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Military and Civil Activities along the Arctic Routes

(by Willy Østreng)


During the Cold War, the Arctic was transformed from being a military vacuum in the post-World War I period to a military flank in the 1950-70 periods to a military front in the 1980s. This was due among other things to the spatial location of the Arctic Ocean between three continents providing the shortest attack route between belligerent superpowers and blocks. The coastal areas of the Eurasian and North American continents got militarized for surveillance, monitoring and response purposes. The NSR was also used for some transfers of naval ships between the Northern and Pacific Fleets and, according to witness reports, the deep water portions of the NWP was occasionally visited by small foreign submarines, probably both US and Soviet. Due to the hegemonic features of the East-West conflict civil and military issue areas were tightly interlinked and civil affairs were subordinated to military requirements. In short: military-strategic interests got the upper hand and dominated the utilization pattern of the region for decades. Arctic waters were put in the context of military-strategic rivalry and civil exploitation happened only on the premises of the military establishments. It lasted until Michael Gorbachev made an explicit distinction between military and civil security in his speech in Murmansk in 1987 before the military grip on civil activities in Arctic affairs loosened. At the same time the arms race had created changes in military technology which affected the deployment pattern of naval vessels to Arctic waters. This made for a gradual “de-securitization” of the NSR and NWP, and for a strong militarization of the TPP.

The Northeast Passage

The Arctic Ocean is suited for submarines, not for surface warships. Surface warships are constructed with thin hulls because of speed requirements, whereas cargo vessels are ice-strengthened to cope with sea ice on the expense of speed. This is according to Russian naval authorities why the NSR was never used for operations and battle training by Soviet battleships and why transference of Russian warships between the Pacific and Atlantic fleets had nearly stopped in the early 1990s. What is more, the coastal areas are too shallow to accommodate the operational needs of the big strategic submarines (150 m long). As stated by US security experts, any submarine longer than 105 m. is probably incapable of meeting manoeuvrability requirements under ice in shallow waters. As the strategic submarines grew bigger and acquired polar operational capabilities, and the Northern and Pacific fleets became self-sufficient with surface battle ships, the military establishment gradually lost its dominant influence on NSR-affairs. The NSR became an object of increasing civil/economic interest and political attention, which may explain why the route was opened to international shipping in July 1991, and still – 20 years later - is open to foreign ships. In the sphere of military security, defence and protection the Arctic Zone is regarded as vital to the interests of the Federation in preview of various military and political situations. The policy is to create an integrated security system to protect the territory, population and sites critical for Russian security within the Arctic Zone.

The only area of the NEP where clashes of military and civil interests still may occur is in the Barents Sea where submarines and surface naval vessels in a future scenario may have their thoroughfare restricted and narrowed in by oil, gas and other civil installations.

The Northwest Passage

The waters of the Canadian archipelago is in average somewhat deeper than the offshore areas of Siberia, but several of the channels of the NWP are both too narrow and shallow to allow for the access and effective operation of strategic submarines. No Admirality in its full senses would gamble with the survivability of its valuable strategic submarines in such waters as long as better alternatives are immediately at hand in neighbouring sea areas – in the Central Arctic Ocean. Submarine intrusions into the channels of the archipelago do not serve any important operational military purpose. Canadian as well as US cities can be attacked and hit by intercontinental submarine missiles launched from waters far away in the Arctic Ocean and from waters just north of the Archipelago. US submarines that may have traversed these straits are first and foremost small, and second, their main mission have most likely been to be spotted to assert US right to operate in these waters without Canadian consent. As seen from the recent US point of view, the freedom of navigation in these waters (including the NSR) is a “top national priority” which is vital to support the United States ability to exercise these rights throughout the world, including through strategic straits. Here US Arctic policy is defined in the context of her global military strategic interests. The Presidential Directive of 2009 states that US military interest in the Arctic is to secure a maritime presence to be able to project sea power throughout the region, and to do so independently by US actions alone or in conjunction with other states.

Canada has announced that she will build up her military and surveillance capabilities in the Archipelago to improve among other things her ability to counteract submarine intrusions into Canadian internal waters.

The Trans Polar Passage

The Central Arctic Ocean is an ideal environment for strategic submarine operations. This area offers depths of thousands of meters and has a constantly moving ice sheet producing more than enough ambient noise to provide a certain degree of noise protection of strategic submarines. The United States announced in 2009 that strategic deterrence is high on the national agenda for the region. Surprisingly enough, Russia did not. During the latter part of the Cold War it was Soviet strategic submarines that had the need to use the water columns of the Central Arctic Ocean for strategic operations, not US submarines or for that matter French or British. Although, this need is not reiterated in the Arctic policy document of 2009, missiles launched from Russian submarines in the Arctic Ocean in later years, indicate that strategic deterrence will continue to be a fundamental Russian interest in Central Arctic Ocean. In 2007 and 2008, 14 longer Russian submarine patrols were reported in the Arctic Ocean, and surfacing of a US attack-submarine was reported in 2009 in the vicinity of the North Pole. The increased Russian submarine activities in the Central Arctic Ocean come after near two decades of little Russian naval activity in these waters.

The Passages in Comparison

In terms of available space, nature to a large extent see to it that the civil and military sectors can fulfil their objectives and activities in separate parts of the Arctic Ocean avoiding to interfere in each other’s activities. The shelf areas seem to be “reserved” by nature for the civil sector – shipping and resource mining - whereas the Central Arctic Basin is the prime operational space for strategic submarines – a strategic sanctuary of submarines, in particular Russian submarines. This natural separation scheme is in no way absolute, but it seems to suffice the needs of the two sectors to conduct most of their activities without continuous and undue interference from the other. Thus, geographical features provide for a separation of activities lowering the level of potential inter sector conflicts. The only possible clash to be anticipated is if, in the future the TPP is being used for regular freighting purposes, the shipping industry will share ocean space with strategic submarines.

As seen from the point of view of EU, the main causes for conflicts in the Arctic as of the present relate to climate change and the quest and competition for regional resources, in particular hydrocarbons. The Commission takes climate change as a “threat multiplier” altering the geo-strategic dynamics of the Arctic with potential consequences for international stability and European security interests. The threats are civil in character and in the separation scheme discussed above, civil interest comes to expression mainly in the coastal areas along the NEP and NWP. A new element of conflict has, according to this perspective been introduced to the region.

To an astonishing extent, natural parameters provide for cohabitation between military and civil actors in the Arctic Ocean, and for both sectors to fulfil their obligations on their own terms without necessarily interfering too heavily in the activities of the others. In the short, medium and long term, the NSR and NWP may open up for economic activities without risking conflicts with the military sector. This also applies to the TPP in the short and medium term, but not necessarily in the long. Perceptions of conflicts and threats are now identified by the EU to be located in the coastal areas related to global climate change and the quest for resources. These threats may be real, but it is in the national interest of all Arctic states to keep the level of conflict low and controlled to get access to resources that are crucial and strategically important to the survivability of their respective societies.


    Willy Østreng, 2010, Military and Civil Activites along the Arctic Routes, CHNL.©