Polar Notes

Jan 2019

US military’s growing interest in the Arctic

Hardly a month goes by without news of more Russian military activity in the Arctic. Over the past decade or so Russia has been re-opening and building new bases, modernizing its forces, establishing new brigades, and conducting large-scale military exercises across the region. In 2015, it opened a Joint Strategic Command for the Arctic to ensure the nuclear strike capability of the Northern Fleet and ensure situational awareness and air defence in the Russian Arctic. There has been extensive debate about whether the nature of this activity is primarily defensive or aggressive in purpose (see, for example, last year’s House of Commons Defence Committee report On Thin Ice: UK Defence in the Arctic).  

By contrast, recent American military activity in the Arctic seems to have attracted little attention. In part, this is because the level of activity is less than that seen in Russia. The US, like much of NATO, has also been slow to recognise the potential for recent Russian military activity to change the strategic balance in the Arctic – with wider consequences for the North Atlantic and Northern Europe in particular.

The US military has three main concerns in the Arctic. The first is the maintenance of the under-ice capability of its submarine forces. The second relates to Alaska and its critical role in North American early warning, surveillance radars, and missile and air defence systems. This is where the majority of US Arctic land forces are stationed and, by 2020, Alaska will also be host to the biggest concentration of advanced F-22 fighter jets anywhere in the world. Recognising the potential for increased maritime activity around the North American Arctic, the US Coast Guard has called for a new fleet of icebreakers, although only one has so far been budgeted for.  

The third concern is the strategic balance in the European Arctic (or ‘High North’), and, by extension, the adjacent areas of the North Atlantic and Northern Europe. US interest in the High North diminished substantially after the Cold War. The US reduced its presence in Greenland and, in 2006, withdrew from the Keflavik airbase on Iceland. Yet as the strategic implications of climate change in the Arctic have become more apparent, and as relations between NATO and Russia have deteriorated in the aftermath of the Ukraine/Crimea crisis, the US military has started to re-grow its presence in High North. In 2016, the US Navy re-established itself in Iceland, funding upgrades to the aircraft hangers in Keflavik to house the next generation of US Maritime Patrol Aircraft (Poseidon P-8). This development is a cornerstone in the developing US-UK-Norwegian partnership to conduct patrols over the North Atlantic and High North. That same year, over 300 US Marines (USMC) were deployed to Norway for winter training and exercises (with support from the Royal Marines).  

In 2018, the USMC doubled the number of marines in Norway. The US Navy announced that the newly reactivated Norfolk-based US Navy 2nd Fleet (disbanded in 2011) would be given responsibility for patrolling the North Atlantic and the Arctic in response to growing Russian naval activity. However, the poor performance of the US Navy during NATO’s Trident Juncture Exercise last autumn prompted Vice Admiral Andrew Lewis, commander of the 2nd Fleet, to call for more activity in Arctic conditions in order to build operational experience. Shortly after, the US Navy Secretary, Richard V. Spencer declared that the US was in danger of falling behind in the Arctic and called for the US and its allies to start conducting Freedom of Navigation operations (FONOPs) in the Arctic to challenge any attempt Russia might make to establish de facto control over international Arctic waters.  

The 2018 summary of the US National Defence Strategy did not mention the Arctic at all. Nevertheless, the Pentagon and the US Navy have started to deliver on commitments they have made in recent years to build-up the US military presence in the Arctic and increase the tempo of training and exercises. Later this year, the US Air Force is expected to produce its own Arctic strategy, which will in likelihood further commit the US military to take a closer interest how the region is changing in both strategic and environmental terms.

Feb 23, 2016. PORSANGMOEN, Finnmark, Norway - A Marine with Black Sea Rotational Force sights in on the enemy target while maintaining cover and concealment during the final exercise of cold-weather training aboard Porsangmoen, Norway, Feb. 16-20, 2016. Arctic training was conducted by U.K. Royal Marine Commando Mountain Leaders and hosted by the Norwegian military to improve the U.S. Marine Corps’ capability to support their NATO Allies in extreme environments. Photo by Cpl. Immanuel Johnson.