In 1987, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev called for the Arctic to be a “zone of peace.” In a speech declaring that the region would remain separate from the confrontations and conflicts of the middle latitudes, he expressed a vision for Arctic exceptionalism—setting a trend that Arctic nations and international organizations would follow for the next thirty-five years. It wasn’t until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that Arctic stakeholders were forced to shed the misguided view that the region was somehow exempt from the competitive dynamics playing out across the rest of the world. It is increasingly apparent that this notion—since Gorbachev first gave voice to it—has always been based on wishful thinking. What this means for the United States is clear: to effectively compete with its pacing threat of China and an increasingly aggressive Russia, the United States needs to rethink its Arctic strategy and take advantage of the geostrategic importance of the region.
To the degree that there has been any exceptionalism inherent to the Arctic, this was not due to political restraint or mutual agreement, but rather because it’s really difficult to conduct operations in the northernmost region of the globe. Remote and inhospitable, the Arctic is difficult to access, explore, support operations in, extract resources from, or defend. Advancements in technology and receding polar ice are beginning to ease the costs of Arctic operations and many countries, even those far away from the Arctic like China and India, are reconsidering their approaches to the region. America should too. But, more importantly, it first needs to consider how the Arctic fits into its national strategies because, in reality, the Arctic is no different than any other region and not exempt from contest or conflict. In fact, it is a strategically important region that provides access to major theaters—access that could be decisive in future conflict. And it is becoming an even more important focus for states in strategic competition—a security context that has been steadily encroaching on the Arctic for years.
Understanding America’s future approach to the Arctic begins with an appreciation of the historic tensions that have always existed there. It also requires an understanding of how the Arctic thaw is driving state behaviors and exacerbating the threats emanating from, or through, the Arctic. To be successful, America must first acknowledge that the narrative of Arctic exceptionalism is false and an increasingly dangerous one to adhere to. It must then devise a strategy that reestablishes military capabilities, clarifies chain of command, controls access, and leverages allied and international forums to ensure American interests and security are sustained.
Arctic competition is not new. The region’s history is filled with stories of contests for resources by indigenous populations and later by the Vikings, periods of tension surrounding the formation of the Nordic states, Russian battles with Alaskan Natives, and the Japanese invasion of Alaska during World War II. During the Cold War, the Arctic gained even more strategic importance as it provided the shortest path for nuclear ballistic missiles and long-range bombers. On the North American continent, reaction to ballistic missiles and long-range assets let to the creation of NORAD—the North American Aerospace Defense Command—whose primary mission is early warning in the event of a Russian attack. In Europe, the Arctic countries built up basing capabilities and much of the Soviet Union’s military power faced north.
The proximity of the United States and the Soviet Union in the Arctic allowed bombers and fighters from both sides to interact and react near territorial borders in acts of intimidation and defiance. Even the quiet depths of the sea provided no respite. Submarines routinely patrolled the Arctic waters from bases on the East and West Coasts of the United States and from other NATO countries, while the Soviet Union’s northern ports enabled Russia’s ensured access to the world oceans through the strategically important Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom Gap and the Bering Strait. Often, US and allied submarines were the only consistent presence protecting US interests in the Arctic.
The Arctic Today
Geopolitics in the Arctic has always followed that of the rest of the world. The optimism that followed the end of the Cold War and the myth of cooperation slowly eroded, giving way to the reality that nations still compete to secure their own interest. The Arctic, at first, seemed to avoid many of the tensions through cooperative governing bodies like the Arctic Council. However, those agreements were often based on a lack of capability, domain awareness, access, and other priorities, not a genuine desire for a peaceful Arctic or true cooperation. And as ice has receded and technology has advanced, the tone of the collaborative forums may still sound cooperative, but state actions in the Arctic and the actions of the Arctic states signal other intentions.
For example, Russia has aggressively taken measures to reconstitute its military presence in the Arctic. It established the Northern Military District, assigned it new responsibilities, reconstituted bases in the region, and is investing heavily in greater capabilities. Their increased military presence gives teeth to Russia’s claims to the Northern Sea Route and its desire to expand Russian territorial possessions. Russia has also bullied its Nordic neighbors, pushing claims on long-settled land disputes, cutting undersea cables, and conducting provocative military exercises. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine demonstrates its willingness to use force, and has prompted the Nordic countries of Sweden and Finland to seek NATO membership, increase their defense budgets, and focus more on security.
Additionally, Russia sees its economic future in the Arctic and seeks to expand its hydrocarbon extraction and control any future extraction of minerals. To fuel its desires, Russia has also encouraged investment by China, and China is only too happy to expand its Polar Silk Road initiative and gain access to resources it sees as critical to its continued rise in power. Even more concerning is how both Russia and China have developed hypersonic weapons that make attack across the Arctic airspace more feasible. Russia also has the most icebreakers of any nation, approximately fifty, compared to the United States two operational icebreakers. None of these actions are independently condemnable; after all, seeking and securing national interests is normal state behavior. However, alongside Russian and Chinese actions around the world and their demonstrated disregard for international norms, their legitimate claims for increased military presence in the Arctic are quickly undermined.
Like Russia and China, the United States has an obligation to protect its sovereignty and pursue its interests, and the Arctic contains many natural resources that are critical to building and maintaining elements of national power, including hydrocarbons, rare earth elements, and fisheries. The United States should maintain the openness of Arctic maritime routes to ensure the ongoing flow of commerce and the ability to quickly move naval forces between theaters. Some argue that the limited maritime traffic that flows through the Arctic make this a problem for the future. However, the ice is in retreat and alternative maritime shipping routes are in neighborhoods with histories of instability (Straits of Malacca, Strait of Hormuz, Suez Canal). The closure of the Suez Canal last year for six days due to a ship run aground increased the desire for alternate routes. Ultimately, the United States must reassert its Arctic presence because when a nation fails to maintain control of its own borders and resources, its independence and sovereignty are also lost.
The Way Forward
The United States is working on a new Arctic strategy and while it’s good news that a new strategy is being written, it cannot repeat the mistakes of the past. Wishing for a status quo peaceful Arctic is not logical—the Arctic is a competitive space and will only become more so. The first mistake in past Arctic strategy is thinking of it as a separate, isolated region when, in reality, the Arctic is tied to the world and all its problems. As such, any Arctic strategy should be thought of as a continuation of other national strategies. Critically, the Arctic provides strategic access to four major theaters—the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, northern Europe, and North America. It is a competitive zone for the land, sea, air, and space domains, and with the proximity of undersea cables and space-based systems, for the cyber domain, as well.
Thinking of Arctic strategy as tied to other parts of the world provides new insights. For example, a greater NATO presence in the Arctic may have given Moscow pause before it moved military assets from its Northern Military District to reinforce its failures in Ukraine. Additionally, the United States no longer has the resources to plan for the Pacific and Atlantic to be independent theaters in a major war. Moving ships and equipment from one theater to the other will be critical but requires more icebreakers or ice-capable ships. The options other than an Arctic route are the Panama Canal and South America’s Cape Horn (nine thousand and seventeen thousand kilometers longer than the Northwest Passage, respectively). The Russian invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated what happens when logistics are not considered in strategy. It is also shortsighted to think any conflict in the Arctic will stay contained to that region and planning must account for the fact that any European Arctic fight will quickly spread to the Baltic and beyond.
Considering the above, a future US Arctic strategy should focus on six objectives.
The United States does not currently have the capabilities it needs to operate in the Arctic, so it must begin building those means now. Procuring additional icebreakers is not an Arctic strategy, but in this case, icebreakers are a necessary capability to enable a larger strategy. Moreover, icebreakers are not the only capability needed—most military equipment is not designed to operate in the Arctic environment, nor are most service members accustomed to the environment’s extreme conditions. Each military service should increase its Arctic operations, identify capability and manpower gaps, and assess where they are lacking the proper skills and capabilities necessary for effective Arctic operations. A key aspect of governance and security is physical presence. Unlike the means-building strategy of the early days of World War II, the United States is unlikely to have the time to build out its Arctic capability after a conflict has begun and having a deterrent capability may prevent a conflict in the first place.
Who Is in Charge?
Currently, three combatant commands share Arctic responsibilities. Northern Command is responsible for the US Arctic and adjacent territory, Indo-Pacific Command provides the people and equipment, and European Command is responsible for the non-US Arctic. Or, to put it another way, the first owns the domains, the second owns the assets, and the third owns all the action. All three combatant commands regularly coordinate, but it does not take much imagination to anticipate the issues that could quickly arise from the current structure because any future conflict will most likely involve multiple regions. For example, the commander of Indo-Pacific Command may order forces in Alaska to move to the South Pacific and simultaneously, Northern Command may want to order those same forces to protect US territory. Establishing unity of command (under one combatant command or reorganizing the combatant commands away from a geographically based structure) is important before the bullets start flying.
See Them Coming
The Cold War era North Warning System is in desperate need of an update. The system needs modern technology that includes over-the-horizon radar systems and a greater domain awareness capability. There is also a need for more maritime domain awareness to enable the tracking of not only military activity on the surface and below the sea, but also private vessels, including bulk carriers and cruise ships that see increased opportunity in the Arctic because of the ongoing thaw. Today, the United States is nearly blind to the various activities happening in the Arctic, as demonstrated by the Russian Navy’s surprise large-scale exercise in 2020 in the Bering Strait. Ultimately, the US Coast Guard cannot fulfill its mission as the first line of defense for the United States without better domain awareness in the Arctic.
Access and Denial
Antiaccess and area denial are often discussed in relation to the South China Sea. However, the same concept is useful in the Arctic. Coupled with greater domain awareness, antiaccess and area denial can be used effectively in the maritime chokepoints. All vessels wanting to enter or exit the Arctic are required to transit either the Bering Strait or the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom Gap (it is possible to transit between Greenland and Canada or between Norway and the United Kingdom, but these routes are even tighter and bring their own challenges). These two chokepoints provide an opportunity to deny transit during times of increased conflict. All traffic between China and the Arctic is required to pass through the Bering Strait. It’s impossible to overemphasize the strategic importance of these chokepoints and any country that controls passage through these chokepoints controls access to the Arctic.
Many of America’s strongest allies border the Arctic or are in its proximity and some of those allies have more experience operating in the Arctic’s extremes than the United States. A planned US training exercise in the Arctic’s austere environment is any given Tuesday in Norway. The United States can learn from its allies’ experiences, while sharing its own. Another force multiplier is intelligence sharing. With Sweden and Finland joining NATO, intelligence sharing will become easier and faster. NATO’s expansion will also reinforce cooperation in the Arctic as the burden and responsibility of securing NATO’s northern border will be shared by all the Nordic states.
United States Arctic strategy should include strengthening international forums and ensuring governance of the Arctic remains in the hands of the Arctic states. Increased global tensions make it even more important that the governance structures and forums remain avenues for clarifying intentions and addressing shared challenges. Important forums to sustain include the Arctic Council, Arctic Coast Guard Forum, and Arctic Chiefs of Defense Forum, but all three are currently on hold because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, the forums ensure that the Arctic states have can provide governance for the Arctic and limit the participation of non-Arctic states in the region. Russia’s suspension is justified but dialogue is still needed to prevent misunderstanding and conflict.
At some point all three forums are likely to reconvene. However, Russian participation should be suspended until the chairmanship of the Arctic Council transfers from Russia in the summer of 2023. But, Russia cannot be excluded too long, or it will seek other outlets and potentially invite the participation of non-Arctic states. It therefore seems more appropriate to allow Russia to participate in the Arctic forums while continuing to limit or suspend its participation in other international forums, since the agenda can be singularly focused on Arctic issues and is one means to limit Russia’s influence.
For decades, a conventional wisdom based on wishful thinking has pointed to the Arctic as a region of peace and cooperation, separated from the increased competition and conflict found in other parts of the world. Arctic exceptionalism, as a mantra, has spanned several US administrations and influenced the workings of international forums, but saying something is true does not make it so. The Arctic is already a competitive region and has been throughout history. Crucially, Arctic competition is directly linked to global competition, making Arctic security integral to international security and rendering it impossible to devise an effective strategy without considering geopolitics. Arctic strategy-making for the world’s powers is tied to individual states’ national interests around the globe, and therefore the Arctic region both provides opportunities for, and poses threats to, the United States and its security. As a region, the Arctic is quickly gaining strategic importance and the United States can (and should) proactively plan for the role the Arctic will play in any future conflict. Doing so means ridding itself of the antiquated post–Cold War notion that it can maintain the status quo indefinitely. A peaceful Arctic tomorrow depends on a strong strategy today, as diplomacy works best when there is a clearly articulated and strong alternative.
Jason Smith currently serves on the faculty at the National War College teaching Arctic security strategy. He is a twenty-seven-year military veteran, deploying to the Arctic several times. He previously served as advisor to the Commandant of the Coast Guard, as senior policy advisor in the US Senate, and on the staff of the National Security Council.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense, or that of any organization the author is affiliated with, including the United States Coast Guard and National Defense University.
Image: Russian service member and TTM-1901 “Berkut” snowmobile at Russia’s Northern Clover Arctic military base (credit: Russian Ministry of Defence, via Wikimedia Commons)