Earlier this month the United States and the United Kingdom engaged in joint training exercises in the Barents Sea. The exercise included three US destroyers, a fast combat support ship, reconnaissance aircraft, and a UK warship. What makes these exercises significant is the location, as the Barents Sea is located off the northern coast of Russia. This marks the first time since the 1990’s that the US has entered the region to conduct combat drills. This month’s drills were meant to “assert freedom of navigation and demonstrate integration among allies,” according to a US Navy news release. Additionally, these exercises are meant to develop and refine the Arctic capabilities of the US and its allies, while gaining experience in the Arctic operating environment. Prior to conducting the exercises in the region, the Russian Ministry of Defense was notified of the presence of US and UK in an effort to avoid an incident. Russian forces closely monitored the exercises and in response have now called for a series of combat training drills to be conducted in the Barents Sea. There has been increasing drills conducted in the Arctic, with a number of reported close calls between Russian and US or NATO countries, resulting from climate change making the region more accessible.
The Arctic continues to exceed warm weather records. Ice caps in the region continue to deplete at an alarming rate making the sea lanes more accessible. Many experts believe that the Arctic holds massive reserves of natural gas and oil, mineral deposits, and tourism opportunities. The economic and geopolitical incentives for staking a claim to the region are immense, which has resulted in increased presence and activity from Arctic countries like Russia, the US, Canada and even self-claimed ‘near-Arctic countries’ like China. Recent studies have shown that sea ice will shrink faster and faster causing mass degradation and change to the environment and ecosystem. Russia has been the first to respond, the former Soviet Union had outposts along its northern border but were largely abandoned. With a resurgent Russia, these outposts are now being utilized in a mass military buildup. Russia leads all Arctic countries in ice breakers and Arctic capable nuclear powered ships and submarines.
In response to Russia’s military buildup, the US and NATO have responded by conducted training exercises in the region from Alaska to the Barents Sea most recently as well as committing resources to the region. Close calls between the two sides have been increasing in frequency over the last year and particularly in 2020. In March this year the US was conducting training and testing exercises known as ICEX to develop submarine tactics and capability and NORAD intercepted Russian reconnaissance aircraft off the coast of Alaska. Earlier this year Russian ships and aircraft were intercepted and closely monitored near Norwegian territory. Last year, the US conducted B-2 stealth bomber flights into the far north even stopping in a former US airbase in Iceland that was predominately used during the Cold War. In addition to the build up by Russia and NATO forces, ‘near Arctic’ countries like China, have committed massive amounts of capital to be deployed to the region to jockey for position.
With numerous studies suggesting that Arctic ice caps will continue to melt and deplete faster and faster the Arctic will become more accessible. The competition between countries will intensify. The military buildup and confrontation will grow tenser. The jockeying for resources and economic advantages will grow more aggressive and assertive.