Predictable Unpredictability? U.S. Arctic Strategy and Ways of Doing Business in the Region

6313523 (1) (1)

Editors note: This essay is the eighth and final article in the series, “Maritime Strategy on the Rocks,” that examines different aspects and implications of the recently released tri-service maritime strategy, Advantage at Sea: Prevailing with Integrated All-Domain Naval Power. Be sure to read the firstsecond, thirdfourthfifth, sixth, and seventh articles. We thank Prof. Jon Caverley of the U.S. Naval War College for his assistance in coordinating this series.


The U.S. Navy approach toward the Arctic appears to be fraught with contradiction. Its new strategic plan for the region, Blue Arctic: a Strategic Plan for the Arctic, was published in January 2021 and calls for a stronger U.S. footprint and greater influence in the region. In line with the tri-service maritime strategy, it highlights an increased urgency to strengthen Arctic deterrence without undermining stability, reducing trust, or triggering conflict. The Navy, however, seems to be pursuing the two main goals — deterrence and stability — with contradictory methods at times.

One of the key objectives of the strategy is to preserve Arctic stability and “build confidence among nations through collective deterrence and security efforts that focus on common threats and mutual interests.” This approach stands, however, in stark contrast to the concept of dynamic force employment, introduced in the 2018 National Defense Strategy. Embedded in dynamic force employment is the element of surprise, creating risk and uncertainty among adversary decision-makers regarding U.S. force deployment, military posture, and operations. As former Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite has explained, the objective of dynamic force employment is to craft the perception that there is always the possibility that the U.S. Navy could be operating under, on, or over the Arctic at any given time, creating an impression of unpredictability. Notably, this approach also collides with the traditional regional view on deterrence and relations with Russia, which is based on a strong, credible, yet predictable military presence to avoid fueling tensions and escalation. While a stronger U.S. military footprint in the Arctic remains critical to regional deterrence, the challenge is to maintain the balance between the more assertive stance (as advocated by the Department of Defense strategy) and one that avoids fanning the flames of a security dilemma (as highlighted by the Arctic strategy).

The Growing U.S. Interest and Presence in the Arctic

The Arctic has risen up the list of U.S. strategic priorities over the past decade, as demonstrated by the large number of policy documents, including strategies produced the Department of Defense and the various defense branches. This interest has been driven by “growing geostrategic, economic, climate, environment, and national security implications” of the rapid changes occurring in the region. The previous Navy Arctic Roadmap from 2014 assessed that the need for a routine Navy presence in the Arctic, driven by sustained periods of ice-free conditions, would not materialize until after 2030. However, the new Arctic strategy expresses a deeper sense of urgency about the need to strengthen the U.S. foothold in the coming decade as a result of significant regional changes. These include more complex and urgent challenges ranging from greater access to sea routes and resources to increased military activity and attempts to alter Arctic governance by China and Russia.



Without sustained American naval presence and partnerships in the Arctic, the reasoning goes, peace and prosperity will be increasingly challenged by Russia and China, whose ambitions and capabilities “require new ways of applying naval power.” Left uncontested, both nations could advance their gains and potentially create a fait accompli with long-term strategic benefits, leaving the United States behind. Hence the strategy vows to operate in the Arctic more assertively, enhance American presence with integrated Navy-Marine Corps-Coast Guard capabilities, and synchronize the U.S. fleets.

Notably, the Arctic document is unclear about how U.S. forces are to be employed in the various parts of the region. It lacks an important appreciation that the Arctic is vast and made up of subregions with highly divergent levels of development, infrastructure, economic activity, and military importance — and thus differing security challenges and needs. As Timothy Choi correctly observes, the strategy treats the Arctic monolithically, without a more detailed discussion of the different naval requirements for the various parts of the region.

In practice, however, the European Arctic, also called the High North, has received special attention in recent years for a number of reasons. It stands out as a highly militarized part of the region, in a strong contrast to the Alaskan coast. The western part of the Arctic plays a crucial role in Russia’s military strategy, hosting bases and operational areas for the strongest part of the Russian navy — the Northern Fleet, including the largest share of its strategic submarines. The region has experienced a high level of systematic military build-up and activity since 2007. As a result, Russia’s ability to control and deny access to large parts of the Arctic, as well as to pose a threat to sea-lines of communication in the North Atlantic, has increased, making the regional operational environment much more complex and challenging for U.S. and allied forces. A key issue of contention has also been unilateral Russian control of the Northern Sea Route. This has been disputed by the United States, with a promise to exercise the principle of freedom of navigation along the route by “having some ships make the transit in the Arctic” — though the benefits of this idea have been disputed.

U.S. submarines and aircraft have continued patrols in the Arctic after the Cold War. Recently, however, the stronger U.S. focus on the region has also been expressed in an increased surface naval presence in the ice-free parts of the region, with a greater emphasis on sea control. Given the opening of new sea-lines of communication in the Arctic Ocean, combined with the fact that many of the world’s most active shipping lanes lie within the North Atlantic, the United States re-established the Second Fleet in August 2018 (following its disestablishment in 2011) to counterbalance the growing Russian presence. To further strengthen the Arctic deterrent, the United States has enhanced some of its existing facilities, such as the Thule Air Force Base in Greenland, and deployed forces for exercises that have increased in number and scope. In January 2017 there were 330 U.S. marines in Værnes in Norway, the number further expanded to 700 in 2018. In January 2021, more than 1,000 marines arrived in northern Norway to take part in winter training. In February, four U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer bombers landed at the Norwegian air base in Ørland for the first time in history. Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David Berger argues that the undersea fight while deployed on expeditionary advanced bases will be so critical in the High North that the Marine Corps must be part of it. Notably, the United States has demonstrated its more assertive stance in the region by periodically deploying strategic capabilities, such as the Harry S. Truman carrier strike group that took part in NATO’s Trident Juncture exercise in 2018, operating close to the Arctic Circle for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Unpredictable Yet Consistent?

Some of the U.S. strategy’s objectives, as well as the methods and means of achieving them, may appear contradictory. This applies to one of the main objectives of the Navy in the region — to “reduce the potential for misperceptions, accidents, and unintended conflict.” It is to be achieved, among other means, by “expanding regional consultative mechanisms and collaborative planning” with “communication, constraint, transparency, and verification” as foundational elements in preventing unintended military escalation in the Arctic. Furthermore, the strategy argues that the U.S. forces are to operate in a way that protects national interests “without undermining trust and triggering conflict.” The objective is to preserve regional stability and “build confidence among nations through collective deterrence and security efforts that focus on common threats and mutual interests.”

This approach is in line with the unique regional combination of militarization and competition on the one hand, and a broad regional network of governance regimes and cooperation on the other. As established early in the Arctic debate, the cooperation and multilevel governance at the bilateral, sub-regional, regional, and global level, also involving Russia, is, next to a strong defense and deterrence, the second pillar of regional security that plays a stabilizing role. This includes the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable and meetings of regional chiefs of defense, though Russia has not been invited since its illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Simultaneously, however, the U.S. Arctic strategy argues that “peace comes through strength,” which can be seen as an assertion of an obvious and, indeed, indispensable element of credible Arctic deterrence. However, this statement can be also interpreted as a portent of a more assertive U.S. military posture in the Arctic, not least in the light of both the recent pattern of naval activity and official statements. Braithwaite argues namely that a more visible U.S. presence in the Arctic and all international waters should be consistent but also “dynamic and unpredictable”. This combination may, however, appear contradictory, unless unpredictability is meant to be the consistent and predictable element of the U.S. Arctic strategy.

The Tricky Arctic Balancing Act

A strengthened American and allied military presence in the Arctic is necessary in the light of the sharp expansion of Russia’s military posture and willingness to use force in pursuit of foreign policy objectives. The U.S. Navy’s force employment involving creating risk, uncertainty, and keeping the adversary on its toes is at the same time a significant departure from the core of policy toward Russia, not least in the European Arctic. This has been traditionally based on a credible defense and deterrence combined with transparency and predictability about military activity to avoid unnecessarily exacerbating tensions and fueling the spiral of security dilemma. Likewise, this policy takes into account the fact that the Arctic is of critical importance to Russia and that not a lot of foreign military presence close to Russia’s borders is needed to fire under the persistent Russian sense of insecurity. Moreover, Russia is the dominant military power in the Arctic. After more than a decade of systematic military modernization and build-up in the region, the asymmetry of power between Russia and other regional stakeholders has deepened further. This is particularly evident in the High North, where Russia’s military focus has remained concentrated, notwithstanding the expansion of its military foothold in central and eastern parts of the Arctic. Despite its increased presence, the United States is unlikely to deploy enough military power to tip the balance against Russia in the region for the time being. 

The 2021 Arctic strategy, in common with previous U.S. Navy strategies and roadmaps, addresses the need to modernize capabilities for cold weather and ice-diminished Arctic waters. This includes manned and unmanned operational presence and patrol options; necessary investments in infrastructure and critical research and development, including cold weather-capable designs; improved weather modelling; and resilient, survivable, and interoperable command, control, computers, communications, cyber, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities. It also emphasizes the need to assure the necessary professional education, as well as to evolve innovative operational concepts to make them effective in an ice-diminished Arctic. However, if and when these capabilities will be developed is an open question.

Meanwhile, cooperation with allies such as Iceland, Norway, and the United Kingdom on air policing, domain awareness, intelligence sharing, exercises, and training plays an important role in increasing the U.S. regional footprint. Alliances and partnerships in the region have been highlighted in the U.S. Arctic policy documents over the years as the greatest strategic asymmetric advantage over rivals in the region, and therefore the cornerstone of regional strategy. Notably, activity with and through allies and partners can help to partly offset the lack of surface ice-hardened capabilities and infrastructure such as ports, harbors, and other facilities, the lack of which limits the U.S. Navy to operating outside the marginal ice zone. One example given by Braithwaite is the P-8 and the Joint Strike Fighter operating from the Norwegian air station in Evenes. Importantly, such steps are less likely to exacerbate regional tensions than a permanent U.S. military presence and new infrastructure. As Rachel Ellehus, Johannes Gullestad Rø, Robin Allers, and Ingeborg Bjur argue, a closer coordination of dynamic force employment with allies can also help to alleviate its potential negative implications for regional stability.

Rather than unpredictable dynamism, consistency and cooperation are also more likely to strengthen regional alliances and partnerships. Formidable challenges of operating in the Arctic, for both civilian and military users — involving extreme weather conditions, enormous distances, scarce infrastructure, and great expense in developing and deploying forces — underscore the need for cooperation. If skillfully implemented, regional development can potentially create new opportunities to strengthen partnerships and collaboration with other stakeholders on shared interests and challenges. The key is to find the right proportion of credible military presence in a unique physical and security environment and where competitors work to expand their influence, while strengthening and building upon the venues that maintain and enhance regional stability.

Released in the last days of the Donald Trump administration, the Arctic strategy may perhaps not last long in terms of specific policy decisions to actually implement it. Nonetheless, many of the strategic objectives and the means to achieve them are longstanding and thus likely to be carried further. It remains to be seen to what extent the Joe Biden administration will continue or alter this strategic direction and how it will choose to walk the fine regional balancing act.



Katarzyna Zysk is professor of international relations and contemporary history at the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies in Oslo, where she also serves as deputy director and head of the Security Policy Centre. The views expressed here are her own.

Correction: A previous version of this article failed to mention that Rachel Ellehus’ co-authors included Johannes Gullestad Rø, Robin Allers, and Ingeborg Bjur.

Image: U.S. Navy (Photo by Mass Communication Spc. Sara Eshleman)