Europe, the Middle East and Asia-Pacific are not the only potential theaters of military operations. The Arctic is an area of geopolitical rivalry. The situation there is undeservedly kept out of media spotlight. Meanwhile, 2018 has brought new record lows in the extent of sea ice in the region.
Russia has presented a 1.2 million square kilometers Arctic claim to the UN. Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a Coastal state may claim rights to the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles by presenting scientific proof that it is a natural prolongation of its continental margin. The Russian Coastal exclusive economic zone can be extended, giving the state exclusive rights to exploit natural resources in the seabed and the ocean. Actually, Russia sits on $8.5 trillion oil reserves.
Moscow considers the Northern Sea Route (NSR) lying east of Novaya Zemlya and specifically running along the Russian Arctic coast from the Kara Sea, along Siberia, to the Bering Strait as the water area within Russia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in accordance with Article 234 of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. This article grants all littoral states the right, within their exclusive economic zones (200 nautical miles), to pass non-discriminatory laws and regulations concerning navigation in ice-field areas. The US is a signatory but Congress has not ratified the document. Washington does not recognize the Russia’s claims and seeks to internationalize the region.
The US, Canada, Denmark and Norway have their own claims. The Arctic is believed to hold more than $22 trillion worth of resources hidden beneath the ice, including 90 billion barrels of oil and 47 trillion cubic meters of natural gas. It’s only natural for states to have disputes as long as they are addressed on the basis of international law through negotiations. But the gradual escalation of tensions in the Arctic is a fact.
According to the Danish government’s 2018-2023 defense guidelines, there will be an impressive 20 percent increase in defense spending in the next six years. The Arctic is mentioned as an area of increased activity and military presence. In summer, Norway recommitted itself to NATO defense spending target of at least 2% of GDP with its new long-term plan for 2021-2024 having this commitment as a key premise. Oslo is to invest in “strategic capabilities”, such as the new F-35 stealth fighter, submarines and P-8 maritime patrol aircraft. Canada is to deploy an Arctic naval flotilla. Last year, Ottawa unveiled a plan to boost its defense spending by 70 percent (or more than $30-billion) over the next decade – much of it going to new warships and fighter jets. The Lomonosov Ridge is the main object of territorial dispute between Russia and Canada. It stretches 1,800 km from the New Siberian Islands cross the Arctic Ocean to the Canadian Ellesmere Island. Canada conducts military exercises in the area.
US green berets are training to fight Russia in the region. So US attack submarines are also holding drills. In March, more than 1,500 US military personnel from 20-plus units were brought together for the Arctic Edge 2018 military exercise. The US Coast Guard is looking to “weaponize” its icebreaker ships used to clear paths through the frozen seas. The US has stationed F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters in Alaska. The deployment provides the US with air superiority across the entire northern hemisphere.
Russia is implementing the State Policy in the Arctic Till 2020 and for a Future Perspective. The Arctic is a source of threat to Russia. US submarine-launched ballistic missiles fired from the waters near Norway would leave the Russian military less than 15 minutes to decide if an incoming object was a threat of not, where it was coming from, and how to respond. The Arctic is the only location to enable submarine-launched Tomahawks to strike the Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) bases in the Orenburg and Krasnoyarsk regions, as well as the Urals.
The Russian Northern Fleet is a joint force comprising 38 large surface ships, over 40 submarines, and an Army Corps including two infantry brigades. The 61st Naval Infantry Brigade is under the Northern Fleet Joint Strategic Command. 7 of 10 combat ready fleet ballistic submarines are based there. About 60% of the operational fleet’s inventory falls on new weapons.