Why an Arctic arms race would be a mistake

An “icebreaker gap” between the U.S. and Russia exists — but it’s a terrible excuse to accelerate the militarization of this fragile region.

By Robert D. English - June 18, 2020
The Russian icebreaker 50 let Pobedy (“50 years of Victory”) sails through ice on a voyage to the North Pole. The fact that Russia has a much larger icebreaker fleet than the U.S. shouldn’t be a security concern for American policymakers, argues Robert D. English. (Christopher Michel / CC BY 2.0 via Flickr)

Most of America’s historic foreign policy blunders were driven by threat inflation. From fake attacks on ships in Havana Harbor or the Gulf of Tonkin, to falling dominos in Southeast Asia and WMD in Iraq — the response to these “dire threats” is often a costly quagmire. In the Cold War it was phony bomber and missile “gaps” that sparked a precarious and ultimately pointless nuclear confrontation. Today a new “icebreaker gap” could fuel an Arctic arms race.

For over a decade, defense hawks have been sounding the alarm about Russia’s supposed “militarization” and “dominance” of the Arctic. More recently, China has joined the list of “aggressors” allegedly threatening vital Western economic and strategic interests in the High North. The Obama administration resisted calls for a major Arctic buildup coming from a mix of armchair analysts, defense contractors, and special political interests. Notably, the U.S. Navy has never joined this chorus. Nobody denies the need for some new heavy icebreakers to buttress an aging fleet, but these are for Coast Guard missions — not the remote warfighting scenarios hyped by Arctic hawks. Theirs is classic threat inflation, built on equal parts exaggeration and ignorance, that makes it irresistible to a Trump administration happy to overturn yet another Obama legacy. And so, with a recent series of provocative words and deeds, America’s Arctic policy has taken an abruptly belligerent turn.

[Trump calls for an accelerated expansion of the U.S. icebreaker fleet]

This is another historic mistake, not only because it could lead to costly and dangerous confrontation in an extremely fragile region, but because its entire premise is false. Once a superpower rival in the High North, Russia’s Arctic presence imploded after the Cold War leaving America and its NATO allies militarily dominant. Retreating from rivalry, Russia joined other regional states in a new Arctic Council that has proved a model of shared global governance, fostering cooperation in areas from environmental protection and search and rescue to commercial shipping and fisheries. Importantly, Arctic Council members agreed over a decade ago to settle any territorial disputes through the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea framework — and have scrupulously kept to that agreement. It is simply false that Russia threatens to seize the North Pole seabed or other Arctic territory, or that China, a nonvoting observer at the Arctic Council, threatens to undermine the independence of regional states through its so-called “Polar Silk Road.”

What Russia has done, after the collapse of its northern military presence in the 1990s, is invest in new security infrastructure of an essentially defensive character — which only makes sense, given NATO’s offensive advantages and Russia’s dependence on Arctic petroleum, minerals, and shipping routes for its economic survival. For its part, China has joined the global polar research establishment, invested several billion dollars in regional resource projects, and demonstrated its keen interest in Russia’s northern shipping route — which only makes sense given China’s dependence on trade between Europe and Asia. Beijing’s Arctic presence is both legal and limited — nothing like the nefarious web of influence that is often suggested, making it simply weird that China’s self-identification as a “near-Arctic” state causes Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to erupt in fury.

More than a decade of investment in rebuilding its Arctic military presence has still not returned Russia to its level of the 1980s. Its problem-plagued Northern Fleet is also puny, just a few dozen surface ships and a similar number of submarines. Many of these vessels are obsolescent and — notwithstanding the hype accompanying recent exercises — constitute a force mainly suited for coastal defense. Similarly, Russia’s Arctic air power is far outclassed by NATO’s, lacking both the range (due to minimal in-air refueling assets) and sophistication (Russia still has yet to deploy true fifth-generation “stealth” aircraft, such as NATO’s F-22s and F-35s) needed for serious power projection. They mainly fly from the same distant airfields as 20 years ago because Russia’s much-ballyhooed “new Arctic bases” are too small — and lack the infrastructure — to house even a single fighter squadron much less a full air wing.

[Needing a major engine repair, Russia’s massive new icebreaker faces an uncertain future]

What they can support are anti-air and anti-ship defensive missile batteries. But these, of course, are really only useful for defending while their supposed “area denial” capabilities are much exaggerated.

In other words, Moscow has severely limited power-projection capability and has structured its forces to protect its own shores. As for the oft-mentioned “icebreaker gap,” Russia’s large fleet of icebreakers is dedicated to escorting commercial shipping through dangerous polar seas. Otherwise, it performs the same missions as the U.S. Coast Guard: search and rescue, anti-smuggling, oil spill response, and resupply of remote coastal communities and polar research stations. Given the critical importance of Russia’s vast Arctic territory to its economic and scientific interests (Russia’s Arctic coastline is ten times longer than America’s) an “icebreaker gap” is to be expected. It has nominal military significance at best.

But that has not stopped the Trump administration from trumpeting the false narrative of Russian “Arctic aggression,” which it has recently followed with several aggressive steps of its own: undermining an Arctic Council ministerial meeting in Finland with bombast and threats; denouncing its Danish allies for rejecting a ridiculous offer to purchase Greenland; announcing the potential acquisition of foreign Arctic bases along with armed, nuclear-powered icebreakers; and sending a naval flotilla close to Russia’s Arctic coast in a dramatic show of force.

The U.S. rejects Russia’s claim of dominion over some territorial waters as exceeding what the UNCLOS permits, and Trump administration officials have called for even more intrusive “freedom of navigation” operations to demonstrate that rejection forcefully. But some cannot help noting that the U.S. does not actively challenge Canada’s identical claims in its own Arctic waters, and that the U.S. itself has never ratified UNCLOS — which might be a better first step toward a diplomatic, rather than military, resolution. Perhaps the strongest argument against such shows of force in the Russian Arctic is that they are needlessly, dangerously provocative.

Last week Trump’s latest initiative in the High North reversed another Obama-era rule; Alaska hunters will soon be permitted to bait hibernating bears with grease-soaked donuts. Sportsmanship aside, this practice suggests another caution for our increasingly belligerent Arctic policy. More than one hunter has lost a limb, if not their life, poking a bear in its den.

Robert D. English is a professor of international relations and environmental studies at the University of Southern California. He previously served as a policy analyst in the U.S. Department of Defense and Committee for National Security.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Arctic Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary (at) arctictoday.com.