Ridding the Arctic of Nuclear Weapons: A Task Long Overdue
What is certain, however, is that the Russian Arctic-based Northern Fleet is continually “stalked” by American (and perhaps British and French) fast-attack submarines from the moment the Russian sub- marines leave port. While, as noted above, the number of Russian “boomer” patrols has sharply declined since the days of the Cold War, the underwater games of “cat and mouse” continue as before, and several near-collisions have been reported as the Russian subs become increasingly successful in shaking off their American “tails.”54 The Cold War is not entirely over beneath the rapidly melting Arctic ice, and Russia’s nuclear submarine bases north of the Arctic Circle are yet another powerful signal that the Russians intend to enforce their claims in the Arctic. So, while the prospects of major progress on U.S.- Russian bilateral disarmament have never been brighter, the gradual rebuilding of the Russian Northern Fleet’s roster of ballistic missile submarines and the ongoing mission of American SSN’s to track them aggressively has meant increased rather than decreased U.S.-Russian naval competition.
The fact is, the Arctic is becoming a zone of increased military competition. Russian President Medvedev has announced the creation of a special military force to defend Arctic claims. Last year Russian General Vladimir Shamanov declared that Russian troops would step up training for Arctic combat, and that Russia’s submarine fleet would increase its “operational radius.”55 Recently, two Russian attack submarines were spotted off the U.S. east coast for the first time in 15 years.56
In January 2009, on the eve of Obama’s inauguration, President Bush issued a National Security Presidential Directive on Arctic Regional Policy. It affirmed as a priority the preservation of U.S. military vessel and aircraft mobility and transit throughout the Arctic, including the Northwest Passage, and foresaw greater capabilities to protect U.S. borders in the Arctic.57
The Bush administration’s disastrous eight years in office, particularly its decision to withdraw from the ABM treaty and deploy missile defence interceptors and a radar station in Eastern Europe, have greatly contributed to the instability we are seeing today, even though the Obama administration has scaled back the planned deployments. The Arctic has figured in this renewed interest in Cold War weapons systems, particularly the upgrading of the Thule Ballistic Missile Early Warning System radar in Northern Greenland for ballistic missile defence.
The Canadian government, as well, has put forward new military capabilities to protect Canadian sovereignty claims in the Arctic, including proposed ice-capable ships, a northern military training base and a deep-water port.
Earlier this year Denmark released an all-party defence position paper that suggests the country should create a dedicated Arctic military contingent that draws on army, navy and air force assets with ship- based helicopters able to drop troops anywhere.58 Danish fighter planes would be tasked to patrol Greenlandic airspace.
Last year Norway chose to buy 48 Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jets, partly because of their suitability for Arctic patrols. In March, that country held a major Arctic military practice involving 7,000 soldiers from 13 countries in which a fictional country called Northland seized offshore oil rigs.59
The manoeuvres prompted a protest from Russia – which objected again in June after Sweden held its largest northern military exercise since the end of the Second World War. About 12,000 troops, 50 aircraft and several warships were involved.60
Jayantha Dhanapala, President of Pugwash and former UN under-secretary for disarmament affairs, summarized the situation bluntly: “From those in the international peace and security sector, deep concerns are being expressed over the fact that two nuclear weapon states – the United States and the Russian Federation, which together own 95 per cent of the nuclear weapons in the world – converge on the Arctic and have competing claims. These claims, together with those of other allied NATO countries – Canada, Denmark, Iceland, and Norway – could, if unresolved, lead to conflict escalating into the threat or use of nuclear weapons.”61 Many will no doubt argue that this is excessively alarmist, but no circumstance in which nuclear powers find themselves in military confrontation can be taken lightly.