Arctic operations

Illustration by Georgina Kerridge

The unfrozen North

As the ice caps in the High North continue to shrink, state actors are positioning themselves to take advantage of newly opened waterways into the resource-rich region.

Andrew White

The strategic importance of maritime security throughout the Arctic has become critical for armed forces seeking to not only exploit untapped oil and gas reserves but also provide security for commercial shipping and national infrastructure.

Today, naval forces from Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, the UK and the US continue to build up materiel and develop CONOPS to varying degrees in order to deploy across the Arctic and exercise influence in the region.

Speaking to Shephard, industry experts described how these state actors (many of whom are also members of the Arctic Council, which is tasked with promoting cooperation across the region) were also having to consider the movements of non-Arctic players, including China, which is also starting to penetrate the area on a more regular basis.

Illustrating this heightened military activity are Russian efforts to build up force elements in the High North, coordinated by its Arctic Joint Strategic Command. Its forces have reopened previously abandoned bases, with aircraft and submarines also conducting regular incursions into the territorial waters of other Arctic nations.

🜂 The number of Arctic-capable naval vessels are set to increase over the next four years as fleets are revitalised. (Source: Shephard Defence Insight)


In 2018, Moscow also organised the Vostok exercise which saw airborne cruise missile launches over the Barents, East Siberian, Chukchi and North Arctic Seas, according to a NATO review published in December 2018.

Furthermore, Russian forces continue to conduct EW across the region, including jamming aircraft and surface vessels, NATO literature added.

Protective response

In response, the USN reinstated its 2nd Fleet in 2018, with a remit to cover the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. Having achieved FOC in December last year, the 2nd Fleet is tasked to protect the ‘most active shipping lanes’ in the region, according to a statement from its commander, VADM Andrew Lewis.

‘Combined with the opening of waterways in the Arctic, this competitive space will only grow, and 2nd Fleet’s devotion to the development and employment of capable forces will ensure that our nation is both present and ready to fight in the region if and when called upon,’ he explained.

‘2nd Fleet will primarily focus on forward operations and the employment of combat-ready naval forces in the Atlantic and Arctic, and to a smaller extent, on force generation and the final training and certification of forces preparing for operations around the globe,’ a navy statement added.

The fleet will be supported by an expeditionary maritime operations centre, which was inaugurated in September in Keflavik, Iceland. With a staff of 30, the facility will provide ‘indicators and warnings for situational awareness and issue orders while maintaining reach-back capability to 2nd Fleet headquarters’.

Lewis also underlined the importance of interoperability with Arctic partners: ‘By focusing on strengthening our partnerships with our allies in the Atlantic and high-end training and employment of assigned assets, the new 2nd Fleet is now fully postured to support the employment of forces, whether that is on the western or eastern side of the Atlantic Ocean or further north into the Arctic Ocean.’

The fleet will also be supported by Thule Air Base in Greenland, which is described as a ‘key player’ in missile defence and surveillance radar systems across the High North, defence sources explained to Shephard.

Tensing up

According to Hans Peter Michaelsen, a former analyst at the Centre for Military Studies at the University of Copenhagen, the security situation in the Arctic has changed gradually since 2014, something triggered by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and ongoing tension with NATO.

‘We are witnessing a renewed strategic importance of the Arctic – a crucial area for the nuclear deterrent of superpowers,’ he explained to Shephard. ‘Both Russia and the UK are operating in this area and there are general tensions… [This is] another indication why both the UK and Norway have acquired P-8 Poseidon patrol aircraft for anti-submarine warfare.

🜂 US polar capability risks falling behind as Russia envisions doubling the number of icebreakers on order. (Source: Shephard Defence Insight)


‘When the ice melts, vessels can begin to sail into previously uncharted waters, and you can see Russia building up military capabilities with new bases. They want to be sure they have control over the Arctic passageway north of Russia. Only the Northern Sea Route will be open most of the year,’ he continued.

‘We see more Russian naval activities than we’ve seen for many years, and similarly, the US has re-established the 2nd Fleet. Things are not like the Cold War, but there are some similarities.’

Michaelsen also highlighted the activities of the Royal Danish Navy – a CONOPS which has risen to prominence given the country’s ownership of the strategic territories of Greenland and the Faroe Islands.

Denmark, he suggested, views the Arctic as ‘the security issue of 2019 and onwards’. ‘You know something is going on if the US President wants to buy Greenland. There is renewed Danish focus on security policy in and around Greenland,’ he warned.

‘The US and Denmark feel more conventionally threatened by Russia and they deem it necessary to be more present in the Arctic. The… 2nd Fleet will begin to train with frigates and destroyers from the Royal Danish Navy in Arctic waters – an area which the Danish navy has not focused on since the Cold War.’ Michaelsen confirmed that the service had only started to train with frigates in the Arctic in Q3 2019.

Additionally, he noted how China started referring to itself as a ‘near-Arctic’ country in 2019. Chinese communications provider Huawei has already helped to establish a 4G network in the Faroe Islands, with negotiations ongoing regarding the upgrade to 5G, industry sources cited.

‘Denmark has to think clearly about how to approach this,’ Michaelsen warned.

Poseidon moves

Turning to the UK, on 4 February 2020, the RAF received its first P-8 Poseidon MPA at RAF Lossiemouth, part of a £3 billion programme designed to enhance the service’s ability to ‘track hostile targets below and above the waves’.

According to a statement from the UK MoD, published on the same date, nine MPAs will protect the ‘UK’s continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent and be central to NATO missions across the North Atlantic, cooperating closely with the US and Norwegian Poseidon fleets’.


🜂 The USN’s 2nd Fleet is now fully operational to support mission sets in the Arctic. (Photo: USN)


‘The UK’s purchase of the Poseidon is in response to increased threats such as Russian submarine activity in the Atlantic returning to Cold War levels, while China is also investing heavily in new Arctic facilities, infrastructure and ice-capable ships,’ the statement added. Defence Minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan also stated that the MPA will join an integrated joint force of jets, ships, submarines and helicopters, all of which are now ready to operate in ‘Arctic conditions’.

‘The UK will not stand by if peace in the Arctic region is threatened,’ she added.

Poseidon MPAs will conduct high- and low-altitude surveillance missions, generating high-resolution mapping to find and fix enemy submarines and surface vessels. Aircraft will also be equipped with sonobuoys, which once deployed, will assist in tracking submarines under the surface.

Additional equipment includes Harpoon anti-surface ship missiles and Mk 54 torpedoes for surface and subsurface attack missions.

All nine Poseidons will be delivered to the RAF by the end of 2021 with FOC due to be achieved in 2024.

Seeking to provide optimal levels in maritime security across the Arctic will rely upon joint and layered assets operating above and below the surface as well as in the air and, to a limited extent, on the ground.

‘Arctic nations are very much focused on maritime and air capabilities,’ Michaelsen suggested. ‘There are no existing surveillance systems in the area and, therefore, no overall picture of what’s going on.

‘Actors need to build a better situation awareness picture, and probably the best assets to achieve this would be commercial and military spacecraft in addition to unmanned aerial vehicles, including the Triton MQ-4C high-altitude, long-endurance platform,’ he suggested. Surface vessels will remain important for more civilian taskings, including SAR and fisheries protection.

‘In Denmark, for example, security forces want to be able to monitor areas where the Russian Navy trains close to Greenland or the Faroe Islands. Increased activity poses a challenge for surface navies,’ Michaelsen stated.

Space support

Critical to Arctic security will be space-based support over the region, with solutions including Norway’s Arctic Satellite Broadband Mission (ASBM) which is due to reach FOC in 2023.

Space Norway has contracted Space X, Kongsberg and Northrop Grumman to deliver the project which covers design and manufacture of a pair of satellites equipped with specialist Inmarsat and Norwegian MoD payloads to enhance communications across the region.

Satellites will be launched in December 2022, supported by a ground station due to be established at an undisclosed location in the High North, programme director at Space Norway, Kjell-Ove Skare, explained to Shephard.


🜂 The Norwegian MoD continues to press ahead with its ASBM programme to ensure communications for disadvantaged users conducting operations across the High North. (Image: Space Norway)


The ASBM will provide X-band connectivity for the Norwegian armed forces operating across the region above 65°N.

‘The programme will provide a robust communications capability in an area strategically important to Norway and its partners, critical in the support of surveillance, fishery control and rescue operations. Each satellite will carry multiple payloads with an operational life of more than 15 years with users able to switch between current geostationary satellites and the HEO satellites,’ Skare concluded.

Similarly, Arctic nations will require support from earth observation (EO) solutions in order to generate a common operating picture across the region.

In 2021, Maxar Technologies will launch its WorldView Legion satellite constellation, providing a next-generation surveillance capability for customers across the Arctic Circle.

Speaking to Shephard, Maxar’s executive VP for global field operations, Tony Frazier, described how the EO satellites will provide up to 15 revisits over an area of interest in a single 24h period. Legacy EO satellites generally retain the capacity to revisit areas of interest just twice in a single day, he stated.

Such a CONOPS, he continued, would negate the ability of adversaries across the Arctic Circle to conduct counter-surveillance drills to avoid detection.

Initially, WorldView Legion will comprise a six-satellite constellation supporting Raytheon EO payloads providing sub-30cm resolution and eight-band visible/near-IR multispectral imaging.

‘WorldView Legion will change core mapping missions as well as many of the emerging intelligence missions as we move into the resurgence of the GPC [great power competition],’ Frazier concluded.

High powers

Looking forward, Michaelsen believes focus on the High North by the various Arctic nations will continue in the near to medium and long term, resulting in the potential for increased tensions, although not yet at the levels witnessed during the Cold War.

‘Countries will be more keen on observing what each other is doing across the GPC. The US has found renewed interest in the Arctic, while Russia is eyeing critical routes and China also wants to do something around the region. Activities could increase in the next five to ten years with even greater levels in tension between superpowers,’ Michaelsen concluded.


Breaking the ice


As the ice cap continues to recede, the Arctic is becoming an increasingly strategic waterway with competing claims to its resources. This has seen a rise in the number of ice-capable vessel contracts and programmes initiated.

Developments have come from China in the form of the PLAN’s first indigenously developed icebreakers, the Haibing class (Type 272), which entered service in 2016. Although China is not typically an Arctic power, its presence is expanding along with its economic interests as the area becomes more accessible.

Countries with a long-standing interest in the area, such as Canada, are also spending. While the Canadian Coast Guard operates many icebreakers, the Royal Canadian Navy is now procuring new Arctic-capable warships. It recently increased its order for Harry DeWolf-class Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ships from six to eight as part of a fleet renewal plan.

Similarly, the Russian Navy has also taken its own steps. The first icebreaker built for the service in 40 years, the Project 21180 icebreaker Ilya Muromets was commissioned in 2017, with a smaller modernised Project 21180M vessel currently under construction. Perhaps the most significant development is the new two-ship Ivan Papanin class. While icebreakers have traditionally not been heavily armed, Ivan Papanin is the first of its kind to be equipped with Kalibr cruise missiles, increasing concerns of militarisation of the Arctic.

The US, however, is far behind its competitors in this field, with only two USCG ice-capable vessels in service. Recently, steps have been taken to revitalise icebreaking capability with a contract awarded in April 2019 for up to three Polar Security Cutters (PSCs). However, only one is currently on order to replace the ageing USCGC Polar Star, and although it will be bigger than its Russian counterparts, the capability difference is significant compared to the Ivan Papanin.

While only two of the latter have been ordered so far, these are expected to be the start of a serial design programme which may see a further pair built for the country’s border patrol agency. The vessels may be smaller and less powerful than the newly ordered US icebreakers, but they offer a combat capability.

With the US set to still have just two icebreakers by 2024, the Russian Navy will have four new vessels in service, two of which will be missile-equipped. If the USN wishes to venture into the Arctic with its own heavily armed vessels, these currently require the assistance of USCG icebreakers. Even if the two options on PSCs are exercised, Russia has up to 40 civilian icebreakers at its disposal, leaving a significant gap in ice-capable readiness.

By Harriet Haywood