Shaping the Contours of an Integrated Arctic Security Approach

NATO’s transformation must address complex northern flank security challenges.
December 20, 2023
On December 11, 2023, the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) convened a group of experts and officials from Northern Europe and North America to assess security challenges in the High North and Arctic, and to discuss measures to enhance NATO’s deterrence and defense posture. The conversations were held under the Chatham House rule and provided the foundation for the points and recommendations outlined in this brief.

As climate change and melting sea ice increase Arctic accessibility, growing commercial and military activity heighten the risk of escalation in a region that was once seen as exceptional and low-tension by design. Great-power competition is leading to a more contested Arctic, a situation that conflict over natural resources, from fisheries to critical minerals, will exacerbate. At the same time, conflicts in other theaters create the potential for spillover effects.

Russia remains the primary security threat to NATO’s northern allies. Despite the cost of the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine, Russian naval, air, and nuclear forces remain intact, and continue to pose a challenge to allied defense and deterrence against threats from the north. Beyond this, short of a decisive defeat in Ukraine, Russia will likely emerge from the fighting as a strengthened military power in the next decade due to its booming war economy and increased cooperation with other adversaries to the democratic order, including China, Iran, and North Korea.

At the same time, China’s interest and access to the Arctic is growing and forcing allies to rethink their posture across the Atlantic and Pacific theaters. Beijing currently relies primarily on Moscow for access to the region. As Russia’s dependence on Chinese investment grows, the Kremlin’s traditional resistance to Beijing’s expanding Arctic presence is giving way to enhanced cooperation. In the long term, melting sea ice will also give China greater independent access to the central Arctic Ocean through the Transpolar Sea Route (TSR). Climate change is also exacerbating other environmental and security risks. Melting permafrost, which particularly affects Russia, drives harmful emissions and damages energy infrastructure. Moreover, the Kremlin’s aging nuclear infrastructure and transits of a deteriorating shadow fleet of uncertified and uninsured vessels exporting Russian oil despite Western sanctions create additional environmental challenges.

Given the suspension of collaboration between Russia and the other seven Arctic powers in the aftermath of the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine, the potential for ambiguity and miscalculation is amplified, despite emergency communication channels that remain open. This situation is further complicated by the complex division of authority between Russian government entities, such as its federal security service, the FSB, and its northern fleet.

Russian nuclear forces largely centered on the Kola peninsula, however, pose the most fundamental challenge to regional security, although the spectrum of conflict below the strategic level is growing more complicated. Conventional security threats, primarily in the sea and air domains, remain significant, and increased gray-zone operations, cyber and kinetic, heighten ambiguity.

NATO’s Role in the High North and Arctic

Against this backdrop, NATO allies are adjusting their military posture across the eastern and northern flanks to counter challenges from Russia and other adversaries. Allies and partners are committed to filling capability gaps and streamlining operations as NATO implements the comprehensive set of updated regional and domain-specific defense plans that were approved at last summer’s Vilnius summit. In this process, important questions about national contributions—in peacetime, during crises, and in full-scale conflicts—to larger NATO structures are being addressed.

One of the most daunting tasks NATO must tackle is creating seamless command-and-control transition processes between national and multinational (including NATO-wide) operations across the spectrum of conflict. Specifically, the alliance is focused on calibrating when and how command authorities are transitioned from national commanders to NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR). At the same time, the alliance must maintain maximum flexibility to retain the capacity to respond to different scenarios in connected but distinct areas of responsibility (AOR). Military experts argue that mechanisms and structures that enhance unity of effort should be strengthened. Duplication should be avoided, except where redundancies are critical to enhancing resilience, and flexibility to handle concurrent crises should be boosted.

For NATO’s northern flank, the integration of Nordic and Baltic allies into NATO’s joint force commands (JFCs), specifically JFC Brunssum and JFC Norfolk, is a key issue. JFC Norfolk will play an important role in implementing the Regional Plan Northwest, which covers the North Atlantic and Arctic AOR. The command, whose establishment was announced in 2017, addresses the growing challenge of great-power competition in the Atlantic and is in the process of scaling up operations. Long-standing Nordic NATO members Norway and Denmark are already part of JFC Norfolk under US command, as is the United Kingdom. It is expected that new alliance members Finland and, soon, Sweden, will ultimately also join this command. This will keep the Nordic allies, which have a history of working together, deeply interoperable and connected, and enhance security in the High North and North Atlantic.

Military planners assuage concerns that integrating Nordic and Baltic allies, who are based at JFC Brunssum, via different commands could hamper seamless operations across the Baltic, North Atlantic, and Arctic theaters. They assert that Nordic allies are expected to continue focusing on both the Baltic and North Atlantic and JFC Norfolk and JFC Brunssum have strong links to enable close coordination across the alliance. Domain-specific operations directed by Allied Air Command and Allied Maritime Command also retain the capacity to operate across regional theaters.

Allies are confident that integrating Finland and Sweden will be a swift process given their legacy of minilateral cooperation, but the process will be further optimized by joint training and operations. Building on existing flexible formats, such as the Nordic Defense Cooperation (NORDEFCO), the UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF), and the new joint Nordic air force, will permit greater interoperability while maintaining a high level of agility and flexibility to operate in smaller coalitions of the willing. This can help bridge gaps, create faster response mechanisms in a crisis, and drive greater buy-in for larger operations across the alliance. Having key Arctic allies integrated via JFC Norfolk will allow NATO to expand and solidify its regional footprint. Given the limited US posture in the Arctic, US officials view allies and partners as the center of gravity and critical force multipliers in this theater, especially for countering Russian threats.

The US Department of Defense, whose new Arctic strategy is to be released in early 2024, is also assessing implications of China’s growing interest and presence in the region, as well as Sino-Russian cooperation. Experts at GMF and elsewhere have argued that adjusting to this changing geopolitical threat landscape may require recalibration—to both the US and NATO command structure, including a more unified command and control (C2) between USEUCOM, USNORTHCOM/NORAD, and USINDOPACOM. However, military experts also emphasize the importance of retaining flexibility and cross-functionality of the combatant commands to operate in different theaters and conduct multifaceted operations. With this in mind, some also doubt the utility of an additional centralized NATO command for the Arctic, which other experts have advocated for.

In the absence of such an Arctic command, JFC Norfolk remains the key hub operating in this theater. Its small size and flat command structure make it the alliance’s most agile JFC. As it scales up operations, experts emphasize the importance of maintaining this agility to address the vast and changing challenges that NATO allies face on the northern flank.

Managing Conventional and Hybrid Aspects of Great-Power Competition

Effective defense and deterrence in the High North and Arctic require the right capabilities, posture, and mechanisms to dispute and deny control of the sea and air by adversaries. To start, allies must outmatch adversaries’ capabilities. While quantity and location of defense systems and assets is important, quality is key. Given extensive research and development, and production timelines, allies need to send the right signals to enable the defense industry to develop relevant capabilities now. This applies particularly to capabilities specifically designed for Arctic operations, keeping in mind the distinct and evolving requirements of the European and North American Arctic. Smart investment is critical given the limited resources allocated to the Arctic theater. Technological innovation and the next generation of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets can help close existing gaps, particularly in situational awareness.

But capabilities are just one side of the coin. Equally, if not more important, is having processes in place to coordinate and devise appropriate and calibrated responses before and after an incident. To enhance NATO’s capacity to deter and deny security challenges, members will need to improve anticipating threats and using situational awareness to shape conditions and minimize costs of attempted adversary operations. This is particularly difficult regarding gray-zone challenges—from GPS jamming to kinetic and cyberattacks on infrastructure to the weaponization of migrants—that have become well-established instruments in the Russian toolbox.

An uptick in kinetic undersea and critical infrastructure threats, especially those affecting the Nordic allies, is providing the impetus and opportunity to rethink and fine-tune the alliance’s processes to protect assets, investigate damage, and respond to potential crises. Incidents in one theater hold important lessons for others. Recent damage to the Nordstream pipelines in the Baltic Sea, and to the Balticconnector pipeline and communication cables in the Gulf of Finland, demonstrate the volatility of critical and undersea infrastructure. These instances have highlighted the challenge of attribution and demonstration of intent, which delays appropriate responses and complicates protection against future threats. They also shed light on the complicated ownership structure of some infrastructure deemed critical and of commercial vessels involved in such incidents.

NATO, its member states, and multilateral organizations such as the EU, should draw on lessons learned from these incidents by allied forces and civil or commercial entities to inform their planning for hybrid threats and optimize future responses. It is noteworthy that the EU introduced in January 2023 the Critical Entities Resilience Directive (CER), which allows states to classify critical infrastructure entities that will be required to identify relevant risks and implement measures to protect them. Clearer internal definitions of critical infrastructure and hybrid attacks will be helpful as NATO seeks to increase resilience and readiness to respond to security challenges. Further analysis on questions of international law, including legal frameworks to board and seize vessels found to have damaged national or NATO-relevant infrastructure, will also help to promote accountability and facilitate clear and quick responses.

NATO has mechanisms that allow member states facing hybrid attacks to call upon allies for help. But taking action, including invoking Article 5, is an alliance decision, and NATO’s consensus structure makes the outcome of this process uncertain. Greater clarity to minimize division and accelerate responses is urgently needed. Lack of resolve in response to hybrid attacks may send the wrong signals to Russia and other adversaries taking a page from the Kremlin’s playbook. Enhancing critical infrastructure resilience and responding firmly can boost future deterrence.

These considerations should continue to be front and center as NATO allies implement their updated defense plans ahead of next year’s Washington summit. More work is needed to fill capability gaps and optimize C2 to deter and deny hybrid and conventional threats. Most importantly, alliance cohesion, consultation, and communication should remain a key priority. In the face of growing efforts by adversaries to create ambiguity and confusion, NATO allies should do everything in their power to minimize the potential for internal conflict and build a foundation for responding to crises with unity and speed.