The Changing Arctic and its Impact to NATO Joint Air Power

By Major

By Maj



, US


NATO Combined Air Operations Centre Uedem

 June 2016


Once a tense underwater battleground and strategic corridor for nuclear-armed bombers, the Arctic has lost much of its significance to NATO since the fall of the Soviet Union. However, Russia is now militarizing the Arctic and the world is beginning to understand why. Allowing one nation to militarize a region unopposed is ill-advised, especially if the goal is to limit military and strategic activity in the Arctic, as stated by the former Supreme Allied Commander of Europe, Admiral (ret.) James Stavridis.1 While shaping the Arctic security environment to resemble the Antarctic might be ideal, it fails to consider actions taken by the Russian Federation. NATO may find itself as the preferred military actor to enforce the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) in this region.

While the majority of the Arctic is considered High Seas, the environment is highly challenging to maritime traffic due to current levels of sea ice. Since NATO has limited ice-breaker capability, if there were ever a need to project power into this region, NATO naval forces might only be able to assume a supporting role. While an ice-free Arctic would be lucrative to commercial maritime traffic, the combination of the Russian Northern Fleet and its large fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers is more than sufficient to ensure firm Russian control of the region’s seas. Therefore, if NATO were forced into a conflict in the Arctic, Allied Air Command could likely be the supported command. Despite the desire to limit military activity, I will argue that, if Russia continues its current military expansion in the Arctic, NATO must prepare a counter. This will be accomplished through an exploratory analysis of three hypothetical future scenarios:

  • Russia denies access to an ice-free Northern Sea Route;
  • Competition over currently disputed maritime boundaries escalates; and,
  • Russia takes possession of the Svalbard archipelago and seeks to renegotiate the Svalbard Treaty.

Security Environment

Arctic sea ice is receding and some predictions say it is likely to disappear during the summer months in the near future. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) forecasts the Northern Sea Route (NSR) – the sea lane connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans along the northern coast of Russia – will be navigable by open water vessels for over 100 days per year by 2040.3 Other forecasts go even further and predict Arctic summers will be ice-free within the next 25 years.4 Assuming these forecasts are correct, major changes in the security environment will result. For example, some analysis purports nearly 10 percent of all container shipping from Asia to Europe could transit north of Russia by mid-century.5

The opening of a new, economically advantageous Sea Line of Communication (SLOC) could cause a major geopolitical shift. In regards to the NSR, Margaret Blunden, Emeritus Professor of the University of Westminster in London, remarked ‘Historically, alterations in transport routes have been associated with radical shifts in the balance of economic and political power.’6 Further complicating matters, Russia uses Article 234 of UNCLOS, which gives coastal states the ability to regulate ice-covered areas within their Exclusive Economic Zone and the search and rescue area of responsibility ascribed by the Arctic Council, to extend sea control beyond its territorial waters. Moreover, the Russian Federation views the Northern Sea Route as a national asset, a ‘unified national transportation link’, and the presence of foreign naval vessels would be perceived as an act of aggression.7 In 2012, Dmitry Rogozin, former Russian Ambassador to NATO and current Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, ‘insinuated that NATO warships operating along the ice-free Northern Sea Route would lead to conflict’ and Russian Admiral Nikolai Kudinov ‘opined in 2012 that his country is “doomed to geopolitical confrontation with NATO in the Arctic“.’8

Russia has significant military strength in the Arctic. They have recently opened six military bases, bringing their regional total to sixteen deep water ports, thirteen airfields, and ten air defence radar stations (see Figure 1). They have also deployed two S-400 Surface to Air Missile (SAM) regiments to Novaya Zemlaya.9 10 Combining all this with their maritime capabilities provides the Russian Federation an effective Anti-Access / Area Denial (A2/AD) capability throughout much of the Arctic. They have both the stated intent and capability to prevent warships’ movement through the NSR. Normally, naval forces would conduct Freedom of Navigation (FON) operations in order to defend commercial access and reaffirm international law. However, in the Arctic, these operations would prove challenging for three reasons. First, the still existing sea ice naturally denies access to the region and NATO lacks a significant ice-breaking capability. Next, the political stance Russia has taken in regards to the sovereignty of the Northern Sea Route makes FON operations in this part of the Arctic troublesome. Finally, the Barents Sea, which connects the European Arctic to the NSR, is the home of Russia’s Northern Fleet. Therefore, the responsibility may fall on NATO’s Joint Air Power to ensure access if the Russian Federation seeks to leverage its A2/AD capabilities to restrict trade or other access to the commonly accepted international waters of the region. Unfortunately, joint air power requires a much higher level of effort to maintain the same presence a naval vessel would during prolonged FON operations, especially at the great ranges of the Arctic.

Anti-Access in the Arctic

In this first scenario, the NSR has become seasonally ice free and has proved highly lucrative to the shipping industry. Large container ships are able to transit north of Russia without the aid of an icebreaker escort. This new route shortens shipping times between Asia and Europe by roughly six days compared to the Suez Canal. However, the Russian Federation was prepared for this change and has exerted control over the entire region. The Northern Sea Route Administration imposes impossibly high tariffs on all non-Russian commercial ships, which pushes nearly all shipping towards Russian corporations. Furthermore, the Russian Federation has persisted in its stance that foreign warships would be perceived as an act of aggression. Bottlenecks in the sea ice allow the Russian Northern Fleet to quite often deny access. Thus, making FON operations extremely high risk. In this situation, NATO joint air power may be required.

Joint air power operations in the Arctic will be complex and challenging. First, to ensure its ability to act in the interest of regional stability, NATO must have situational awareness about operations in this region, which will require beyond-the-horizon air surveillance radars to increase the coverage of the recognized air picture (RAP) and space-based assets to provide complimentary maritime surveillance. The radars should be configured to give maximal coverage of the European Arctic. Additionally, a consolidated Arctic RAP, enabled by data-sharing between NATO and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), should be pursued. A consolidated RAP would provide NATO with enhanced situational awareness, indicators and warnings, extending its protective umbrella into the Arctic. Should operations to guarantee FON within the Artic become necessary, air and maritime Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR), Command and Control (C2) at range, and other capabilities will be required in addition to those required during times of stability.

If large-scale air operations do become necessary, range will be a major planning factor due to the vast distance along the NSR, meaning assets must be based as far north as possible to minimize airborne fuel requirements. The aerial refuelling requirement alone for an air operation at these distances severely limits the size of the force. In this scenario, there is only a temporary requirement to operate in this region, and aerial refuelling can be employed to minimize operational impact of the environment. Operating large numbers of aircraft from Arctic bases, such as Bodo, Norway, or Barrow, Alaska, in the United States, requires extensive training and equipment. However, to prepare, NATO must plan, train, and exercise long-range operations from inhospitable regions.

Unresolved Territorial Disputes

The warming Arctic has become a ‘fiefdom of competing claims’,12 with many unresolved disputes, including maritime boundaries, oil and natural gas reserves, fisheries, and search and rescue responsibilities. The dispute over energy rights alone is significant geopolitically considering the Arctic holds an estimated 30 per cent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 13 per cent of its undiscovered oil.13 In the past, these reserves were completely inaccessible, but that is beginning to change.

Most maritime boundaries are established and respected, but there are still some areas of disagreement. Canada, Denmark, and Russia have been issuing competing claims for the Lomonosov Ridge (see Figure 2), and as of this writing, the issue is still unsettled. On 9 February 2016, the Russian Federation again submitted a claim to the United Nations for this seabed. Recognition of the Lomonosov Ridge as an extension of one nation’s continental shelf will give that nation resource rights beyond its current 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

In this scenario, the UN has recognized either the Danish or Canadian claim, which is strongly opposed by Russia. The Russian Federation quickly increases military activity in the region to include large airdrop operations onto the ice and icebreaker escorted warships patrolling within the disputed territory. NATO will be needed to provide assurance and / or deterrence near the North Pole to protect Canadian or Danish interests in this scenario. Because the Russians did not attack territory, islands, forces, vessels, or aircraft of any NATO member, these actions do not constitute an armed attack and would most likely not invoke an Article 5 response. While such action would require support from the entire joint force, joint air power would obviously be deeply involved in all phases of the operation.

The first responsibility of NATO’s air assets would be detecting the indications and warnings of any aggressive actions in the region. This would require a strong ISR presence from both air- and space-based assets. If a hostile military presence is detected, a land and / or maritime counterforce could be required to provide assurance to a threatened member state. This would put a large demand on airlift and airdrop operations. Additionally, NATO would need to effectively deter hostilities in the region and, should deterrence fail, be prepared to defeat any aggressor. To do this, all recommendations from the previous scenario would be necessary in addition to a substantial airlift and airdrop capability to position forces.

Svalbard Archipelago

Norway and Russia have a long history of competing claims over the Svalbard Archipelago (see Figure 3). In 1920, the countries signed the Svalbard Treaty. It made Svalbard part of the Kingdom of Norway, but Norway must not ‘allow the establishment of any naval bases … and not construct any fortification in the said territories, which may never be used for warlike purposes.’14 Additionally, the treaty did little to clarify the administration of the surrounding waters and the resources contained therein. Major M. N. Behrens, Royal Danish Air Force, in his 2014 award winning research paper from USAF Air Command and Staff College, presented this issue well when he stated ‘a failing and assertive Russia could choose to seize the Svalbard archipelago militarily, to claim the territory and adjacent waters directly or to improve their position in post-conflict settlement of the status of Svalbard and adjacent waters.’15

If Russia were to seek to control Svalbard through military intervention, it would qualify as an Article 5 violation and require NATO to defend the territory of Norway. While it would not be in the interest of either side to escalate hostilities outside the immediate Svalbard region, spill over into other theatres could be possible. Since this would be a limited conflict and neither deterrence nor de-escalation would be the main aim, it is likely both sides would be motivated to stay well below any nuclear threshold, but that does not preclude armed combat.

Unlike the previous two scenarios, range is not the overwhelming obstacle. However, Svalbard is still over 1,000 kilometres from Bodo, Norway, and the RAP must extend to cover this region. Air operations would face the same difficulties as in the first scenario, only to a lesser extent.

A conflict over Svalbard would likely be drawn out, due to both the climate and to Russia’s desire to play to their strength. Its military has far more experience operating in the arctic conditions than NATO. Russia would not have to forward-deploy many of its units due to its bases on the Kola Peninsula, Novaya Zemlya, and Franz Josef Land, whereas NATO would need to place numerous units across northern Norway. To conduct an extended campaign to defend or retake Svalbard, NATO must be prepared to operate from Arctic bases for long periods of time. This would require NATO to provide comprehensive air and maritime ISR, forward-basing, C2, aerial refuelling, and air transport in the Arctic for an extended timeframe.


The polar ice cap has historically prevented the Arctic Ocean from routine use, rendering the region largely free from competition. As the sea ice continues to recede, the Arctic will become more accessible to fishermen, cruise ships, oil companies, cargo vessels, and even navies. As an Alliance, we must consider the possibility of conflict. Through this brief exploratory analysis, it is evident situational awareness through air and maritime ISR in this emerging global common would prove vitally important in any conflict situation. Additionally, C2, strike, and air transport missions at the long ranges seen in the Arctic will have a heavy aerial refuelling demand. Finally, NATO must plan, train and exercise the forward-basing of forces in hostile environments across the spectrum of conflict in order to prepare for an Arctic contingency. Currently, NATO and the majority of its member states are unprepared to conduct the operations discussed above. While, of course, it is preferable to limit military activity in the Arctic, it would be imprudent to dismiss the possibility of hostilities in this increasingly accessible global common.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force, Department of Defense, US Government, or NATO.

James Stavridis ‘Lessons from the White Continent’. Foreign Policy, 23 Feb. 2015, 2015/02/23/lessons-from-the-white-continent-arctic-antarctica-nato-russia-north-pole-arctic/ (accessed 12 Jan. 2016).
Reprinted with permission from The Heritage Foundation, ‘2016 Index of US Military Strength: Assessing America’s Ability to Provide for the Common Defense’, Washington, DC, 2016.
J.N. Larsen et al., ‘Polar Regions. Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability – Part B: Regional Aspects’, in Barros, V.R. et al., ‘Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’, New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1567 – 1612, (accessed 13 Jan. 2016): p. 1592.
James E. Overland and Muyin Wang, ‘When Will the Summer Arctic Be Nearly Sea Ice Free?’ Geophysical Research Letters 40, no. 10 (2013): 2097 – 2101,, accessed 13 Jan. 2016. This forecast is used for both the US National Intelligence Council Global Trends 2030 and the US Navy Artic Roadmap 2014 – 2030.
Det Norske Veritas, Shipping Across the Arctic Ocean: A Feasible Option in 2030 – 2050 as a Result of Global Warming, Research and Innovation, Position Paper 04-2010 (Høvik, Norway: 2010), 14.
Margaret Blunden. ‘Geopolitics and the Northern Sea Route’. International Affairs 88, No. I, 2012, 116.
Willy Østreng, ‘The Russian Federation’s Arctic Policy’. Arctic Resources & Transportation Information System,’s+Arctic+Policy (accessed 9 Jan. 2016).
Lincoln Flake ‘Navigating an Ice-Free Arctic: Russia’s Policy on the Northern Sea Route in an Era of Climate Change’. The RUSI Journal Vol. 158 No. 3, Jul. 2013. 47.
Jeremy Bender ‘Russia Just Put the Finishing Touches on 6 Arctic Military Bases’. Business Insider, 7 Dec. 2015, (accessed 13 Jan. 2016).
‘Russia Deployed Two S-400 Regiments, Pantsir-S AD Missiles in Arctic in 2015’. DefenseWorld, 8 Dec. 2015, VpDYVHim9oc. (accessed 9 Jan. 2016).
Reprinted with permission from Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036, online at (accessed 1 Mar. 2016).
James Stavridis ‘Lessons from the White Continent’.
‘Russia in the Arctic: A Different Kind of Military Presence’ Stratfor: Global Intelligence, 11 Nov. 2015, (accessed 13 Jan. 2016).
Svalbard Treaty, 9 Feb. 1920,
Maj Mikkel Behrens, Royal Danish Air Force, ‘Taming the Polar Bear’ Air Command and Staff College (Air University, Maxwell Air Force Base, United States, Apr. 2014), 8. (accessed 20 Apr. 2016).
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NATO Combined Air Operations Centre Uedem

Major Erik Carlson is a Defensive Fighter Planner and Air Tasking Order (ATO) Coordinator at the NATO Combined Air Operations Centre – Uedem. In this role, he plans operational-level air and missile defence in support of the Commander Allied Air Command’s directives during peace, crisis, and conflict. Major Carlson was commissioned in 2003 through the United States Air Force Academy with a Bachelor of Science in Physics. He also holds Master’s degrees in Physics from the University of Washington and Military Operational Art and Science from the Air University. Major Carlson is a pilot of the C-17, C-20, and C-37 aircraft and has more than 785 combat hours in support of Operations ENDURING FREEDOM, IRAQI FREEDOM, NEW DAWN, and Combined Joint Task Force HORN OF AFRICA.

Information provided is current as of June 2016

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