Building a Trans-Polar Bridge

Photo: The Seawolf-class fast-attack submarine USS Connecticut (SSN 22) surfaces through the ice as it participates in Ice Exercise (ICEX) 2018. ICEX 2018 is a five-week exercise that allows the Navy to assess its operational readiness in the Arctic, increase experience in the region, advance understanding of the Arctic environment, and continue to develop relationships with other services, allies and partner organizations. Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Daniel Hinton/Released
Photo: The Seawolf-class fast-attack submarine USS Connecticut (SSN 22) surfaces through the ice as it participates in Ice Exercise (ICEX) 2018. ICEX 2018 is a five-week exercise that allows the Navy to assess its operational readiness in the Arctic, increase experience in the region, advance understanding of the Arctic environment, and continue to develop relationships with other services, allies and partner organizations. Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Daniel Hinton/Released

May 21, 2021

The long-neglected High North is changing fast as global warming opens new routes for merchant ships and naval vessels, and new access to resources. An international Arctic agreement is needed now, before trouble flares.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

It is high time we pay more attention to what is going on in the High North. A combination of rising temperatures, melting ice, and growth in global trade on the high seas has contributed to a growing presence of military and commercial vessels in the region. The Arctic region is rich in minerals and, in particular, oil and gas. As the ice recedes, the decades ahead will see further commercial and military activity in the Arctic, a region that will act as a “Trans-Polar Bridge between the North American, European, and Asian continents. These developments beg for good governance and cooperation among like-minded Arctic nations and others who transit through and profit from freedom of navigation in the region; hence the need for a deeper discussion on the formation of a Trans-Polar Bridge.

This paper discusses the Trans-Polar Bridge and draws parallels to the Trans-Atlantic Bridge, which has served as one of NATO’s main pillars of strength for the last seven decades. Given the Center for European Policy Analysis’ (CEPA’s) interest in Nordic-Baltic collaboration and the affiliated security concerns in the High North, it is fitting to introduce the concept of a Trans-Polar Bridge.

HIGH NORTH: HIGH POTENTIAL AND HIGH RISK?

At the crossroads of evolving geopolitical, economic, climate, and security trends, the Arctic region should be catapulted to the forefront of discussions on governance and security. The Arctic is defined in this piece as the region north of the Arctic Circle, or about 66.5 degrees north. While the region accounts for only a small fraction of the global population at just under four million inhabitants and about 6% of the Earth’s surface, there is no doubt that the High North has a disproportionate impact on global security due to its economic potential and strategic location connecting the North American, European, and Asian continents.

Long ice-covered and largely inaccessible, the Arctic serves as an opening Trans-Polar Bridge between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, connecting the world’s economic, population, and security centers. The region likely holds trillions of dollars’ worth of natural resources. The potential as a maritime corridor for trade and undersea cables — through which international financial transactions flow — could be worth billions. In the decades ahead, the world’s navies could also use the strategic corridors to uphold national security interests — or transit between the world’s oceans, as Russian warships presently do. This immense strategic potential demands careful and swift consideration of regional governance, and avenues for dialogue and deconfliction in order to prevent inadvertent conflict in the High North and protect the interests of the Arctic states for the decades to come.

The world’s smallest ocean at just 5.4 million square miles, the Arctic Ocean has long proven a tantalizing prospect to generations of intrepid explorers seeking a maritime passage to connect the world’s major trade routes.1 Indigenous communities have long used coastal regions to facilitate travel, but the first European Arctic exploration may be dated to the Greek explorer Pytheas, who reached Iceland as early as 325 B.C.2 Notably, it was not until 1942 that the Canadian ship St. Roch became the first vessel to transit the Northwest Passage —  the sea route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans via the Arctic Ocean — in a single season. Though the U.S. oil tanker Manhattan sailed the passage in 1969, interest in the route remained limited due to ice challenges and draft limitations.3

On the other side of the Arctic, explorers targeted the Northeast Passage along the Russian coastline. A potential northern passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans was suggested as early as the 15th century, though the first successful transit did not occur until Swedish explorer Baron Adolf Erik Nordenskjold completed the route in 1879.4 The Soviet Union recognized the potential of this maritime route — particularly its unique ability to connect coastal communities — and opened the Northern Sea Route (NSR) in the early 1930s to Soviet vessels.5

The NSR became an increasingly important transit route for the Soviet Union, with voyages predominantly between Soviet ports accounting for nearly 6.6 million tons of cargo transiting annually and a peak of 1,306 voyages by 331 vessels in 1987.5 The Soviet Union accumulated significant knowledge of the Arctic and developed the world’s most powerful ice-breaking fleet to ensure shipping — and the Northern Fleet — could sail the icy waters. Bases in the Arctic were developed to ensure protection of the strategic bastion and of the Soviet northern flank.

Photo: The Kigluaik Mountains are visible as the Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaks ice for the Russian tanker Renda near Nome Jan. 13, 2012. The Healy and crew are approximately seven nautical miles away from Nome. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Charly Hengen.

Photo: The Kigluaik Mountains are visible as the Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaks ice for the Russian tanker Renda near Nome Jan. 13, 2012. The Healy and crew are approximately seven nautical miles away from Nome. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Charly Hengen.

'HIGH NORTH, LOW TENSION'

As early as 1987, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev called for international cooperation to turn the Arctic into a “zone of peace.” He proposed negotiations between NATO and the Warsaw Pact to limit air and naval activity in the Baltic, North, Norwegian, and Greenland Seas. These areas had been heavily patrolled by warships, submarines, and aircraft as both sides vied for strategic advantage. Gorbachev further advocated cooperation between northern nations in science, environmental protection, and the development of natural resources. Gorbachev’s speech, delivered in the ice-free port of Murmansk, which still ranks as the largest city in the Arctic, highlighted cooperation between U.S., British, and Soviet sailors in World War II as they bravely sailed convoys into the city.6 The Murmansk Initiative heralded a new era of circumpolar relations, though the collapse of the Soviet Union likely provided the necessary opportunity for the proposals to take hold. Although the “zone of peace” — particularly the call for a nuclear-free zone in Northern Europe — was never achieved, many of the proposals were enacted in the years to follow.

The collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in an era of cooperation that yielded the 1991 Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy, which set the foundation for the establishment of the Arctic Council in 1996 through the Ottawa Declaration.7 The NSR was opened to non-Soviet vessels in 1991.8 However, it largely remained an enabler of intra-NSR transits between coastal communities. The close of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century witnessed unprecedented cooperation in the Arctic, giving rise to the new adage “High North, Low Tension.” Warming temperatures have created new challenges for the region. Surface air temperatures in the Arctic are rising at about twice the rate of the remainder of the Earth. Melting ice amplifies the warming of the waters, creating a cycle that will impact the broader global community as sea levels rise worldwide. Simply put, what happens in the Arctic will not remain confined to the Arctic.

RISING TEMPERATURES BRING RISING TENSIONS

The impact of a warming Arctic on the region’s ice coverage is stark. One of the authors of this paper, a submariner, made his first trip to the North Pole onboard USS Sea Devil in 1985. At the time, the ice was thick and air temperatures rather cold. Returning to the region in command of the submarine USS Oklahoma City in 2001, two significant changes were noted. There was noticeably less ice and the boat was able to surface in a wide polynya — an area of open water in between ice floes. Additionally, there were noticeable traces of plastics in the azure blue waters of the Arctic Ocean, highlighting both climate change and environmental pollution as real challenges for the region’s future.

LT Jamie Foggo, USN
In recognition of your efforts in taking USS SEA DEVIL to the “top of the world.”
CDR Richard W. Mies, USN
CO USS SEA DEVIL (SSN-664)
North Pole
22 June 1985

Photo: "LT Jamie Foggo, USN, In recognition of your efforts in taking USS SEA DEVIL to the “top of the world.”, CDR Richard W. Mies, USN, CO USS SEA DEVIL (SSN-664), North Pole, 22 June 1985". Credit: Courtesy Photo Admiral (Ret.) James G. Foggo III

The Arctic is now attracting ever greater interest as receding ice opens new opportunities. The planting of the Russian flag on the seabed of the North Pole in 2007 sent a clear message to the world about Russian intentions. When the “U.S. Geological Survey Circum-Arctic Resource Appraisal” was released the following year, global interest rose. The appraisal assessed the region as holding undiscovered conventional oil and gas resources of more than 90 billion barrels of oil, 1,700 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 44 billion barrels of liquefied natural gas (LNG).9 This amounts to nearly 30% of the world’s conventional natural gas supply and 13% of undiscovered global oil reserves.10 Russia estimates that it has 33 oil and gas deposits on its Arctic shelf, with initial recoverable reserves between 100 billion tons and 120 billion tons of oil equivalent.11 These gas and oil resources, though likely bountiful, are often difficult to access given the extreme conditions of the Arctic — the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimates about 84% of the oil and gas resources are located offshore.12

The Arctic offers more than just plentiful oil and gas — much of the region holds abundant mineral resources such as copper, iron ore, nickel, zinc, platinum, cobalt, rhodium, and gold, among others. Some of these have been mined for centuries — the earliest silver and copper mines in Norway date to the 17th century. Yet the melting ice, particularly in previously inaccessible areas like in Greenland, has spurred new interest in the rare earth elements that have essential industrial uses.

While the natural resources are largely located in regions of clear national sovereignty — with even offshore resources predominantly within the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zones of Arctic coastal states — it is the maritime and economic potential of an opening in the region that has ignited the imagination of explorers through the ages.

Arctic shipping lanes mapped with current sea ice extent, and the pollution caused by ship traffic in 2019

In fact, Russia seized upon the grounding of the giant container ship Ever Given in the Suez Canal in March to highlight alternative routes for global shipping. The blockage of the Suez Canal, which caused a traffic jam of more than 400 ships, was a significant disrupter of global trade, about 90% of which travels by sea. The Suez currently sees nearly 19,000 ships transit in a year. This amounts to well over one billion tons of cargo passing through the canal annually.13

Following the grounding of the Ever Given, the Russian Ministry of Energy took the opportunity to declare that “the Northern Sea Route . . . has a high potential for expanding the volume of cargo transportation, allowing to [sic] significantly reduce the time for transporting goods from Asia to Europe.”

At first glance, the Arctic shipping corridor is attractive — the Northern Europe to East Asia route is about 11,200 nautical miles through the Suez Canal, but only 6,500 nautical miles through the Arctic. In ideal weather conditions, this can amount to a savings of 12 to 15 days of transit time and thus fuel costs.

But global shipping companies have cast a wary eye to the maritime routes of the North, and with good reason. Conditions are currently too unpredictable, even with diminished ice coverage, to justify the costs associated with increased insurance fees and International Maritime Organization’s Polar Code certification to bring the ships into compliance with the stringent safety and cold weather operating requirements necessary to operate safely in the region.

The NSR is simply poorly suited to global maritime transit shipping due to the draft limitations which preclude the world’s largest and most cost-effective cargo ships like the Ever Given, with drafts of nearly 50 feet.14 Russian transit fees and strict regulations about operating along the route also serve as deterrents. Yet Russian President Vladimir Putin has established an optimistic goal of 80 million tons of shipments along the route by 2024. While this goal will likely not be met, 32 million tons transited the NSR in 2020, of which only 1.2 million tons was cargo, highlighting the fact that destination shipping — the movement of goods to market — will continue to rise but the bulk of the transit will continue to be the movement of natural resources, particularly LNG, to global markets.

By 2030, the transpolar route across the Central Arctic Ocean is due to open for limited periods. It is this route which holds the most promise for the shipping industry as a connector of the world’s great trading centers in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, acting as a bridge between Europe, Asia, and North America. The route largely entails international waters, permitting unhindered movement of ships along the high seas, or even future underwater data cables. Yet, like all Arctic routes, vessels and cables must still pass through two gateways marking the entrance and exit into the Arctic Ocean. On the Atlantic side, the route emerges at the strategic Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom gap, monitored carefully by NATO allies.15 In the Pacific, the route must pass through a narrow chokepoint at the Bering Strait with a minimum width of just over 50 miles between the Seward Peninsula of the United States and Russia’s Chukchi Peninsula. In times of heightened tension, this narrow passage could be contested or blockaded.16 In this worst-case scenario, one must ask, what would be the mechanism for conflict resolution?

CONFLICT IN THE HIGH NORTH?

So what does this portend for the United States and her allies, both Arctic and non-Arctic nations? Climate change and reduced ice will continue to combine with economic and geostrategic interests in the region to undoubtedly bring more commercial and military traffic. This rise in maritime traffic will increase risk for Arctic states and stakeholders. Risk can be defined in terms of a higher potential for accidents — collisions between commercial vessels or a catastrophic oil spill — or, worse yet, a military confrontation between warships of competing nations that stems from misunderstandings or misperceptions. We do not want to see this happen. It is time for dialogue and preemptive action.

Conflict in the Arctic certainly is not a new concept. Norway has defended its lengthy northern coastline from attacks since the 12th century. More recently, World War II brought occupying forces and devastation across the Arctic. In 1942, the United States endured the only occupation of U.S. soil by the Japanese at Attu and Kiska Islands in Alaska. The Second Battle of the Atlantic during World War II extended into the High North, stretching into the fjords of Norway and into the Kola Peninsula, with the Allied convoy resupply missions toof the Soviet Union, particularly Murmansk. The cruelty of this campaign was well portrayed by the actor Tom Hanks in the movie “Greyhound.” The Third Battle of the Atlantic — the Cold War — lasted for almost 45 years after the end of World War II. During this period, the Arctic was a dangerous battleground, albeit primarily under water.

Photo: Servicemen of a separate motor rifle brigade of Russia's Northern Fleet are seen by Aleut all-terrain vehicles during a training exercise held as part of preparations for an Arctic expedition near the village of Pechenga. Aleut is an amphibious all-terrain vehicle that can be used at the temperature down to -50°C (-58°F). Credit: Lev Fedoseyev/TASS

Photo: Servicemen of a separate motor rifle brigade of Russia's Northern Fleet are seen by Aleut all-terrain vehicles during a training exercise held as part of preparations for an Arctic expedition near the village of Pechenga. Aleut is an amphibious all-terrain vehicle that can be used at the temperature down to -50°C (-58°F). Credit: Lev Fedoseyev/TASS

Today, tensions are rising in the region. Russia, a nation with about half the Arctic coastline and half the Arctic population, has established a Joint Strategic Command for the Arctic and recently elevated the status of its Northern Fleet to that of a military district. The Russians have refurbished old Soviet bases, built new airfields and deepwater ports, and modernized their military forces in the region, bringing the share of modern weapons, military and special equipment, in the Arctic Zone from 41% in 2014 to 59% in 201917 — a telling indicator of the country’s priorities and risk assessment. The Northern Fleet is Russia’s premier fleet for strategic deterrence, while establishing defensive and offensive capabilities in the region. Russia continues to invest heavily in infrastructure and its icebreaker fleet — reaching upward of 40 icebreakers, nearly a dozen of which are nuclear-powered — to ensure its ability to move civilian and military vessels into the White Sea and along the NSR. The icebreaker Ivan Papanin — equipped to carry the Kalibr missile — was launched in 2019 as Russia touted its multipurpose role as a tug, icebreaker, and patrol vessel.18

It must be noted that the strategy of all eight Arctic states — Canada, Finland, Iceland, the Kingdom of Denmark (Greenland), Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States —  is to seek peace and stability in the region. The international rules-based order is largely intact in the High North, with all Arctic nations generally adhering to international customs and norms. While three states [Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark (Greenland), and Russia] have made overlapping claims on the extension of their continental shelves and the North Pole, they have done so within the framework provided by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS). Intergovernmental organizations like the Arctic Council offer useful mechanisms for dialogue.

THE NEED FOR ENHANCED GOVERNANCE

The Arctic has never been immune from conflict, and it will be increasingly susceptible as interest in the region rises. It is imperative, therefore, that we build upon the current foundations of governance. The future decades will bring significant risk as the northern ice recedes and global interest in the Arctic heightens. Appropriate governance structures must be enacted before the region becomes further entwined in an Arctic security crisis.

Today’s preeminent Arctic intergovernmental body is the Arctic Council. Membership is granted to all eight Arctic nations while observer status has been granted to 13 other nations with Arctic interests, including many European and Asian states. The council primarily focuses on environmental, economic, scientific, and indigenous issues, although it specifically excludes matters of military security. Yet the council remains concerned that the Arctic is becoming militarized. We believe that this has already happened and that it is becoming more so every day.

The Arctic has been militarized for a long time. With less ice, new actors are entering into the fray. China’s interest in the region has been rising for years. The country established a research station on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard just after the turn of the millennium and has invested in Arctic maritime capabilities such as an indigenously produced icebreaker, Xue Long 2, and the Christophe de Margerie-class ice-breaking LNG tankers that service the Yamal LNG facility. Disconcertingly, China is attempting to raise its Arctic credentials by declaring itself a “near-Arctic” nation and conducting dual-purpose research missions to the Arctic with its two icebreakers. China’s 2018 Arctic Policy noted the potential for a “Polar Silk Road” as part of its ominous Belt and Road Initiative, and consistently sends commercial vessels through the NSR. China has invested heavily across the Arctic region. Meanwhile, U.S. and EU sanctions following Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 have resulted in Russia courting further Chinese investment and technology.

While the partnership between Russia and China in the Arctic is likely formed from convenience — there is a significant and warranted history of distrust and nefarious intentions on both sides — it could be a matter of concern for the region’s future. Certainly, there are economic and environmental concerns: China has brought significant devastation and exploitation to nations around the world that did not fully understand the risks of strings attached to its deals. But there are also security concerns arising from the increased tensions forming in the High North. The U.S. Department of Defense’s 2019 “Annual Report to Congress” on China noted that “civilian research could support a strengthened Chinese military presence in the Arctic Ocean, which could include deploying submarines to the region as a deterrent against nuclear attacks.”19

We are not so much worried about great-power conflict, or kinetic war in the Arctic, in the near term, as much as we are about a mistake or miscalculation by the military forces of competing parties. Military forces are flexing their muscles in the region and an Arctic security crisis is forming. As an example, one can observe Russia’s recent spike of air and naval activity off the coast of Alaska within the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). In March, Russia surfaced three ballistic missile submarines within 300 meters of one another during Umka-21, Russia’s most advanced military drill in the Arctic yet. The exercise included 43 events on Franz Josef Land and nearby waters. Finally, Putin has made public announcements on testing new weapon systems, including the Russian Tsirkon hypersonic missile and the Poseidon nuclear-powered long-range torpedo. It begs the question as to whether the Arctic Ocean has become a proving ground or a battlefield laboratory for new weapons systems of Arctic nations and other parties that have an interest in the region.

NATO’s response to Russia has been to show the flag as it did in Exercise Trident Juncture in 2018, the largest such exercise since the end of the Cold War. This exercise brought together 50,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines, embarked in or debarked from large combatant ships and aircraft of all types, models, and series for Article 5 collective defense exercises with a scenario built upon the defense of Norway. The exercise included every NATO ally and two partner nations, Sweden and Finland, as well as observers, including two from Russia. NATO has sought to demonstrate resolve and credible deterrence with transparent exercises and operations.

The recent U.S. response to Russian bombers flying near U.S. airspace in Alaska has been for U.S. European Command to deploy Air Force bombers to the High North. But all U.S. services are looking northward, with the Air Force, Navy, and Army having all released new Arctic strategies in the past year. The services are enacting those strategies and enhancing their presence in the region while working to strengthen cooperation with allies and partners. Led by the Commander commander of Naval Forces Europe, a coalition of willing allies deployed surface action groups three times in the last year to the Barents Sea. U.S. Naval Forces Europe operated surface ships continuously in the Arctic from May through November 2020 to improve operational capabilities and demonstrate resolve.

As previously mentioned, the increasing presence of Russian and NATO forces in the High North risks accidental encounters. Although there are bilateral agreements with Russia, like the 1973 Incidents at Sea (INCSEA) Agreement, to avoid incidents at sea, these simply are no longer enough.20

Although Russia holds bilateral INCSEA agreements with a number of nations, the key word is “bilateral.” There are also limitations in the states that have signed a bilateral agreement. Indeed, only three Arctic nations — the United States, Canada, and Norway — hold bilateral INCSEA agreements with Russia, while four other Arctic nations, including the Arctic maritime power Denmark, have been left out in the cold. Increased activity will bring more nations to the region, and when warships of competing nations sail in close proximity, incidents can occur. More must be done to avoid unnecessary mistakes and miscalculations in the Arctic Ocean.

Swedish Armed Forces during Trident Juncture 2018. Swedish Leopard 122 tank taken out is towed by a tank recovery vehicle in the fog. Swedish Armed Forces during Trident Juncture 2018. Swedish Leopard 122 tank taken out is towed by a tank recovery vehicle in the fog.
45602078902_9c10c3d830_o A Joint Capability Demonstration is held during Exercise TRIDENT JUNCTURE 2018 in Trondheim, Norway, on October 30, 2018.
44814680215_dc434bcd66_o Dutch marines landing. Kyrksaeterora, Norway. Trident Juncture 2018.
A Dutch AS532 Super Puma helicopter securises the landing of infantrymen on the beach of Trondheim Fjord, in Norway, during exercise Trident Juncture 18. A Dutch AS532 Super Puma helicopter secures the landing of infantrymen on the beach of Trondheim Fjord, in Norway, during exercise Trident Juncture 18.
Norwegian Air assault troops are training their drills with help of the US Airforce and their Chinooks during Trident Juncture 18 in Rena. Norwegian Air assault troops are training their drills with help of the US Airforce and their Chinooks during Trident Juncture 18 in Rena.
Soldiers from the 191 Mechanized Battalion standing guard in a key intersection so a tank company can continue the attack south. The 191. mechanised battalion are winter warriors from northern Sweden. Soldiers from the 191 Mechanized Battalion standing guard in a key intersection so a tank company can continue the attack south. The 191. mechanised battalion are winter warriors from northern Sweden.
A US Navy Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC) hits the beach in Ålvund, Norway during Exercise Trident Juncture 2018. A US Navy Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC) hits the beach in Ålvund, Norway during Exercise Trident Juncture 2018.
A Norwegian soldier prepares for Exercise TRIDENT JUNCTURE 2018 Joint Capability Demonstration in Trondheim, Norway, on October 30, 2018. A Norwegian soldier prepares for Exercise TRIDENT JUNCTURE 2018 Joint Capability Demonstration in Trondheim, Norway, on October 30, 2018.
A Dutch Landing Craft LCVP passes by FS Dixmude A in K-Town Fjords while performing an Amphibious Assault as part of Livex of Trident Juncture 18. A Dutch Landing Craft LCVP passes by FS Dixmude A in K-Town Fjords while performing an Amphibious Assault as part of Livex of Trident Juncture 18.

MODEL FOR THE ARCTIC'S FUTURE?

Examining intergovernmental organizations for impact, longevity, and sustainability reveals that one in particular has achieved unparalleled success — NATO. Although Russia will perhaps contest this as a potential model for peace and stability in the Arctic due to its perception of NATO as an adversary, the structure is nonetheless worth examining.  Signed in 1949, NATO’s founding charter, the Washington Treaty, allows collective defense of all members and increases the risk calculation for any potential adversary considering a violation of a NATO nation’s sovereignty. Decisions to commit forces to areas of high tension are not taken lightly, nor unilaterally. NATO operates on consensus and draws strength from unanimity when it decides to do something. NATO’s governing body is the North Atlantic Council (NAC), which has permanent representatives in the form of ambassadors from all 30 NATO member states. The NAC frequently consults with 40 partner nations and conducts multilateral dialogue with different regions and nations, including Russia via the NATO-Russia Council.21

Allied Command Operations (ACO), under the command of the Supreme Allied Commander (SACEUR) in Mons, Belgium, is responsible for the planning and execution of all of NATO’s military operations. National leaders, including chiefs of defense, meet periodically. The chairman of the Military Committee governs the agenda for discussions of international security concerns in the committee, which is made up of representatives of the chiefs of defense (CHODs) of each member state. All CHODs are treated equally, regardless of the size of a nation’s population, military, or gross domestic product. This principle of equality and respect for sovereignty is noteworthy.

It may be possible to bring some of these proven features to the Arctic region to create a forum to improve regional stability and security. The Arctic Council has proven to be effective as a political body that governs scientific, technological, climatological, and indigenous issues of interest for the eight Arctic nations. In fact, it was even nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize as a “model for regional governance.” This council represents the political arm and has thus far been an effective mechanism for promoting dialogue and even developing guiding treaties on important topics such as search and rescue, scientific cooperation, and pollution.

But the Arctic lacks an appropriate military arm, given the Arctic Council’s exclusion from security matters. This was not always the case — the Arctic Chiefs of Defense Forum was first hosted in Canada in 2012. The forum offered an effective venue for senior defense leaders to discuss common security and safety issues in the region. The meetings served to strengthen relations between Arctic nations while enhancing mutual understanding of national capabilities and intentions. Early discussions focused on important topics that have the potential to impact all Arctic states, such as mass casualty response, maritime pollution response, and search and rescue. But the Arctic CHODs have not met officially since Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Photo: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the Harpa Concert Hall, on the sidelines of the Arctic Council Ministerial summit, in Reykjavik, Iceland, May 19, 2021. Credit: Saul Loeb/Pool via REUTERS

Photo: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the Harpa Concert Hall, on the sidelines of the Arctic Council Ministerial summit, in Reykjavik, Iceland, May 19, 2021. Credit: Saul Loeb/Pool via REUTERS

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR A MORE STABLE FUTURE — THE INCLUCATION OF THE TRANS-POLAR BRIDGE

The future of the Arctic portends increased activity and tensions, particularly as the world’s population centers become ever more connected across an increasingly blue Arctic. With the rise of stakeholders active in the region, particularly those like China that have questionable intentions, it is vital that the Arctic states enhance their relationships with one another in a mutual commitment to stability.

First, the United States should immediately ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to ensure it has an equal seat at the Arctic table. Though the United States has long adhered to the international customs and norms codified in the convention, failure to ratify it will continue to draw the attention of nations like China and Russia, both signatories, and focus efforts away from real challenges.

It is also time to reconvene the Arctic CHODs’ conference to bring together chiefs of defense for frank and open discussions. The opportunity to establish relationships and trust is critical given the regional trends. Finding common ground and room for collaboration — which is perhaps more present in the Arctic than in many other regions — will be necessary to preserve the region’s stability and security. As recently reported in High North News, Russia’s ambassador-at-large for the Arctic, Nikolai Korchunov, has asked to resume CHODs’ meetings.22 The United States maintains excellent relations with every Arctic state, with one exception. However, this level of engagement with Russia is not unprecedented. All of the Arctic chiefs of Coast Guards meet periodically — including recently — in collaborative sessions that reflect their ability to cooperate in areas of common interests, such as illegal fishing, search and rescue, and environmental disaster response.

We also believe that this could be the time to construct a new bridge in the Arctic region — the Trans-Polar Bridge. This is not intended to be just a new moniker but a raison d’etre for establishing mechanisms that ensure continued peace and security in the Arctic. Like the Trans-Atlantic Bridge that supports NATO with its political arm in the form of the NAC, the Arctic Council would continue to be the leading intergovernmental forum for cooperation, coordination, and interaction on Arctic issues such as sustainable economic development and environmental protection. Adding the Arctic CHODs’ conference, in conjunction with the existing meeting of the Arctic chiefs of Coast Guards, could be a viable mechanism for resolving military tensions in the region and providing for de-escalation and off-ramps in the event of a mistake or miscalculation.

Admiral (ret.) James Foggo (R) with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (L) observing Trident Juncture 2018. Admiral (Ret.) James Foggo (R) with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (L) observing TRIDENT JUNCTURE 2018.
Admiral James Foggo, Allied Joint Force Command Naples Commander, and Admiral Haakon Bruun-Hanssen, Norwegian Chief of Defense, address the troops during the final press conference for Exercise TRIDENT JUNCTURE 2018 in Trondheim, Norway, on November 7 2018. Admiral (Ret.) James Foggo, Allied Joint Force Command Naples Commander, and Admiral Haakon Bruun-Hanssen, Norwegian Chief of Defense, address the troops during the final press conference for Exercise TRIDENT JUNCTURE 2018 in Trondheim, Norway, on November 7 2018.
Admiral (ret.) James Foggo with Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg during Trident Juncture 2018. Admiral (Ret.) James Foggo with Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg during TRIDENT JUNCTURE 2018.
Admiral (ret.) James Foggo, Allied Joint Force Command Naples Commander, gives an interview to a media during the final press conference for Exercise TRIDENT JUNCTURE 2018 in Trondheim, Norway, on November 7 2018. Admiral (Ret.) James Foggo, Allied Joint Force Command Naples Commander, gives an interview to a media during the final press conference for Exercise TRIDENT JUNCTURE 2018 in Trondheim, Norway, on November 7 2018.
Producer Mary Walsh (R) and Reporter David Martin (L) filming 60 Minutes with Admiral (ret.) James Foggo (C) at Bodo Air Base in Northern Norway. Producer Mary Walsh (R) and Reporter David Martin (L) filming 60 Minutes with Admiral (Ret.) James Foggo (C) at Bodo Air Base in Northern Norway.

Another area of discussion, mentioned previously by the U.S. Naval War College’s Newport Arctic Scholars Initiative, is the present lack of agreement between the warships of all Arctic nations and other transiting nations on communication and declaration of intent when operating in close proximity.23 Such agreements offer a means to improve understanding and avoid misperceptions. Like INCSEA, an agreement like the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), established by the Western Pacific Naval Symposium for Pacific nations, would be a good first topic for the next Arctic CHODs’ conference.24

The concept of a Trans-Polar Bridge to address Arctic military issues is intended to support an organization with the exclusive membership of the Arctic nations. That said, it would empower the eight Arctic nations to have a forum to engage in dialogue with relevant third parties, like China and its Polar Silk Road initiative. Good behavior could beget an occasional invitation to the table when mutual interests are deemed to be at stake.

Finally, the current strategic dialogue in Washington reflects a renewed interest in bolstering the U.S. presence in the Indo-Pacific with the potential biasing of force structure to the Western Pacific — the current Quad discussions notwithstanding.25 Accordingly, some have asked: How do we achieve a higher level of interest from our European partners and allies in the Indo-Pacific? We believe that the answer to this question is to find common ground, and that is inherent in the connective tissue that joins the Pacific Ocean with Europe through the potential maritime passageways in the Arctic. Strengthening the Trans-Polar Bridge now will allow for future understanding and dialogue between European and Western Pacific nations that are concerned about the security and sanctity of the Arctic, even as increased commercial and military traffic heads to the Pacific and back.

There is no doubt that the warming trends in the Arctic, combined with the region’s significant economic potential, will bring greater activity to the High North. Militarization of the region will increase, and there is a real danger of an escalating security dilemma taking hold. Leadership is needed now to build the Trans-Polar Bridge and ensure that Arctic states and stakeholders have appropriate mechanisms for dialogue and deconfliction.

For all of these reasons, the authors advocate in favor of a Trans-Polar Bridge dialogue to explore the opportunities that may lead to a more secure world.

Retired Navy Admiral James G. Foggo III is a distinguished fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis and former commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe and Africa and Allied Joint Force Command, Naples. He commanded BALTOPS in 2015 and 2016 and Exercise Trident Juncture in 2018.

Navy Commander Rachael A. Gosnell holds a master’s degree in international security studies from Georgetown University and is a doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland with a focus on U.S. strategy and Arctic securityHer views do not reflect those of the Department of the Navy or the Department of Defense.

  1. Simon Worrall, “How the Discovery of Two Lost Ships Solved an Arctic Mystery,” National Geographic, April 16, 2017, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/article/franklin-expedition-ship-watson-ice-ghosts. []
  2. Andrey Kostianoy, Jacques C.J. Nihoul, Vyacheslav B. Rodionov, Physical Oceanography of the Frontal Zones in Sub-Arctic Seas (Elsevier Science, 2004), p.19. []
  3. Donald E. Nevel and W. F. Weeks, “The Voyage of the S.S. ‘Manhattan.’” The Military Engineer, vol. 62, no. 406, 1970, pp. 80–82. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44552504. []
  4. Harald Ulrik Sverdrup, “Explorers: Amundsen, Roald (1872-1928),” Fram Museum, https://frammuseum.no/polar-history/explorers/roald-amundsen-explorer/. []
  5. Tadeusz Pastusiak, “A Brief History of Navigation on the Northern Sea Route,” in The Northern Sea Route as a Shipping Lane (Springer, Cham. 2016), p. 27-38. [] []
  6. Mikhail Gorbachev, “Speech in Murmansk.” October 1, 1987, http://www.arctic.or.kr/files/pdf/m2/m22/1/m22_1_eng.pdf. []
  7. Arctic Council, https://arctic-council.org/en/. []
  8. Center For High North Logistics Information Office, https://arctic-lio.com/. []
  9. “Circum-Arctic Resource Appraisal: Estimates of Undiscovered Oil and Gas North of the Arctic Circle,” U.S. Geological Survey Fact Sheet 2008:3049https://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2008/3049/fs2008-3049.pdf. []
  10. Harri Mikkola and Juha Käpylä, “Arctic Economic Potential: The Need for a Comprehensive and Risk-Aware Understanding of Arctic Dynamics,” Finnish Institute of International Affairs, April 23, 2013, https://www.fiia.fi/en/publication/arctic-economic-potential. []
  11. Kiril Molodtsov, Deputy Energy Minister of the Russian Federation, «Полюс на минус: Минэнерго: Геологоразведка в Арктике может стать в два раза выгоднее» [“The pole on the minus: Energy Ministry: Geological exploration in the Arctic can become twice as profitable”], Российской газеты [Russian Gazette], March 27, 2018, https://rg.ru/2018/03/27/minenergo-geologorazvedka-v-arktike-mozhet-stat-v-dva-raza-vygodnee.html. []
  12. “Circum-Arctic Resource Appraisal: Estimates of Undiscovered Oil and Gas North of the Arctic Circle,” U.S. Geological Survey Fact Sheet 2008:3049https://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2008/3049/fs2008-3049.pdf. []
  13. “Ever Given – Container Ship IMO:9811000,” Marine Traffic, https://www.marinetraffic.com/en/ais/details/ships/shipid:5630138/mmsi:353136000/imo:9811000/vessel:EVER_GIVEN. []
  14. President of the Russian Federation, “Executive Order on the Strategy for Developing the Russian Arctic Zone and Ensuring National Security until 2035,” Moscow, October 26, 2020. []
  15. “The GIUK Gap’s strategic significance,” The International Institute for Strategic Studies, Volume 25, Comment 29, October, 2019, https://www.iiss.org/publications/strategic-comments/2019/the-giuk-gaps-strategic-significance. []
  16. Christopher Woody, “Military activity is picking up in the quiet waters between the US and Russia,” Task and Purpose, November 15, 2020, https://taskandpurpose.com/news/military-activity-russia-us-bering-strait/. []
  17. Xavier Vavasseur, "Russian Navy Icebreaker Ivan Papanin Floated in St. Petersburg." Naval News, October 31, 2019, https://www.navalnews.com/naval-news/2019/10/russian-navy-icebreaker-ivan-papanin-floated-in-st-petersburg/. []
  18. Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2019,” US Department of Defense, 2019, p. 114, https://media.defense.gov/2019/May/02/2002127082/-1/-1/1/2019_CHINA_MILITARY_POWER_REPORT.pdf. []
  19. Walter Berbrick and Lars Saunes, “Conflict Prevention and Security Cooperation in the Arctic Region: Frameworks of the Future,” U.S. Naval War College, September, 2020, https://usnwc.edu/Portals/0/News%20and%20Events/Arctic/Conflict%20Prevention%20and%20Security%20Cooperation%20in%20the%20Arctic%20Region-Frameworks%20of%20the%20Future%C2%A0Report.pdf?ver=2020-10-30-143846-670. []
  20. “OPNAV Instruction 5711.96C,” Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, Department of the Navy, November 10, 2008, https://fas.org/irp/doddir/navy/opnavinst/5711_96c.pdf. []
  21. “Partners,” NATO, March 27, 2020, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/51288.htm. []
  22. Peter B. Danilov, “Russia Wants to Resume meetings Between Arctic Defense Chiefs,” High North News, January 19, 2021, https://www.highnorthnews.com/en/russia-wants-resume-meetings-between-arctic-defense-chiefs. []
  23. “The Newport Arctic Scholars Initiative 2020: Newport Arctic Seminar,” U.S. Naval War College, January 22, 2020, https://usnwc.edu/News-and-Events/Events/The-Newport-Arctic-Scholars-Initiative-2020-Newport-Arctic-Seminar. []
  24. “Document: Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea,” USNI News, August 22, 2016, https://news.usni.org/2014/06/17/document-conduct-unplanned-encounters-sea. []
  25. Sumitha Narayanan Kutty and Rajesh Basrur, “The Quad: What It Is – And What It Is Not,” The Diplomat, March 24, 2021, https://thediplomat.com/2021/03/the-quad-what-it-is-and-what-it-is-not/. []