Russia is “militarizing” its Northern Flank and heavily investing in defenses and resources specific to the Arctic region as part of a transparent effort to increase its strategic position, influence and economic advantage along its heavily trafficked Northern Sea Route which borders large portions of the region.
“The escalatory and non-transparent nature of Russia’s military activity and unlawful regulation of maritime traffic along the Northern Sea Route undermines global interests, promotes instability, and ultimately degrades security in the region,” a new U.S. Navy strategy document, called “A Blue Arctic,” strategy writes.
Russia continues to expand its fleet of icebreaker ships, has built forward-operating bases in the Arctic and also continues to pursue a vastly increased operational tempo as waterways open up due to melting ice.
Defending Northern Sea Route approaches and expanding its already large fleet of icebreakers can mean that Russia intends to multiply attack possibilities or at very least extend the envelope of its surveillance operations.
“The Russians operate numerous large “ice-breaker” ships designed to escort commercial vessels through ice-patches by breaking up and separating the ice. Ships wishing to pass through the Northern Sea Route are charged a fee by the Russians for the ice-breaking vessels they provide for safe passage,” the strategy states.
By clearing away debris or other impediments for surface or even undersea attack, Russian icebreakers can leverage the warming ice to occupy strategically-vital waterways. As Russian Navy ships, sensors and weapons systems become increasingly cold-weather hardened, there might be little reason why one of its icebreaker ships could not take on more military missions to include combat patrol, reconnaissance operations, cargo transport or even some kind of Arctic amphibious assault.
A military presence in the Arctic almost instantly assures the prospect of some kind of major offensive attack across a vast area spanning four or more continents susceptible to some kind of invasion or incursion from the North.
“By modernizing its military capabilities and posture—particularly the Northern Fleet—Russia aims to improve command and control, infrastructure, and joint force employment to project power and defend its northern approaches,” the new Navy strategy writes.
Certainly, when it comes to missile launches, such as a potential ballistic missile attack, an ability to fire from the Arctic massively truncates air-travel time, lowers closing distances upon targets due to proximity and, one could even say, greatly expands the potential impact of any kind of nuclear weapons as well.
Also, since Russia is already known to have established military bases and outposts in the Arctic, therefore any increase in maritime activity would naturally improve an ability to forward-deploy or support winter-ruggedized cold-weather land assets such as weapons, air strips, tactical vehicles and ground-fired missiles.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.