Five Nations Jockey for Military Influence in Arctic

By Keupp, Marcus M. | National Defense, March 2016 | Go to article overview

Five Nations Jockey for Military Influence in Arctic


Keupp, Marcus M., National Defense


This is an excerpt from the book, "The Northern Sea Route,"published by SpringerGabler. Academic references are omitted here for the sake of brevity but are included in the original text.

Reports of ice quickly melting in the Arctic, Russia boosting its military expenditures and research predicting significant untapped hydrocarbon resources in the region has led many commentators to state that armed conflict and "resource wars" in the Arctic are imminent.

At the same time, many scholars and experts predict that the Northern Sea will soon become a viable alternative to the Suez Canal as a shipping route because it will significantly reduce distances between Asia and Europe.

Few would doubt that Russia - with its northern fleet, naval infantry, air force, coast guard and patrol vessels that support it - is by far the most forceful naval power in the Arctic. Besides its headquarters at Severomorsk, the fleet has four other large naval bases in the high north, each of which consists of multiple bays, facilities, ports and installations: Gadzhievo, Zapadnaya Litsa, Vidyayevo and Gremikha. Current media coverage suggests that a much smaller naval base may be under construction on Wrangel Island.

Norway also has a number of larger naval bases in its northern regions at Haakonsvem, Ramsund and Sortland. By comparison, Canada, the United States and Denmark combined have few naval bases in the Arctic. Among these so-called "Arctic Five," Russia has by far the strongest icebreaking capability, both by the number and the power of its icebreakers, allowing its combat vessels to operate in ice-infested waters with a thickness of up to two meters if they travel in an icebreaker canal.

Given that even military vessels can suffer ice-related damage if they have thin hulls, this factor is not to be underestimated. Also, Russia's nuclear icebreakers only have to be refueled once every four years. Their radius of operation is almost unlimited.

While the U.S. military today has few surface vessels capable of sailing in the Arctic, it has significant undersea capabilities and is able to operate nuclear submarines in the Arctic Ocean and in near-Arctic seas, in open water as well as under the Arctic ice cover. As of 2014, the United States is the only nation able to match the Russian submarine fleet. Both nations operate nuclear and conventional submarines in polar waters today and have done so throughout the Cold War.

The case is more nuanced when air and surveillance capabilities are considered. The United States has a significant number of well-equipped air force bases in the high north: Eielson, Fort Clear, Fort Greely, Fort Wainwright, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and Qaanaaq (Thule) in Greenland.

While Canada's combat aircraft are stationed in southeast and central Canada, they are regularly deployed in the Arctic region and can operate from four secondary air bases in northern Canada. In addition, Canada and the United States have installed sophisticated satellite surveillance and early warning systems in the region such as the Polar Epsilon and Ballistic Missile Early Warning Systems.

Russia has several airfields and airbases north of the 60th parallel, some of which have reopened in the past five years. They are: Alykel, Besovets, Khatanga, Kogalym, Kotelny Island, Mirny, Severomorsk (Murmansk), Olenya (Olenegorsk), Raduzhny, Salekhard, Surgut, Syktyvkar, Tiksi, Dresba airbase at Pevek, Petrozavodsk, Ugolny and Yakutsk. However, it is questionable how many of these are fully operational from a military point of view.

Russia resumed long-range bomber and patrol flights beginning in 2007 after many airfields and bases had been dormant for over a decade or even closed due to a lack of funding in the postSoviet era. If all of these bases were fully operational for military purposes, Russia would probably match the air capabilities of its Arctic neighbors.

It is important to note that the extreme climate in the Arctic may restrict the use of aircraft, submarines and vessels not configured for such an environment. …

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