Should NATO Have a Permanent Presence in the Arctic?

Pandemic economic fallout could derail Canada’s Arctic combat vessel plans, warns defence expert
June 7, 2020 Updated: June 10, 2020

News Analysis

As Russia and China continue growing their footprint in the Arctic, some observers believe NATO should have a perpetual presence in the region to achieve a deterrence effect and safeguard maritime security.

Lieutenant Colin Barnard, an American who serves at NATO Maritime Command in the U.K., says the developing Arctic presence by Russia and China deserves attention. He made the case in a recent article for the Center for International Maritime Security titled “Why NATO needs a standing maritime group in the Arctic.”

Russia has increased its commercial and naval presence in the Arctic, upgrading old bases and building new ones while strengthening its military capabilities in the region.

China, meanwhile, has drilled for gas in the Kara Sea off of Russia’s northern coast, built icebreakers, asserted rights to fish in the Arctic, and is expanding tourism to the region. For at least five years, China has sailed cargo ships near Russia’s shores in what the Chinese Communist Party calls “the Polar Silk Road.”

Russia is paying attention, whether the West is or not. Since 2019, Russia has required that any foreign naval vessel that sails the Northern Sea Route must notify Moscow at least 45 days in advance, provide details about the ship, the purpose of the voyage, the route it will take, and the name of the ship’s captain.

If these rules are not followed, Russia can apply measures such as the apprehension and even destruction of the ship.

The United States, Canada, Iceland, Norway, and Denmark (via Greenland) constitute the Arctic Five as NATO countries that already have Arctic maritime borders. Barnard believes these nations could conduct freedom-of-navigation operations in the Arctic to “consistently challenge excessive maritime claims,” just as the United States does regarding China in the South China Sea.

The idea has its fans, including retired Colonel Ted Campbell. In a recent blog post, Campbell dreamed of Canada having three Arctic ocean bases, with a fleet of eight to fifteen nuclear-powered submarines plus a beefed-up Coast Guard and even a policing fleet for the RCMP.

James Fergusson, deputy director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba, is more circumspect. He told The Epoch Times that a recession destroyed Canada’s Cold War ambitions for nuclear submarines, and that the pandemic will present similar challenges.

“If they can hold the line to keep the future combat vessels on track as best as possible and actually continue to produce the offshore patrol vessels, the navy will be doing extremely well. But I wouldn’t put even money on that, because when these cuts come in—and they’re coming—hard choices are going to have to be made,” he said.

NATO currently has four standing maritime groups: two with destroyers and frigates and two that do mine countermeasures. In Barnard’s view, these groups are already overtasked and aren’t tailored for Arctic operations. Would an Arctic standing group be possible?

Fergusson says as it is, Canada can only commit one frigate to the NATO standing force in the Mediterranean and Black Sea. He believes that neither the Canadian navy nor our American allies would have much interest in Canada showing muscle in the Arctic.

“Where are you going to base them and what are they going to do? And are they not going to be provocative for the Russians? It doesn’t strike me as a smart thing that Canada should be engaged in. I don’t know if it’s a smart thing that NATO should be engaged in,” he says.

Epoch Times Photo
Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker Arktika returns to Saint Petersburg on Dec. 14, 2019. (Olga Maltseva/AFP via Getty Images)

Fergusson doesn’t think the Russian Arctic bases are cause for alarm and says a NATO standing group might create barriers to cooperation with the Russians on arctic search-and-rescue, research and development, and China’s activities.

“Our potential concerns about Chinese behaviour and what they might do or not do in the Arctic are mirrored by and are actually common to Russian interests about what the Chinese might be doing up there. And that’s one of the bases for cooperation—not only between Canada and Russia but between the United States and Russia,” he says.

Robert Huebert, a political science professor at the University of Calgary, points out that a standing force in the Arctic would help NATO allies learn to work together in that environment.

“The Russians have been developing some fairly sophisticated submarine capabilities, and if there is in fact some flare-up you need to be able to counter that,” he says.

However, Huebert believes an Arctic standing group would get “pushback from the Canadians” who fear a permanent NATO presence would undermine Canadian sovereignty instead of strengthening it. He says it’s better to expand operations of the NATO standing force further north.

“If you already have the existing ability and you are clearly focused on meeting the increasing Russian militarization of the region, I think that that would probably be a much more politically and therefore militarily better move,” he says.

The Chinese commercial presence in the Arctic will inevitably be followed by a military one, he adds.

“I firmly expect that you’re going to start seeing some Chinese capabilities in the Arctic,” he says.

“[China] has now emerged as the second strongest navy in the world. It is developing weapon systems that clearly are meant to challenge the Americans in the long term. They’re not focusing on a coastal or even a regional capability, but they are basically going for a global reach.”

China spent less on defence than Canada did in the early 1990s. Today, Canada spends $25 billion annually, Russia spends $65 billion, China nearly $300 billion, and the United States more than $700 billion.

“You combine what the Chinese are learning how to do from a cyber and a hybrid warfare perspective … and you combine that with its military build-up, and you start seeing that in a future regional conflict this starts giving China a very powerful ability to start to try to impose its will,” Huebert said.