Defending America’s Northern Border and Its Arctic Approaches Through Cooperation With Allies and Partners
The North American Arctic and its approaches in both the North Pacific and North Atlantic continue to pose a security dilemma for the United States. Securing the globe’s commanding heights, protecting US sovereignty from adversarial air, missile, and maritime incursions, protecting economically essential undersea cables and critical energy infrastructure, ensuring well managed fisheries, and assessing the future mining of the seabed of critical minerals are just a few elements contributing to this. As a recent Sino-Russian naval exercise off the Aleutian Islands highlights, unwillingness to adequately acknowledge or urgently address these challenges heightens both the security dilemma and the critical need to fill gaps in domain awareness and posture to ensure the US homeland is secure.
This paper looks at the evolving threat delta in the Arctic in the wake of Russia’s 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine. It comes to the assessment that the war against Ukraine did not reduce Russia’s military focus or largely its posture in the Arctic (minus some conventional land forces): rather it has exacerbated a dynamic of heightened tension and rising instability that started in the mid-2000s and which most policymakers in Arctic capitals chose to ignore. Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine and perhaps most importantly changing Sino-Russian relations have increased the urgency to address existing gaps in Arctic strategy, posture, and capabilities for the United States and its allies.
At the same time, Finland’s membership in NATO—and Sweden’s future membership—have and will continue to evolve NATO defense and deterrence capacities in the Arctic. NATO’s implementation of its updated defense plans, including the regional plan for the High North and Atlantic, will increase NATO’s Arctic capabilities over time. To enhance capacity and prevent silos, it will be of critical importance that the respective regional plans for the High North and for the Baltics will be closely coordinated. Beyond working on closer integration between the “Arctic 7” (the United States, Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Finland), more coordinated planning with the United Kingdom, the Baltic States, Poland, and Germany will help ensure US and NATO Arctic defense coherence and enhanced deterrence posture across the Baltic-Arctic theaters.
The evolving threat picture and strengthened NATO posture in the North have significant implications for the US Department of Defense and NORTHCOM and NORAD specifically. Repercussions of Sino-Russian cooperation in the Arctic, our observation of Russia’s military performance in Ukraine and its posture in the Arctic, and an enlarged NATO to include Sweden and Finland should compel policymakers to re-envision the military security architecture in the Arctic and accelerate the United States and NATO’s deterrence and defense planning and capabilities in the region.
To do so, the following steps should be taken:
- NORTHCOM should conduct a classified assessment of Russian missile capabilities in Ukraine and its implications for NORAD modernization.
- USNAVEUR and the 2nd Fleet should conduct an assessment of the use of unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV) in light of Ukrainian and Russian tactics used in the Baltic, Black, and Azov Seas to evaluate implications in the North Atlantic.
- Utilizing NATO’s regional defense plans that were approved at the July 2023 NATO Summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, NATO planners should build an “integrated deterrence” posture for the Arctic and streamline NATO’s force structure.
- The US should continue to re-assess the Unified Command Plan (UCP) specifically for the Arctic to better incorporate greater Sino-Russian alignment and engagement in the Arctic.
- NATO should conduct an inventory of government and private sector Arctic-capable capabilities. The United States should address its Arctic capability deficiencies via an Arctic Security Initiative (ASI), modeled after the European Deterrence Initiative (EDI), but primarily designed to strengthen US Arctic defense and deterrence needs and secondarily ally needs.
- The United States and its allies should focus on domain awareness, mobility, and presence and think innovatively about enhanced presence to enable rapid deployment across forces. Streamlined bilateral and NATO military exercises and joint drills will enhance NATO Arctic mobility and presence and develop a more credible force posture.
- The Arctic 7 should work together to strengthen strategic communication around their enhanced presence and exercises. The Arctic 7 should reinforce political cohesion and resilience by closely examining Nordic cohesive and comprehensive defense concepts, particularly related to integrated air and missile defense. Special attention also should be given for the United States and NATO to counter and detect unmanned underwater vehicles in both the North Atlantic and the North Pacific.
Although geostrategic attention has shifted to supporting Ukraine and allies in Europe as well as enhanced deterrence in the Indo-Pacific, the Arctic remains a strategic arena, primarily in the eyes of Moscow and Beijing. The United States and its NATO allies must also view the Arctic strategically, assess the dramatic shifts in the international environment for the Arctic region, and utilize more fully the capabilities of its allies to strengthen defense and deterrence in the approaches to the Arctic through the North Atlantic and North Pacific.