Mar 2017

Is NATO being out-flanked in the North?


Just under a year ago the APPG for Polar Regions asked “Is Russia preparing for war in the Arctic?” The conclusion that day was that while Russia did appear to be preparing for the possibility of war – for example, by building up ‘Arctic brigades’, re-opening Cold War era naval and air bases, and deploying anti-access and aerial denial (A2/AD) capabilities in the region – it was not trying to start one, especially in the Arctic.  

A war over the Arctic still remains an unlikely prospect. There is only one outstanding territorial dispute in the Arctic above sea-level – Hans Island, a small, uninhabited island between Greenland and Canada, sovereignty over which is ‘lightly’ contested by Denmark. The only other contested territories are the parts of the seabed and subsoil beneath the Arctic Ocean which may yet be proven to be extensions of the continental shelves of the littoral states. However, those countries have publicly agreed to reach an orderly settlement where their claims overlap. Most of the resources that could become commercially-viable to extract are within the existing national jurisdictions of the Arctic states.

Maritime spaces remain problematic. Canada and Russia maintain that the Northwest and Northeast Passages are not international straits and therefore seek to regulate their use, contra the position of the UK, US, the EU and others. The still ice-covered Central Arctic Ocean, is

set to become a more accessible ‘global commons’ where fishing nations might be particularly active as they seek to exploit new or migrating fish stocks, despite attempts by the Arctic Ocean littoral states to reserve the right to manage activities there. Russia’s build-up of dual-use military forces and installations in the region could be an attempt to ensure that the Kremlin’s position on these matters can be backed-up by force if necessary, as the
‘Greenpeace 30’ found out to their cost in 2013. Even so, these are longer-term challenges which are not likely to become pressing unless there is a significant increase of international maritime traffic in the region.

However, the Whitehall Paper published by RUSI has a different point of departure. While a war over the Arctic remains unlikely, that does not mean that military activity in the Arctic would not be important to a wider conflict, especially one between NATO and Russia. Specifically, the RUSI paper seeks to remind NATO that the greatest threat to the North Atlantic (the cutting of Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCS) between the United States and Western Europe) comes from the north, where Russia, from its bases in the Russian Arctic, could potentially launch a naval attack through the Greenland-Iceland-UK Gap. Recent Russian military activity in the Arctic, the paper argues, must therefore be viewed as part of a broader strategic picture.  

NATO and the North Atlantic

Professor Rolf Tamnes opened our panel by presenting a ‘Norwegian Perspective’ on security in the North Atlantic and High North. He described how we can frame the North in different ways. The first is to see the Arctic as a region which is being transformed by climate change and growing interest in activities related to shipping, resource development, fisheries and tourism. Here, the Arctic states play a key role in trying to ensure that any such activity is sustainable and that political relations remain stable.  

The second is to see the Arctic as a space of bilateral relationships in which Norway-Russia relations are particularly important. The sizeable asymmetry in that relationship means that Norway has long pursued a balanced posture of engaging with Russia where possible, while at the same time deterring Russia, with support from allies. It is an approach which has so far proven effective at preventing bilateral crises from escalating into anything more serious.  

The third is to regard the Arctic as part of the wider North Atlantic arena to which NATO’s principle of collective defence and securing the transatlantic sea lines apply, and as such, as a space in which NATO must be prepared to meet any military challenge that Russia may pose.

It is in this context that NATO should be most concerned about recent developments in Russia. Although, as Professor Tamnes put it, “the future does not belong to Russia” (if current demographic and economic trends there continue), Russia is developing military capabilities that challenge NATO in the North Atlantic and Arctic, including area-denial missile systems and a renewed ‘Bastion’ defence concept to protect Russia’s strategic nuclear weapons and naval forces, which are aimed at penetrating the Greenland-Iceland-UK ‘Gap’ and severing the transatlantic bridge that is so essential to NATO’s survival.  

In response, Norway is re-emerging as the gatekeeper of the North Atlantic and encouraging NATO’s return to collective defence in Europe after more than a decade of expeditionary activities. It has also been developing new strategic capabilities such as F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and P-8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft, as well as submarines and frigates. Meanwhile, the Norwegian Government is seeking closer defence cooperation with the UK, as well as other countries, to ensure that the transatlantic bridge remains firmly anchored in Northern Europe.

The second speaker was Dr Peter Roberts who presented a ‘British perspective’. Specifically, he argued that, for too long, the UK and others in NATO had taken the security of the North Atlantic for granted by assuming it was “our ocean”. After all, NATO had maintained significant military capabilities in the North Atlantic which kept Soviet naval forces at bay.  

However, that assumption also produced a shift in the mindset of British defence planners towards what Dr Roberts described as a more “continental view” focussed on a doctrine of Air/Land battle in Eastern Europe, while confident that the maritime supply line to the United States was secure. From that period on, the Royal Navy’s force development shifted away from ‘sea control’ in the North Atlantic to projecting force onto land.  

Today, Dr Roberts argued, the UK needs to shift its focus back to developing ways of meeting Russia at sea, especially in the North Atlantic and High North where Russian naval forces are once again emerging as a potential threat to NATO’s transatlantic supply lines. Yet delivering that shift is not likely to be easy. Much depends on the posture of the US as, in effect, it is the only NATO member capable of delivering maritime security in the North Atlantic on the scale required to meet Russia’s resurgent capabilities. Much will also depend on the outcome of ‘Brexit’ on the UK’s economy. While there is huge potential if Brexit goes well, the opposite is also true.  

The third speaker, Heather Conley, provided as ‘US perspective’, and urged that we should recognise that the US has lost its “Cold War memory” – that there is now a whole generation of policymakers that have little memory of the language which underpinned the transatlantic alliance, military officers who have never served in Europe, and a large section of the American public that does not know what NATO stands for. On top of that, there are few in Washington who understand the strategic significance of ice-melt in the Arctic and its consequences for the balance of power between Russia and NATO both there and in the wider North Atlantic.  

Even so, there have been signs over the past two years that attention to Russia’s military activities in the north are growing. To build on that, Ms Conley argued that there is a need for an enhanced “Northern Presence” which could be built around a “North Atlantic Quad” comprising the US, UK, Norway and Denmark. That quad could then take responsibility for providing NATO with the capabilities required to conduct Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), as well as air and missile defence operations in the North Atlantic.  

Recommendations and Discussion

The last speaker was Svein Efjestad who had six recommendations to make about how NATO might respond to emerging maritime security challenges in the North Atlantic:

  1. NATO should review its maritime strategy to reflect the importance of the North Atlantic to NATO’s existence.
  2. NATO should level-up its ambition in the North Atlantic in order to ensure it can establish sea control at short notice.
  3. NATO should be forward-looking in identifying and developing responses to new technological and ‘hybrid threats’ that might, for example, target the under-sea cables that transfer 95% of data traffic between North America and Europe.
  4. NATO should retrain its ability to conduct joint/combined operations in the North Atlantic, something which has been arguably lost after more than a decade conducting counter-insurgency operations.
  5. NATO should re-establish contingency plans by working-up new scenarios and planning for worst-case circumstances.
  6. NATO should review its Command Structure to restore a focus on sea control of the North Atlantic that was arguably lost during the 2003 restructure.

Mr Efjestad recognised that these recommendations did not exist in a vacuum. Delivering on them would have to take account of the shift in US interests towards the Pacific Ocean, the need for greater burden-sharing in Europe and the need for new capabilities.  

Several other themes emerged in the discussion that followed. There was a reminder that the UK gave up on defending the ‘Northern Flank’ more than a decade ago, not least because of the substantially diminished military capabilities of Russia immediately after the Cold War. There was also a suggestion that the UK is not making the most of its existing capabilities. For example, by arming the new Astute-class submarines with Tomahawk missiles, those platforms are being directed towards a land-attack role rather than sea control operations in the North Atlantic and Arctic.

On the theme of the Arctic, it was also noted that there remains a sense that this is not a region where NATO is welcome by some of its own members – let alone Russia – making it difficult to discuss the challenges emerging there. The US meanwhile was accused of hiding behind a ‘coastguard posture’ in the Arctic where it only talks about soft-security challenges while hoping other problems go away.  

At the same time, it was important to remember that the current challenges in the North Atlantic and the Arctic today do not match those seen in the Cold War. The number of ships and submarines involved is far fewer and there no equivalent of a Warsaw Pact supporting Russia. Nevertheless, it was suggested that the key difference between NATO and Russia today is that Russia has shown it has the political will to use what capabilities it has, while NATO’s will is, perhaps, being doubted. As Norwegian State Secretary Øystein Bø suggested, the US, UK and Norway, as NATO’s three biggest defence spenders per capita, can play an important role in addressing that imbalance in the North Atlantic.

This briefing paper was prepared by Dr Duncan Depledge for the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Polar Regions.
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This is not an official publication of the House of Commons or the House of Lords. It has not been approved by either House or its committees, nor does it represent the views of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Polar Regions.