The security landscape of the Arctic is changing. After almost three decades as an afterthought in the eyes of U.S. policymakers, Arctic security is finally catching the attention of American leadership. Rapid climate change and increased military and non-military interest in the region, even from non-Arctic nations, calls for increased coordination between the United States and its allies in order to maintain strategic initiative in the high north. This should be done through a unified command: a NATO-led Arctic Command.
Finland’s ascension and Sweden’s bid for NATO membership mean that soon – hopefully – all Arctic nations aside from Russia will be members of the Alliance. These countries have deeply vested security concerns in the region and most consider it a cornerstone of their security policy. Even the United States is starting to realize the importance of the area, as shown by the publishing of its new Arctic Security Strategy last year, the first one in almost a decade. The United States’ establishment of the position of Ambassador-at-large to the Arctic further indicates that it is prioritizing Arctic security. The increasing importance of the Arctic region for the security policy of many countries, particularly NATO members, has resulted in a renewed focus on Arctic security and cooperation. Although Alliance member countries may differ on matters such as Arctic environmental policy, resource development, and fisheries control, their security strategies all reflect a similar tune of threat deterrence, economic development, and cooperation.
A NATO Arctic Command could help to realize and coordinate most of the Arctic countries’ strategic and national security goals for the region. Their resources could be pooled and utilized in a more cohesive manner similar to other NATO commands such as the Joint Force Commands in Brunssum or Naples or the Allied Maritime Command. The command could help facilitate and streamline information sharing, intelligence analysis, and collaboration among the member nations. It could also provide a platform for more extensive joint exercises and training than has been seen before in the region, as has been the case for NATO’s Allied Maritime Command.
NATO’s most immediate adversary in the region is the Russian Federation. Despite being only one of eight Arctic countries, Russia controls roughly 53% of the Arctic coastline. They consider the Arctic their core territory and have been hesitant to work with others on regional projects. Russia has its own ambitious Arctic policy where it aims to become the pivotal power in the region. Russia plans to achieve this through expansive infrastructure and development projects with the final goal of gaining access to strategically important resources both on land and in the Arctic Sea. A secondary aim of the policy also seems to be to improve the Northern Sea Route, making Russia a key player in trade between Asia and Europe. If fully realized, this would improve Russia’s strategic position even further and leave most of Europe vulnerable to potential future Russian sanctions.
The region is also home to most of Russia’s nuclear-powered vessels including its two Kirov-class battlecruisers, all its nuclear icebreakers, and eight out of eleven active ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). This means much of its second-strike capabilities are located in the Arctic, mostly around the Kola peninsula in north-western Russia. Such a large force presence in the Arctic gives Russia significant strategic advantages, including the ability to project power and influence in the region and to potentially control key sea lanes and shipping routes. Areas like the strategically important GIUK gap could be left severely vulnerable if these forces are not properly monitored.
A second competitor that has started to dip its toe into the Arctic is China. Despite holding no Arctic territory, China has persistently pursued active participation in Arctic affairs. Since 2013, China has been an observer state to the Arctic Council and has participated in the Arctic Circle forum since its inception. U.S. scholars have noted that China is actively building up its capacity to “enforce its perceived rights and protect its interests through an increasingly security-focused Arctic strategy that is backed up by the military.” Multiple NATO member states have raised concerns over China’s high aspirations in the region, singling them out as a threat to Arctic stability. The country even considers itself to be a “near-Arctic power” that deserves equal representation and status to the United States and Russia in Arctic affairs.
No country, even the United States, wants to face these competitors alone. This is where the unified Arctic Command comes in.
NATO’s Interest in the Arctic
The Arctic is fast becoming a new hotspot for geopolitics. The region has historically been free from conflict, even during the Cold War. This is no longer the case. With the potential ascensions of Sweden and Finland into the Alliance, seven out of the eight Arctic countries will be NATO member states. This doesn’t necessarily make the Arctic NATO’s backyard, but it is definitely in NATO’s neighborhood. The Alliance has been making a note of this, as member states have paid more attention to the region in recent years at both the national and international levels. Last year, for example, saw the United States re-designate its U.S. Army Alaska Command to be upgraded to division level, the 11th Airborne Division, along with the NATO Secretary General making a dedicated visit to the Canadian Arctic for the first time.
NATO’s interest in the Arctic is twofold: proximity and deterrence. The Arctic has two main sea lanes of entry and exit, through the North Atlantic between Greenland, Iceland, and Norway, and the Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska. Entering through either of these means passing through NATO territory, highlighting the region’s proximity to member nations and strategic importance for NATO. The region is becoming increasingly more accessible to both Arctic and non-Arctic countries due to melting sea ice, which is opening up new shipping routes and easing access to natural resources such as oil, gas, and rare earth minerals. This has increased interest and competition in the region, giving NATO a reason to bolster its own regional presence to monitor the situation.
NATO’s more prevalent interest in the Arctic is deterrence, primarily aimed at Russia. As interest in the region has increased, Russia has been more aggressively asserting its claims in the region and increasing its military activities. This is most frequently done through airspace violations, naval encroachment, and intelligence gathering. Although these efforts are understandable to an extent, NATO should not let them pass. These aggressions are mainly aimed at NATO member states, which need to develop an effective counter. This would be the Arctic Command’s primary goal in the region, to counter Russian aggression and deter them from further encroachment, provocations, and other antagonistic actions. Some may see this approach as escalatory but we must keep in mind that the individual Arctic countries are already doing this at a smaller, national level. Enhancing the scope of these sorts of actions will send a message to Russia and other actors about how committed NATO is to respect for territorial integrity and security in the Arctic.
Arctic Command Structure
The Arctic Command would primarily consist of naval and air assets stationed in and around the Arctic Circle. The Command would be headquartered out of two locations, one in Alaska and another in either eastern Greenland, northern Iceland, or Norway. Additional bases strewn around the Canadian Arctic, Norway, Alaska, and Greenland would also fall under the Command’s control. The main tasks of the Command would be naval patrolling, submarine monitoring, intelligence gathering, and air policing along with secondary tasks such as search and rescue as needed. It would also serve to ensure the interoperability of NATO forces stationed in the Arctic, acting as the main voice of Arctic affairs in the Alliance at the tactical level.
The goal of the Command would be to better coordinate activities, actions, and responses to developing situations in the Arctic on both sides of the ocean and to streamline the flow of Arctic-related information between allies. Arctic-specific training, especially at sea, would also be an important aspect of the Command. Its structure would closely follow that of NATO’s Maritime Command, incorporating elements from the Allied Air Command as well.
Through the Arctic Command, NATO would consolidate multinational security concerns regarding the region and facilitate a coordinated and collaborative decision-making process for member states to resolve them. This cooperation could even extend to collaborative efforts outside the Alliance, such as joint resolutions on the Arctic Council and scientific research initiatives. Additionally, the mere existence of the Command and presence of NATO personnel in the region would hold significant influence and send a strong message to the Alliance’s adversaries. Although NATO would always seek a diplomatic solution first, the Alliance needs to be able to credibly enforce a coherent Arctic policy that respects the international rule of law and institutional norms. For this, the Arctic Command is a perfect tool.
The need for a unified and NATO-led Command in the Arctic has become evident in the past few years. As adversaries gain a foothold in the Arctic, NATO needs to take the initiative and develop the necessary capabilities to operate in the region for a prolonged period of time. The harsh climate calls for specialized training, outfitting of equipment, and enhanced cooperation over a vast operational theater. Alone, NATO’s Arctic member states stand no chance of safeguarding their individual interests in the region. Unified, they can become the powerhouse of the Arctic. Cooperation will ensure a prosperous future for themselves and the region as a whole, paving the way for sustainable development and cooperation on this rapidly evolving frontier.
This article was a guest submission by Gauti Jonsson, a student in the Security Studies Program. Views given are the author’s own.