On 29th March the MoD published a new document ‘The UK’s Defence Contribution in the High North’. Here we look at the strategy and the contribution that the RN is expected to make in support of UK Arctic interests.
Grim up north
So far the Arctic region has largely been peaceful but as the ice caps melt this will open the Northern Sea Route (NSR) that will connect Asia to Europe. It is expected that by 2050 the Arctic Ocean will be ice-free in the summer months. The loss of ice will allow access to vast, but previously inaccessible resources including rare earth metals and minerals as well as 30% of the world’s undiscovered gas and 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil. (Whether it is sensible to extract and consume these hydrocarbons is another debate). Industry inside the Arctic Circle, primarily the extraction of natural gas accounts for around 15% of Russia’s GDP.
Eight nations, known as the Arctic states (A8) Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the USA have territory within the Arctic Circle. As a vast but mostly freezing and desolate region, only about 4 million people live inside the Arctic Circle, half of them Russians. Russia dominates both as a consequence of geography and political will. From around 2005 it began a major program of militarisation including the refurbishment of old Soviet-era bases. In the last 15 years, they have made investments in 13 air bases, 10 radar stations and 20 border outposts. Besides the powerful Northern Fleet, Russia is the world’s leading operator of icebreakers, owning more than 40 ships, several of which are nuclear-powered, equipped with Kalibr cruise missiles and electronic warfare systems.
Rather like the Chinese creation of artificial islands to support air and naval bases in the South China Sea, the Russian military dominance of the Arctic is already something of a fait accompli. In breach of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Moscow has demanded that all ships wanting to use the NSR must give 45 days’ notice in advance of any transit.
The UK is not an Arctic coastal state and its immediate interest lies mainly in containing the threat from Russian submarines, warships and strike aircraft based in the region. Besides supporting wider NATO objectives it is especially important for the UK that Norway is defended. In ‘normal times’ at least, close to the Norwegian and Finish border there are Russian troops trained in Arctic warfare in fully equipped combined arms formations with main battle tanks, armoured vehicles, self-propelled artillery, air defence systems and air assault capability. In an open conflict with NATO they would not need to invade the whole of Norway, just take airfields and harbours in the north of the country. This would allow their naval forces unimpeded access into the North Atlantic and could threaten the UK by air at much closer range.
The Russian Army’s disastrous performance in Ukraine may have changed the perception of the threat they pose but the Northern flank remains a vulnerability that NATO must continue to devote great effort and resources to defend. Putin’s counter-productive adventure in Ukraine looks likely to result in Sweden and Finland joining NATO. In broad terms, this is very good news as their small, but highly capable forces will become much more closely integrated and it will be easier to contain Russian forces in the Baltic. However, NATO will become responsible to help defend Finland’s lengthy land border with Russia which would have an impact on wider strategy.
In 2013 the UK government published its first Arctic Policy Framework and this was followed by the publication of “Beyond the Ice – UK policy towards the Arctic” in 2018 but these documents were not defence-centric and primary about trade, environmental and legal concerns. The Arctic was not mentioned in the 2010 or 2015 SDSRs but was recognised in the 2021 Integrated Review.
The new 2022 strategy lists 4 main objectives: to protect critical national infrastructure, to ensure freedom of navigation, to reinforce the rules-based international system and contest malign behaviours. A curious order of priorities. Although NATO is mentioned in the document, clearly the Article 5 commitment to defend nations if attacked by Russia is the overwhelming challenge and biggest driver of the defence effort.
There are various strands of activity that are hoped will achieve these objectives. Improving understanding of the region, presumably through intelligence gathering as well as a big emphasis on science and research while working with regional partners, NATO and the JEF frameworks. Where the ambition starts to collide with more challenging reality, is the aim of maintaining a ‘coherent defence posture and presence’ and developing a modern defence capability for the region.
Operating in the High North is nothing new for the Royal Navy, since the epic Arctic Convoys of WWII there have been warships, submarines and Royal Marines deployed in these challenging waters. The Greenland-Iceland-UK (GUIK) gap and the Norwegian Sea (and occasional visits to the Barents Sea) still remain key theatres working with NATO to contain the Soviet and Russian threat. The Royal Marines have deployed to Norway almost every year since the 1960s, building up a deep institutional experience and specialist expertise in Arctic warfare. The RN made a very significant contribution to NATO exercise Cold Response that has just concluded in Norway, demonstrating NATO unity of purpose to defend its northern flank. This is just one in a series of such exercises that take place approximately every two years.
Subsequently, Exercise Northern Viking 22, (which ran from 2-14 April), saw Allied maritime forces rehearse the defence of Iceland and the sea lines of communication (SLOC) in the Greenland, Iceland, United Kingdom (GIUK) gap. Although having no armed forces, Iceland is a critical NATO partner in the High North. Keflavik Airport is an important operating base, especially for US, UK and Norwegian P-8A Poseidon anti-submarine aircraft which have a vast area to patrol. Reykjavík harbour also plays an important role as a staging base for ships operating in the Arctic.
HMS Prince of Wales, HMS Defender and HMS Richmond, supported by RFA Tiderace deployed off Iceland. Royal Marines of M Company, 42 Commando practised Joint Personnel Recovery (JPR) in Arctic conditions, working with USMC and their Sea Stallion Helicopters. The carrier and HMS Richmond made a defence diplomacy visit to Reykjavík and HMS Defender was the first Type 45 destroyer to receive a ‘blue nose’ for operations inside the Arctic Circle.
When assessing how UK defence can support the high north strategy it is a very mixed picture with some very good niche capabilities but overall a lack of mass and depth. There is little that is specifically earmarked for use in the Arctic or permanently deployed to the region. In reality, the new Arctic strategy is not underpinned by any new resources and amounts to periodic RN presence and retention of small packets of institutional expertise. The Arctic is just another in a long line list of commitments for the RN that stretch from the Pacific to the Gulf, the Mediterranean and North Atlantic.
Neutralising the Russian submarine threat is arguably the single most important aspect. If Russian SSNs and SSGNs cannot be contained, then the SLOC across the Atlantic needed to move the US heavy hitters and sustain the logistic support into Europe are endangered. Amphibious operations around Norway would also be in severe peril. The strategy developed by NATO towards the end of the Cold War was to take the fight into Russia’s backyard by deploying forces into the Barents Sea. The forces on both sides are far smaller than that of the 1980s and 90s but Russian missile capabilities are more formidable and make any venture into the Barents Sea more hazardous. From a UK perspective the SSN force which is the most effective counter to adversary submarines is clearly too small, (having hit rock bottom this year) and there is a heavy reliance on the US Navy to make up the numbers from its overstretched force.
The Russian Navy has also reverted to its ‘bastion strategy’ developed in the first Cold War, sending its ballistic missile submarines to hide under the Arctic ice caps where ambient noise makes it far more difficult for NATO SSNs to detect and trail them. The US Navy leads biennial exercises (ICEX) to research conditions, tactics and weapon performance under the ice. The RN sent HMS Trenchant to participate in 2018 but the lack of boats means the RN was only able to send personnel to participate in 2020 and 2022.
The RN still has limited capabilities in regard to protecting undersea infrastructure, a key aspect of the strategy. The network of gas pipelines that bring Norwegian gas to the UK are especially relevant in this context. The promised Multi-Role Ocean Surveillance Ship (MROSS) will be a step in the right direction, but at present is still an ‘on-paper’ capability and a single ship will not be nearly enough to cover a network that spans vast areas. A fleet of XLUUVs that can conduct extended surveillance patrols in the High North and elsewhere, only surfacing to report when anomalies are detected, would appear to be the Uk’s quickest and cheapest option to deliver greater effect in the undersea battle.
The deployment of aircraft carriers in the High North would clearly be desirable. The USS Harry S Truman was due to participate in exercise Cold Response but events in Ukraine have seen her kept in the Eastern Mediterranean and her time on deployment extended. This illustrates the lack of US carriers and how the RN may help fill this gap. The Lightning force is still being built up there are not yet sufficient F-35s for a carrier to be continuously ready for strike operations. This situation should improve gradually over the next 5 years but the F-35 desperately needs a stand-off missile to allow the carriers freedom of manoeuvre at a greater distance from land-based threats.
We will not dwell too much on the obvious lack of surface escorts and the modest assets of the Littoral Response Group (North) but 3 Commando Brigade does at least have a good Arctic and Mountain Warfare cadre that trains regularly. This cold weather warfare expertise does not extend to the British Army which appears to have no interest or inclusion in planning for High North operations. Amphibious operations in the Arctic assume that NATO will primarily be landing reinforcements to assist the Norwegians and not directly attacking defended or occupied areas.
In another example of stretching resources, the strategy document offers HMS Protector and RRS Sir David Attenborough as assets that could switch polar regions and be deployed in the Arctic for scientific purposes. These are both versatile ships that could potentially be employed at either pole but they are already occupied at the other end of the world. SDA recently replaced two vessels dedicated to providing logistic support to the scientists of the British Antarctic Survey. HMS Protector recently conducted a short patrol in the Arctic before heading south for the season but the Royal Navy’s own website says she “calls the freezing waters of Antarctica and the southern hemisphere home”.
If there are positives to be found in Arctic defence capabilities, the Norwegian forces are well respected, motivated and obviously know the territory intimately. Their purchase of F-35 and P-8A enhances will further improve interoperability with the UK and US. The regular programme of NATO exercises in the regions has been taken increasingly seriously with growing participation by many nations. The US is again becoming more committed to the High North with investment at Keflavik Airport and the re-establishment of the US Atlantic Fleet command. As is the usual story, the UK can contribute a small number of very capable assets to the Arctic but at the expense of operations elsewhere.