By U.S. Strategic Command staff
Climate change, including global warming, presents a potentially significant threat to global security. Experts define global warming as a gradual increase in the overall temperature of Earth’s atmosphere, generally attributed to the greenhouse effect caused by increased levels of carbon dioxide, chlorofluorocarbons and other man-made pollutants. Global warming impacts the Arctic; as temperatures across the globe slowly rise, Arctic ice recedes. Consequently, nations have greater access to the region’s vast resources, such as oil, natural gas and a variety of minerals and ores, potentially worth over $30 trillion. The Russian government and its military have taken note of this and are establishing a presence in the Arctic that will likely affect the current stability of strategic deterrence in the region and ultimately around the globe.
Currently, there is one main worldwide maritime trade route. This route goes through the Pacific Ocean to the Strait of Malacca, Indian Ocean, Gulf of Aden, Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, which is approximately 21,000 kilometers and a 48-day transit. Russia recognizes this, and with the melting of the Arctic icepack is seeking to leverage a much shorter route through the Arctic. The Northern Sea Route, along the north coast of the Russian Arctic, is approximately 12,800 kilometers and takes about 25 days to transit, about half the time of the established maritime route through the Suez Canal.
In addition to the Northern Sea Route, Russia has enhanced its military capability by investing in mobile ground-to-air systems, special forces, new military bases, infrastructure and long-range precision weapons. Since 2013, Russia has established as many as seven new bases and begun construction of the Northern Latitudinal Railway along the Northern Sea Route. It has also extended existing runways in the Russian Arctic to accommodate a wider range of military aircraft, built four nuclear-powered icebreakers and established a strategic unified command along the route. Russia has established a considerable military presence on its Franz Josef Land archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, only 257 kilometers from NATO territory, including the reopening and expansion of the Graham Bell Airfield that has the capability to sustain 150 soldiers for 18 months. Russia also uses this area for various types of military weapons testing, such as its “super weapon” Poseidon 2M39 autonomous, nuclear-powered underwater vehicle/torpedo; the Tsirkon antiship hypersonic cruise missile; and its Skyfall experimental nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed cruise missile. These numerous tests have created deep concern in the Arctic Council and NATO. Additionally, this testing has caused environmental contamination and nuclear fallout issues for Russia and other Arctic nations, and is contrary to the Arctic Council’s established mission.
The Arctic Council stands as a high-level intergovernmental forum addressing issues faced by the Arctic nations and its indigenous peoples. The Arctic Council’s mission revolves around environmental protection, scientific development and emergency preparedness. Currently, eight countries maintain membership: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States.
U.S. military leaders recognize this Russian testing, buildup and expansion in the Arctic region, and share the Arctic Council’s concerns. During testimony before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee in February 2020, former North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command Commander, U.S. Air Force Gen. Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy stated: “We see the Arctic as an avenue approach to our homeland that we need to be able to defend.” He added: “To support our Arctic operations clearly, we see the future defense of our nation is very critically dependent on our ability to operate in the Arctic, our ability to have domain awareness.” This position exemplifies U.S military defensive operations in the area and underscores that the U.S. currently approaches this region from a defensive perspective, as compared to Russia’s offensive perspective.
With global warming facilitating Russian expansion, operations and potential aggression in the Arctic region, the U.S. and NATO must continue to focus on the Arctic and bolster their efforts to discourage Russia from challenging their military and commercial operations around the region. Furthermore, the Arctic alliance must maintain its commitment and capability to execute its peaceful mission in defense of the Arctic region.