Arctic Melt: Will There Be A New Arms Race?

A look at how climate change in the Arctic could have geopolitical consequences.

The Arctic Ocean is changing - permanent ice-cover is giving way and the Northwest and Northeast Passages are becoming seasonally ice-free.

Because of this, the Defence Sub-Committee is holding an inquiry into the rapidly changing defence landscape in the Arctic.

The idea is to look into the potential implications for the UK's security.

The Arctic is known to be resource rich, and with its resources now becoming more available due to the melting, international interest in the region has reached levels not seen since the Cold War.

There are also logistical, environmental, strategic and defence concerns.

Speaking about the issue on BFBS’ Sitrep recently were Professor of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford Paul Rogers and Defence Analyst Christopher Lee.

melting Arctic
Not enough ice - a polar bear swimming in the Arctic (image: Mbz1)

According to Christopher Lee, while Russia has already deployed a flag on the seabed just below the North Pole,

“there are commodities and resources that everybody else with a plausible claim in the region would (also) like to have”.

He pointed out that the Arctic circles the world, and could become a highly lucrative seaway, but as to who gets to claim what, Professor Rogers said:

“It’s going to be very difficult to determine because… you have very large areas of the Arctic which are proximate, obviously, to Russia; you have big areas for the Canadians; the Danes have an interest there, the Norwegians, and, of course, the Americans through Alaska and their general interest in the Northern Hemisphere. 

The other thing is that, essentially, the Arctic is warming up faster than almost anywhere else. It is an area of high resource and is much closer to the major economies than… the Antarctic.

Put all those together, and what you want is some sort of international convention (to arbitrate between the parties)”.

The Arctic is warming up more quickly than other regions because ice and snow reflect heat from the sun while the ocean absorbs it.

The greater abundance of ice and snow in the Antarctic means that while it too is warming, more heat is reflected back into space than in the Arctic.

Antarctica is also melting, though not as quickly as the Arctic (image: Christopher Michel)

Britain’s role in the region, Rogers said, is rooted in it having an “incredible history of really high-grade polar research”.

This could be important for studying exactly what is happening in the region, information which could be used to inform diplomatic solutions to the threat of a new military arms race there:

“I think the aim should be to try and go for the greatest extent of demilitarisation of the area through common consent. It’s going to be very difficult given the current attitudes in Russia and of course in the United States, but it’s absolutely essential”.

Currently, the UK Armed Forces' Arctic capability comprises elements of the Royal Navy (including the Royal Marines), the Royal Air Force and the Army.

The UK is also a regular participant in the annual meetings of the Northern Group and the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable.

Amongst other issues, the Defence Sub-Committee is considering:

  • The security and defence implications for the UK of the melting Arctic ice cap;
  • Possible hotspots of conflict in the region and how the UK might contribute to the de-escalation of any such military tensions;
  • What role any of the existing forums for discussion of Arctic matters can play in de-escalating risk;
  • Whether the UK Armed Forces have the necessary numbers, training and equipment to operate effectively in the Arctic if needed; and
  • Whether NATO should increase its focus on the Arctic.

Cover image: Polar bears investigate the submarine USS Honolulu; image of polar bear swimming by Mbz1

Sitrep is weekly military current affairs program. For more episodes, click here.

For part 2, read: 'Arctic Melt: What Will It Mean For The Planet?'