The Eagle and the Bear: Conclusions and Recommendations
While the USA’s current arctic strategies and policies, along with its Navy’s own arctic strategy, recognize the need to exert a strong sovereignty for the sake of national security and the control of resources in Alaska and the American Arctic littoral, the actions being implemented so far have not enough. Additionally, the general objectives appear to be either vague or simply wishful and unrealistic.
The first problem is that the United States seeks the region to be an area free of conflict, a concept that affects not only this country but also the others reviewed so far. Even worse, it assumes it will remain so. This is far from accurate. The assumption that any one of the actors is willing to cooperate and put aside its own national interests while abandoning the idea of using the military force is unrealistic and, currently, the facts are against such assumption. The recent aggressive and assertive actions of Russia in Ukraine, the military manoeuvres in the Far East, and the violations of Scandinavian and Baltic countries’ airspace, along with the close flights to Canadian and American airspace in the recent years should have provided a base for a different approach to US policymakers.
Russia is materializing its strategic interests with a military comeback in the Arctic, which alone has strong implications that a poses a threat to the Arctic nations that would be directly affected by any Russian military move. Currently, Russia is re-opening the military bases it had in the New Siberian Islands, as well as establishing new ones near Alaska. Additionally, the new Yasen class submarines are about to be deployed in Murmansk, very close to the Scandinavian Peninsula and Svalbard Islands, and new units near Alaska and Finland are to be deployed as well (Bodner & Eremenko, 2014). The Russian Air Force, in turn, sent four Su-34 attack aircraft to reach the North Pole and is preparing the Mig-31 interceptors to operate in the area[i].
To make matters worse, during the NATO Wales summit, some Russian Tu 95 strategic nuclear bombers flew above Arctic territory to a “launch box” (a site where it is optimal for firing nuclear missiles at the United States) which coincided with a recent request by a Russian general to the Russian government to authorise the launching preemptive nuclear strikes against the US and NATO[ii].
In the meantime, the Obama administration is giving no signs of reaction at all, while designing and implementing weak policies. This takes us to the second problem: the US arctic strategies discuss “gathering information to take good decisions”, and having “innovative arrangements to meet the objectives”; statements that sound too general and shallow. Indeed, as this suggests, there is no clear direction or path; the US arctic strategy is, at best, vague. As Coffey (2013) points out, the strategy proposed by the current Obama presidency reflects more the lack of interest given to the Arctic more than anything else [iii].
In contrast to the Obama administration’s position, the US Navy and the Department of Defence have designed a better strategy. However, these are also full of problems. One is that they focus activities partially on executing scientific expeditions as a way to exert sovereignty, while the Department of Defence labels as a national interests the preservation of the environment and sustainable development Slayton & Rosen (2014).
Beyond any doubt, the environment is important, but it is more important for the United States to exploit resources that, as Slayton & Rosen (2014) point out, could provide the US with some energy independence and have a higher strategic leverage when it comes to oil and economic recovery. This is even more essential when it comes to aiding Europe in having an alternative source of energy and to reduce the influence of some rogue states and Russia.
The other problem is the scheduled presence of the Navy in the Arctic, which is very slow in pace and does not reflect either the importance that the Arctic should have, something that smaller navies such as that of Denmark or Norway have been doing. Since Alaska is not only a strategic crossroad, but also a strategically valuable area where anti-ICBM missiles can be deployed, it is more than imperative that the US Navy provides a shield to Alaska, while at the same time contributes to the defence of US allies’ interests in the region.
The United States indeed has a lot of things to do regarding the Arctic. One of the first and most important things is to give the Arctic the strategic importance it deserves, not only because of the new resources and the opening of new shipping routes, but also because of its geopolitical importance and the increased presence and interest of other states.
The security of the United States can be jeopardized today in the same way it was during World War II and the Cold War. This has been illustrated by the renewed Russian military modernization and build up, as well as the potential risk of a nuclear-armed Chinese naval presence in the Arctic Ocean.
In other words, the United States has to entirely redesign its Arctic strategies to increase the focus on the military & security aspect while enhancing the sovereignty exertion objectives, and decreasing the environmental concerns.
The second action aimed at materializing the protection of such an important region is an increase of US Navy assets in the region, along with an increase in the US Coast Guard’s assets for Search and Rescue operations and sea policing. The US Air Force also has to play a role in protecting Alaska, the US Arctic maritime territory and in assisting the allies in a case of conflict with Russia. The US Army and some special forces can also increase their presence in protecting Alaskan territories and assisting Canada in the defence of its Northern Territories.
Moreover, the United States can implement a similar proposed measure for the Canadian case, and establish by its own one or two naval groups whose main area of activities is Alaska and the Arctic Ocean, in a close cooperation with other Arctic navies like the Canadian, Danish and Norwegian and with the US Coast Guards.
The third action is to eradicate for good the wishful mind-set and the excessive reliance on a conflict-free Arctic, as well as the assumption that Russia is keen to cooperate and discard the utilization of armed forces to meet its interests. Not only the Ukraine crisis, but also the increased military presence of Russia near Alaska and Scandinavia are more than enough indications that cooperation is not among the priorities of Russia and that it is more willing to accomplish its own interests.
This means that the US has to rely less on Russia’s good will and more on its own military assets and those of its European allies. Here is where NATO comes to play an important role: it can be the forum where the United States can lead and assist the Arctic NATO countries as well as assist the potential new members of Sweden and Finland in defending their own High North Territories. By doing so, the United States not only provides a needed leadership, but it also guarantees its own security by guaranteeing its allies’ security. NATO, moreover, can provide a bridge and a framework between the US and the EU for securing the Arctic as well as complementing each other should Russia increases its assertiveness and threats to the Arctic and the Scandinavian-Baltics region.
Therefore, a fourth action means bringing NATO into the Arctic and creating a NATO Arctic task force that would include Sweden and Finland, envisaging a strong cooperation with the European Union Nordic and Easter Battlegroups, along with the NORDEFCO countries (including the Baltic states).
This idea, in particular, is very feasible and very welcome, though not exempt of opposition. This is for three reasons: first, the fact that most of the Arctic countries are NATO members re-opens the area to NATO, since their defence strategies has NATO as an important, if not the sole, defence asset; second, NATO’s Article 5 places the Arctic within its core area of operations and Russia is a considerable concern when it comes to security issues; and third, propositions about an increased NATO Arctic role highlighted the importance of focusing on “inside” area operations and activities in the same way “outside” operations are being prioritized (Conley, 2012)[iv].
Nevertheless, NATO currently executes the monitoring of military activities and coordination of joint training exercises such as the Cold Response Exercises, the biennial submarines’ Ice Exercise, Northern Eagle, Arctic Edge, Arctic Care, amongst others (Conley, 2012).
The problems facing a NATO Arctic involvement consists in the – in this author’s opinion very overrated – preoccupation of the Russian exclusion of NATO and its opposition to any NATO activity in the region. Conley (2012) reasons that this has become a serious problem for NATO and has caused the lack of consensus among NATO Arctic allies regarding Russia’s reaction to NATO involvement in various situations, along with the Canadian move to not allowing NATO arctic involvement for to sovereign reasons and the lack of clarity on the arctic issue (Conley, 2012).
One of the previously reviewed countries, Norway, is among the leading voices on bringing NATO closer to the Arctic to perform a much more active role in the region. It argues for the employment of NATO’s core functions and activities such as situation awareness and surveillance capacity building, and the coordination of search and rescue operations, rather than a full presence such as it had during the Cold War (Conley, 2012).
In any case, given the current international crisis, the presence of NATO at the same levels of the Cold War, or even beyond, is more than necessary. This means that NATO should not only cover activities as those proposed by Norway, but also to increase its military presence by reinforcing the currently operational ones and re-establishing previous bases, such as Keflavik in Iceland, while at the same time creating new ones in Alaska and Northern Canada. This would also include the creation of naval bases in the aforementioned countries to increase the vital naval presence of NATO in the region to monitor civilian and military activities, and protect commercial shipping and touristic cruise, while cooperating and assisting the Coast Guards of each NATO country in their tasks.
As Conley (2012) points out, the naval presence of NATO is ideal – this author would add, necessary – and might take advantage of the experience gained in the anti-piracy and anti-terrorism operations in the Gulf of Aden and the Mediterranean Sea, and apply it to Arctic activities in regards to military training, defence procurement and acquisition, contingency planning and tackling illegal activities.
NATO activities should not be limited to Search and Rescue and illegal activities combat, but should consist of an increased naval presence in the area with a respective Naval and Air Group with permanent or long term deployment of both NATO and EU assets, for air defence, surveillance, air superiority, interception, anti-submarine warfare and other tasks. After all, and paraphrasing Hilde (2013), traditional security concerns are no stranger to the Arctic and its significance will simply increase with time.
The United States needs a strong leadership that gives the Arctic the attention it deserves, not only for the environment but for the strategic implications and the security that the region has for the United States and, in the end, for the West. Its importance is highlighted by the recent aggressive Russian attitudes and the likely Chinese naval presence. Not to mention that the deployment of the new Russian submarines is a clear threat to Scandinavia and a reason for NATO to augment its naval, aerial and even ground presence. The same applies to the US after the reopening of Soviet-era bases in areas close to Alaska.
The Arctic can be a stable and secure area, but only a strong and decisive deterrence build up can do the task, rather than wishful thinking and reliance on cooperation that alone is not enough to create stability and security in any region. And by showing a bit of decision and strength things might even change for good in certain southern areas.
The Eagle, simply, must lead the Vikings and the leaf, and also must help them.
[iii] An argument that is solid enough when doing a comparison with other nation’s strategies, as Coffey (2013) points out.
[iv] And the Russian renewal of aggressive actions should be convincing enough.
Bodner, M. &, Eremenko, A (2014). Russia Starts Building Military Bases in the Arctic. In: The Moscow Times. Retrieved from: http://www.themoscowtimes.com/business/article/russia-starts-building-military-bases-in-the-arctic/506650.html on 08.11.2014
Cenciotti, D (2014). Russian Su-34 attack planes “conquered” the North Pole. Mig-31 interceptors prepare to. In: The Aviationist. Retrieved from: http://theaviationist.com/2014/08/14/su-34-mig-31-north-pole/ on 27.08.2014
Coffey, L (2013). Obama’s Arctic Strategy: Just a Tip, no Iceberg. In: National Review Online, The Corner. Retrieved from: http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/348670/obama%E2%80%99s-arctic-strategy-not-so-hot-luke-coffey on 27.08.2014
Conley, H, A (2012). A New Security Architecture for the Arctic: an American perspective. Washington DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Gertz, B. &, Washington Free Beacon (2014). Russian Bombers Practice Cruise Missile Strikes on US During NATO Summit. Retrieved from: http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/natosource/russian-bombers-practice-cruise-missile-strikes-on-us-during-nato-summit on 12.11.2014
Hilde, P. S (2013). The “new” Arctic – the Military Dimension. Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, 15 (2), pp. 130 – 153.
Slayton, D. S. &, Rosen, M. E (2014). Another region where the Russian military threatens to dominate the U.S. In: CNN, Opinion. Retrieved from: http://edition.cnn.com/2014/03/14/opinion/slayton-rosen-russia-u-s-arctic/ on 10.08.2014
*Cover image ‘130506-F-LX370-079‘ by Arctic Warrior