Physical presence by allied navies and coast guards is increasingly important as Russia builds up its military presence and China’s expands its intentions beyond commerce in the waters of the High North, senior maritime officers from three countries and a National Security Council official agreed last week.
Coast Guard Vice Adm. Kevin Lunday, Atlantic Area commander, recalled cutter USCGC Kimball (WMSL-756) spotting a Chinese guided-missile cruiser operating 86 miles north of Alaska’s Kiska Island on a routine patrol in the Bering Sea last year. He told attendees at a Wilson Center forum that the crew of the cutter reported seeing two more Chinese warships and four Russian warships together operating within established international norms in the United States Exclusive Economic Zone soon after.
The encounter with the combined surface action group passed without further incident, he said.
“It was important that the Kimball was there,” Lunday said.
The stability in the North Atlantic and Arctic since the collapse of the Soviet Union began to change in 2012 when the Kremlin again deployed ballistic missile submarines into those waters, said Vice Adm. Daniel Dwyer, 2nd Fleet commander. Moscow’s assertiveness in regaining Great Power status and control over its neighbors became clearer when it illegally annexed of Crimea, which holds the headquarters of its Black Sea Fleet, and backed separatists with military aid in eastern Ukraine.
Even before last year’s invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s priorities for the Arctic became very clear when it designated the Northern Fleet a strategic command, said Dwyer, whose command extends from the Tropic of Cancer to the North Pole. Since then, the Kremlin rapidly built up naval facilities for ballistic missile and attack submarines and surface combatants, 14 airfields for long-range bombers and fighters and land facilities for soldiers and marines in and around the Kola Peninsula.
Russia has also improved or constructed new airfields, ports and barracks along the Northern Sea Route.
China, interested in establishing a Polar Silk Road to its oversea trade, has sent six expeditions to the region for scientific studies and has doubled its investment in Russian infrastructure, energy production and mineral extraction along the Northern Sea Route, said Adm. Daryl Caudle, who leads Fleet Forces Command. He noted 10 million tons of Chinese shipping moved along that increasingly free of ice route.
Russia claims the Northern Sea Route is within its territorial waters.
Beijing has referred to itself as a “near Arctic state” with national interests in the region. Caudle cited China’s six scientific expeditions into the region last year and also to the Antarctic gathering maritime data. The Chinese use two of its own icebreakers to house more than 350 scientists on these six-month-long expeditions.
President Xi Jinping has declared his ambition to make China “a polar great power” by 2030.
Panelists agreed both nations pose threats to freedom of navigation movements in the region. As an example, several panelists noted Russian demands that all vessels using the Northern Sea Route provide 45-day notice of transit, pay a fee, be escorted by two of its icebreakers and have two of its pilots on board.
Recognizing the importance of the Northern Sea Route, Chris Kofron, the National Security Council’s director for Russia, said the United States sees Arctic waters as part of the global commons. On its seabed lay critically important cables transmitting financial, commercial and security data between continents. Energy pipelines across northern Europe are in these same waters.
Denmark, Sweden and Germany are still investigating who and what caused the explosions on the Nordstream 2 pipeline, Norwegian Navy Capt. Egil Vasstrand told an earlier panel. He added in the wake of the disruption, the Norwegian government is working more closely with private industry to constantly monitor the security of the pipelines in addition to stepping up its patrols along their 9,000-kilometer route.
“It’s the off-shore companies that have the capabilities” to do the round-the-clock surveillance, he said.
U.S. and NATO have called the attacks “sabotage,” dismissing Russian claims that Washington was behind the incident.
In an earlier discussion at the forum, Kofron added in gray zone incidents like the pipeline explosions “what we could do is impose reputational damage” on the Kremlin. When identified as the culprit, as Washington claims in the case of the pipeline attacks, “show Russian actions in the bad light they are.”
One of the forums that was used to discuss and work on regional concerns, the eight-nation Arctic Forum, has largely shut down since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russia was chairing the council at the time of the attack. The five NATO members and its two partners, Sweden and Finland, are refusing to attend any meetings until the Kremlin pulls its forces from Ukraine.
The forum, for all its work on better cooperation on search and rescue, law enforcement – especially fisheries, building high-speed broadband communications, and environmental research, stayed clear of security issues that have increasingly come to the fore in the last decade.
In response to the increased emphasis on Arctic and North Atlantic security, London has re-examined what its needs and roles, said Rear Adm. Anthony Rimington, assistant chief of the naval staff in the Royal Navy. The latest, “Looking North: The U.K. and the Arctic,” was released this week.
Quoting from the paper’s call to maintain a peaceful and stable region marked by cooperation, he noted the United Kingdom’s strategic position in the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom [GIUK] gap that Russian warships and submarines use to reach the Atlantic and the cables laying underneath.
The Royal Navy’s “first priority is maintaining operational advantage in the North Atlantic,” he said.
Rimington called it “our backyard.” A new presence developed in 10 months for the Royal Navy is a seabed monitoring vessel to protect data transmissions on those cables to North America.
The first Multi-Role Ocean Surveillance Ship came from a modified existing vessel. A second is under construction now.
Building up U.S. presence in the Arctic is proceeding, but slowly. Lunday said delivery of the new Polar Security Cutter under construction at Halter Marine in Pascagoula, Miss., “could slip into ’26, ’27.” Delivery was expected in 2025. “It’s taking time to get the design right, to get the fabrication right” for the heavy icebreaker.
To better understand how systems, like unmanned vessels and sensors for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and communications will perform and how to operate together with allies and partners, Dwyer pointed to the increased scale and scope of exercises.
He added most of the exercises are nationally led, not NATO, but their scope provides opportunities to establish greater interoperability and interchangeability.
Next month, naval exercises involving NATO countries in the High North include the U.K.’s Joint Warrior 23, off the coast of Norway, and Joint Viking 23, led by Norway.