The recent strategic attention being given by the House of Commons to the Arctic is overdue but budget constraints are likely to hamper good strategy. Given dramatic increases in Russian activity in the Atlantic and High North and the UK’s location on the Northern Sea Route, the UK Armed Forces must grow their ability to operate in this challenging theatre.
Over the past six months, we have seen a flurry of parliamentary strategies on the Arctic from a diplomatic, ecological, economic and security perspective. The Defence Committee’s report published in August 2018 is dedicated to this latter issue, considering the preparedness of the UK in a region with a rapidly changing ecological and geopolitical environment. Granted, the UK only holds observer status on the Arctic Council and has no claims to the 5.5 million square miles of frozen terrain. However, increased Russian military presence in the region and the opening of Northern shipping lanes on the edge of British waters impact the UK’s security, making it crucial that the UK has the ability to promote peace, stability and environmental responsibility through diplomatic and military means.
Preparation for a future with warmer winters and receding ice shelves requires a security policy that anticipates busier shipping lanes in Arctic waters north of the UK. Greater reliance on passage through Northern waters for European supply chains may put further pressure on future naval resources. In particular, the ‘GIUK gap’ between Greenland, Iceland and the UK on the Northern sea route risks becoming a strategic choke point. All of this means that the maritime environment is becoming more important, more hostile and closer to home.
The UK has neglected the Arctic and High North since the Soviet Union’s collapse. August’s parliamentary report emphasises that “the focus on operating in this challenging environment has been reduced over the long years of engagement in expeditionary operations in hot weather climates.” Indeed, HMS Trenchant’s experience in ICEX 2018 ends an eleven-year hiatus of Royal Navy participation in a biennial U.S. Navy Submarine Force tactical development and torpedo exercise in the Arctic Ocean (ICEX), suggesting a degradation of UK extreme cold weather operational skills.
While there is increasing recognition that the Arctic Ocean is fundamental to the security of the North Atlantic, this has not yet fed through to the UK’s defence policy and capabilities. Crucially after the retirement of Nimrod in 2010, the RAF currently lacks a Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) capability, the backbone of anti-submarine warfare (ASW). The first new P-8 Poseidon MPA is not due until 2020 with the full squadron of nine expected to be operational by late 2023. Until then, the UK is dependent on NATO allies flying sorties from RAF Lossiemouth. The postponement of the Type 31e frigate procurement, which is due to play an active role in ASW missions, threatens the degree of British deterrence in an ever-changing region. The long-awaited defence review and a future National Security Capability Review should reprioritise ASW missions and the Arctic theatre, addressing these concerning naval capability gaps, although this remains unlikely.
Russia appears to have been emboldened by the decline in NATO’s extreme cold weather and ASW capabilities, as evidenced by the huge rise in recent maritime and military activity in the region. The recapitalisation of a previously ageing Russian submarine fleet under the Russian military modernization programme (GPV 2020) since 2008 has helped facilitate a “tenfold increase in the amount of submarine activity in the North Atlantic on behalf of the Russians” according to Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson in February 2018. At the same time, Chatham House Russia & Eurasia Research Fellow and Arctic specialist, Mathieu Boulegue, highlights Russia’s increasing military footprint in the Arctic through new bases, equipment and training in Russian territory in the Arctic and High North. While efforts must be made to avoid an Arctic arms race, Russia is beginning to assert itself beyond its defensive right to uphold its sovereignty.
In this security environment, the UK’s long-term freedom of navigation depends on growing its cold weather capability and Arctic interoperability with NATO allies. This includes an emphasis on bolstered submarine under-ice operations, Arctic training across the Army and Royal Marines, extreme cold weather requirements for equipment procurement and a robust Arctic concept of operations. The MoD faces difficult trade-offs due to post-Brexit budget constraints, weaker Sterling and competing policy priorities that include Tempest, F-35, two carrier groups, plus neglected operation and maintenance budgets. Gavin Williamson’s announcement on 30 September of plans to rotate 800 British commandos to Norway on an annual basis for the next 10 years is progress in the right direction. However, there is little doubt that improving British cold weather capability requires increased long-term MoD funding and a coherent, actionable “Arctic defence strategy” due to its close proximity to the UK and the fast-changing security situation. The UK must, therefore, work for the best but prepare for the worst on an environmental and a strategic level to maintain the policy goal of a “peaceful, stable and well-governed Arctic.”
Dan Fitter is Head of the Defence & Security Programme at Agora.