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Cold War Spreads Over Arctic

Text: Independent Military Review, Alexander A. Khramchihin, Institute of Political and Military Analysis, Deputy Director
Photo: nvo.ng.ru
Race for mineral wealth of "the globe's roof" is speeding up.

Northern Fleet warships guard Arctic resources
Down to recent times the Arctic militarization issue has been absolutely theoretical by climatic reasons. Because of ice pack in the Arctic Ocean and extreme environmental conditions, activities of Russian armed forces in Arctic were either hampered or impossible at all. By the way, with the end of cold war, even those rare troops deployed in the Arctic were reduced or disbanded.

Things have changed in recent years when the ice began extensively melt and large hydrocarbon deposits were discovered on the Arctic shelf. Possible disappearance of ice cover creates conditions for year-round navigation of merchant vessels and warships along the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage, seasonal traffic in polar latitudes and shelf hydrocarbon production. Take note, the Northern Sea Route from Europe to Asia is almost 5,000 km shorter than the way through Suez Canal, and the Northwest Passage is 9,000 km shorter than the course via Panama Canal.

Denmark wants North Pole

The Arctic militarization problem has emerged again. It is exacerbated by the fact that the Arctic Ocean and its shelf have not been demarcated so far, since all regional states have different views on the problem.

Russia traditionally stands for sectoral partition, i.e. delimitation of aquatic areas among regional countries on meridians beginning from most points of their coasts converging to the North Pole. Under this scenario, major part of the Arctic Ocean goes over to Russia. By the way, Russia considers the Northern Sea Route its territorial waters.

Canada upholds the same position by regarding the Northwest Passage as home waters and also standing for the sectoral variant.

The US has an absolutely different look at the issue. The Americans believe that the Arctic countries may only claim for standard 12-mile zones along the coast. Accordingly, the North Pole is considered neutral zone, the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage are international waterways.

Norway and Denmark speak for the Arctic division under median line principle, i.e. borders are lying at equal distances from coastline. In this case, the North Pole goes to Denmark.

Border disputes over some particular areas take place between the US and Canada (Alaska and Yukon Territory), Canada and Denmark (over water zone adjacent to the Hans Island 950 sq km in area).

In 1977, Norway set a 200-mile preservation economic zone around the Spitsbergen Islands. That became a subject of disputes between Norway and Russia, since in accordance with the sectoral variant the whole eastern part of that 200-mile zone fell into Russian waters. However, last year Moscow and Oslo agreed to halve the disputable area. Moreover, as a matter of fact, Russia has waived sectoral variant only claiming for standard 200-mile economic zone.

Another issue is Greenland which gives Denmark an access to the Arctic. Greenland occupies a space of 2.175 mln sq km (the world's largest island) which is 98% of Denmark's area. Population is less than 60,000. Over 160 bln barrels of oil can be found on Greenland's shelf. As a result of referendum held on Nov 25, 2008, 76% of Greenlanders voted for higher degree of autonomy. Now Copenhagen controls only foreign policy and defense; Greenland is entitled to dispose natural resources, has a right to settle juridical and law-enforcement problems, and partially controls foreign policy.

All abovementioned countries – except Russia, of course – are NATO members, but in this particular case it is not a big issue as there are serious contradictions among them. It is also noteworthy that notorious Article 5 of the Washington Treaty by no means binds NATO countries to fight for each other. It only demands to hold appropriate consultations.

Sled dog race

Armed forces of Canada, Norway, and Denmark are incapable to perform any sound military action against Russian territory or aquatic area because of generally weak military potentials. Those countries considerably reduced their armies when the cold war was over. For one, according to CFE Treaty information, as of January 1, 1990 Norway had 205 tanks, 146 armored combat vehicles, 531 artillery systems with caliber larger than 100-mm, and 90 combat aircrafts. On January 1, 2011 it had 76 tanks, 218 armored combat vehicles, 67 artillery systems, and 56 combat aircrafts. Denmark on January 1, 1990 operated 419 tanks, 316 armored combat vehicles, 553 artillery systems, and 106 combat aircrafts. Twenty one years later, it had 60 tanks, 299 armored combat vehicles, 56 artillery systems, and 62 combat aircrafts. Canada presently has 186 tanks, 369 armored combat vehicles, 144 artillery systems, and 104 combat aircrafts.

Norwegian Navy operates six submarines, six missile boats, six minesweepers, and five frigates. Danish Navy has seven frigates and two support ships (hybrid of a frigate and a landing ship). Canadian Navy – four submarines, three destroyers, twelve frigates and twelve minesweepers.

Norway, Denmark, and Canada have neither airborne troops nor marines and lack force projection facilities. Their navies are not capable to attack coastal targets (no ship-based aviation, no cruise missiles) except for shell fire from littoral zone or antiship missile strike upon opponent's ports.

It is curious to note that Denmark put up for sale all three navy-operated icebreakers early 2011. One can tell about combat effectiveness of Norwegian and Danish navies judging by their participation in the Libyan War. Each of the mentioned countries dispatched only six F-16 fighters for that operation. Danish aircrafts had spent all air bomb reserves of national air force by the beginning of June. As of Norway, it had withdrawn all six fighters from Italy by August 1 and dropped the operation. Despite quite limited contribution, Norway found the warfare backbreaking.

In addition, it must be borne in mind that almost all Canadian land and air bases are situated southward 50th parallel. The "northernmost" is 1-st Mechanized Brigade Group (Edmonton, 53 degrees northern latitude). The only unit based in the north is 1-st Canadian Rangers Patrol Group (Yellowknife, 62 degrees northern latitude).

All Danish land forces and aviation units are deployed in Denmark, i.e. on the Jutland Peninsula and adjacent islands. Danish Navy has Greenland command operating one or two warships (on rotation) and two or three fishery security boats. The headquarters is in Gronnedal; its commander is the senior Danish military representative on the island. He controls the Sirius Patrol conducting dogsled reconnaissance along the coast in summer time. The strength of patrol group is 30 men (junior officers and non-commissioned).

The US has no forces deployed in European Arctic today (except radars of missile early-warning system in Greenland). Two US Army brigades are based in Alaska (1-st Stryker and 4-th Airborne brigade combat teams, 25-th Infantry Division headquartered in Hawaii), and two air wings (3-rd and 354-th) including two F-22 fighter squadrons, two F-16 fighter squadrons, one F-15 fighter squadron, one E-3B AWACS squadron, and one C-17 transport squadron.

In addition, Air National Guard's 175-th Wing operating C-130H transport aircraft is stationed in Alaska. There are some other airfields which can accommodate additional combat aircraft. First of all, it is huge civil airport Anchorage used for refueling of long-haul airliners flying from North America to East Asia and back. As of freight-traffic volume, Anchorage is the world's fifth largest airport.

Capacities of those airfields allow building up air force deployed in the region several times in 2-4 days (now the strength is over 100 F-22, F-15 and F-16 fighters). Thanks to available airfield network, land grouping can be also rapidly reinforced by airlift of infantry and Stryker brigades to Alaska. To deliver armor units, railway transport (via Canada) and sea lift will be needed. That would take more time.

That is Alaska where the largest positioning area of US missile defense system is located. It is equipped with ground-based interceptor (GBI) missiles. Twenty six silos had been constructed there, although part of them was flooded by rain showers in June 2006. Totally, it is planned to deploy 30-40 GBI missiles in Alaska.

No US Navy warships are based at Alaska. There is only a bunch of US Coast Guard ships and cutters (Alaska lies within USCG District 14). Although US Coast Guard operates four icebreakers, three of them are based in Seattle and the fourth one – on the Great Lakes, so there are no icebreakers permanently stationed at Alaska.

Target is same – Russian nuclear arms

Conversely, all Russian operable forces are concentrated in European Arctic. It is Northern Fleet (including 61-st Marine Regiment), 200-th Infantry Brigade with two S-300P Air Defense Regiments deployed in the Kola Peninsula, and another S-300P Air Defense Regiment near Severodvinsk. There are no more troops to the east.

Even with forces deployed in Alaska in peace-time, the US could occupy Chukotka Peninsula hands-down as there are no Russian troops there. And Russia would be incapable to lift armor units there due to considerable distances. The closest to Chukotka infantry brigade is based in Kamchatka, other ones – in Khabarovsk and Primorsky regions. Airlift of those brigades is impossible due to heavy armor vehicles, and sea lift would take long time and, what is more important, would be blocked by US Navy which is considerably stronger than Russian one.

Russia may only lift airborne troops and aviation to Chukotka. Curiously, it is easier to redeploy an airborne division from European part to Chukotka then an infantry brigade from Kamchatka. However, that would be quite difficult due to US Air Force's countermeasures.

Russian Northern Fleet's marines on the march
Meanwhile, it is not clear what political and military advantage such operation might give to the US. It provides no apparent benefits while is menacing escalation of conflict even up to all-out nuclear exchange. By the way, the less Russia capable to clear its territory by conventional means, the more likely nuclear scenario is.

It can readily be understood that Chukotka is not so important for the US to put in peril existence of own country. The more it is topical for other parts of Russian Arctic coast, because in that case logistics and air defense would be more complicated for the US then. In the contrary, for Russia those tasks would be accordingly simplified.

Massive disarming conventional strike of Tomahawk cruise missiles performed by US warships (along with bomber and deck-based aviation) against Russia's strategic nuclear assets seems much more serious threat. Strike of this kind would help to destroy greater part of Russian ICBMs, ballistic missile submarines, and strategic bombers without global ecological disaster.

In such scenario, American nuclear force would keep its potential safe. Even if Russia ventures upon retaliation by survived nuclear forces, it would be repelled with even limited missile defenses. Meanwhile, US warships armed with Standard-SM3 missiles and radars could also participate in countering of Russia's retaliatory strike.

To accomplish that mission and smash most of Russia's nuclear assets, American warships should launch Tomahawks from the Arctic. By the way, in this case the ships would be just under flight trajectories of survived Russian ICBMs and SLBMs. This would substantially facilitate America's missile defense because of minimization of crossing point and opportunity to hold head-on but not pursuit firing.

The US authorities may suppose that once Russian nuclear force is considerably weakened after disarming strike while American nuclear capability remained safe, Russia would not go in for retaliatory attack at all. Nonetheless, such scenario implies a number of serious risks and restrictions.

1. It must be a single disarming strike, because in case the first strike is either failed or brings minor success, the US would not have another chance. Russia would instantly deliver a full-scale nuclear strike upon America's territory. Thus, maximal nuclear potential of US Navy and US Air Force must be used in the first and the only attack. However, American cruisers and destroyers deployed next to Russia's territorial waters would nullify surprise and makes the operation senseless. If Americans rely only on submarines, cruise missiles would not be enough.

2. Disarming strike by Tomahawks and missile defenses contradict each other, because cruise missiles and Standard surface-to-air missiles are placed in same Mk41 vertical launch systems. Therefore, the more Tomahawks Americans have, the less Standards they may launch, and conversely.

3. Presently, interception of ICBMs by Standard missiles is impossible. It is still unclear whether Americans could improve them properly.

4. Russian ICBN divisions deployed in Siberia remain at standoff range of Tomahawks even if launched from Arctic.

Accordingly, realization of such scenario is possible only if all following conditions are implemented at once.

1. Russia's Strategic Nuclear Force, Air Force, Air Defense, Navy and satellite grouping would fully degrade and be reduced minimizing both number of targets for first strike and the possibility of its repelling and conducting of retaliatory attack (upon America's territory and warships). Actually, that degradation stopped two years ago.

2. The US would build up strike potential of its Navy and Air Force, which is extremely unlikely in conditions of current budget constraints.

3. American sea-based cruise missiles and surface-to-air missiles would be appreciably improved. There are no guarantees as this needs solution of many serious scientific and technical problems.

4. Russian-American political relations would be so deteriorated that the US Administration would consider the risk of war against Russia acceptable. At present, the opposite trend is seen.

It must be emphasized that all four conditions mentioned above must be fulfilled simultaneously. If any of them is not met, the strike would not be performed. So, the probability of such scenario is supposed to be next to zero.

Economic battles on sheld

The competition for hydrocarbon fields on Arctic shelf could be another theoretical scenario for armed conflict. However, it must be understood that oil and gas extraction from the ice-packed ocean has not been implemented so far. Therefore, technological and financial risks are very high making the project profitability unobvious.

Due to this, none of oil and gas companies would go for realization of such project until all legal, political, and especially military risks are neutralized. In other words, nobody would produce oil and gas on disputable shelf areas without prior arrangement, because such project would become knowingly loss-making. Thus and so, this scenario of the conflict can be considered absolutely illusory, especially as one takes into account the fact that ownership of only 3% of existent oil and gas deposits is not identified.

Naval conflict because of unresolved problems in Arctic navigation – given that the region is free of ice for long period – seems not much more probable. However, abeyance of this issue causing the need of military escort for commercial convoys multiplies freightage costs and nullifies economic benefits from shortened route.

The experience of the Yugoslavia War in 1999 (Pristina airport captured by Russian paratroopers) and Russo-Georgian War in August 2008 shows that the United States, not to speak of European countries, are not psychologically ready for even a quite limited conflict with Russia (including conflicts beyond territory of Russia and NATO allies). Undoubtedly, this assumption is applied to naval encounter in the Arctic as well.

At another point, if Russia neither develops deposits in its economic zone nor opens the Northern Sea Route (even under own conditions), it would become a 'dog in the manger' and be subjected to economic and political pressing. Sure, nobody will fight against us but make problems by other ways.

Another theoretical reason for a conflict in the Arctic may become China's activities. It founded a scientific station on Spitsbergen in 2008, and Chinese icebreaker Xue Long ("Snow Dragon") formerly working at the Antarctic has become a constant guest in the Arctic. Main pursuer of China's interests in the region is Norway which even offered to make China a member of the Arctic Council this year (except for five abovementioned countries, now it includes Sweden, Finland, and Iceland).

China is in dire need of any natural resources. That is why the Arctic is of considerable interest to Beijing. China's stance is similar to the US one; it also stands for maximal internationalization of the Arctic. However, despite rapid growth of Chinese Navy's potential, it is still incapable to conduct any substantial military operation in the Arctic (primarily, due to lack of bases).

Time to cover Arctic by air defence

Although climatic changes and economic interests of the Arctic countries make regional militarization and armed conflicts theoretically possible, in the foreseeable future probability of any military scenarios looks very low. It must be noted that in the longer prospect strengthening of Russia's defense capability seems one of the key factors for preventing such conflicts both in the Arctic and worldwide.

So, Russia should have at least same force in the Arctic as it currently has. Obviously, it would be pointless and cost a pretty penny to build up defense potential too much.

As is known, 200-th Infantry Brigade deployed in Pechenga was officially dubbed 'Arctic'. To tell the truth, it is unclear what does it mean. For instance, what it will be equipped with and what will happen to tanks? Well adapted to Arctic conditions, multi-purpose light towing vehicles MTLB and Vityaz are unfortunately outmoded, and it is uncertain what vehicles may substitute them. But it is as clear as day that Arctic-based units must be equipped by helicopters due to specific character of the region.

There is no sense to think out a new type for a single military unit. Except for the Kola Peninsula, such brigades must be deployed in Chukotka. Other possible sites of their location are near Arkhangelsk or Severodvinsk, Naryan-Mar or Vorkuta, Salekhard, Norilsk, and Tiksi. Current absolute nakedness of Russian Arctic seems abnormal. As was said above, menace of war is inversely proportional to our defense capability.

Perhaps, full disappearance of air defense from the Arctic (eastward Severodvinsk) is much more unacceptable. There must be three or four air defense regiments and two or three air stations. Just to take the issue of disarming strike by Tomahawks off the table. Finally, main ports of the Northern Sea Route must be equipped as naval maintenance centers, although permanent basing of warships there makes little sense.

Russia must begin development of hydrocarbon deposits on those parts of Arctic shelf believed to be Russian. In this case, Russia would own those fields de facto, and that would help to start constructive economic cooperation with other countries.