On Thin Ice: UK Defence in the Arctic Contents


The change in the natural environment in the Arctic and High North is driving a change in the security environment. As the ice recedes and the Arctic becomes more accessible to navigation and the exploitation of its extensive natural resources, a region that has been characterised by low tension and multi-lateral co-operation has in recent years begun to see an increase in military activity.

At the forefront of this activity is the Russian Federation. Although there is a divergence of views on Russia’s motivations, it is difficult to conclude that this build-up of military strength is proportionate to an exclusively defensive outlook. Russia has shown itself to be ready to use military force to secure political advantage and the disputed operation of a number of international legal norms in the Arctic is vulnerable to exploitation by a revisionist state.

The Arctic and the High North are central to the security of the United Kingdom and history has shown that its domination by a hostile power would put the security of the wider North Atlantic Ocean at considerable risk. The leadership which the UK has previously shown in the defence of the region should be reinstated, and the new priority which NATO has given to the North Atlantic should be accompanied by a renewed focus of the source of the threat in the High North.

The UK continues to sustain capabilities and expertise which can play a leading role in the Arctic and High North, but the focus on operating in this challenging environment has been reduced over the long years of engagement in expeditionary operations in hot weather climates. The multi-role nature of these specialist capabilities also leads to them being in high demand elsewhere, an indication of the wider resource pressures in Defence that are resulting in the Armed Forces struggling to meet commitments and sustain levels of training.

If the definition of a leading defence nation is one which has the ability to deploy a range of capabilities anywhere in the world, then this includes the unique operating environment of the Arctic and the High North. Being able to do so is ultimately a question of resource and a question of ambition; the Committee calls upon the Government to show leadership in providing both.

Source: Central Intelligence Agency

Published: 15 August 2018