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The UK must prepare for a rapidly changing Arctic

The UK is the Arctic’s nearest neighbour, and developments in the Arctic significantly impact the UK’s environment, security, and energy supply.

While the Arctic matters to the UK, for many years it was not seen as a pressing area of concern for defence and foreign policy planners. After the end of the Cold War it was viewed as a “zone of peace” relatively insulated from geopolitical developments elsewhere. There was some justification for that view. The Arctic Council, an international body led by the eight Arctic states successfully promoted circumpolar collaboration, albeit on matters other than security.

Recent developments have challenged those assumptions. Following Russia’s illegal full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the other Arctic states have sharply reduced their co-operation with Russia in the Arctic Council. Finland and Sweden responded to Russia’s invasion by applying to join NATO. Their accession will strengthen NATO and represents a strategic defeat for Putin. But it also means that the UK and its NATO allies need to reassess their capability to project force and deter Russia in the Arctic and the High North, which have now become more intertwined.

These geopolitical shifts have taken place in the context of the Arctic’s rapid warming, causing ice coverage over the polar region to recede at accelerated pace.  The Arctic is warming at three to four times the global average. Under almost all climate scenarios the central Arctic Ocean, the high seas in the North Pole beyond national jurisdiction, will be ice-free in summer by 2040-45. While it will remain a challenging region in which to operate, the Arctic is likely to become increasingly accessible to shipping, and as a result, increasingly internationalised.

In response to these changes, the House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee, which I chair, decided to undertake an inquiry into the UK’s Arctic strategy earlier this year. The report from that inquiry, Our Friends in the North: the UK’s Strategy towards the Arctic, was published earlier this week. We took evidence from a wide range of stakeholders working in defence, foreign policy, polar research, business and civil society to understand the implications of environmental and geopolitical change in the Arctic and how the UK may need to respond.

Our report looked in depth at Russia’s strategy in the Arctic. Russia represents the most acute threat to UK security, and the Arctic is central to Russia’s military doctrine. Therefore, UK security planners must have a clear understanding of Russia’s intentions in the region. Over the past decade, Russia has devoted substantial resources to upgrading its military infrastructure in the Arctic. The Northern Fleet, headquartered on the Kola peninsula, close to the border with Finland and Norway, has benefited from increased funding over successive State Armament Programmes. With Russia suffering major losses to its conventional military capabilities in Ukraine, the Arctic is only likely to become more important in Russian strategic planning.

Most of our witnesses believed that the risk of Russia initiating a conventional conflict in the Arctic is low, but “sub-threshold” malign activity is a persistent and growing threat to the UK and its allies. This includes GPS jamming, military exercises simulating attacks on its neighbours, maritime sabotage, cyber-attacks and information warfare. The UK’s Nordic allies are at the front line of these Russian activities. One witness to our inquiry characterised Russia’s approach as a “constant full spectrum testing of our systems”. It is essential that NATO states work closely together and with the private sector to develop strategies to deter and respond to these activities.

Our report also makes clear that NATO must maintain credible deterrence in the High North by signalling it has the capacity to deploy, operate and sustain force in the region. The nature of that challenge has changed since Finland and Sweden’s decision to join the Alliance. As Angus Lapsley, NATO Assistant Secretary General for Defence Policy and Planning told the Committee, the Arctic is increasingly becoming an area where the Alliance could potentially be tested militarily: “The assumption that it would be a backwater, that it would not be part of an overall conflict, is one that we and the Arctic nations now feel much less confident about.”

As one of the few non-Arctic states that invests in the military capability to operate in the High North, the UK has an important part to play in this effort. During our meetings in Finland and Norway, officials expressed strong support for the leading role the UK had taken in security in Northern Europe, not least by concluding bilateral security guarantees to Finland and Sweden ahead of them joining NATO.

However, our report also highlighted long-standing concerns that the UK has insufficient resources to meet aspirations for a meaningful security presence in the High North and elsewhere. The Royal Navy has only one ice-capable patrol ship, and the Royal Air Force’s fleet of maritime patrol aircraft may be insufficient to maintain a constant presence in the High North alongside a long-term deployment to the Indo-Pacific. We are concerned that high aspirations worldwide without a clear sense of how the High North fits into the UK’s wider global priorities could lead to overstretch.

Our report also considered the implications of the Arctic becoming more accessible to shipping and a wider variety of economic activity. In particular, we sought to understand the potential for China’s footprint in the region to grow. China has declared itself a “near-Arctic state” and wishes to become a “polar great power.” The 2023 Integrated Review Refresh rightly identified China’s deepening partnership with Russia as a development of particular concern to the UK. One of the areas in which there could be closer Sino-Russian co-operation is in the Arctic and the UK and other NATO states should ensure this is closely monitored. UK scenario planning will need to consider the possibility that China could seek to establish a military presence in the Arctic in the future.

Ice-free Arctic summers will likely lead to a significant increase in maritime activity, with some projections suggesting the number of ships in the region could increase by 50% in the coming decades. With this will come an increased risk of accidents. Close neighbours, such as the UK, must invest in search and rescue infrastructure. As one maritime expert observed in Norway, some cruise ships operating in the Arctic can now carry up to 4,000 passengers—more than the population of the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. The UK also needs to work with its Arctic neighbours to regularly review and update polar shipping regulation to minimise the threat from increased maritime activity to fragile Arctic ecosystems.

Having taken evidence from a wide range of experts and stakeholders, we found that the UK’s Arctic strategy was generally well-regarded and had set appropriate priorities. However, sustained ministerial engagement is required for the UK to maintain its regional influence, which has not always been in evidence. The UK also needs to be ready for the possibility that greater resources will need to be devoted to what is one of the world’s fastest changing regions.

Image: Lord Ashton of Hyde.
Lord Ashton of Hyde

Lord Ashton of Hyde's full title is The Rt Hon. the Lord Ashton of Hyde. His name is Thomas Henry Ashton, and he is a current member of the House of Lords.

Lord Ashton is Chair of the International Relations and Defence Committee.

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