Militarization of the Arctic Heats Up, Russia Takes the Lead

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Militarization of the Arctic Heats Up, Russia Takes the Lead

Arctic states have begun rebuilding their military forces and capabilities in order to operate in the region.

As the world’s attention is focused on a swath of territory in the East China Sea that now falls under Beijing’s surprise Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), other countries are making preparations to raise the stakes in a much larger region where the stakes could be even higher — the Arctic.

Leading the race in bolstering its presence in the area, where the world’s largest reserves of untapped hydrocarbon resources are believed to lie, is Russia. Moscow announced on December 2 that its navy would make the arctic a priority region in 2014.

According to Vadim Serga, a spokesman for the Northern Fleet’s Western Military District, a new series of ice-class patrol ships will be developed to boost the Russian Navy’s ability to protect its interests in the region. This followed news in early November that the Russian military was planning to form a squadron of ice-breaking warships by 2014 and that infantry forces would be provided with new equipment to increase their ability to conduct combat operations in the region.

In the December 2 announcement, Moscow also said that combat training exercises, as well as scouting missions to more remote areas of the Arctic, would be held to bolster Russia’s capabilities. Airborne assault forces and military transport aviation units conducted exercises in the Arctic in late October, RIA Novosti reported on October 29.

According to Russia’s Arctic doctrine of 2008, Moscow aims to be able to deploy to the region a combined-arms force — involving the military, border and coast guard units — by 2020.

The United States, Canada, Denmark and Norway have begun increasing their military presence in the area in recent years. Additionally, though it has no territorial claims to the region, China, which is constantly seeking alternative sources of energy to fuel its growing economy, has also become a player in the high-stakes game to secure access and exploration rights in the region.

In a new study of the security environment in the Arctic, Rob Huebert, a fellow at the Canadian Defense and Foreign Affairs Institute (CDFAI) and a professor in political science at the University of Calgary, points out that despite all the claimants’ professed interest in cooperating within the region, which has become less inhospitable thanks to melting ice caps, ongoing developments indicate that they are preparing for conflict.

“All of the Arctic states have begun rebuilding their military forces and capabilities in order to operate in the region. Personnel are undertaking Arctic training exercises; submarines that can operate in ice are being developed or enhanced; icebreakers are being built; and so forth,” he writes.

“The catalyst for the Arctic states’ efforts appears to be a recognition that the Arctic is critically vital to their interests and they will take the steps necessary to defend these interests,” Huebert says, adding that aside from Canada, which is building primarily constabulary forces, “Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States have either invested, or are about to invest, in weapons systems designed to fight wars.”

This certainly applies to Russia. In further signs of its dedication to continue increasing its military capabilities within the Arctic, Moscow has begun deploying aerospace defense and electronic warfare units to the area and is now building a comprehensive early-warning missile radar system near Vorkuta in the extreme north. Completion is scheduled for 2018. Two 6,000km-range Voronezh-class radar stations — one in the Krasnodar Territory and one in the Leningrad region — are currently in operation, with two more, located in the Kaliningrad and Irkutsk regions, in the testing phase. In all, a total of seven Voronezh-class radars are scheduled for deployment in the region through 2018.

Moreover, according to Russian reports, a new generation of fully automated or “unmanned” early-warning missile radars is in the planning stages for the Krasnoyarsk, Altai and Orenburg regions. Those will replace aging Dnepr– and Daryal-class radars and “close all gaps in radar coverage on Russia’s borders,” RIA Novosti reported on November 28.

President Vladimir Putin recently said that the Arctic was a crucial component of Russia’s economic and security interests.

Prior to unveiling the Pentagon’s Arctic strategy at a security forum in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in late November, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told journalists that the U.S. intends to be “very involved” in the Arctic. The U.S. Navy intends to be able to operate in the region by 2025. “We are beginning to think about and plan for how our naval fleet and other capabilities and assets will need to adapt to the evolving shifts and requirements in the region,” Hagel said.

According to experts, Arctic waters could see largely ice-free summers (or less than 10 percent coverage) by as early as 2030. The USGS estimates that 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves, 30 percent of undiscovered gas deposits, and 20 percent of the undiscovered natural gas liquids, may lie in the Arctic.