In my previous articles, I have covered the current abilities of Canada, the United States and Russia to use their navies in Arctic conditions. While Canada, the United States and their NATO allies have militaries that are much less prepared for Arctic conditions than the Russian Navy, this does not mean that the situation will remain that way. Currently each Arctic nation has plans to strengthen the capabilities of its navy in the Arctic as conditions change. Despite this investment, the future of the region is unlikely to be resolved militarily; instead, the national strategies of Canada and its allies focus on resolving their disputes through international law and cooperation.
It is predicted that sometime in the next few decades, Arctic ice will be reduced to such a level that for much of the year the Bering Strait, the Northwest Passage, the Northern Sea Route and the Polar Sea Route will all be free of ice and open to transit for much of the year.
This has many consequences for Arctic nations. It offers economic opportunities by opening up these sea routes to shipping and making it easier to exploit energy resources in the area. However, it also creates environmental risks and makes it easier for nations to use these routes for military purposes, creating security risks in the region.
Currently, Canada and the United States have few resources devoted to defending the Arctic. The Royal Canadian Navy has no ships dedicated to patrolling and defending the Arctic. Canada also lacks nuclear submarines, which can operate underwater for long periods of time, allowing them to operate freely in Arctic conditions. Canada plans to build 6 to 8 ice capable vessels to patrol the Arctic, but even then, its Arctic capabilities will be inferior.
While the United States Navy has no ice capable surface vessels, it has the largest submarine fleet in the world and a powerful navy able to operate in the region under ice free conditions. The United States has 52 attack submarines, (armed with nuclear weapons) for searching and destroying enemy submarines. This includes 10 next generation Virginia class submarines, with six more currently under construction. The American Navy also has 4 guided missile submarines, which carry cruise missiles to use against land and naval targets, and 14 ballistic missile submarines, submarines that carry strategic nuclear weapons. This is in contrast to the Russian Navy, which currently has 10 operational nuclear submarines and plans to build 8 next generation Yasen class submarines and 8 next-generation Borey class ballistic missile submarines.
Nonetheless, even with America’s larger submarine fleet, most of these ships are based outside the Arctic region, and without a surface fleet, the ability of the American Navy to operate in the Arctic is much lower than the Russian Navy’s. However, with many years before the Arctic becomes open to international transit, it is unlikely that there will be any major source of conflict in the Arctic, or that it could be used for military operations. Instead of investing in the Arctic capabilities of its forces for the immediate future the American Navy plans to upgrade its capabilities as the environmental conditions in the Arctic change.
Among Canada’s European NATO allies, Norway has sought for NATO to have a greater role in Arctic security; however, Canada’s European allies are militarily weaker. The European Arctic powers whose navies are capable of operating in the region are Norway and Denmark. Norway has five frigates, six corvettes and six diesel submarines capable of operating in the Arctic. Norway is also planning to buy 56 F-35 aircraft, which would enter service in 2018. However, these aircraft would only be able to operate in close proximity to Norway. Denmark has three frigates, which are not ice strengthened as well as four Thetis class frigates capable of breaking ice up to one metre thick. In addition, Copenhagen also has three ice strengthened offshore patrol vessels, which operate off the coast of Greenland.
While Russia has greater capabilities to operate in the Arctic currently, this is likely to change. Currently, the American Navy believes that its capabilities are sufficient to cope with the low level of security threats in the region. With American plans to prepare its fleet as Arctic conditions change and make the region more navigable, North America should remain secure from any potential military threats. However, even if Canada’s allies ensure its security with their navies, this does not mean that Canada’s Arctic sovereignty will be protected. Canadian and American national interests are the same when it comes to ensuring that North America remains free from security threats, but their interests differ on Canadian sovereignty over the Northwest Passage. Thus, to protect its sovereignty Canada will have to establish its own military presence in the region.
It is unlikely that military conflict would break out in the region, as this would have high costs and few benefits for Arctic nations, including Russia. Moreover, the region has a history of cooperation as there are many potential benefits to friendly relations. Preparing for military threats in the region, while necessary, is not the primary aspect of the Canadian, American, Norwegian or Danish Arctic strategies. Instead the focus is on cooperation through international mechanisms, such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and the Arctic Council, an international body established to facilitate cooperation between Arctic nations. While militaries will prepare for the possibility of conflict, disputes between the Arctic nations will likely be resolved through international diplomacy and law.