A U.S. Security Strategy for the Arctic
In March 2021, three Russian submarines simultaneously broke through the ice near the North Pole. Each boat could carry 16 ballistic missiles, and each missile could field multiple nuclear warheads. The submarines were soon joined by two MiG-31 aircraft and ground troops participating in Umka-2021, a Russian military exercise.
The exercise in March highlighted increased Russian military activity in the Arctic, but that was not the sole Russian signal. U.S. Alaska Command, under U.S. Northern Command, reported that they had intercepted more Russian military aircraft near the Alaska Air Defense Identification Zone in 2020 than at any other time since the end of the Cold War. In April, Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that Russia is trying “to exert control over new spaces. It is modernizing its bases in the Arctic and building new ones.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded by saying, “We hear whining about Russia expanding its military activities in the Arctic. But everyone knows that it’s our territory, our land.”
Russia is not the only authoritarian power with increased interest in Arctic affairs. In January 2018, Chinese officials published their first Arctic strategy document and attempted to buy and greatly expand Finland’s Kemijärvi air base for use by large Chinese aircraft, ostensibly for Arctic research. Their offer was rejected, supposedly because the northern airfield is next to Finland’s Rovajärvi artillery range. This fits a pattern. China has built Arctic research stations, conducted ongoing oceanographic surveys, and attempted infrastructure development across the region, projects that some believe have geostrategic or military purposes.
In order to better position the United States for geopolitical competition in the region, the Biden administration should write and publish a new national security strategy for the Arctic. The United States has a moribund 2013 Arctic strategy that was superseded by events and ignored by the Trump administration. In 2019, the Office of the Secretary of Defense released an Arctic strategy, and the Air Force, Navy and Army each released their own subordinate strategies. However, these individual strategies were not coordinated before being released, did not fully integrate efforts with civilian foreign policy agencies, and in some cases were produced only because of pressure from Sen. Dan Sullivan from Alaska.
It is time to rectify those omissions. A new Arctic security strategy should focus on deterring Russian and Chinese military attacks and preventing their attempts to weaken the established Arctic international order. To avoid mistakes from past Arctic national security, the Biden administration should build an Arctic strategy that responds to future security threats, can be resourced within constrained national budgets, and that integrates military and civilian actions across the government and private sector.
Goals for an Arctic Strategy
Though the Biden administration has yet to release a National Defense Strategy and National Military Strategy, guideposts exist to begin conceptualizing a new Arctic security strategy. Blinken expressed the U.S. desire to keep the Arctic peaceful when speaking at the May 2021 Arctic Council ministerial meeting. The administration’s March 2021 Interim National Security Strategic Guidance focuses on deterring and preventing adversaries from threatening the United States and its allies, inhibiting access to the global commons, or dominating key regions (i.e., the Indo-Pacific, Europe, and the Western Hemisphere). Even though the document does not mention the region, its priority actions are applicable to the Arctic, such as leading a stable and open international system underwritten by alliances, partnerships, multilateralism, and international rules.
Any new U.S. Arctic security strategy should have three goals: deter military attacks against U.S. or allied territory originating from the Arctic, prevent China or Russia from weakening existing rules-based Arctic governance through coercion, and prevent regional hegemony by either China or Russia. To accomplish these goals, U.S. strategy should develop military capabilities for use in the North American and European Arctic subregions and then demonstrate the ability to use them in harsh Arctic conditions. The U.S. government should persuade regional allies and partners that the United States can be a trusted security partner in the region. Finally, the strategy should contain inducements to the private sector to build dual-use Arctic infrastructure that benefits the private sector while giving the military platforms from which to observe and operate in the Arctic.
The Arctic’s Geopolitical Context
Any Arctic strategy is constrained by the region’s harsh terrain and weather conditions. High latitudes and harsh weather make communications, global positioning, and domain awareness a significant challenge across the Arctic. In the Alaskan Arctic, ground-based infrastructure outside the Anchorage-Fairbanks-Prudhoe corridor is localized rather than interconnected and is dependent on bulk summer resupply. U.S. security infrastructure in the Arctic comprises aging early warning radars in Alaska and Greenland, missile defenses and significant 5th-generation fighter aircraft in Alaska, submarines in Arctic waters, and modest rotational forces in Iceland and Norway. U.S. relations with Arctic nations have been generally cooperative, with the exception of relations with Russia on non-Arctic issues since 2014. Finally, different security issues are associated with the three Arctic subregions — the North American, European, and Russian Arctic — with the European Arctic subregion being the area with the greatest security challenges.
A new Arctic strategy should factor in climate change, protect the Arctic Council’s viability, and assume a future budget-constrained environment. It’s safe to assume that Arctic warming will continue and regional activity — shipping, mining, commercial fishing, tourism, etc. — will increase as a result. Transnational cooperation on Arctic science and soft-security issues (search and rescue, oil spill prevention, etc.) is a valued behavior. As a result, maintaining the Arctic Council as a viable international forum serves the continued interests of Arctic states both because of the substantive work done by the council’s working groups and as a venue for transarctic consultations. A new strategy should not needlessly threaten this progress.
Finally, the next U.S. Arctic strategy will be means-constrained. The Arctic will be a relatively low budget priority for the U.S. government and its military services. None of the recent U.S. military strategies for the Arctic obligate significant spending in the region for new capabilities or permanent presence.
Below I list the main goals and new or promised capabilities of recent U.S. defense strategies for the Arctic. With the exception of the Air Force’s strategy, none of the strategies commit the United States to major defense investments in the Arctic, and the Air Force expenditures are not aimed at the Arctic per se, but are instead global capabilities that happen to be based in the Arctic or in space. Indeed, the gaps identified below are big-ticket items. The assumption, then, is that any new Arctic security strategy will be means-constrained going forward but should compensate for the gaps identified in the table.
U.S. Arctic military strategies (2019 to 2021)
|Goals and Priorities||Arctic Capabilities|
Office of the Secretary of Defense
Arctic Strategy (2019)
Air Force Arctic Strategy (July 2020)
• Vigilance via warning and defense capabilities
• Power projection from Alaska and Greenland
• Cooperation with allies and partners
• Preparation via exercises, training, and research and development
Navy Strategic Blueprint (January 2021)
Army Regaining Arctic Dominance (January 2021)
Arctic Threats and Opportunities
The key threats to U.S. interests in the region are from Russian military forces in the Arctic and from Chinese influence attempts. Russian military activity in the Barents and Greenland Seas (the northern part of the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom gap) poses the most direct threat to U.S. security interests. Russian forces there could attack the U.S. homeland, ships and data links crossing the North Atlantic, and threaten NATO allies in northern Europe. Russian forces in the Bering and Chukchi Seas off the Alaskan coast are equally concerning. Russian capabilities could also be used to flout international law through unilateral assertions of control along the Northern Sea Route or the undersea Lomonosov Ridge, should the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf rule against Russia’s recent expansive claims to the Arctic seabed.
China’s regional actions are troubling, particularly its use of government-linked investments, loans, and trade deals to influence Arctic states or populations. Threats could also arise from the military potential in China’s bathymetric mapping or its polar research stations across Scandinavia. Any U.S. security strategy in the Arctic should alleviate these threats.
The most obvious opportunities for the United States in the Arctic are in private-sector infrastructure development and security coordination with allies. Poor infrastructure and communications plague Alaska. A hard-security strategy that prioritized infrastructure development in the name of national security, a green-energy transformation, or broadband connectivity initiatives could improve infrastructure and resilience in Alaska. Internationally, security coordination among U.S. allies and partners could generate momentum on nonsecurity behavioral norms for resource extraction, investments, and economic cooperation across the Arctic.
The Strategy’s Ways and Means
To deter Russia and China from threatening U.S. interests in the Arctic, the U.S. military needs to demonstrate presence in the region beyond submarines. Submarines can deter large-scale attacks but are less useful against coercion and intimidation. Deterring Russia will require Navy surface assets (manned and unmanned) and a more robust air and ground presence in the European and North Atlantic Arctic. It is difficult to police fisheries, monitor potentially hostile surface ships, or target airborne intruders without capabilities in the region. As Adm. James Foggo said of the Arctic when commanding Allied Joint Forces Command in Italy, “In order to deter, you have to be present. You’ve got to be there and you’ve got to be there quickly.” Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, made similar remarks in late April 2021.
Budget constraints, however, will prevent large-scale acquisition of military equipment designed for the Arctic. There are just too many competing demands on the defense budget. A handful of modern icebreakers and limited numbers of the Army’s new cold-weather vehicle may be the extent of new, manned Arctic capabilities funded for the foreseeable future. That said, the United States could shift cold-weather-capable equipment to the region, especially unmanned intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms. Unmanned capabilities need not have been developed for the Arctic per se but could be adapted for use in the region.
There is a role for the U.S. private sector in developing Arctic capabilities and infrastructure if given the right government inducements. One promising area is satellite communication and positioning systems. Satellite companies are potentially attractive government partners. The U.S. military is looking into private-sector efforts such as the OneWeb and Starlink polar communication satellites. The European Space Agency is doing the same with Arctic weather satellites. There is no reason these initiatives could not be expanded.
The Biden administration’s Arctic strategy should consider the role of extractive industries (oil, mining, timber, fishing) in the region. Those industries have built much of the nonmilitary infrastructure in Alaska. In the future, as the global economy shifts from hydrocarbons to green energy, government efforts to foster infrastructure development could focus on distributed electricity grids, port facilities, and overland freight transport associated with mineral extraction (particularly rare earth minerals) rather than on oil and gas. All are consistent with the Biden climate plan. New ports and rail lines could be funded through cost-sharing agreements between the government and business, which could make infrastructure cost-effective for business while saving the taxpayer money. The private sector could use the infrastructure during normal times, with the U.S. military having priority use during military exercises or national emergencies.
Demonstrating the political will to use Arctic capabilities unilaterally or in conjuncture with allies and partners is the other prerequisite for successful deterrence and defense. The most important priority should be to convince allies that the United States is a reliable security partner. Some of that persuasion has already begun with the Biden administration’s reaffirmation of the U.S. commitment to NATO’s Article 5 security guarantees and Blinken’s consultations in Denmark before the May 2021 Arctic Council ministerial meeting.
Persuading allies also requires demonstrating the ability to come to their defense if needed, regardless of climate conditions. Unilateral, bilateral, and “mini-multilateral” military exercises are all useful as practice and as international signals in the Arctic. Unilaterally, the U.S. Army is starting to relearn how to operate in the Arctic, as highlighted in its Arctic strategy. The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps learned important lessons from NATO’s Trident Juncture exercise in 2018 and smaller exercises since then. More exercises are needed to demonstrate to friend and foe alike that the U.S. military can again operate in cold climates.
In addition, the United States should expand its use of flexible basing and deployment agreements with allies. The recent agreement covering the U.S. military’s use of the Ramsund naval facility and Evenes air base in northern Norway are a good start. A similar arrangement could be made for the Danish air force to have permanent facilities at the U.S. base in Thule, Greenland, for search and rescue, air surveillance, anti-submarine warfare, and air interdiction missions, something that could tie allied forces more closely together, better defend this early warning facility, and improve surveillance in the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom gap. Expansion of the runway and facilities on Norway’s Jan Mayen island and refurbishing an additional airfield in Greenland in conjunction with the Danes could serve similar purposes. Finally, the United States could coordinate existing niche capabilities amongst Arctic allies, an Arctic version of NATO’s Connected Forces Initiative.
The Way Forward
The Biden administration should publish a new Arctic national security strategy. The last U.S. Arctic strategy was written in 2013, before the country refocused on geopolitical competition with Russia and China. The strategy should prioritize deterring attacks from the Arctic on U.S. or allied territory, minimizing and defending against Russian or Chinese coercion, and preventing either country from achieving future regional hegemony. The United States could achieve these objectives through cost-effective military acquisition, incentives for private-sector infrastructure development, activities that demonstrate military presence, and political and military commitments to Arctic allies.
The Biden administration has a lot on its plate, and has yet to produce a final National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, or National Military Strategy. Nevertheless, the government should begin crafting an updated national strategy for the Arctic. The region is important for U.S. national security, and is increasingly a theater for competition with Russia and China.
David Auerswald, Ph.D., is a professor of security studies at the U.S. National War College in Washington, DC. He has published books on International Security Assistance Force operations, Congress and national security, Congress and civil-military relations, the politics of coercive diplomacy, and the Kosovo conflict. The views in this article are his own and not those of the U.S. government.
Image: Russian Ministry of Defense