Cold Horizons: Arctic Maritime Security Challenges

By Commander John Patch, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Even gathering and maintaining a basic awareness of other ships, submarines, and aircraft in the Arctic is almost impossible. With limited sensor coverage, rare sustained presence, some of the worst weather on the planet, and a bleak picture from horizon to horizon, it is no wonder Arctic nations have little idea what is transpiring to the north. A senior U.S. Coast Guard officer from the 17th District (Alaska) commented in 2008 on recent operations: "We had almost no idea, no maritime domain awareness, of what was actually happening on the waters of the Arctic." 2

Aircraft are relatively unconstrained by Arctic surface conditions, but they routinely operate at the edge of the safety envelope. Aviators often fly in areas with little to no SAR coverage, greatly increasing risks associated with aircraft emergencies. Air crews might enjoy relative warmth, but fuel in unheated tanks begins to turn to slush at extreme cold Arctic temperatures.

Surface vessels are especially challenged in the Arctic. Free-drifting icebergs and shifting pack ice can hole all but the heartiest icebreakers. Twenty-four-hour winter darkness increases watch manning and saps morale. Moon-like cold threatens both humans and machinery; icing on ships' equipment and superstructures can pose a capsizing threat. Equipment and personnel casualties can quickly become emergencies in Arctic wastelands. Polar conditions transform sophisticated weapons and sensors into useless junk. 3 Arctic surface operations require herculean efforts just to remain within safety margins.

Nuclear-powered submarines, inherently self-sufficient, suffer least in the northern extremes. They rely on special, expensive technology to do so, including inertial navigation systems, ice avoidance sonar, and very low frequency communications. Still, ambient arctic ice noise makes tracking adversary submarines very difficult, and under-ice acoustic phenomena interfere with passive homing torpedo guidance. 4

Russia: More Bark than Bite

Of late, Moscow's vows to defend Arctic interests have been the loudest. In September 2008, the Russian national security council began drafting new policy to formalize the claimed Arctic borders. After other Arctic countries criticized Russia's bold claims and the United Nations deferred validating them, Russian military leaders announced new defense initiatives. Senior leaders declared they were adapting training plans for units "that might be called upon to fight in the Arctic." 5 This would increase the operational radius of Russia's northern submarine fleet and reinforce the Russian Army's combat readiness along the Arctic coast. Russian officials cite "large-scale U.S. armed forces' maneuvers" in Alaska (Exercise Northern Edge) as justification for increased Arctic military operations. 6

Mistrust in NATO and suspicions toward U.S. hegemony form the basis of Moscow's Arctic propaganda, but Russia directs it at an internal audience as well. Hence, the Russian public generally supports the government view that Moscow needs more military capacity to enforce territorial claims. The roughly 25 percent annual increase in defense spending since 2006 claimed by Russian officials could provide more resources for the task.

Yet a look at Russian Arctic military operations reveals only moderate increases in activity. Some cite the upswing in Arctic long-range aviation (LRA) flights—Blackjack and Bear bombers—since 2007 as evidence of a resurgent Russian military. Moscow describes the flights' purpose as reconnaissance and practice for "our country's preparedness to stand up for its national interests and sovereign rights in the northern region." 7 NATO partners and the Canada-U.S. North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) keep close tabs on the increased LRA activity (the Russian Air Force claims 50 global LRA flights as the recent single-day high). 8 But the partners have also been careful not to describe it as a threat.

It seems the flights' recent effects are more along the lines of strategic communication than strategic air power. Moscow has been quick to assure Washington that the LRA missions fly without nuclear weapons. Arctic LRA patrols had greatly diminished over the past 15 years, but never ceased entirely. Thus, the missions do not represent a new capability. LRA is clearly the cheapest and most visible way to achieve Arctic military presence.

To its credit, Moscow does field the strongest Arctic surface force. With the most heavy icebreakers and cold-weather ports, Russian seafarers are rather proficient in Arctic operations. Seven of Russia's 20 icebreakers are nuclear-powered, giving them unmatched power and endurance. The heaviest of them can manage six-plus feet of ice (winter sea ice can be more than twice that thick).

Russian authorities claim they will build six more nuclear-powered icebreakers by 2010. 9 The Russian Navy is also resuming routine Arctic naval presence after a 17-year hiatus. In 2008, a Udaloy -class antisubmarine ship deployed for roughly a month, replaced by a Slava -class cruiser. 10 While a far cry from heady Cold War days, this demonstrates a limited commitment to deploy more surface units in Arctic waters.

Although information is limited, it appears that Russian subsurface Arctic operations are less frequent or vigorous. Two Typhoon -class ballistic-missile submarines (SSBN; one in reserve status) remain operational. 11 Moscow specifically designed these massive hulls for under-ice sea-launched ballistic-missile (SLBM) patrols. Yet, with the few remaining Delta IV s, only 15 Russian SSBNs remain from a Cold War high of 60, and material conditions are questionable. 12

The long delayed follow-on SSBN Borei class and several Bulava SLBM launch failures suggest the Russian Navy may need a massive cash infusion to remain viable under the Arctic Ocean. 13 The recent petrodollar decline will compound pervasive Russian Navy training, maintenance, and logistics shortcomings, annual defense budget increases notwithstanding. For now, though, Moscow stands atop the heap in most areas of Arctic military wherewithal and expertise. 14

Canada: Strategy-Resource Mismatch

Ottawa lacks the ability to support its ambitious, contemporary goal to assert control over northern territories. Longstanding territorial disputes with America and other nations failed to generate enough interest to build up Arctic military capacity, but after the 2007 Russian flag planting, Canada expressed the intent to support its Arctic sovereignty with force. Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated that two new military facilities would "tell the world that Canada has a real, growing, long-term presence in the Arctic." Harper further announced that Canada would spend $5.7 billion to build six-to-eight new navy patrol ships to guard the Northwest Passage, with the first arriving by 2013. 15

The new Arctic bases include a Resolute Bay army training center for cold-weather fighting and a deep-water refueling port on the northern tip of Baffin Island, both to extend Arctic operational reach and endurance. Other efforts include plans for underwater, land, surface, and air sensors, including unmanned aerial vehicles to monitor the north. Finally, Ottawa will design follow-on destroyer and frigate classes with the capability to operate in limited ice conditions.

Ottawa's Arctic security stance is not new, however. Canadian and U.S. strategic interests have long coincided, serving as the impetus for NORAD's creation as a bulwark to the Soviet threat to North America in the form of Arctic submarine-launched ballistic missiles and air-launched nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.

Current Canadian capabilities, however, are simply insufficient to patrol or safeguard the Arctic expanses. Ottawa acknowledged this shortcoming in its latest Arctic-focused International Policy Statement and associated Defence White Paper , which relate the need to move beyond simple words to build an Arctic military capacity. Currently, periodic Aurora (P-3) maritime patrol aircraft missions and radar satellite coverage provide a degree of Arctic surveillance, but sustained Canadian Arctic military presence is rare.

Canada has one large and five medium icebreakers, most nearing the end of their service lives. After a 22-year hiatus, Canadian warships resumed a limited Arctic presence with annual (summer) deployments in 2004. 16 Canada once envisioned nuclear-powered submarines for Arctic operations, but it has no under-ice submarine capability. Alongside other unrelated, but expensive, military recapitalization efforts such as cruiser, destroyer, and submarine upgrades, Canadian Arctic forces face an uncertain future.

Canadian Arctic military exercises have, however, increased in scope and frequency. Since 2002, Canadian Forces (CF) have conducted a new series of large-scale joint exercises, most termed as "sovereignty operations," with a heavy emphasis on support to civil authorities. Canada Command's (U.S. Northern Command equivalent) Joint Task Force North conducted the Operation Narwhal exercise series in increasing scope since then. Canada also routinely conducts NORAD Arctic air-defense exercises, usually involving CF-18 sorties to monitor Russian LRA activity. Recurring CF deployments will surely improve Canada's already significant northern operational expertise. However, these exercises reflect little ability to monitor or deal with adversary military forces in under-ice or frozen surface conditions.

America: Strategic Decision Point

As in Canada, recent high-visibility events focused U.S. attention on Arctic policy and strategy. Both were found wanting: the 15-year-old policy did not reflect current strategic realities, and the current National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, and maritime strategies provide only a single scant reference to Arctic security interests among them.

In 2008, the State Department and National Security Council conducted an in-depth review of the 1994 Presidential Decision Directive on Arctic Policy. A new January 2009 policy lists key Arctic interests: missile-defense and early-warning, strategic sealift, strategic deterrence, freedom of navigation/over-flight, maritime presence, and maritime security operations. 17 All reflect a clear need for unfettered Arctic access (though the last two items are arguably not interests), with "strategic sealift" the standout term not often associated with the Arctic. Yet the new administration will have to adopt the policy to put it into force.

The January 2009 Arctic policy contains only general guidance for Defense Department implementation. This is an important distinction, as future U.S. Arctic force structure will, to a degree, be justified with any new policy. It directs Defense (among other departments and agencies) to develop greater capabilities to protect Arctic borders; increase Arctic maritime domain awareness to protect commerce, critical infrastructure and resources; preserve global mobility and presence; and encourage peaceful dispute resolution. This creates a net increase in Arctic security missions but does so under a cloud of shrinking defense and homeland security budgets.

Current U.S. Arctic forces are insufficient to accomplish these new missions, much less standing tasks. Arctic air operations, for instance, lack persistence and reach. With little justification for constant Arctic patrols, flights are usually associated with brief exercises or scientific expeditions. P-3C maritime patrol aircraft rarely venture north, but demand is increasing even as the number of airframes shrinks.

Coast Guard aviators, as a rule, operate more frequently in the Arctic than their Navy brethren. Bering Sea C-130 patrols occur periodically out of Kodiak, Alaska, but lack of infrastructure, special Arctic maintenance requirements, and airframe and aircrew shortages limit missions. Unlike the Navy, however, the Coast Guard is on call 24/7 for Arctic SAR and maritime incident response. Ongoing phasing-in of the J model C-130 will somewhat improve Coast Guard Arctic air capability (improved endurance, range, and anti-icing). The Navy will fare worse without its own dedicated C-130Js; the P-8A offers a step backward from the P-3C in Arctic capability.

America also has a comparatively poor Arctic surface force. Much has already been written on the marginal U.S. icebreaker capability—one light and two heavy icebreakers—able to handle only five or so feet of ice. The Coast Guard claims that it will take more than $800 million and perhaps ten years to either build a new ice breaker or extend the service life of the existing fleet. 18 A 2007 National Research Council report captured the contemporary surface capability assessment: "U.S. icebreaking capability is now at risk of being unable to support national interests in the north and the south." 19

The Navy also has no hulls designed for Arctic operations and only very limited institutional expertise at surface operations in polar climates. A 2001 Office of Naval Research-sponsored Arctic symposium report "revealed large gaps in knowledge and highlighted deficiencies in U.S. Navy and Coast Guard equipment and training for cold weather." 20 Perhaps acknowledging this, the Navy Secretary recently stated an ongoing study would assess future missions for surface ships in the far north. Similarly, the Coast Guard began a comprehensive "high-latitude study" in December 2008 to determine its requirements for meeting all of its 11 statutory missions.

Navy Arctic undersea capabilities, however, are unmatched. Because of long-standing undersea warfare requirements, the submarine force maintains three current classes— Los Angeles , improved Los Angeles , and Seawolf —with Arctic capabilities. 21 Annual polar surfacing events broadcast U.S. and combined U.S-British under-ice skills demonstrated during exercises.

Like Canada, the Homeland Security and Defense departments also increased the frequency and scope of Arctic exercises and operations in recent years. U.S. Northern Command created Joint Task Force Alaska in 2002, and coordination between DHS and the U.S. Pacific Command's sub-unified Alaska Command improved. Joint, interagency, and NORAD exercises with at least some Arctic focus include Northern Vigilance, Northern Denial, Northern Edge (the largest, with over 5,000 participants), Terminal Fury, and Valiant Shield. 22

Annual trilateral (U.S.-Russia-Canada) SAR coordination also occurs. U.S.-U.K. Arctic Ice exercises are less frequent, but focus more on the potential Russian Arctic undersea threat. The Coast Guard also participates in the International Ice Patrol, monitoring southbound icebergs near Greenland. Yet the vast majority of forces assigned to these exercises and operations only operate briefly in the Arctic, if at all.

Few permanent U.S. forces remain above the Arctic Circle, and almost none focus solely on Arctic security. All the major year-round Alaskan military and Coast Guard bases are below the Circle. The Coast Guard's 17th District monitors the Arctic, but the distance from permanent bases to the northern slope in deep winter limits on-station time. The Coast Guard conducted a "proof of concept" forward-operating location at Barrow, Alaska, in the extreme north (320 miles north of the Arctic Circle) in recent years, but with only a helicopter and small boat detachment. As a recent Coast Guard officer stressed, "[we] are not positioned or prepared for regular Arctic operations." 23 The closest permanent military base to the Arctic, Naval Air Station Keflavik, Iceland, lowered the American flag for good in September 2006.

Bleak Future?

While the United States is currently unprepared to defend the full array of Arctic interests, this does not represent a national security crisis. With prudence and forethought, America can develop viable policy, strategy, and force structure to meet future challenges. Given the looming period of austere defense budgets, however, such efforts will require significant congressional and popular support.

In addition, though the Coast Guard needs no convincing, Navy leaders may resist the institutional costs of new Arctic missions. Further, attempts to manage Arctic interests with only the diplomatic, informational, and economic tools of national power may prove insufficient. Similarly, a unilateral approach to Arctic security will surely prove more costly and less effective over the long term. Arctic military confrontation is neither desirable nor inevitable, but trends clearly show a future of colliding Arctic state interests. Equal-parts cooperation and containment can keep the Russian Bear's appetite in check and vouchsafe U.S. Arctic interests.


1. See LCDR Anthony Russell, USCG, "Carpe Diem Seizing Strategic Opportunity in the Arctic," Joint Forces Quarterly p. 51, 4th quarter 2008, and Peter Brookes, "Flashpoint: Polar politics: Arctic security heats up," Armed Forces Journal , November 2008 .

2. U.S. Coast Guard, "Arctic Journal: Part 1," Coast Guard Journal , 7 April 2008, .

3. See "Naval operations in an Ice free Arctic," Office of Naval Research Symposium, 18 April 2001, .

4. U.S. Navy, Undersea Warfare , Spring 2005, vol. 7, no. 4,

5. Bradley Cook, "Russian Army Trains for Arctic Combat to Defend Resource Claim," , 24 June 2008.

6. "Russia to take into account US army high activity in Arctic," ITAR-TASS , Moscow, 5 May 2008.

7. "Russian Northern Fleet aircraft fly over the Arctic," Interfax-AVN , 4 September 2008.

8. "Cool your jets, Russia!" Toronto Sun , 9 September 2007.

9. "Russia to Build Six Nuclear Icebreakers for Arctic Transport," ITAR-TASS , 15 January 2009.

10. "Russia Extends its Arctic Naval Power Base,"

11. According to Global; see .

12. STRATFOR, "Russia: a Second Strike Capability Failure," 23 December 2008,

13. Pavel Baev, "Russia's Race for the Arctic and the New Geopolitics of the North Pole," The Jamestown Foundation, Occasional Papers , October 2007, p. 8.

14. See Adele Buckley, "Establishing a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone in the Arctic," Canadian Pugwash Group, 11 July 2008, p. 4.

15. Tim Reid, "Arctic military bases signal new Cold War," The Times , 11 August 2007.

16. "Defence Requirements for Canada's Arctic," Vimy Paper 2007 , The Conference of Defence Associations Institute, p. 17.

17. White House, "Arctic Region Policy," National Security Presidential Directive 66/Homeland Security Presidential Direct 25 , 9 January 2009,

18. Ronald O'Rourke, "Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Modernization," Congressional Research Service, 3 October 2008.

19. National Research Council, Polar Icebreakers in a Changing World, An Assessment of U.S. Needs, Washington, 2007, p. 2.

20. ONR Research Symposium.

21. J. L. Gossett, "A New Era in the Arctic," Undersea Warfare , Issue 12, 2001, .

22. U.S. Air Force, Northern Edge Background Paper, Elmendorf Air Force Base,

23. Russell, "Carpe Diem . . . ," p. 98.

Commander Patch is a retired surface warfare officer and a career intelligence officer. He directed the National Maritime Intelligence Watch at the Office of Naval Intelligence and is associate professor of strategic intelligence at the U.S. Army War College.


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