A convoy of ships follows an ice breaker on the Arctic's Northern Sea Route. Photo: iStock
A convoy of ships follows an icebreaker on the Northern Sea Route. The Finnish Military Intelligence Review notes that Moscow takes security and capability enhancement in the Arctic seriously. Photo: iStock

In any conflict between China and the United States (and its allies), the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait are likely battlefields. But as tensions between Russia and the West also grow, where might conflict between these two camps break out? The Baltic certainly is a potential theater, and, if so, then such countries as Estonia and Poland certainly have a lot to worry about.

Global warming, however, raises the specter that the Arctic might become a new zone for conflict, as the polar icecap recedes and the area becomes more accessible. In the first place, competition for natural resources in the region is increasing. The Arctic is believed to contain up to 25% of the world’s remaining oil and gas reserves, estimated to be worth as much as US$20 trillion.

Just as important, the Arctic is being viewed as a possible alternative sea route for commercial shipping, potentially competing with the traditional trans-Suez/trans-Malacca Strait route used by most shipping when it comes to trade between Europe and the Asia-Pacific region. The reduction in sea ice has meant that routes through the Arctic region are at least a commercial possibility. The Northwest Passage through Canada is one possible route, but recently more attention has been paid to the so-called Northern Sea Route (NSR) along the north coast of Russia.

The military dimension of the Arctic region

As economic factors – mainly energy and shipping – more and more dominate the Arctic, the area is experiencing a bit of a comeback in terms of its salience as a military domain. Perhaps no other country has invested more resources into its Arctic forces than Russia.

After decades of neglect, Moscow is attempting to reconstitute and strengthen its military presence in the Arctic, particularly in the “High North” around the Kola Peninsula, home of the Russian Northern Fleet.

Since 2008, Russia has established two Arctic-warfare brigades (consisting of around 9,000 troops), and has reopened naval facilities, airbases and radar sites in the Kola and along the Russian Arctic coast. Russia now operates around 100 long-range aircraft in the Kola, including Tu-22 long-range bombers, and Tu-142 and Il-38 maritime reconnaissance aircraft. These assets run regular reconnaissance and bomb-test flights over the Arctic.

Russia also plans to upgrade its airfield on Novaya Zemlya to accommodate modern fighter aircraft as well as deploy modern S400 air defense systems.

Russia has also invested heavily in upgrading its Northern Fleet, headquartered at Severomorsk, on the Kola Peninsula. The Northern Fleet is most critically the home for Russia’s SSBN (nuclear-powered, missile-carrying submarine) fleet, which is heavily dependent on the Arctic for its patrols.

Consequently, the most important elements of the Russian buildup in the High North have in essence been strategic, in particular, several new Borei-class SSBNs, equipped with the new Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). Conventional naval forces, aside from some new icebreakers, do not appear to be receiving as much attention.

Accordingly, the High North is beginning to resemble the old Cold War days, what some have called the “cylinder of interest” involving Western nations straddling the Arctic Circle. There has been a buildup of military forces in the Kola Peninsula, along with a corresponding buildup of Russian forces in the Far East (at least five Borei-class SSBNs are being deployed with the Russian Pacific Fleet), the concern being that the retreat of polar ice will lead to the increased ability of each area being able to reinforce each other, if required.

Mitigating factors

Nevertheless, any security-based tensions in the Arctic are probably overblown. With the collapse in oil prices, there is little interest in exploiting oil reserves in the region. More important, Arctic sea lanes – and especially the NSR – have so far been of only limited utility. The NSR is hampered by a lack of deepwater ports on the Russian Arctic coast, the shallowness of the transit waters, and the unpredictability of ice-melt on a year-to-year basis. In fact, just a few dozen ships use the NSR annually, an insignificant number compared with the Suez/Malacca Strait route.

Even Russia’s so-called military buildup has been less than meets the eye. In fact, the bulk of Russian military modernization affecting the Arctic has gone to its SSBNs; conventional forces have received much less in the way of new equipment. Most conventional forces in the region, in fact, are old and getting older, and new equipment, particularly fighter aircraft or main battle tanks, has been slow in arriving.

The Arctic: quieter than it looks

Above all, the Arctic region has not become a zone of contention and strife, unlike, for instance, the South China Sea. In fact, there is more international cooperation taking place in the Arctic than many might think.

According to the Center for a New American Security, the Arctic nations are in general committed to a “rules-based approach to security.” They are continuing to adhere to the “rules of the road” laid down by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and to the extent that overlapping maritime claims exist, most of the Arctic Ocean coastal states, including Russia, are proceeding to resolve them within UNCLOS or via appropriate bilateral forums.

In 2010, for example, Russia and Norway signed a treaty to resolve their 40-year disagreement over maritime resource boundaries in the Barents Sea.

Consequently, all the talk about the Arctic region becoming the new frontline of war is almost certainly overblown. The Western Pacific will continue to predominate potential great-power conflict.

Richard A Bitzinger is a Visiting Senior Fellow with the Military Transformations Program at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.