Britain’s Defence and the Arctic: A Timely Reminder

Main Image Credit Royal Navy submarine HMS Trenchant after it had broken through the metre-thick ice of the Arctic Ocean to join two US boats during Ice Exercise 2018 in March of this year. Courtesy of Ministry of Defence.

The House of Commons Defence Committee has released a report looking at defence developments in the High North. It should serve as a timely reminder of defence priorities, both among decision-makers in London and the general public

British and Dutch marines exercising in Norway’s Arctic region earlier this month received uninvited visitors: Russian military aircraft and vessels. ‘We … see Russian fighters fly closer over our warships just to make their presence known, you could almost call it, in a provocative way’, General Jeff Mac Mootry, the Dutch Marine Corps’ director of operations, told the media. Meanwhile, the head of the Danish Defence Intelligence Service has advised Greenland not to accept Chinese investments in its airports. The Arctic is less placid than it has been in a long time. As the House of Commons Defence Committee points out in its new report On Thin Ice: UK Defence in the Arctic, the UK should focus more on the icy region.

One reason the UK needs to pay more attention to the Arctic is, in fact, that it is less icy than it used to be (congratulations, Defence Committee, on a successful pun, albeit on a tragic development: the Arctic’s melted ice will revisit the globe as catastrophic rainfall and floodwaters. Last month, ice covered 4.71 million square kilometres of the Arctic; 1.70 million square kilometres less than the average measured between 1981 and 2010. The melting ice, of course, makes it much easier for ships to travel the Arctic route between the Siberian coast and Europe. So far, cargo ships have had to take the immeasurably longer southern route. Shipping is not the only commercial opportunity: the Arctic seabed also contains large oil and gas deposits. Russia is modernising, or reopened, Soviet military bases in the Arctic, and has increased its troop presence in the region.

China, in turn, maintains a disproportionately large embassy in the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik – not to service Icelanders, but as a base for activities in Greenland, where Chinese companies are now investing heavily. Some invest in mines, Greenland has significant mineral resources, but some of the companies have also tried to buy strategic assets. Last year, for example, the Chinese mining company General Nice tried to buy a naval base (the Danish government, which maintains jurisdiction over Greenland’s national security, stopped the transaction). And earlier this year, Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen strongly advised Greenland’s devolved government not to let a Chinese company build an airport. So strong is China’s involvement in the Arctic that a professor at a leading Chinese university has taken to calling the county’s Belt and Road Initiative the ‘One Belt, One Road, One Circle’ strategy, where ‘the circle refers to the Arctic Circle’. The House of Commons Defence Committee notes that China’s Arctic policy from January of this year ‘identifies the Northern Sea Route as a maritime highway of the “Polar Silk Road”’.

Using different means, Russia and China are staking out the Arctic, and the MoD is clearly concerned about the developments, which also include a significant increase in Russian submarine activities. Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson’s announcement of a new Arctic strategy last month was a welcome step. Indeed, the British public would do well to pay closer attention to tensions in the Arctic; the North Atlantic hosts many of the vital undersea cables that power the internet. Not surprisingly, Russian navy vessels have been repeatedly sighted near the cables, whose locations are available are publicly available. The Defence Committee notes the risk of disruptions to the cables, which ‘further reinforces the need for effective situational awareness to support maritime security and a credible anti-submarine detection capability to deter hostile activity’.

The UK should, primarily through the Royal Navy, maintain a credible presence in the Arctic, especially given that the European side of the Arctic is not a focus for the US administration. The challenge is a familiar one: because of the UK’s global ambitions for its armed forces, there are not enough resources. As the Defence Committee notes:

The willingness of the UK to play a greater role in the security of the Arctic and the High North is tempered by the concern that Defence does not have sufficient resources to establish a meaningful presence in the region. Platforms and capabilities which might have a role in the High North are heavily committed elsewhere, and, with the Modernising Defence Programme still to be completed, there is no indication of new resources being applied.

Yet, members of the British public might ask which parts of the world are more important than the Arctic. Indeed, the lack of resources for the High North could – perhaps even should – trigger a debate about the UK’s ambitions for its armed forces. Those global ambitions, of course, have a long and distinguished history – but today’s environment is one in which the UK is no longer a superpower with dominions to maintain and defend, and perhaps more importantly, one in which maintaining a global presence could require a much larger investment in defence than today’s 2.1 per cent of GDP. In the short term, one should hope that Secretary Williamson supports the MoD’s Arctic strategy with a few more assets in the High North.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not necessarily represent the views of RUSI or any other institution.


Elisabeth Braw

Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI)

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