The Coldest War
Updated: Mar 28
The unlikely sight of a massive Arctic walrus on a Welsh beach. Deadly heatwaves in India. Plans for a new US military base in Alaska. They are all consequences of a steadily melting Arctic, the ice shrinking year by year. The environmental impact, of course, is profound.
But so are the geopolitical implications. As the ice disappears, a new front line has emerged, ready-made for the Great Powers to play out their ever-increasing rivalries. The opening up of new sea routes through the ice and access to the mineral wealth underneath it unleashes a new competition between the USA and its allies, China and Russia. One US General has dramatically suggested the sparsely populated region has been transformed from a peaceful sanctuary into the first line of Homeland defence.
Some in the American military worry they are late getting into the game. The US army has only this month (March 2021) unveiled a new strategy, called “regaining arctic dominance”.
It’s stated aim is to give America the ability to “fight, win and survive in extreme cold weather and rugged mountainous conditions over extended periods” in order to “to project power from, within, and into the Arctic to conduct and sustain extended operations in competition, crisis, and conflict from a position of advantage”.
It is probably just coincidence that the very undiplomatic, chilly exchange between the new US secretary of state Anthony Blinken and his Chinese counterpart took place in Anchorage, Alaska, only a few miles from the planned beefed-up base. The idea is for it to play host to a new Arctic trained combat Brigade and a multi domain task force. (the Chief of Staff of the US army’s current beloved brainchild*).
The military are always on the look out for fresh frontiers which licence them to demand more money for new kit and the icy wastes provides an obvious opportunity. Already promised : $10 million dollars for drones that will work in the extreme cold, $50 million for comms that will function in weird latitudes, an extra $ 8 million on top of the existing budget to develop new “cold weather all terrain vehicles” The North maybe warming up rapidly but it is still cold enough to freeze normal equipment. Vehicles specially and expensively designed for the snow still grind to a halt when the ground turns to mush. The high latitudes and the Northern Lights pose a problem for electronic communications, even keeping generators going is hard.
As new plans are laid, old ones continue. In the skies high above the Arctic the latest version of operation“Amalgam Dart” is currently taking place. It’s a joint exercise between the USAF and the Canadian Air Force under the auspices of NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defence Command. They are planning an expensive new radar system to bolster their defences.
The ice is shrinking at a rate of 13 % every ten years. All that extra water will probably eventually kill more people than any possible conflict. But in the meantime, there will be a scramble to exploit what is being exposed : and to defend it. The Northwest passage was once the holy grail of Victorian mariners – now there are three new routes through the ice, drastically cutting the cost and time of transport.
Perhaps undiscovered oil and gas reserves are the last thing we need but they are thought to be there in abundance – and you can bet they won’t be left alone. And Russia will jealously guard both the routes and resources.
Sarah Palin once famously said she could see Russia from her house in Alaska – last summer she might at least have been able to spot their Northern Fleet in the Bering Sea. Wargames involving 50 ships and the enthusiastic firing of cruise missiles made a point, even beyond scaring some American fisherfolk. They were the largest such exercise since Soviet times and the head of the Russia navy was quite clear why “We are building up our forces to ensure the economic development of the region. We are getting used to the Arctic spaces.”
It’s scarcely surprising – with around three and a half thousand miles of coastline in the far north Russia is clearly the preeminent Arctic power. Here’s a handy comparison. Russia has the world’s largest fleet of ice breakers - more than 40, some armed, armoured and nuclear powered. The US has two rather elderly ones with plans to build 6 more. China has recently built 2 huge ‘Snow Dragons’ – one nuclear powered.
Ever since 2017 Putin has set Russia on a new Arctic mission – and is determined to build its strength still further. In the last five years some old Northern military bases along that coast and on nearby islands have been dramatically upgraded or re-opened. Some analysts say there are two critical aims. One is to protect the Northern Sea Route, along that very lengthy coastline. Russia regards this vital route as an inland waterway rather than the international right of passage other nations see. The other aim is the ability to disrupt sea traffic in what think tanks call the “GIUK-N Gap” – the two choke points in the North Atlantic between Greenland and Iceland on one hand and, Iceland and the United Kingdom & Norway on the other. Doing so would cut one half of NATO off from the other.
Norway’s foreign minister warned recently that increased Russian assertiveness and a deteriorating security environment was ‘deeply worrying’.
NATO’s secretary general Jens Stoltenburg also sounded alarm bells telling the Times “Melting sea ice in the high north is heating up the strategic competition... and it will “of course” also make it easier to move military capabilities around.
If this re-run of the old Cold War face off in newly warmer seas is all rather predictable, China is a relative newcomer to the region further ratcheting up the tension. The rising superpower’s very clear interest is a bold statement of its global reach and ambitions.
China’s was mocked for declaring itself a ‘near arctic nation’ in 2018 – at 1844 miles the claim is rather a stretch, only true in the sense London is ‘near’ Moscow. But this is about intent – world powers refuse to be limited by mere geography. Undeterred by the scorn, the plan for a “polar silk road” is re-affirmed in their recently announced five year plan. While you can debate until the cows come home what the ‘belt and road’ actually is all about, it is clear a sea route across the top of the world is potentially very much easier and cheaper than existing routes. One estimate suggests the current 48-day sea journey from China to Germany could be cut to just 15 days.
While many in the West will see their declaration as yet more evidence of unwelcome Chinese assertiveness, their own case to be an Arctic power is hedged in terms of their favourite foreign policy boast of ‘win win’ diplomacy. Their list of concerns is all but a manifesto of global woke – stressing their concern for climate change, indigenous people, scientific research, sustainable fish stocks, and the development of geothermal energy. Only motherhood and pingguo piafail to get a mention.
While it is right to view their claim to be the global goody two shoes with a healthy dose of cynicism, they do have a point : that every country could, maybe should, claim an interest in the Arctic. China is one of the permanent observers to the eight nation Arctic council – an apparently rather random list of thirteen countries ranging from Spain to Singapore (including Britain.)
China already has numerous projects in, or related to, the Arctic from satellites tracking the ice melt to research stations. Washington is fretting about it all, and has already blocked their plans to invest in airports in Greenland. There’s constant suspicion that the Chinese are up to no good, and experts see the hand of the People’s Liberation Army Navy in many of the supposedly innocent scientific projects.
Several of their bigger plans are in partnership with Russia – including those for three new ports a giant oilfield, and a very long pipeline .
The Russia China alliance is strengthening and evolving – it is increasingly about military cooperation – a recent meeting between the two countries’ foreign ministers was held symbolically in Guilin, the Chinese city used as a world war 2 base by Russian pilots.
This growing warmth between China and Russia is mirrored by mounting frostiness towards the two big nations from the US and its allies. Some of this is certain to be played out in the Arctic.
While there are numerous potential points of conflict from disputed underwater mountain ranges like the Lomonosov Ridge to the occasional incursion of aircraft, there’s no real suggestion that this is going to turn into a shooting war anytime soon.
But everyone is gearing up just in case – and it is easy to see how a conflict in one part of the world from the Spratly Islands to Ukraine could spiral into arctic repercussions if things get heated.
Political changes can very rapidly transform an ignored sandy frontier or mountain pass into a potential conflict zone as new rivalries flare. It is much rarer that real physical changes create a brand new zone so valuable that it is worth fighting over. But that is what is happening here, as a watery brave new world is revealed, admittedly with few “goodly creatures”, but full of potential bad actors, keen to posture in a world already precarious with growing Superpower tension.
* I found myself wandering down an interesting sidetrack trying to work out what is behind the “multi domain” strategy, indeed what it actually means.
The first answer leads on to the second.
It uses highly technical, obscure language to disguise the fact that the strategy is a bit obvious, and a bit of a wish list. It argues that wars are best fought by soldiers already based in the area where the fighting is going to happen. They should be trained to fight anywhere, from mountains to deserts, be highly mobile and backed by the latest tech, especially long-range missiles based outside the area which can reach deep into enemy territory.
The real purpose, however, seems to be to ensure victory for the US army in a war that is being fought now – Washington’s budget wars. The strategy argues that the Army, far from being irrelevant, made an afterthought by the reach of missiles, drones, lasers and electronic warfare, is still the essential element in any war. This plea for relevance is pointed: it says even in the most likely area of conflict, the waters of the Pacific ocean, land troops are vital , not passe. And we are the guys to do the job not the marines. So give us more money – oh, OK then not less.