Arctic Security Briefing Papers

Polar bears approach USS Honolulu, a Los Angeles-class fast attack submarine (credit: Arctic Submarine Laboratory, 2003)

Occasional briefing papers focussing on military policies and practices in the Arctic region by Ernie Regehr, O.C., The Simons Foundation Canada's Senior Fellow in Arctic Security and Defence. 

About the Arctic Security Briefing Papers:

Arctic “security” is ultimately about the safety and well-being of the people of the Arctic – a human security agenda that necessarily engages a broad range of social and economic conditions and policies. Military policies and practices in the Arctic are but one element of this broad human security agenda, but they will be the primary focus of these briefing papers. What are and should be the roles, and limits, of military forces in supporting human security, in strengthening the rule of law nationally and internationally, and in promoting efforts towards a cooperative security regime within the Arctic region?

The challenge is to advance the kinds of national policies and international rules and initiatives that honor, in the context of the Arctic, the UN Charter’s Article 26 pledge to “promote the establishment and maintenance of international peace and security with the least diversion for armaments of the world’s human and economic resources."

Ernie Regehr, O.C.
Senior Fellow in Arctic Security and Defence
The Simons Foundation Canada



Military Footprints in the Arctic

By Ernie Regehr, O.C.,  Senior Fellow in Arctic Security and Defence, The Simons Foundation Canada
with Kelsey Gallagher, Researcher, Project Ploughshares
March 2024


Emerging security challenges in the Arctic require policies that squarely face changing conditions, strategic and environmental, but preserving the basic stability that still exists in the region must be a clear priority. Relying too heavily on military responses risks exacerbating rather than easing Arctic tensions, and it ignores the post-Cold War reality that vulnerability to military threats is linked as much to political as to military weakness. In other words, good governance at home – political stability, national unity, and ongoing public trust in the institutions of governance and accountability – and regional diplomacy should be at the core of Arctic security strategies.
Two Parliamentary Committees have recently recommended that Canada “reconsider” it’s 2005 decision against joining the US homeland Ballistic Missile Defence system. The Pentagon acknowledges the system has no capacity against Russian and Chinese ballistic missiles, and its operational design means it also has no capability against cruise and hypersonic missiles. With continental security concerns shifting to the latter, Canada is unlikely to seek direct involvement in strictly ballistic missile defence.
While rising northern tensions clearly challenge notions of the Arctic as a durable zone of peace, current tensions are rooted in fears of a European conflict spilling northward, not in conflict endemic to the Arctic. Two decades of high north military expansion have certainly added to the region’s strategic uncertainty, but even more consequential are the currently increasing levels and pace of competing strategic patrols in the Arctic and North Atlantic, especially those that undermine basic nuclear deterrence.
The Department of National Defence (DND) is updating its 2017 defence policy statement, “Strong, Secure, Engaged” (SSE), pointing to a changed “geopolitical landscape” in which threats from that time “have intensified and accelerated…at an unprecedented rate.” Among those rising threats, the Defence Department includes “rapidly accelerating climate change, more sophisticated cyber threats, Russia and China’s increasing military modernization, and Russia’s further invasion of Ukraine.” DND invited submissions to address a series of questions posed on its online “feedback” mechanism. The following submission of April 27 responds (with some additional edits) to selected questions.
Russia’s brazenly illegal war on Ukraine certainly means business as usual is not a serious option for relations with Russia, including in the Arctic. But the effort to repel aggression in Europe should not be the occasion to escalate tensions and reject cooperation or engagement in a hitherto stable region. Given that pan-Arctic cooperation is a professed and genuinely practiced Arctic value, shutting down dialogue forums ought not to be the go-to Arctic response to conflict and gross violations of norms and laws outside, or inside, the region.
The likelihood that internal Arctic disputes would rise to crisis levels in danger of escalating to armed combat in any foreseeable future is by all accounts remote. The worries about armed combat in the Arctic centre instead on the possibility that war between Russia and NATO away from the Arctic, somewhere in Europe, would spill into the Arctic. In an East/West war in Europe, combat could spill both into and out of the Arctic by virtue of each side seeking advantage by attacking the other’s war-making capacity away from the immediate theater of operations.
One of the more troubling manifestations of re-emerging big power competition in the Arctic is the apparent determination of both the US and Russia to demonstrate their willingness to mount destabilizing anti-submarine warfare operations in the Barents Sea and the North Atlantic.
When a Canadian Armed Forces official recently told an Ottawa security conference that “we cannot deter what we cannot defeat, and we cannot defeat what we cannot detect,” his audience may well have heard it as the credible proclamation of a prudent and resolute defence posture. In truth, the statement runs counter to decades of defence policy and practice. It ignores the inconvenient reality that there is no defence against a nuclear attack, even though current and planned early warning systems ensure that such an attack would be reliably detected.
It is now seemingly routine for pundits and security professionals to warn of an impending militarized scramble for dominance over the lands, seas, and resources of the Arctic, with Russia enjoying a formidable advantage – all evidenced by the undeniable expansion of military facilities throughout the region. But it’s not clear that the official West is buying it. The Americans have ratcheted up the rhetoric, but little else has changed. The 2019 NATO summit ignored the Arctic, and individual states like Canada and Norway are sticking with a more nuanced and restrained posture on Arctic security.
A single provocative sentence about China deploying nuclear-armed submarines in the Arctic led much of the commentary on the Pentagon’s May 2019 report on developments in the Chinese military. The reference was obviously meant to stoke alarm, and as long as competitive nuclear weapons “modernization” proceeds apace – especially in the United States, Russia, and China – there is little doubt that China could one day be capable of conducting submarine patrols in the Arctic, but that doesn’t answer the question of why they would want to.
Deliveries of the used F-18 fighter aircraft that Canada is acquiring from Australia have begun.  The point of the new purchase of old F-18s is to provide a temporary fix for the ostensible capability gap that was created by a redefinition of Canadian requirements. It was broadly understood as an unusually sudden insistence on an immediate need for up to 25 more fighter aircraft (18 for operational roles, possibly seven more for testing and spare parts), but it was also part of a pattern of arbitrarily changing requirements for air defence missions that remain essentially unchanged. 
The Arctic is the primary home of Russia’s nuclear ballistic missile submarine force. That fleet, like its American counterpart, is being “modernized,” the subs are patrolling more often, and, inevitably, American attack submarines are paying increasing attention. Four decades ago, in a climate of intense Cold War confrontation and nuclear dangers, when American and Soviet ballistic missile submarines and the attack subs that trailed them roamed the oceans, strategists, peace researchers, and some military planners grew intensely worried about the strategic instability wrought by such dangerous cat and mouse maneuvers. That in turn led to innovative proposals for anti-submarine-warfare-free zones as one way of easing tensions and, especially, as a means of reducing the risks that mishaps, miscalculations, or miscommunications would escalate out of control. The Arctic figured prominently in those proposals – the essential elements of which continue to have merit and, unfortunately, relevance.
Questions about sovereignty are a constant in Canadian discourse on the Arctic – a current iteration being a study of “Canada’s Sovereignty in the Arctic” by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development (FAAE). As of Oct 22, the Committee had held four sessions, heard 15 witnesses, and received four written briefs, and the overwhelming thrust of testimony so far is that Canada does not have an Arctic sovereignty problem. Furthermore, there is an irony in the application of northern sovereignty that the Committee has yet to address – namely, the inescapable reality that, in a challenging region made manageable through international cooperation, part of the responsible exercise of national sovereignty in the Arctic is the willingness to curb purely national prerogatives in favor of regional collaboration and collective well-being.
The run-up to this month’s NATO summit featured an array of pundits, experts and, notably, Canadian Parliamentarians, encouraging the Alliance to step up its presence and collective operations in the Arctic. As it turned out, NATO leaders wisely resisted the entreaties. The Brussels Summit Declaration is silent on the Arctic, and NATO officials, when asked about it, were just as inclined to talk about Arctic cooperation as they were about military expansion and Russian or Chinese threats in the high north.
Ten years ago this month, the five Arctic Ocean states issued the Ilulissat Declaration. In it they pledged to rely on existing international law, notably the Law of the Sea, as the framework through which they would seek the “orderly settlement” of disputes in this rapidly changing region. In a welcome counterpoint to the persistent and sometimes overwrought warnings of a new Cold War set to engulf the Arctic along with the rest of the planet, the Denmark/Greenland governments have promised to host an anniversary meeting (Ilulissat II) commemorating the decade of “peaceful and responsible cooperation in the Arctic” that followed Ilulissat I.
Cruise missiles recently made the front pages when President Vladimir Putin marshalled impressive audiovisuals to hype Russian strides in developing new and sinister military technologies. Cruise missiles were included but concerns regarding them didn’t just arrive with his speech. They have figured prominently, for just one example, in the current Canadian and American intention to replace the Arctic-based North Warning System. Cruise missiles pose a two-fold challenge: the unavoidable reality that there is no credible defence against long-range nuclear-armed cruise missiles; and, the related and equally inescapable reality that the only way to manage them in the long term is through internationally negotiated control agreements. The latter challenge is obviously made all the more daunting by a current political climate that is less than conducive to anything quite that rational.
Canada and the United States have begun planning a replacement for the North Warning System, the network of air defence radars across the top of the continent. Jointly funded and operated through NORAD, though located primarily in Canada, the system’s renewal comes in the context of a persistent Cold War revivalism that presages a preoccupation with national defence and geostrategic competition. But another feature of the current context is broad recognition that the changing physical environment and increasing access to and activity in the Arctic drive a priority need for enhanced domain awareness within the region to support public safety, law enforcement, and sovereignty protection, while also serving national defence and strategic stability.
If the Cold War is truly back, the news has yet to reach the Arctic. In the high north, putative rivals are having a hard time getting over their habit of cooperating. They’ve been at it again, this time agreeing on a set of measures to prevent over-fishing in the soon to be accessible high seas of the Arctic Ocean. The agreement is rightly lauded as another advance in collective Governance in the Arctic. Furthermore, it bolsters hopes that the logic of cooperati0n in support of public safety, environmental protection, and responsible resource extraction will increasingly spill over into security cooperation in the global commons of the Arctic high seas.
NATO Defence Ministers have signalled their intention to create a new north Atlantic Command, one with Artic operations also in mind. Along with current deployments in the Baltic states and Poland, intensified air patrols on its eastern and northern flanks, European ballistic missile defence, and a new logistics command for Europe, this new command reflects NATO’s shift from out-of-area missions and back to the Cold War priority of defending the territories of NATO member states. Whatever that shift means for Eurasian security writ large, alliance-dominated territorial defence preoccupations in the Arctic would bode ill for its evolving cooperative security framework.
The first ever “live exercise” involving all eight countries of the Arctic Coast Guard Forum (ACGF) rightly has some observers hailing this new forum’s potential for reinvigorating pan-Arctic security cooperation. Significant challenges remain – not the least being ongoing wariness of Russian military developments and growing Chinese interest in the region, pushing some states towards the more familiar models of military competition – but the region-wide ACGF clearly affirms security cooperation as essential to survival in the Arctic. To the extent that all states of the region “benefit from a rules-based international order that enhances economic well-being, respects human rights and human dignity, and supports mechanisms for the peaceful resolution of disputes while providing for territorial integrity,” the pursuit of more formalized, and thus more sustainable, forms of mutual security promises to remain a feature of Arctic geopolitics. The slow emergence of cooperative pan-Arctic Coast Guard operations in the Arctic is a case in point.