Gavin Williamson, Britain’s Defense Secretary has announced the UK’s plans to expand its military presence in the Arctic, amid a significant buildup of Russian forces within the region.
For years, Russia has dominated expansion in the Arctic, thanks in no small part to President Vladimir Putin’s belief that the waterways being freed up by climate change will represent some of the most strategically and economically important of the latter 21st century. Russia’s fleet of icebreakers compares to most other developed nations like America’s Navy does to conventional sea warfare: with more ships, more firepower, and more capability than any two competitors put together.
The United States, whose barely functional fleet of icebreakers fall under the scope (and anemic budget) of the U.S. Coast Guard, has plans to field a single new large icebreaker in the coming years. This new vessel will dramatically expand the Coast Guard’s capabilities within the Arctic region as compared to the current fleet of two somewhat functional boats and a third that’s primarily used for parts. However, despite the billion dollars being invested in this new ice-breaking vessel, America and its allies still have far to go before mounting a respectable arctic force, as Russia alone has 41 operational icebreakers in its fleet, with 11 more already under construction. They are also the only nation on earth with nuclear-powered icebreakers, not beholden to fuel supply lines like the rest of the world’s (though China is now developing one, as well).
Russia has recently stood up six new military bases in the Arctic, in addition to the already operational 16 deepwater ports suitable for large commercial or military vessels and 13 airfields. Not only that, but Russia has already deployed their advanced S-400 air defense systems and even hypersonic Bastion anti-ship missiles, among the most advanced in the world, to defend their arctic assets against incursion from air or sea.
America and its allies have devoted some resources to Arctic defense, but for the most part it has remained an after-thought when it comes time to pass around assignments; after all, the U.S. is engaged in ongoing combat operations in multiple simultaneous theaters, stability operations, and freedom of navigation operations the world over, a new emphasis on orbital defense, and a shift away from anti-terror efforts and back toward conventional warfare. Amid all of these day-to-day requirements, the political barrier represented by US lawmakers being unable to speak about melting sea ice in the Arctic without devolving into a debate about climate change has been just enough to keep America from taking any legitimate steps to check Russian expansion.
Now, the UK hopes a small but consistent military presence in the Arctic region of Norway will help to assert not only its defensive posture in the region, but will also bolster the posture of the NATO alliance. For the next ten years, some 800 U.K. troops will deploy to a new military installation of their own development, where they’ll train in Arctic conditions alongside US Marines, as well as troops from the Netherlands and Norway. U.S. Marines have already been training in Norway for the past few years, marking the first time foreign troops have been allowed to do so since World War II — and prompting an aggressive rebuke from Russian officials who have called it Anti-Russian aggression. The U.S. presence in Norway has also increased recently; with 700 Marines now taking part in annual training operations instead of the previous 330.