April 05, 2012

New Study Highlights Military Capabilities in the Arctic

A new report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) finds that the build-up of Arctic military capabilities is limited, with few indications that conflict is looming. According to the study, all five Arctic states – Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States – have increased their military capabilities in the Arctic in recent years in response to growing accessibly to the region owed largely to climate change.

Some of the increased military activity is likely a response to the changing geostrategic environment that will make military capabilities increasingly important for power projection that states need to maintain in order to secure access to lucrative natural resources and other national interests. According to the SIPRI study, for example, “Russia’s Arctic policy underlines the importance of the Arctic as a principal source of natural resources by 2020,” and “Denmark’s defence policy underlines the changing geostrategic significance of the Arctic.”

Despite the increased deployment of military assets, Arctic states are continuing to pursue new avenues of cooperation, mollifying concerns – at least for the time being – that tensions will worsen as the region becomes more accessible. Last year, the Arctic Council – an intergovernmental forum for Arctic states to address challenges in the High North – hosted a high-level forum that led to an agreement for countries in the region to increase search-and-rescue cooperation given the growing concerns surrounding increased eco-tourism and commercial shipping that could portend future law enforcement challenges. Some states’ newly deployed military assets are intended for search-and-rescue purposes, according to the SIPRI study. Canada, for example, will replace older C-130s and other aging aircraft with 17 new search-and-rescue aircraft in the next several years.

In general, the report does a nice job of outlining the air, land and sea capabilities that Arctic states have or are procuring in order to secure their interests in the region. Russia increasingly appears to have the military advantage in the Arctic. “Russia in particular is seen to be keen to assert its presence in a region in which it has long been the dominant power,” according to a recent report from Reuters. “It operates almost all of the world's 34 or so icebreakers – albeit many of them ageing Cold War-era vessels, some powered by nuclear reactors that Western experts say could be a major danger in their own right.”

Nevertheless, Russia’s Arctic military posture stands in stark contrast to U.S. capabilities. At a recent CSIS event, U.S. Coast Guard Vice Admiral Brian Salerno said that “We [The United States] are in many ways an Arctic nation without an Arctic strategy." Much of that could be owed to the fact the Arctic has of late been a low security priority given the decade-long focus on the Middle East and South Asia. According to the SIPRI study, “Arctic security concerns play only a minor role in overall US defence policy.”

All is not lost, however. There is still time for a national-level dialogue on the Arctic. U.S. policymakers need to decide what America’s policy objectives are in the region, and then develop a strategy for the region backed up by the resources needed to execute that strategy. The debate is slowly growing in Washington, with the Coast Guard’s recent request to begin the procurement process for a new polar-class icebreaker. Given the tight fiscal environment, it is not clear if Congress will approve the request for an additional icebreaker – and if it does, the Coast Guard may be forced to decide between a new icebreaker or an additional national security cutter, which Coast Guard officials says they also need. The zero-sum budget environment will require hard choices. But perhaps if U.S. policymakers have a conversation about U.S. objectives in the Arctic, those choices could become easier.