- The US military is getting more active in the Arctic, working with allies amid tensions with Russia.
- US Air Force bombers and Navy surface ships have been an increasingly visible presence there.
- The region remains one of low tension, but Russia and NATO are both wary of the other’s activity.
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The US military’s renewed focus on the Arctic means more operations in a uniquely challenging environment, and its personnel are spending more time there to get used to it.
The latest force to head north is an expeditionary B-1B bomber squadron and more than 200 airmen, which will go to Orland Air Base in central Norway to conduct Bomber Task Force missions around Europe.
US European Command didn’t say when they will arrive â€” some airmen are reportedly there already â€” or how long they will stay, but the command did say their training will range “from operating in the high north to improving interoperability with allies and partners” in Europe.
“The Arctic remains a key area for us to continue to best understand how we will operate up there, and key to me for that is how we operate with our partners,” Gen. Jeff Harrigian, commander of US Air Forces in Europe, told Insider during a Defence Writers Group event in June.
Harrigian cited Norway, Sweden, and Finland as partners from whom the Air Force was learning “how we can best leverage what they have been doing for years to support operations up there.”
“It is crystal clear to us that our partners have the best understanding of how to do that, so our reliance on them and the interaction … is really going to be key to our success,” Harrigian added.
The Air Force has the military’s largest Arctic presence, and the service underscored its importance last summer in its first Arctic Strategy document, which labelled it “an increasingly vital region for US national security interests.”
‘Mitigate that risk intelligently’
The Navy published its own “strategic blueprint” for the Arctic in January. “Without sustained American naval presence and partnerships in the Arctic Region, peace and prosperity will be increasingly challenged by Russia and China,” the document said.
Like the Air Force, the Navy is not new to the Arctic, but its activity has increased. Aircraft carriers have returned in recent years after a long hiatus, and in May, surface ships sailed into the Barents Sea, near sensitive Russian bases, for the first time in 30 years.
“From May through November, we had surface ships continuously present in the Arctic, including surface action groups in the Barents,” Adm. Robert Burke, the commander of US Naval Forces Europe, said at an event hosted by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies this week.
The blueprint “builds on operations” the Navy has done in the Arctic for “over a century,” Burke said.
“We’re also learning from our allies and partners on how to better operate in a challenging region,” Burke added. “We’re doing things like leveraging the experience of the Danes and the Norwegians.”
Renewed attention on the Arctic has brought concern about whether the Navy and Coast Guard have the right ships to expand and sustain operations there.
The Coast Guard operates the US’s only heavy icebreaker, which is ageing and prone to breakdowns. The Navy has no icebreakers or ice-hardened ships, but those partners say such ships aren’t necessary.
“Their navies are not all ice-hardened ships, but they routinely operate all of their navies in marginal ice. So how do they do that? Well, they’re very skilled. They know the risks. They know how to read the ice,” Burke said.
“Having spent some time training with them, doing ship exchanges… our [guided-missile destroyer commanders] are going into the fjords in marginal ice, learning how to mitigate that risk intelligently,” Burke added.
The US and Norway, both NATO members, have a long history of military cooperation. Marines have trained there regularly since 2017, and US submarines, a consistent presence in the Arctic, have been unusually visible there recently.
“We’ve got [basing] options in Norway. We bring [destroyers] and submarines in there. We had the USS Seawolf recently, a Washington state home-based submarine, [visiting] Tromso, Norway â€” do the maths of how she got there,” Burke said, hinting at a trans-polar route.
Low tension for now
Russia has the world’s longest Arctic coastline and is betting heavily on increased economic activity there. Moscow also sees the region as flanked by NATO members and has been refurbishing and expanding military facilities there.
Russia is likely to regard a bomber deployment to Norway warily. Moscow has expressed dismay about previous military activity around Norway, and many of its Arctic military upgrades have been done with air attack in mind.
Much of it “has to do with covering up a massive open hole in terms of air defence and strategic early warning, and it was driven by the threat of mass airspace attack that could come across the Arctic directly by US strategic bombers, which exercise there quite regularly,” Michael Kofman, director of the Russia Studies Program at nonprofit research group CNA, told Insider in November.
Despite the military activity, the Arctic is still widely seen as an area of low tension.
“There are no problems in the Arctic that require a military solution,” Nikolay Korchunov, Russia’s ambassador at large for Arctic cooperation, told state news agency RIA Novosti this month.
Korchunov cautioned that there are “signs of growing confrontation and military escalation” in the region, which, amid worsening relations, “could set us back several decades back to the Cold War.”
“Nevertheless, an analysis of the military activities of the coastal countries allows us to state that no one in the Arctic is preparing for an armed conflict,” Korchunov said.