The report, On Thin Ice: UK Defence in the Arctic follows on from the Defence Committee’s last major report on the defence and security implications of a resurgent Russia, which identified the Arctic and High North as an area where Russia might seek to expand its presence and influence. This latest report examines military activity in the region in more detail.
Although the Arctic has traditionally been an area of low tension, characterised by close multilateral co-operation among the Arctic States, the changing natural environment is being accompanied by a change in the security environment. The retreating ice sheet is making the Arctic more accessible to shipping and is exposing the region’s extensive natural resources to exploitation. Over the last two decades the Arctic has become increasingly globalised, with a growing number of nations including several from Southern and Eastern Asia declaring themselves to have interests in Arctic affairs. In an age of renewed great power competition, the continuing status of the Arctic as an area of low tension cannot be taken for granted.
Alongside these broader changes, the Sub-Committee notes an increase in military activity in the Arctic and High North that has been led by Russia. This has included the construction and re-activation of manned bases along Russia’s Arctic coastline and on its islands on the edge of the Arctic Ocean; build-up of heavily armed, Arctic trained land forces near the borders of neighbouring states; the re-introduction of strategic bomber flights over Northern airspace, progressive installation of long range missile and air defence systems, and a marked increase in the level of naval activity that projects power from the Arctic into the North Atlantic. The Sub-Committee’s view is that this build-up goes beyond what would be proportionate to a purely defensive posture and should be a matter of concern given Russia’s aggressive and revisionist behaviour.
These developments have potentially serious strategic implications for the United Kingdom and for NATO. History has shown that the domination of the High North by a hostile adversary places the security of the UK and of the wider North Atlantic at risk. The increase in Russian submarine activity around the British Isles and the entrances to the North Atlantic poses risks to the UK’s maritime security, including the security of the nuclear deterrent, and could compromise NATO’s ability to convey reinforcements from North America in the event of a crisis in Europe. In the past the UK has committed substantial resources to the defence of the region. The Sub-Committee calls for the UK to revive its leadership in defence of the region, and for the renewed focus within NATO on the security of the North Atlantic to be accompanied by a renewed focus on the source of the threat emanating from the High North.
The report also looks at the capabilities which the UK might use in the challenging operating environment in the Arctic and High North. While they are of a high quality, the operational priorities of the last two decades has led to a decline in focus on cold weather warfare. The multi-role nature of the specialist capabilities which can operate in these environments has also lead them to being in high demand elsewhere, an indication of the wider resource pressures in Defence that are leading to the Armed Forces struggling to meet commitments and sustain levels of training.
Madeleine Moon MP, Chair of the Defence Sub-Committee, said:
"The changing security environment in the Arctic and the High North is a matter of growing significance to the UK, given the strategic importance of the region and the increasing level of military activity we see. This has been led by Russia, which is continuing to expand its military presence and influence.
"The UK has previously played a leading role in defending NATO’s Northern Flank and in maintaining maritime security in the North Atlantic. The importance of this role is now returning to significance. The UK’s capabilities to perform these tasks still exist, but they are sustained at a low level and are in high demand elsewhere. A new level of ambition backed up by adequate resources is required to meet the developing threats we have identified.
"If the definition of a leading—or even a ‘Tier 1’—defence nation is one which has the ability to deploy a full range of capabilities anywhere in the world, then this includes the unique operating environment of the Arctic and the High North. Being able to do so is ultimately a question of resource and a question of ambition, and the Sub-Committee calls upon the Government to show leadership in providing both."
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