New Assessment Indicates Growing Russian Military Presence in the Arctic

November 23, 2016 in Blog

Russia’s Arctic buildup has been steadily taking place for years. As a result, the country is far ahead of its peers when it comes to security, infrastructure, and energy production in the region. Leading U.S. military officials have taken notice of this activity, and have responded by calling on Congress and the President to take measures to improve America’s Arctic position.

In the Heritage Foundation’s 2017 Index of Military Strength, the think tank examines U.S. military power around the world, and compares our current standing against that of the previous year. As in previous years, the group spends time inspecting Arctic military presence in their 2017 assessment. The summary of activity immediately recognizes the global significance of the region and who’s leading the charge:

“The 2016 Index of U.S. Military Strength identified the Arctic as an important operating environment in Europe. This has not changed in the 2017 edition. If anything, tension continues to increase as a result of Russian activity.”

Russian leaders have been heavily investing in the Arctic for decades, and the country’s capacity in the region far exceeds America’s. Russia’s return on investment is becoming greater and greater as Arctic sea ice recedes and shipping routes become more accessible. Conversely, the U.S. has not seriously invested in Arctic projects, so our nation is behind as the region opens up. Our lack of preparedness in the Arctic could become a problem in the very near future.  The assessment notes:

“The Arctic region is home to some of the roughest terrain and harshest weather found anywhere in the world. Increasingly, Arctic ice is melting during the summer months, causing new challenges for the U.S. in terms of Arctic security. Many of the shipping lanes currently used in the Arctic are a considerable distance from search and rescue (SAR) facilities, and natural resource exploration that would be considered routine in other locations is complex, costly, and dangerous in the Arctic.”

Two-thirds of Russia’s Navy is dedicated to its Northern Fleet. This fleet is responsible for “protecting Russian shipping, fisheries, oil and gas fields on the Arctic shelf.”  In 2015, Moscow added air force and defense taskforces to the Northern Fleet to strengthen its Arctic position even further. By 2018, Russia will have nine operational airfields in place in the the region.  Russia intends to have a fully combined-arms force in place in the Arctic by 2020. Additionally, the country is prioritizing the development new weapons technology that is optimized for Arctic use, such as the Mi-38 helicopter.

Our nation’s Arctic fleet is minuscule compared Russia’s mighty armada. Just this summer, Admiral Charles Michel, Vice Commandant of the US Coast Guard noted that the Coast Guard would have limited icebreaking capabilities until 2025 at the earliest. This sad reality doesn’t even account for the massive air force and port infrastructure need that exists in the area. Congress and the President should take a hint from Moscow, and begin crafting policies now that help America’s Arctic in the near future.

America has yet to set any concrete military or infrastructure goals in the Arctic. This has led to lots of back and forth chatter about the need for new ice breakers, but little (if any) action taking place. The administration’s inability to take a firm and vocal stance on the Arctic could cost the country countless economic opportunities and possibly pose a security threat.

While many argue that Russia’s Arctic buildup is not the sign of a “another Cold War”, the country’s unpredictable nature, combined with its financial strength, could be cause for concern. The Heritage Foundation notes this in its 2017 report:

“Russia’s improvements to Arctic settlements are ostensibly to support increased shipping traffic through the Northern Sea Route. However, many of these activities are purely military in nature and follow a recent pattern of increasingly aggressive global posturing.”

The 2017 assessment from the Heritage Foundation accurately describes the great strides Russia has in the Arctic in a short amount of time. America’s military presence in the area could be categorized as non-existent. The U.S. and its leaders must act now in the region in order to prepare our security and infrastructure for a more open and interconnected Arctic. Russia is over prepared, which could lead to major problems in the future. Not acting in the Arctic is not an option.