The UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson has announced the formulation of a new strategy to enhance the Ministry of Defence’s focus on the Arctic. The decision, which was widely-reported in the international media, appears to have been made in response to pressure from the House of Commons Defence Committee (and in particular, the sub-Committee inquiry on ‘Defence in the Arctic’ initiated by James Gray MP in 2017), and others, for the Ministry of Defence to do more to recognise and respond to climate change, new economic opportunities, and growing military activity in the Arctic.
The strategy, which is distinct from the British Government’s Arctic Policy Framework published earlier this year, draws attention to the Ministry of Defence’s plans to re-grow the footprint of British Armed Forces in the Arctic following nearly three decades of decline.
The most significant part of the strategy, in line with the Defence Committee’s recommendations in its report On Thin Ice: UK Defence in the Arctic, is the commitment to increase the number of Royal Marines heading to Norway to support a key NATO ally and undertake cold weather warfare training. At the height of the Cold War, the Royal Marines went to Norway at brigade-level
(c.2,000-4,000 personnel), but this fell to ‘company plus’ level (i.e. low hundreds) after Marines were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Last year, Arctic training was cut to an even lower level for a one-off cost saving. Next year, though, around 800 marines are expected to deploy to Northern Norway, where, in addition to their own training and exercises, they will continue to provide valuable cold weather training to the US Marine Corps (as they have done since 2017).
While an increase in the number of Marines training in Northern Norway in 2019 was already expected ahead of the next iteration of Exercise Cold Response (a regular joint military exercise hosted by Norway, typically involving more than 10,000 troops from 14 or so partner nations), the Defence Arctic Strategy has reaffirmed Britain’s commitment to Northern Norway by taking a longer-term perspective. Historically, the Marines only planned deployments to Norway a year or two ahead. Now, with the Marines working more closely with Norwegian National Joint Headquarters to integrate and operationalise their training, set against national defence plans, it is expected that at least 800 Marines will deploy to Norway every year for the next decade. Planned surges will occur every other year of the Lead Commando Group bringing personnel numbers to 1,400. Britain is now working with Norway on a longer-term infrastructure plan to help support these numbers.
The strategy also refers to the anticipated arrival next year of new Boeing P-8A Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft, which will be based in RAF Lossiemouth in northeast Scotland. From 2020, the Ministry of Defence plans to use the aircraft to monitor Russian submarine activity in the Arctic, which has returned to levels not seen since the Cold War. The P-8s are a long over-due replacement for the Nimrod MRA4 Maritime Patrol Aircraft that was cut in 2010. However, the Defence Committee concluded that the purchase of nine aircraft would be insufficient for covering the whole of the North Atlantic and High North. Next year will also see Britain deploy four RAF Typhoons to Keflavik, Iceland for a three- to four-week rotation during which they will patrol Iceland’s skies and gain operational experience in a cold weather environment.