On Thin Ice: UK Defence in the Arctic Contents

3The UK, the High North and the North Atlantic


19.The United Kingdom has played a leading role in the exploration of the Arctic, and the Royal Navy has been at the forefront of this effort.43 The Second World War provided a clear demonstration of strategic importance of the region to the UK. The Allied attempts to resist the occupation of Scandinavia gave an indication of the difficulties of fighting in cold weather conditions, and the importance of having highly trained units to do so.44 The occupation of Norway by a hostile power brought the prospect of invasion from across the North Sea and, for the first time, laid Scotland and Eastern England open to air attack from Scandinavia. It also provided a perfect staging base for enemy ships and submarines to project power far into the Atlantic. The danger from the icy seas and freezing temperatures endured by the men serving on the Arctic Convoys was compounded by the enemy naval and air patrols operating from Northern Norway. The heroism and unique hardship associated with this service was rightly recognised by the Government with announcement of the institution of the Arctic Star campaign medal in 2012.45

The Arctic and the High North in the Cold War

20.The admission of Norway as a founding member of NATO in 1949 created the only direct Northern European border between a NATO state and the Soviet Union, establishing NATO’s ‘Northern Flank’. Although the focus of the confrontation in Europe was on the Central Front on the Inner German Border, the Northern Flank became an area of leading strategic importance to NATO from the outset of the Cold War. NATO’s defence of the region would have been directed by Allied Forces Northern Europe (AFNORTH), a major subordinate command of Allied Command Europe entrusted with the defence of Norway, Denmark and areas of northern Germany adjacent to the Baltic approaches.46 The territorial defence of Norway was essential to the security of Western Europe and would only be possible by swift reinforcement from other NATO allies.47 Early in the Cold War, Norway would also serve as an important forward base for strategic bombers directed against targets in the USSR in the event of a nuclear exchange. Long-range strategic bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles would have passed over the Arctic in the event of a nuclear exchange between the United States and the USSR, leading to the establishment of ballistic missile early warning stations in Greenland, Canada and Alaska.48

A 1983 map of the GIUK Gap. Source: Wikimedia Commons

21.The maritime aspect of the defence of the Northern Flank was particularly significant. The Soviet Navy’s Northern Fleet, which was its largest and contained the highest numbers of ballistic missile and attack submarines, had its main bases on the Kola Peninsula, within the Arctic Circle.49 In the early Cold War, Soviet strategic submarines had to enter the North Atlantic from the Arctic through the maritime chokepoints of the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) Gap to reach their patrol areas. Sustaining an active anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capability in the GIUK Gap and surrounding seas thus became a priority task for NATO’s naval forces, led by the Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic (SACLANT).

The bastion strategy. Darker shaded area: ambition of control. Lighter shaded area: ambition of denial. Courtesy of the Norwegian Ministry of Defence

22.In the later Cold War, as the range of Soviet submarine launched ballistic missiles increased, it became unnecessary for strategic submarines to enter the North Atlantic to be within range of targets in North America. With this enhanced missile range and in the face of effective ASW operations by NATO, which was greatly assisted by the SOSUS system in the GIUK Gap and elsewhere in the North Atlantic, Soviet strategic submarines increasingly restricted their operations to the sea areas close to their bases on the Kola Peninsula under the polar ice cap.50 This became known as the ‘bastion’ strategy, with Russian strategic submarines seeking sanctuary under the ice to protect their nuclear second strike capability.

23.A second main responsibility of SACLANT was to maintain the transatlantic lines of communication. In the event of an attack on NATO in Europe, the numerical superiority of Warsaw Pact forces could only have been balanced by rapid reinforcements reaching Europe from the United States. The Soviet Navy, sending surface and submarine units through the GIUK Gap, would have sought to disrupt these lines of communication and prevent these reinforcements arriving. NATO used to run annual exercises to practice these reinforcement operations, involving up to 100,000 US and other Allied personnel.51 Preventing the Soviet Navy entering the North Atlantic from the High North thus became a matter of existential importance for NATO’s position in Europe.

24.In the last phase of the Cold War, NATO’s response to the maritime challenge evolved into one of forward defence, advancing the defensive line eastwards from the GIUK Gap into the Norwegian Sea to contain Soviet naval forces in the Arctic and prevent them getting near the entrances to the North Atlantic.52 At the core of the Forward Maritime Strategy as it became established in the 1980s was the fast dispatch of a powerful NATO striking fleet built around US and UK aircraft carriers into the Norwegian Sea at the outset of the conflict, to prevent the Soviet Navy reaching the entrances to the Atlantic and to provide air power to assist in the defence of Norway.53 Alongside the carrier groups and other ASW units, US and UK attack submarines would have played a key role in seeking out Soviet strategic submarines operating under the Arctic ice. As the historian Dr James Jinks told us:

Part of the Maritime Strategy—the aggressive Maritime Strategy that we heard about in the’80s—was that if you started pushing forward to go after these Russian submarines that were staying in waters that were familiar to them, you would then force the Russians to use a lot of their assets—their other submarines, their surface ships and aircraft—to protect those submarines.54

25.In the history of the Royal Navy Submarine Service which he co-authored with Lord Hennessy, Dr Jinks summarised how the importance of the Arctic grew as the Cold War reached its conclusion:

The Maritime Strategy and the Soviet response to it conceptually transformed the Arctic from a natural scientific laboratory and region of occasional and exceptional activity into a possible battle-space on a par with the Northern Pacific or the GIUK Gap. Had World War III come it would have seen combat of great ferocity.55

26.A second important strategic role which the UK would have played in the High North was in the territorial defence of Norway. The Royal Marines of 3 Commando Brigade, whose involvement in Arctic operations goes back to operations in Northern Russia in 1919, began sending detachments on regular exercises in Norway in the 1960s to develop and sustain cold weather warfare capability. By the end of the Cold War, brigade-sized formations were being sent on these annual exercises.56 In the event of conflict, 3 Commando Brigade would have been deployed to Norway alongside amphibious formations from the United States Marine Corps and the Dutch Korps Mariniers to deter or counter a Soviet invasion.57 The UK also provided a contribution centred on a British Army battalion to the Allied Command Europe Mobile Force (Land), a separate multinational NATO force tasked with rapid deployment to areas of likely confrontation, including NATO’s northern or southern flanks.58 The AMF(L) was disbanded in 2002, reportedly because it could no longer be sustained after the British contribution was withdrawn during the build up to the Iraq War.59

27.The strategic importance of the High North and the North Atlantic to the security of the UK and Europe cannot be overstated. During the Cold War a huge amount of effort was invested in the development of plans and capability to counter the threat that existed to NATO’s Northern Flank and the wider North Atlantic. Although we are not facing challenges on the same scale today, the prospect of Russian power being projected from the High North into the North Atlantic has returned and a comprehensive strategy is needed to meet this threat.

Current UK Arctic policy

28.The FCO’s Polar Regions Department (PRD) has responsibilities in respect of both of the polar regions. Ms Rumble told us that the Antarctic occupies the greater part of the Department’s time, because of the UK’s obligations under the Antarctic Treaty, and the need to maintain the territorial claim to British Antarctic Territory and other territories in the South Atlantic. While the PRD is responsible for all matters relating to the Antarctic, it only co-ordinates policy relating to the Arctic, and policy leads are dispersed across different Government departments.60 The House of Lords Arctic Committee questioned the effectiveness of this arrangement and the adequacy of the resources that the PRD has to give Arctic matters the priority that they require.61 The Lords Committee recommended that the Government should appoint an Arctic Ambassador or Envoy to ensure greater cross-government focus and co-ordination of Arctic policy.62 The Government, as indicated in our evidence session63 and a recent Westminster Hall debate on the subject,64 is yet to be convinced on this matter.

29.The UK’s first Arctic White Paper, the 2013 Arctic Policy Framework, laid out the UK’s overall approach to the changing Arctic and the human, environmental and commercial aspects of UK policy which relate to the region.65 In oral evidence the Minister for the Armed Forces, Rt Hon Mark Lancaster TD VR MP summed up the approach from the 2013 Framework:

We will seek to support the continued peace and stability of the region while maintaining fair and equitable access to UK business and citizens and promoting the correct balance between environmental challenges and sustainable development… I am pleased to say that, from a military point of view, the Arctic maintains a position where we have good co-operation. There is low tension. That co-operation really has meant that we have not seen some of the issues that perhaps we face elsewhere in the world.66

30.The Arctic has not featured in recent UK defence and security policy documents. There was no mention of the region in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR),67 an oblique reference without elaboration to the Arctic warfare capability of the Royal Marines in the 2015 SDSR,68 and no mention again in 2018’s National Security Capability Review.69 In oral evidence the Minister addressed the Government’s current view of the military security position:

From a military point of view, the Arctic maintains a position where we have good co-operation. There is low tension. That co-operation really has meant that we have not seen some of the issues that perhaps we face elsewhere in the world.70

On Russian activity in the Arctic, the Minister said:

We are seeing a build-up along [the Russian Arctic] coastline, but we assess that it is nothing more than what would be deemed a reasonable defensive posture by Russia. Equally, while, as the Committee knows, we will not go into detail on underwater activities, it is fair to say that we are seeing a level of activity by the Russians that we probably have not seen since the end of the Cold War. They are building up their capabilities. That has been well documented recently in speeches by both the Chief of the General Staff and the Chief of the Defence Staff.

Asked if the view was that the Arctic was being militarised, the Minister said:

There is certainly military activity in the Arctic. All the Arctic nations, with the exception of Iceland, which has a treaty with the US, maintain a military capability. We perceive that at the moment to be defensive in nature compared with other areas, but we are monitoring it very carefully.71

31.A few weeks after this evidence session the Government’s 2018 refresh of the Arctic Framework was published. Unlike its 2013 predecessor, it includes a specific section on defence. This recognised that although the Arctic continues to be peaceful, stable and well-governed, the increased interest and commercial activity in the region provides the potential for heightened tension. It also recognised the right of the Arctic States to protect their interests by enhancing their security presence. It continued:

However, the build-up of Arctic military capabilities by several Arctic States makes the future less certain. The UK remains committed to preserving the stability and security of the Arctic region. We will work with our international partners and allies through defence engagement, bilateral and multilateral security cooperation. This will include essential cold weather training exercises and participation in the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable. NATO also remains a central plank for cooperation among its Arctic State members.72

32.We repeat the concerns voiced by the House of Lords Arctic Committee about the way in which UK Arctic policy is prioritised and co-ordinated. The Polar Regions Department’s considerable responsibilities in respect of the Antarctic place Arctic affairs at risk of being made a lower priority, and the dispersal of policy responsibility for Arctic affairs across Whitehall has the potential to frustrate co-ordination. We ask the Government to reconsider its decision not to appoint an Arctic Ambassador to improve co-ordination of policy in Whitehall and bolster UK representation in Arctic affairs.

43 Coleman, E C, The Royal Navy in Polar Exploration: Volume 1: From Frobisher to Ross, Tempus, 2006; Sugden, J, Nelson: A Dream of Glory, Jonathan Cape, London 2004, pp. 73–76

44 Erskine, D, The Scots Guards 1919–1955, William Clowes and Sons Ltd, London 1956, pp 21–26; Kiszely, J, Anatomy of a Campaign: The British Fiasco in Norway, 1940, CUP, Cambridge 2017

45Recognition for veterans of Arctic Convoys and Bomber Command’, Ministry of Defence, 19 December 2012

46 The position of Commander in Chief Allied Forces Northern Europe (CINCNORTH) was held by a senior Royal Marine or British Army General throughout AFNORTH’s existence.

47 Oral evidence taken on 24 January 2018, HC 388 [2017–19], Q35 [Colonel Olsen]

48 Tamnes, R, ‘The Strategic Importance of the High North during the Cold War’ from Schmidt, G (ed.), A History of NATO - The First 50 Years, Palgrave Macmillan, 2001

49 Oral evidence taken on 15 March 2017, HC 879 [2016–17], Q79

50 Oral evidence taken on 24 January 2018, HC 388 [2017–19], Q31. SOSUS (the Sound Surveillance System) was a system of fixed seabed passive sonar arrays deployed in strategic points around the North Atlantic. It formed a vital part of NATO’s layered anti-submarine warfare system, See Hennessy, P and Jinks, J, The Silent Deep: The Royal Navy Submarine Service since 1945, Penguin Books, London 2016, p 324–332.

51 Oral evidence taken on 24 January 2018, HC 388 [2017–19], Qq34–35; Heather A. Conley and Jon Rahbek-Clemmensen (DIA0011). See also Hamre J J and Conley H A, The Centrality of the North Atlantic to NATO and US strategic interests in Olsen, J A (ed.) NATO and the North Atlantic: Revitalising Collective Defence, RUSI Whitehall Paper 87, March 2017

52 Oral evidence taken on 24 January 2018, HC 388 [2017–19], Q25 [Professor Grove]

53 Oral evidence taken on 24 January 2018, HC 388 [2017–19], Q25

54 Oral evidence taken on 24 January 2018, HC 388 [2017–19], Q31

55 Hennessy and Jinks, p 561

56 Oral evidence taken on 15 March 2017, HC 879 [2016–17], Q79; Royal Norwegian Embassy, London (DIA0047). See also Thompson, J, The Royal Marines: From Sea Soldiers to a Special Force, Sidgwick & Jackson, London 2000, pp 529–532

57 Oxford Research Group (DTA0001)

58 Oral evidence taken on 15 March 2017, HC 879 [2016–17], Qq104, 106. See also Maloney, S, ‘Fire Brigade or Tocsin? NATO’s ACE Mobile Force, Flexible Response and the Cold War’, Journal of Strategic Studies, 27:4 (2004), 585–613

59Crack Nato unit disbanded as Britain pulls out’, Daily Telegraph, 14 August 2002

60 Oral evidence taken on 31 January 2018, HC 388 [2017–19], Qq49, 54

61 See also Oral evidence taken on 15 November 2017, HC 388 [2017–19], Q10 [James Gray MP]

62 House of Lords Select Committee on the Arctic, Responding to a changing Arctic, Report of Session 2014–15, HL Paper 118, paras 386–394

63 Oral evidence taken on 31 January 2018, HC 388 [2017–19], Q59

64 HC Deb, 29 November 2017, c 141WH

65 Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Adapting To Change: UK policy towards the Arctic, October 2013

66 Oral evidence taken on 31 January 2018, HC 388 [2017–19], Q46

69 HM Government, National Security Capability Review, 28 March 2018

70 Oral evidence taken on 31 January 2018, HC 388 [2017–19], Q46

71 Oral evidence taken on 31 January 2018, HC 388 [2017–19], Q48

72 Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Beyond the Ice: UK policy towards the Arctic, April 2018

Published: 15 August 2018