corvettes (small warships) which are able to function in Arctic waters. They are also revamping an air base in Evenes, in Northern Norway that will host new F-35 fighter jets as well as new P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft. The Norwegian military have also developed a unique Advanced Surface to Air Missile System which also includes land-based Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile capabilities.
In 2020, Norway announced a new defence plan in response to escalating tensions with Russia and China in the Arctic. The new plan would focus on strengthening the Brigade Nord, a combat formation based in Northern Norway and Finnmark Land Defence, a unit based in Porsanger, near the Russian border. The Army will also receive new armoured combat vehicles and long-range precision weapons as well as a new mobile unit for Chemical, Biological, Radioactive and Nuclear defence. Four more submarines will also be added to their existing fleet of six Ula class submarines.
Despite Norway’s pivotal role in NATO’s defence against Russian influence in the Arctic, Norway promotes a policy of deterrence and rapprochement with its eastern Neighbour. In 2019 a bilateral communication channel was established between Oslo and Russia.
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Nils Adler is a British-Swedish freelance journalist. He is currently working on an ‘innovation series’ which looks to highlight lesser-known…
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After Norway, Sweden has the second highest military budget out of its Scandinavian neighbours. The size of the military was drastically reduced after the country deactivated mandatory military service in 2010. However, in 2017, Sweden announced it would reactivate conscription citing the decision as a response to increasing concern over Russia’s military ambitions.
Shortly after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, a Russian submarine was allegedly spotted in the country’s capital, Stockholm. Despite an extensive hunt for the submarine in the capital’s archipelago the incident remains unresolved. This case revived memories of the Soviet nuclear submarine that ran aground in Karlskrona, southern Sweden in 1981.
The submarine incident along with Russia’s occupation in Crimea and eastern Ukraine saw a swell in support for the country to join NATO and an expansion of the defence budget. In 2019, Sweden’s Navy moved its headquarters to a cold war fortress on the island of Muskö that had been built to withstand a nuclear attack during the Cold War era.
Approximately 30% of Sweden lies above the Arctic Circle but it is not a littoral Arctic state which means that it’s navy is focused on threats in the Baltic Sea. Sweden’s Arctic military presence consists of the Norbotten regiment in Boden near the Arctic border which boasts 500 officers and 900 other personnel. The regiment is supported by the Norbotten Air Force wing located in Luleå. The Swedish military also has three light infantry battalions based north of the Arctic Circle for patrolling its Northern regions.
Finland is the only non-NATO European Union state bordering Russia. The country has a universal military service conscription in place in which all men above 18 years of age serve for 165,255 or 347 days.
Around one third of Finland lies above the Arctic Circle which means that a significant portion of its military forces are located in the Arctic. There are military installations in Kajaani, Sodankylä, Rovaniemi and Huovinrinne.
One of the country’s four air bases is based in Rovaniemi in Finnish Lapland. It is home to a number of Finland’s fleet of Hornet fighter planes. The Finnish government is currently discussing a plan to renew the entire Finnish fleet of fighter planes.
Finland’s military has participated in, and hosted, a number of military exercises that have included international participation. These include the Arctic Challenge, an air combat exercise involving Finland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden with support from the US Air Force. In May 2021, Finland will hold the Arctic Lock joint exercise.
Denmark, Greenland & Faroe Islands
Although the country of Denmark lies far below the Arctic Circle its military still plays an important role in the region due the Greenland. The world’s largest island is an autonomous Danish dependent territory with limited self government and its own parliament. However, Denmark maintains control over foreign affairs and defence matters.
The Danish military has a dedicated unit for the Arctic region called the Joint Arctic Command. The command is headquartered in Nuuk, Greenland, with a liaison Unit in the Subarctic Tórshavn on the Faroe Islands. The Faroe Islands have been a self-governing part of the Danish Kingdom since 1948 but Denmark retains control over defence and security policy, the Supreme Court and monetary policy.
The Command’s main tasks are surveillance and enforcement of sovereignty and the military defence of Greenland and the Faroe Islands. The Joint Arctic Command is also responsible for fishing inspection, search & rescue, maritime pollution protection and hydrographic surveys.
The Arctic Joint Command contains four ocean patrol frigates and two offshore patrol vessels. It also contains an elite Danish naval unit called the Sirius Dog Sled Patrol which conducts long-range reconnaissance patrol missions across northern and eastern Greenland, including the Northeast Greenland National Park. The patrols are usually done in pairs and using dog sleds, with patrols sometimes taking four months.
The Joint Arctic Command also hosts a liaison team at the Thule Air Base in Northwest Greenland, The Air Base is operated by the US Air Force and is home to the 21st Space Wing’s global network of missile warning sensors, space surveillance and space control for the North American Defense Command and the the Air Force Space Command. The Air base handles more than 3,000 flights a year. It is also home to the world’s northernmost deepwater port.
Iceland is the only NATO member to have no standing army. Iceland does have a Coast Guard that patrols the Icelandic waters and airspace. The Icelandic Coast Guard consists of three ships and four aircraft which are equipped with small arms and artillery.