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Climate Change, Arctic Security, and Allied Strategy: A Strategic Analysis

Global Britain in A Competitive Age, the United Kingdom’s (UK) 2021 integrated review on defence policy, identifies climate change as a future “transnational challenge” that “threatens [allied] shared security.”  Concurrently, the United States’ (US) 2021 National Security Strategy states that climate change is a “profound and… existential danger” to global security.  While both allies have independently identified climate change as a security challenges, it is not the physical act of climate change, but rather, the effects climate change has caused that pose risks to national and allied security.  Specifically, the environmental effects and adversarial reactions in the Arctic region as a result of climate change pose a future challenge that requires swift allied action from both the US and UK.  While both states have published specialized strategic policies on the Arctic, a combination of changes to present statecraft and regional deployment burden-sharing are critical for meeting this challenge.

Strategic Competitor Activity in the Arctic

In 2021, the Arctic Council confirmed that the Arctic region is experiencing warming effects from climate change at a rate three times faster than the rest of the planet.  Melting polar ice caps are creating more navigable waterways throughout the Arctic, and with it, opportunities for economic expansion.  However, with opportunities for economic expansion comes national competition.  Like the US and UK, both China and Russia have published Arctic specific strategic policies. These documents outline their economic and military strategic objectives in the region.  Published in 2018, China’s Arctic Policy concretely states how, “utilization of these [new] sea routes” via a proposed “Polar Silk Road initiative” will have tremendous “strategic and economic” impacts for China.  Likewise, Russia’s Strategy for the Development of the Arctic Zone, signed by President Putin in 2020, identifies the “Northern Sea Route as a transport corridor of global significance.”  While this increase in economic appetite seems natural, both states call for a swift military presence in the region to guarantee those economic interests.  China identifies that they have a strategic obligation to maintain the security of maritime trade through emergency response to action that they deem maritime crime.  Concurrently, Russia identifies the presence of, “combat ready military forces” in the region as a strategic necessity to “ensure a favorable operational regime in the Arctic.”

Returning the Arctic to a stable state is a task too big for one nation and will require allied support.

The strategic competitor response to securing economic interests in the Arctic Region has extended from well beyond policy paper publication.  In September 2022, in the midst of the Russian-Ukrainian War, a joint Russian-Chinese naval fleet of seven ships was spotted by the US Coast Guard just 75 nautical miles from Alaska.  The Chinese state-run media outlet, Global Times, reported the cooperative military patrol was aimed at ensuring “regional peace and stability” by validating a Chinese-Russian military response to perceived threats to “maritime security.”  Just two weeks after this joint exercise, Russia deployed their nuclear-submarine Belgorod to the Arctic, armed with a Poseidon nuclear weapon. Enduring Russian military efforts in the Arctic are evidenced by military base construction along the Northern Sea Route and the establishment of a permanent standing Arctic Brigade.

China and Russia have both identified in their respective Arctic Strategies that increased trafficability in the Arctic due to climate change presents economic opportunities that must be stabilized through military action.  Both states have followed up this rhetoric with concrete military action.  This overt military reaction has rapidly decreased the stability in the Arctic region, and therefore, demonstrates that the clear and present military threats in the Arctic are genuine security challenges for NATO.

The Current State of US and UK Arctic Strategic Policy

In response, both the US and UK have addressed the tumultuous nature of Arctic security through strategic policy publication.  In October 2022, the United States published, The National Strategy for the Arctic Region as a specific response to “increased strategic competition in the Arctic.”  The objective of this strategy is to “realize a vision…of a peaceful, stable, prosperous, and cooperative [Arctic]” through security, climate change protection, sustainable economic development, and international cooperation.

In strategic concert, the United Kingdom published The UK’s Defence Contribution in the High North in March 2022 as a strategic response to threats brought forth by the melting sea ice.  The objective of this strategy is to “preserve the stability and security of the Arctic.”  The Ministry of Defence outlines “protecting infrastructure, ensuring freedom to navigate, reinforcing the rules based international system, and contesting destabilizing behaviors” as the mechanisms for enacting this policy and achieving Britain’s strategic objectives.

There are some critical commonalities between these two policies that require further examination.  First, the threat-based justification for establishing these independent strategic policies demonstrates that the US and UK share concern over the Arctic’s de-stabilization and are prepared to take strategic action.  Both strategies were not drafted for fear of losing an economic foothold in the Arctic, but to return order and balance to a volatile and globally critical region.  Second, both policies outline a need for military cooperation as a requirement to achieving this shared aim.  Returning the Arctic to a stable state is a task too big for one nation and will require allied support.

Using Selectorate Theory to Propose Changes to Arctic Statecraft

Given that allied support is critical to Arctic stabilization, the US and UK need to make changes to current statecraft practices in order to garner effective allied support.  The US and UK are both members of the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable (ASFR) and active arctic members in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).  Independently, the United States is a member nation of the Arctic Council and the UK is a member of the Northern European Defence Policy Forum.  As such, there are four separate international entities with varied geographical, military, and political connections to the Arctic that are responsible for drafting and enacting regional policy and strategy.

Selectorate theory is a statecraft principle that offers a mechanism for analyzing this institutional saturation.  Fundamentally, selectorate theory operates under the premise that there are two critical institutions in international politics: the namesake selectorate and the winning coalition.  Selectorates are the legitimized base, “that have a role in selecting” decision makers.  These decision makers, or “winning coalitions”, are the parties responsible for drafting strategic and international policy.  Additionally, having been placed into power by the selectorate, winning coalitions must keep the selectorate appeased in order to remain in position.  Under selectorate theory, we will operationalize the nations that comprise each organization as the “selectorate” and the organizations that they belong to on the aggregate that have actual power in determining Arctic policy (ASFR, NATO, the Arctic Council, and the Northern European Defence Policy Forum) as the “winning coalition.”  Therefore, in order for the defined winning coalitions to remain in power as decision makers in Arctic security strategy formulation, the strategic policy they produce as a collective must appease the objectives of each nation.

ASFR, NATO, the Arctic Council, and the Northern European Defence Policy Forum hold decision making power because their constituent nations grant them the legitimacy to do so.  This legitimacy is contingent on each nation being pleased with the policy that the institutions produce.  Hypothetically, if the Arctic Council was to draft policy that was harmful to the United States, then the US as a selectorate would remove themselves from the Arctic Council, align themselves with a more favorable winning coalition, and legitimize that new institution as the arbiter of arctic policy.

The produced policies of each winning coalition are not necessarily mutually supporting.  For example, NATO’s proposed mechanisms for reaching Arctic stability through an increased military presence is fundamentally different than that of the Arctic Council which aims to use legally binding agreements to “enhance international cooperation.”   With too many competing winning coalitions, there is no clear mechanism for the US and UK to truly influence Arctic policy.  Understood in the terms of selectorate theory, the next step for the US and UK is obvious.  The US and UK must change their approach to Arctic statecraft by promoting the consolidation and centralization of arctic strategic policy making from four independent winning coalitions to two: The Arctic Council and NATO.  This will ensure two outcomes.  Reducing the number of stakeholders to only these two specific winning coalitions ensures that diplomatic policy-making and military strategy formulation will remain separate; a necessary component for effective statecraft and regional stabilization.  Secondly, by consolidating the selectorate’s concerns into two winning coalitions, states are forced to compromise on policy, rather than just align with a different winning coalition that may or may not appeal to their specific concerns.

The Joint Expeditionary Force, Arctic Paratroopers, and Arctic Land Power

Changes to current statecraft practices by the US and UK are only half the battle.  The scope of Russian and Chinese military aggression in the Arctic must be met by a consolidated NATO effort in order to ensure shared US and UK security.  Again, this is not novel.  Both the US and UK have concretely outlined consolidated NATO military efforts in the Arctic as a requirement in order to achieve their respective strategic visions.  The US specifically calls for “calibrated and coordinated” NATO activities operationalized by “combined exercises and training.”  The UK’s strategy concurrently calls for a “calibrated and proportionate” NATO response in the Arctic through “improved interoperability…and activity.”

While both nations are calling for regular deployment intervals in the Arctic, the US and UK’s current force structures are not capable of meeting that demand independently in the land domain.

However, while the official position of both nations seems soft in their language when regarding NATO, their outlined regional military strategy for their own states is much more aggressive.  The United Kingdom’s Littoral Response Group aims to create a “dedicated” Arctic Command Force that can manoeuvre alongside an operational Joint Expeditionary Force.  This force will maintain a periodic force presence in the Arctic to demonstrate the UK’s commitment to securing Arctic navigation routes.  The US has also elevated their strategic language, calling for “allied and independent…episodic deployments” of regular Arctic forces to the region to achieve effective “deterrence.”

While both nations are calling for regular deployment intervals in the Arctic, the US and UK’s current force structures are not capable of meeting that demand independently in the land domain.  With only two US Army Arctic Brigade Combat Teams, the solution for a regular land force presence in the Arctic must be a collective effort.  A NATO burden-sharing approach to regular episodic Arctic deployments for land forces between the US and UK will ensure a constant military presence in the region, increasing regional security.  A proposed mechanism for this is to add the United States as a contributing member to the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF).  The JEF, “is a UK-led multinational force…consisting of 10 northern European Nations [that conduct] expeditionary operations in the High North, North Atlantic, and Baltic region.”  Actual presence focused deployments, much like the JEF’s 2021 deployment, is a step beyond using exercises to project power, and is proof of the UK’s commitment as outlined in their arctic strategy to ensure a consistent force in the Arctic.

However, while the maritime and air superiority offered by JEF deployments are critical for dominance in this harsh landscape, a consistent land presence is still a strategic necessity for multi-domain dominance in the Arctic.  Episodic deployments of the US Army Arctic Brigade Combat Teams of the 11th Airborne Division in the Arctic, beyond routine exercise participation, can help provide this consistent land power presence.  Aligning these Brigade Combat Teams with JEF deployments promotes deployment burden-sharing for land forces and therefore becomes a comparative advantage for NATO.  The Joint Forcible Entry Operation (JFEO) capability of the 11th Airborne Division offers a unique joint capability of value to the JEF.  Sean Monaghan of the Center for Strategic and International Studies calls for an “integration of rapid-reaction [capable] US forces” in order to provide “military-strategic” support for the JEF and validate NATO efforts in securing the Arctic.  Leveraging the JFEO capability off 11th Airborne Division Brigade Combat Teams through Emergency Deployment Readiness Exercises (EDRE) under UK-JEF Command is a mechanism to provide regular episodic deployments in the Arctic and with it, a regular land domain presence.

Conclusion

Climate change has created unprecedented access and economic opportunity in the Arctic.  However, adversarial activity in the region as a response to this potential opportunity has presented a genuine national security dilemma for both the United States and the United Kingdom.  While both states have independently acknowledged the threat and outlined their own individual and collective means for addressing the threat, a shared US and UK approach must be taken in order to ensure Arctic security.  Changes to Arctic statecraft by both nations limiting the number of institutions with decision making authority will keep Arctic diplomacy and Arctic military strategy separate and decisive.  Burden-sharing episodic deployments to the Arctic under a unified Joint Expeditionary Force umbrella will enable a regular land force presence in the region, a specified requirement of both US and UK Arctic Strategy.  This collective US-UK approach is a strategic necessity in order to dominate the Arctic battlespace and ensure peace.

William Cooperider
Captain, U.S. Army

Captain William S Cooperider is a US Army Arctic Parachute Infantry Officer currently serving as a Heavy Weapons Company Commander in 2nd Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 11th Airborne Division at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage Alaska. He graduated from the US Military Academy at West Point, New York in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in physics. He deployed as a Company Commander to the Arctic in support of Operation Swift Response in May 2022, and completed the Joint US-UK Strategic Broadening Seminar with Intermediate Command and Staff College – Land in October 2022. CPT Cooperider was previously published in Infantry Magazine for his research in Multi-Domain and Space Operations.

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