By K. Joseph Spears

During the long running Cold War, the Arctic Ocean Basin had strategic military significance: The airspace was potentially important for overflights of strategic bombers and later, intercontinental ballistic missiles – the ocean space for subsurface operations of submarines of the United States and her allies, and the Soviet Union.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the breakup of the Soviet Union, the strategic significance of the Arctic Ocean Basin diminished. The Arctic was an afterthought in the thinking of most defense planners for decades. However, with melting sea-ice and a fast warming Arctic, there is now greater interest in the region because of its greater accessibility, and the importance of the region to both Russia and near-Arctic states such as China.

Canada has very limited sustained military capability in the region, but has embarked on the design and construction of Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS) for the Royal Canadian Navy. These six vessels, known as the Dewolfe class, are scheduled to be completed by 2024. The DeWolfes have limited icebreaking capability and cannot be considered icebreakers. They cannot operate in the Arctic on a year-round basis, and their fuel base at Nanasvik has not yet been completed. One could argue that the lack of year-round Arctic operability demonstrates that Canada has not taken the interest in this semi-enclosed sea by other nations seriously, and that, for the most part, the Arctic is an afterthought.

The United States has re-awakened to the strategic importance of the region and need for icebreaking capability. The United States Coast Guard (USCG) understands its importance, and the pressing need for surface assets: The U.S. is down to one 43-year old Polar icebreaker, Polar Star. Both the U.S. Defense Department and USCG have released updated strategic policies to guide how they operate in the Arctic. Earlier this month, the USCG Commandant released an Arctic Strategic Outlook that charts a course for Arctic operations.

America has limited icebreaking capability, but does have a robust subsurface submarine capability which it has maintained in a vigorous way with classified underwater patrols and Arctic exercises. In 2018, NATO navies and the U.S. Sixth Fleet held a major naval exercise off Norway in the approaches to the Arctic Ocean and the Northern Sea Route. Dubbed Trident Juncture, the excercise was the largest NATO naval exercise since the end of the Cold War, and involved more than 50,000 service members and civilians, 250 aircraft, 70 ships, and 10,000 vehicles.

It is important to note that the Arctic Council, a multilateral organization of Arctic and near-Arctic states, does not address security and defense concerns in the region. There is no specific multilateral forum for defense and security between Russia and near-Arctic states such as China, which one could argue is a major shortcoming of this organization. The Arctic Ocean Basin region falls under the purview of NATO which has remained strangely silent on Arctic issues, but has recently awoken to the strategic importance of the region. Russia clearly has sovereignty over its part of the Arctic land and sea territory, but must be guided by the rules established by the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention and cannot bring enhanced claims to its ocean space. There is cooperation in the Arctic between Russia and other Arctic coastal states on non-military issues such as search and rescue, pollution response and the implementation of International Maritime Organization (IMO) Polar Code rules that apply to commercial shipping in polar waters.

At a joint U.S. Naval War College Royal Norwegian Navy Symposium on Arctic and Cyber Security in Bergen, Norway, on April 10, 2019, Admiral James G. Foggo III, USN  Naval Forces Europe-Africa, and commander, Allied Joint Force Command Naples, Italy, summed up the NATO and United States view very clearly: “It’s nobody’s lake,” said Foggo, referring to the Arctic region. “The Arctic is an international domain, and that is why we are interested in keeping it free and open.”

Foggo noted comments from Russian officials’ requiring nations to give Russia 45-day advance notice before transiting the Northern Sea route or risk possible attack from Russia. The admiral said this goes against international laws and norms, and has the potential to increase tensions in the region. “The United States is an Arctic nation and has enduring security interest in the Arctic region,” he said. “We seek an Arctic region that is stable and free of conflict.”

In the North American context, NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command), a unique joint Canada – U.S. defense arrangement, governs the Arctic region. NORAD is a defense arrangement between Canada and the United States whereby each shares the obligation to protect each other. NORAD assets in the Arctic include both active and passive radar and listening posts to identify incoming missiles and aircraft (and even Santa Claus). NORAD has recently been expanded to include surface marine activities as well.

The United States has deployed F-22 and F-35 fighters and has an extensive anti-missile defense at Fort Greely in Alaska. These air defense assets are controlled by NORAD and US NORTHCOM. Russia regularly tests NORAD defense by flying long-range aircraft near Air Defense Identification Zones (ADIZ) that extend outside Canada and America’s territorial sea. Russia has stepped up these flights in recent years, while Canada extended it ADIZ to cover all of its Arctic Archipelago in May of 2018.

Canada also maintains its own defense capabilities in its Arctic ocean space, and enacted territorial sea baselines around the Arctic Archipelago. Although not internationally recognized, Canada has claimed these waters as internal waters, akin to its land territory. Issues that arise in the South China Sea with respect to freedom of navigation also arise in Canadian Arctic waters which are not internationally recognized, and it remains to be seen how these baselines will be tested with respect to the right of transit passage through the Northwest Passage.

In addition to its obvious military interests, Russia’s interests in the Arctic are tied to its economic development. Russia has invested heavily in the development of hydrocarbons in its Arctic region and has brought those on stream as oilfields in the Caspian Sea mature. Furthermore, Russia has expanded and enhanced its military bases in and along its Northern Sea Route which it is actively promoting as an international trade route. Russia has modernized it navy and revitalized seven of its former Soviet bases in the region. This has raised concerns with respect to the application of international rules-based approaches to navigation because they may be interpreted as interference in the right of freedom of navigation. Russia’s major new investments in the build-up of Arctic military and commercial capabilities, coupled with increasing resource extraction from the region has caused some to dub the Arctic as “Putin’s playground”.

Russian resource development has utilized Chinese and other foreign investment to develop its Arctic energy resources. For example, in the Yamal natural gas field, Russian icebreaking LNG gas carriers are being used to move the LNG to Chinese markets along the Northern Sea Route without icebreaker support. This highlights the fact that “Arctic issues are both geo-political and geo-economic” to use the comments of Professor Rob Hubert of the University of Calgary’s Centre for Strategic and Security Studies and longtime Arctic watcher. Dr. Hubert indicated in a recent interview that some Arctic issues have an international political context which has not been adequately considered, and cannot be ignored when examining Arctic development.

It remains to be seen whether the Arctic Ocean Basin is indeed Putin’s playground. Clearly, though, Russia has lots of icebreaking capacity and a military that can move and operate freely in the region, as seen by recent exercises, and its capability cannot be ignored. Although this has potentially threatening military consequences, in the event of a major search and rescue incident, the international community would benefit from Russia’s greatly enhanced capabilities because Russian assets would be utilized under the international Arctic Search and Rescue Agreement that was put in place under the auspices of the Arctic Council, which stresses international cooperation.

It is clear that military as well as resource development considerations will grow in importance in the region, and that commercial shipping will increase in a changing Arctic. It is also evident that Mr. Putin cannot be ignored. However, in the Arctic, like other playgrounds, rules need to be followed. A balancing of strategic capability and dialogue are needed to keep the region free of conflict. At the recent conference in Norway, Admiral Foggo summed up America’s approach to Arctic issues as follows: “The U.S. Navy is committed to freedom of navigation in the Arctic and oceans around the world. The U.S. will work together with allies and partner nations to ensure our home-nations are protected, and will work cooperatively to address challenges as they arise. The U.S. 6th Fleet routinely operates in the Arctic to sustain our joint military advantages globally and regionally.”

Joe Spears, Managing Director of Horseshoe Bay Marine, is a longtime Russian Arctic watcher who was awoken to issues by Professor Terrance Armstrong Director of the Scott Polar Institute, Cambridge University while a student looking at Arctic Shipping in 1985. Joe can be reached at