The High North: A Key Alliance Area for Defense and Security

By Robbin Laird

A recent article by Matthew Holroyd highlighted the expansion of Russian military activity in the Arctic. “Russia is boosting its military efforts in the Arctic Circle in an effort to expand its presence in the polar region. Russian President Vladimir Putin recently hailed the country’s military performance during drills and weapons testing in the Arctic.

“The region is reported to hold up to one-quarter of the Earth’s undiscovered oil and gas and Russia, the United States, Canada, Denmark, and Norway have all tried to assert jurisdiction over northern areas. The dramatic decrease of sea ice has opened new opportunities for tapping into resources, as well as opening key shipping lanes from Asia to Europe.”

After a long period of being the “reluctant Arctic power,” the United States under the Trump Administration refocused attention on the region. One manifestation of this was standing up the Second Fleet, which had been sunsetted by the previous Administration.  As the CNO who stood up the new Second Fleet, Admiral Richardson, put it: “A new 2nd Fleet increases our strategic flexibility to respond — from the Eastern Seaboard to the Barents Sea. Second Fleet will approach the North Atlantic as one continuous operational space, and conduct expeditionary fleet operations where and when needed.”

C2F as an American fleet has reshaped how U.S. forces are engaged in the region, and with the strong leadership of the Nordic allies, who have never missed the point of how the Russians are enhancing their presence and engagement in the High North, there is a renewed allied collaboration to shape presence and engagement in the region.

In the book authored by Laird with Delaporte, a significant part of the analysis on the reworking of European direct defense focuses on the impact of this Nordic dynamic on reworking how collaboration of the “coalition of the willing” or the “relevant nations” working together with key NATO partners is reshaping European defense.

As we put it in that book: “Europe and its defense are not one narrative but several. The Russians face an increasingly unified Nordic Northern Flank with enhanced UK focus on the region, backed by reach into North America.

“The central part of Europe is a mosaic of former Warsaw Pact states with varying degrees of concern about the Russian challenge, backed by a German French alliance with the nuclear-armed France in this key area.

“And the southern zone of Europe in which Greece, Turkey, Spain, and Italy have about as much solidarity today as they have had historically, which means that aggregation management is crucial to deal with any alliance-wide challenges.”

And the Nordic Northern flank and the redesign of direct defense is highlighted in that book as follows: “A key part of shaping a new approach to direct defense in Europe is winning the fourth battle of the Atlantic. (which rests on dealing with) a key aspect of the Russian challenge, which is crucial for the Nordics, namely, the need to hold the Russian Kola bastion at risk.

“For the United States and Canada, it is about reinforcing Europe and holding the Russians at bay, notably with Putin threatening a nuclear strike via his projected new hypersonic missile to be launched via a submarine. But for the Nordics, it is about homeland defense, and not letting the Russians have a free ride to use the Kola Peninsula and its extended perimeter defense without a significant capability by the West to attrite and destroy the Russian bastion.

“When you come out from the land into the air and sea corridors, is where the West for sure needs to be able to operate its own anti-access and area denial capability. Two can play at this game.”

The Norwegian perspective was provided in a March 22, 2021 speech by Frank Bakke-Jensen, the Norwegian Minister of Defence.[1]

Thank you, and it is a great pleasure to speak to you from my Arctic hometown of Tromsø.

As my colleague, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, pointed out, around nine percent of our population lives north of the Arctic Circle.

However, the High North is our strategic centre. Both because of its strategic importance, and the wealth of resources found here.

The Arctic region has always been of great significance to transatlantic security.

An importance that is only increasing.

As climate change opens new sailing routes and ice-free areas, the Arctic is commercially more interesting.

We also witness increased military activity and more strategic signalling.

This is primarily a function of the increased geopolitical rivalry and competition in general.

It is not a function of the dynamics in the region itself.

It is therefore important to see the development in the Arctic in a broader context.

Norway follows this development closely, as the only NATO member bordering Russia in the High North.

Russian armed forces have significantly modernized during the last 10-12 years.

Its capabilities are increasingly integrated.

Giving Russia a much more capable and flexible tool.

Russian presence in the Arctic has increased through both military and civilian infrastructure.

The Russians have modernised their underwater capabilities.

They have improved their ability to deploy troops rapidly over great distances.

Russia is now also more capable in terms of conventional long-range precision weapons.

Together, this reduces the warning time for NATO countries to hours and days.

We also see more Russian maritime activity in waters close to Norway.

The Barents Sea is optimal for testing new weapon systems.

The Russian activity is now more complex and takes place in areas further west and south than before.

Demonstrating Russia´s ability to project force far into the Atlantic.

As the Minister of Foreign Affairs mentioned, the revived Bastion defence concept includes vast areas of the Atlantic.

And from its new airbase on Franz Joseph Land, Russia is now able to conduct air operations over vast areas in the Arctic.

This Russian ability to reduce NATO’s freedom of movement is particularly worrying for transatlantic security.

At the same time, China’s interest in the Arctic is increasing.

China has defined itself a “near Arctic State”, and we expect them to be more active there in the future.

China is also strengthening its icebreaker capacity.

And its space-related activities also involve the Arctic.

The Chinese presence and activity in the Arctic is still modest.

However, it is important to follow these developments closely.

We also see that Russia and China are developing their strategic partnership.

However, the two countries do not always share the same interests.

Especially when it comes to areas that Russia perceives as its core interests regarding national security.

Together, these developments mean that Norway and NATO need to maintain and strengthen deterrence and defence in the Arctic region.

And I would like to emphasise four aspects that are essential to Norway and to the Alliance:

 First, NATO must continue to strengthen its ability to operate in the transatlantic area.

The defence of this area depends on secure sea-lanes of communication across the Atlantic.

We must therefore be able to handle threats to our freedom of movement at sea.

The establishment of Joint Force Command Norfolk contributes to this.

As well as the resurrection of the U.S. Second Fleet.

Joint defence plans and increased situational awareness are vital.

So is regular training and operations in an arctic climate.

Therefore, Norway welcomes Allied training and presence in the Arctic.

The Arctic is a very important arena for the cooperation between the United States and Norway.

As we speak, the US Air Force is conducting operations with four of its B-1 bombers from Ørland air base in Central Norway.

This deployment represents a unique opportunity for cooperation and joint training with the Norwegian Air Force, land forces and Navy.

Allied activity in the region shows allied cohesion.

As well as our shared interest in maintaining the Euro-Atlantic space as a region characterised by freedom, peace and stability.

At the same time, the scope of Allied activities must be measured to avoid unnecessary escalation and misunderstandings.

Second, Norway must continue to contribute to NATO’s collective defence and deterrence.

European allies have to take greater responsibility for maintaining Allied capacity.

We must improve the burden sharing within the Alliance.

Norway takes its share of this responsibility.

Since 2013, we have increased our defence budget with 30 percent in real terms.

We spend two percent of GDP on defence, and we have a high investment rate of about 29 percent.

We have invested in new strategic capabilities, such as F-35 fighters, P-8 maritime patrol aircrafts and submarines.

We are also increasing the capabilities of our intelligence service.

Together, these measures strengthen Norway’s presence in the Arctic.

Thus increasing our ability to maintain a good situational awareness on behalf of the Alliance.

This improves our ability to protect Norwegian sovereignty and contribute to Allied security in the Arctic region.

Third, it is essential for Norway to maintain and develop our relationship and cooperation with the United States.

As my colleague said, the United States is our most important ally.

A long-standing partner in the Arctic and of critical importance to Norwegian security.

We have longstanding cooperation within all services.

As seen with the B-1 bombers currently training in Norway.

And the regular training and exercises with the forces from the US Marine Corps.

This training is an opportunity for US forces to improve its ability to operate in an Arctic climate.

And for our forces to increase their interoperability.

We also have significant cooperation within the military industry as well as research and development.

Norway also contributes to the full spectrum of U.S. and NATO-led operations.

Together, all of this strengthens our bilateral relationship.

Fourth, for Norway it is important to maintain the balance between deterrence and reassurance vis-à-vis Russia.

NATO must also preserve that balance.

We want to be transparent and predictable, and we expect the same from Russia.

Dialogue and communication about our intentions is an important confidence and security building measure.

As mentioned by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, our neighbor has over the past few years become more expansive and less predictable.

Making Russia a strategic challenge and a demanding neighbour.

Even though Norway is realistic in our relationship with Russia, Norway’s long-term goal remains to have the best possible relationship.

We believe that we and our allies, as well as Russia, have a common interest in maintaining stability in the Arctic region.

And in the same month, February 2021, the Danish government announced that “the Parties to the Danish Defence Agreement 2018-2023 and the Supplemental Agreement from 2019 have agreed to strengthen the Danish Defence with new capabilities for increased surveillance and presence in the Arctic and North Atlantic region.”

The factsheet released by the Danish government on February 11, 2021 highlighted the main points of the agreement.


The graphic below highlights new capabilities being generated from the agreement as well.

And the map below lays out some of these changes as well.

The Kingdom of Denmark includes both the Faroe Islands and Greenland, key players in any future Alliance Arctic strategy as well.

The Russian challenge is growing; and the Chinese engagement as well. The recent elections in Greenland represent a setback for the Chinese effort to expand their economic reach in the region, but setbacks are simply one wave cycle for the Chinese, who will keep up the pressure,

In short, the return of Second Fleet and the Standing up of Allied JFC Norfolk could not have come too soon. And their work has begun but it is just a beginning.

As Vice Admiral Lewis has put it with regard to his dual hatted (Second Fleet and Allied JFC Norfolk) commands:

“The commands intend to be persistent throughout the Atlantic and into the Arctic. Virtual presence is absence, so we aim to have persistent force presence throughout our areas of responsibility—forward from the United States or forward from Europe, across the Atlantic and the High North. Joint and naval forces that operate under and on the surface, in the air, and across space and cyberspace are maneuver forces. C2F and JFCNF aim to erase lines on maps that have no reference to physical maritime geography (such as straits or choke points) and eliminate the associated vulnerabilities around predetermined seams.”

In short, working the new security and defense challenges in the High North will driven significant innovation in how allies work together to deal with the innovative problems which the region poses for managing interactively the security, defense, economic development, resource management and environmental challenges.

[1] Speach by Minister of Defense, Frank Bakke-Jensen, at “Looking North”, a conference on security in the Arctic by the Atlantic Council (19.03.2021)

The featured photo: Swedish corvette HSwMS Nyköping (front) and Standing NATO Maritime Group One flagship Danish ship HDMS Esbern Snare work together with other ships and aircraft to find a submarine during an anti-submarine warfare (ASW) exercise as part of NATO exercise Trident Juncture 2018 on October 25, 2018. Sweden is a NATO Partner participating in the exercise with troops and equipment. One of NATO’s closest partners, Sweden has high-end military capabilities and highly professional forces. Exercising together strengthens our partnership and improves our ability to work together. Photo: Lieutenant Commander Rob Kasteleijn, Standing NATO Maritime Group Two Staff Public Affairs Officer.

The Danish political agreement, February 2021, can be read below:


For a 2014 article which addressed the interactivity described in the final paragraph of this article, see the following:

Shaping Arctic Defense: Leveraging the Grid

The Arctic opening is a significant global event.

There are a number of key stakeholders in the opening up of the Arctic, with both convergent and conflictual elements at play.

Any time conflict is part of the equation, defense capabilities come into play, and they come into play in reinforcing so-called soft power as well. 21st century military power is clearly interwoven with 21st century security and diplomacy. It is not to be understood primarily as the sledgehammer but as a key contextual element integrated within diplomacy and security efforts to protect national operational sovereignty.

Because each of the key five stakeholders in the Arctic all have different perspectives as well with regard to even something as simple as “collaboration,” conflict can be built into a cooperative process.

But defense in the Arctic is a contextual capability.

To develop the Arctic requires shaping infrastructure for communications and situational awareness in an area with limited “traditional” infrastructure. It is about leveraging air breathing and space systems, and crafting appropriate land based towers and systems, which can create a grid for development and safety operations.

Shaping and Crafting an Arctic Grid

This is not a task for a year, but for the decade ahead. In an interview, which I did with Chris McLean and Richard Bray of Frontline Defence during a visit to Ottowa, we discussed the importance of shaping an Arctic grid.

Question: If one conceptualizes that a core challenge facing Canadian sovereignty is to provide for security and defense in the context of the Arctic opening, then major acquisitions should be made over time, and build out to that direction. 

In effect, the grid covering from Northern Europe to the Northern Pacific and over the Arctic – built with allied collaboration – is clearly a key challenge but also one which could focus Canadian force development and also defense and security investments.  It could also guide a way to think about public-private partnerships in the region, and tapping into the ongoing development of various Canadian civilian capabilities that are relevant to the Arctic opening.

Bray:  That makes a great deal of sense, and could focus our attention on the ISR and C2 streams, which we need to build out over time.

I’m not convinced we understand what the data from surveillance platforms and other tools will be like, the challenges that such a data stream will present to the operator, or the opportunities it will present to the commander.  It’s like being given access to a giant database without the software tools to extract meaning.

As it gathers and sifts more data (and faster), will it be like antilock brakes, allowing you stay 30 feet closer to the vehicle ahead of you? Or will it allow you to complete the mission in a completely different way?

These kinds of assets allow you to get yourself deeper and faster into a situation.  So, if the speed of engagement and the amount of data being acquired could quickly become overwhelming without effective software.

The challenge will be to have the data, to verify the data against cyber spoofing, and to integrate enough of the data in order to have the kind of decision-making necessary in a fluid environment. 

Bray and I continued to focus on the grid in a later piece on Front Line Defence.

A key requirement for Canada will be to shape a grid to cover the full geography, including her Arctic interests. If one conceptualizes that a core challenge facing Canadian sovereignty is to provide for security and defense in the context of the Arctic opening, then major acquisitions should be made over time, and built out to that direction.

In effect, the grid covering from Northern Europe to the Northern Pacific and over the Arctic – built with allied collaboration – is clearly a key challenge but also one which could focus Canadian force development and also defense and security investments. It could also guide a way to think about public-private partnerships in the region, and tapping into the ongoing development of various Canadian civilian capabilities that are relevant to the Arctic opening.

And in a recent discussion with Danish Rear Admiral (Retired) Henrik Kudsk, this experienced Arctic operator, highlighted the importance of building the grid:

Question: What is the most basic need to operate in the Arctic in the decade ahead as the Arctic opening proceeds?

Kudsk: Clearly, the most basic need is to build out ISR and, in effect, build out a communications and sensor grid to provide for the kind domain awareness most central to development, safety and security in the region.

And this is doable, because compared to other regions; there is significantly less traffic and human habitation.  This makes it easier to identify the anomalies and threats, which need to be monitored.

You have a pristine environment up there where human activity is relatively visible, when compared to the rest of the world, where you can disappear in a crowd. But you still need systems, which can help you, see over vast distances and in difficult communications conditions.

For example, I believe that leasing capability from the Canadian Radarsat system might make sense for Denmark as we build out the grid, which we will need to operate in the region as it opens up.

There are major challenges for communication systems in the region as well.

Today, most systems are designed to operate always on and always connected.  This is impossible in the Arctic where you have only windows where you can communicate, not a constant capability to do so.

Defining the Challenges

An exercise sponsored by Denmark last year highlighted the shortfalls facing Arctic safety and security and the need to shape an operational grid.

Search and Rescue Exercise Greenland Sea 13 ran from Sept. 2 to Sept. 6, and was hosted by Denmark near Ella Island off Greenland’s east coast. There were several international participants in the exercise, including Canada, Iceland, the US, and the Norwegians with their Joint Rescue Coordination Center at Bodoe. The scenario focused on a real world problem, namely a cruise ship in distress with the need to both search and rescue passengers and crew.

According to the Danish report:

The scenario involved a medium-sized cruise ship the “ARCTIC VICTORY” (simulated by HDMS VAEDDEREN) with 250 passengers and crew, which first went missing in the Greenland Sea and later ran aground in King Oscar’s Fiord off Ella Island, followed by an explosion and resulting fires on board. For this exercise, operations were minimized during the night due to insufficient EXCON personnel for 24-hour operations. The exercise setup called for a multitude of tasks in the operational response, including maritime search and rescue; fire fighting at sea; evacuation by sea and air; deployment of emergency medical personnel, fire and rescue personnel, and police registration personnel; use of a specialized search team with cameras and listening equipment to locate missing persons below deck; triage and emergency medical treatment by doctors and paramedics at sea and on shore; establishing a reception facility for evacuees on land, establishing guard duty to protect evacuees against the possibility of attacks by polar bears; continuous updating of the SAR service’s Persons On Board (POB) list and the police’s Disaster Involved Registry (DIR) with identities and medical status of evacuees, etc, etc.

All in all, the intent was to closely simulate the many challenges of coordinating a multinational search and rescue effort in the high Arctic.

Although the report highlighted successes, the evident shortfalls were significant. Because situational awareness is difficult, communications episodic and the ability to reach the right point to make a difference with the right rescue means, the challenge to do “normal” S and R is formidable.The exercise demonstrated how difficult it is to do “routine” S and R. The gaps in the ability of the nations to work together, the absence of enough S and R platforms, the real shortfall in SA, and the pot holes associated with communication were all highlighted in the after action report.

And a recent US assessment of the challenges facing the USCG dealing with Alaska and the Arctic highlighted similar shortfalls.

According to Heath C. Roscoe, Paul F. Campagna, and David McNult:

The authors developed a list of probable incidents/events from Coast Guard SAR historical documents the may require a U.S. safety response in the future. Although not all-encompassing, the 10 potential scenarios are listed most to least likely. The wide array demonstrates the fragility of the Arctic and the scenarios serve as driving factors as the United States considers future capacities and capabilities:

  • Medical Evacuation/nonmaritime medical transports (currently 3 percent of all SAR cases)
  • SAR operation small maritime vessel (fishing/recreational)
  • small oil spill/discharge in the Chukchi or Beaufort seas
  • downed aircraft (small passenger) SAR mission
  • vessel runs aground, caught in ice, or sinks
  • emergency barge resupply for North Slope community
  • large oil spill from drilling operation
  • large oil spill from tanker operating in Arctic
  • mass rescue operation (MRO) downed jetliner
  • MRO cruise ships/ferries.

Despite assuming a lower position on the list due to probability of occurrence, MROs would be nearly impossible to carry out given currently assessed response shortfalls.

For example, if an MRO or large oil spill incident occurred on the North Slope of Alaska, the closest Federal SAR and oil spill response is 820 miles away in Kodiak.

Current oil spill response capabilities include four Spilled Oil Recover Systems equipped on 225-foot buoy tenders home ported in Alaska at Kodiak, Sitka, Cordova, and Homer; an aerial dispersant delivery system staged in Anchorage as a backup to commercial venders; and Federal on-scene coordinators located in Juneau, Anchorage, and Valdez with incident management expertise and limited prepositioned oil response equipment.

Given these sparse and widely dispersed assets, the long-term environmental impacts of a spill in the Arctic Ocean could prove cataclysmic.

ISR capabilities, communications systems, search and rescue assets, unmanned and manned systems of various sorts, appropriate ships and finding ways to connect these assets in a very difficult region to do connectivity is the challenge facing developmental, safety, security or defense activities.

Defense as a Contextual Capability

The shaping of the grid will be done primarily for developmental, safety and security issues. But shaping a grid will lay down a foundation on which appropriate defense systems can operate to protect the sovereignty of key states and their national territories.

Given the importance of the High North, for Russian nuclear operations, the growth in military traffic through the Northern passages, inevitable sovereignty disputes, the high probability the Russians will build flexible forces at the top of the world in order to influence events either in Europe or Asia, defense or military considerations are built into the Arctic opening.

An element of the Russian defense capability, which might be deployed for Arctic missions, could be the venerable Mig-31.

According to the TTU French defense newsletter in its May 12, 2014 edition.

It appears that command of the air and space forces is about to extend the MiG 31, which was to be withdrawn from the fleet in 2028…..

As new tensions appear in the Arctic, as a result of climate change, Moscow has rediscovered the capability advantages of the MiG 31 and could, as a deterrent, redeploy its 12 squadrons of Foxhounds, as they are known in NATO nomenclature, near the North Pole.

This would be not only to protect its strategic resources, since 90 per cent of Russian oil is found there, but also to seat its authority over new navigation routes which, by offering shorter journeys, will draw maritime traffic towards Russiaʼs north coasts and offer Moscow an unprecedented means of geostrategic pressure.

In addition, as part of a large-scale air defense exercise involving 100 aircraft, some MiG 31s intercepted a cruise missile launched from a Tu-95MS strategic bomber above the Telemba military ground.

But given the central importance of the kind of cooperation necessary to provide for development, safety and security in the Arctic, the region will not be primarily defined by defense systems, but the Grid will enable them and participate in security missions in any case.

And with the addition of new capabilities, such as fighters, the question will be how do they contribute to and live off the grid while doing their missions? An advantage of an ISR-enabled fighter is obvious: it can live off and contribute to the grid.

Also, training and operational missions will allow the pilots to provide real time information back to military, security and various policy officials about anomalies or threats, which may need to be dealt with. According to Ed Timperlake, “The advantage of a man in the loop generated by fighter operations is to contribute rapidly available information and judgments about what an overall Arctic policy process might need to deal with in the near term…..”

Re-working the Defense of Greenland

A clear example of working though new relationships among the elements of the grid and defense assets will be in shaping a new approach to Greenland defense.

The Russian actions in Ukraine have reminded Europe of the direct defense of Europe challenge.  And part of Europe is clearly the Arctic and securing their Arctic interests during the Arctic opening.

And a key element of managing that opening is safety, security and defense, with the Russians as a key player, either in working the problem collectively or positioning for dominance.

The Ukraine events have gotten the attention of the Nordic states with regard to the second might be more important in the near and mid-term than the former.  Indeed, discussions in Denmark have highlighted growing concern with how best to deal with both Baltic and Arctic security and defense.

A recent comment by the Prime Minister of Iceland highlights the concerns:

Russia’s actions in Ukraine could cause problems for international cooperation in the Arctic, says Iceland’s prime minister. Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson said Russia’s strong-arm tactics in its former satellite could make it harder for the eight nations on the Arctic Council to reach agreements at a time when the region faces a series of critical issues.

This has a ripple effect, even though the actual events are far from the Arctic,” said Gunnlaugsson, in Edmonton on a trade mission. “Clearly, it has made many players in the Arctic quite worried about developments and whether they might be a sign of what is to come.”

What the Ukrainian dynamics have underscored is the need for practical actions to bolster Baltic security and defense as well as that of the Arctic.

From the Nordic standpoint, one simply has to look at the map, to understand the relationship of Russia to both Baltic and Arctic concerns.

With regard to the Arctic, a key concern for Denmark clearly is the development of Greenland and the defense and security of the country as well.

What makes Greenland a tricky issue is that Denmark is responsible for security and defense, yet Greenland is quasi-independent, and clearly aspires to see development and the enrichment of what is essentially a poor country.

A small population, which lives in the perimeter of the country, largely occupies Greenland and yet the opening of the country to mining is bringing with it significant outside influence, which can clearly disrupt the security and defense situation for Greenland as well.

Certainly, one of the outside powers which concerns Denmark most is China, and its engagement in the opening of Greenland.

A recent conference held by the Centre for Military Affairs in Copenhagen focused on the Chinese challenge in the Arctic.

As one contributor to the conference put it:

In Greenland, big scale mining in need of foreign investments are not only seen as a possibility for obtaining economic growth and the maintenance of welfare systems in Greenland, but also as one of the few possibilities for obtaining a sustainable economy, which is a prerequisite for obtaining political independence that is the promise on the Self-Government Act adopted in 2009 by the Greenlandic and the Danish parliaments after a Greenlandic referendum in which about 75 percent of the voters voted yes.

This could, of course, cause alarm in Denmark, and raise questions concerning whether Denmark, eventually, will lose the current arrangement with Greenland as part of the Danish community of the realm – if Greenland decides for independence.

So, the issue of China’s Arctic aspiration in the Danish political debate is clearly intertwined with the issue of the future of the Danish-Greenlandic relationship.


But more broadly, there is the defense challenge, which is a Danish, NATO, and a US challenge.

Greenlanders live in the more temperate coastal areas; the rest of its two million sq km are covered in ice.

The US has had a presence in Greenland and took primary responsibility for the defense of Greenland throughout the Cold War.  Yet the uncertainties of US policy, more generally and in the Arctic, as well as the dynamics of the Danish-Greenland relationship create an open-ended problem of how the security and defense of Greenland will be conducted in the period of the Arctic opening.

In an interview in 2011 with Admiral Wang, now the head of the

The Admiral highlighted the possibility of Canadian, US, and Danish defense collaboration at the Thule Air based turning into an Arctic hub.

Russia has a very clear strategy closely connected with their approach towards energy policy.  They were building significant resources for their Arctic strategy.  He noted that the Russians bought two of the Mistral class helo carriers for deployment by the Northern Fleet and would be ice hardened.

The Russians had reorganized existing forces to create two new Arctic brigades, which made a strategic point.

The United States had a strategy but few resources.  Indeed, the strategy was signed the last month of President Bush’s Administration.  There is a series resource gap on the US side, and the allied countries in the Arctic look to the US to have resources, including C4ISR capabilities.

A possibility was to shape a hub in Northern Greenland at the Thule air base to provide for such capabilities.

In an excellent overview to the challenge for the development and defense of Greenland, Mikkel Vedby Rasmussen, the head of the Centre for Military Studies, provided a way to conceptualize the problem.

The problem really is about the development of Greenland, the role of the local government in that development, the relationship between Denmark and Greenland in combining greater autonomy for Greenland while providing for defense and security and what role the US will have in the overall process.

In other words, the challenge will be to sort out in PRACTICAL terms how Greenland will be defended in the presence of greater outside powers influence through the mining companies, the dynamics of change between Denmark and Greenland, and the uncertainty about US policies and capabilities for Greenland defense and Arctic operations.

And in such a situation certainly, the Russians will play a role with a significant possibility of driving wedges among the players. The sort of game they have played in Georgia and Ukraine or Syria for that matter would seem to fit a Russian opportunity in the High North.

According to Rasmussen:

The military remains a Danish responsibility after the 2009 self-rule legislation. The Danish military presence in the Arctic is of a different nature than the American one, however. The Danish military presence relates to the internal affairs of the territory rather than to the geopolitical position of Greenland.

The United States military is stationed in Greenland for purely geopolitical reasons, and the bulk of the US forces left when these concerns could be dealt with differently and at lower cost. The Danish military presence was and has remained primarily a naval presence. The Royal Danish Navy is also the national coast guard and naval operations in the Arctic were primarily coast guard operations like Search and Rescue (SAR) and fishing inspection.

Apart from this the air force operated a few platforms for logistics and surveillance and the army operate the SIRIUS PATROL – a ranger unit that patrols the Northern territories by sled. The increasingly independent-minded government in Nuuk has been making demands of the Danish military in ways, which would never have been done of the US military.

With prospect of more traffic in the territorial waters and the need to more inspections following from prospecting etc. the call from greater resources have been heard from the military40 and politicians in Greenland, like the Greenlandic MP Sara Olsvig who argued that an increased defence presence was needed because ‘the minerals – including radioactive material – must be secured’

‘Greenland is a part of the Kingdom which will play an important global role in the future,’ defence minister Nick Hækkerup noted in 2012. Minister Hækkerup added that he believed operations in the Arctic would be ‘one of the areas were we will use more money in years to come’.

Rasmussen added that:

A key interest of the United States in Greenland will be the stability that allows access and which prevents Greenland from being a problem in Canada-US relations. As Natalia Loukacheva notes, the most important security relationship between the Inuit in Nunavut and Greenland is not with Ottawa or Copenhagen but with Washington.

For Canada and Denmark the risk of decoupling is part of the geopolitics of the Arctic. Perhaps one reason why the State Department did not grant the ambassador his wish for an office in Nuuk was that the United States might be more interested in Greenland remaining a part of the Kingdom of Denmark, if Greenland independence would create problems within the Canadian federation, this would lead to demands for more independence to Nunavut. The fact that military forces in the Arctic have come from the outside has made it obvious for the Inuit to focus on human security concerns, the fact that military forces has been non-indigenous have reflected the fact that the areas have been governed from the outside and with a geopolitical importance that attracted foreign forces.

The ambition of independence puts these geopolitical questions on Greenland’s political agenda for the first time.

The geopolitics of Greenland dictates that Greenland can only be a sovereign, independent country by providing for stability and control over its own territory in a way that ensures the United States of access and that the access of potentially hostile powers can be confidently denied. This is an issue anyone arguing for the independence of Greenland from the Kingdom of Denmark will have to be able to address.

And in another Danish paper which considers the evolving Greenland agenda, Admiral Nils Wang, one of Denmark’s leading Arctic experts and head of the Royal Danish Defence College, argues along with one of his colleagues, that the quest for sovereignty by Greenland will occur in a tough period where pressure from the outside is going up dramatically.

As a result, Greenland might well consider working with Denmark closely on sorting out security and defense arrangements as the Arctic opening unfolds.

In the paper, Dr. Damien Degeorges and Rear Admiral Nils Wang argue the following:

Greenland achieved self-rule in 2009, just as the Arctic was starting to draw global attention. This was by no means the beginning of the state-building process, but an important step on a long journey towards increased sovereignty and independence.

The big challenge for Greenland is to achieve economic independence and become a respected sovereign actor in the international system, capable of standing up to other regional actors such as Norway, Canada, Russia and the United States. After nearly 300 years of economic and political dependency on Denmark, economic independence now seems to be achievable within a foreseeable future.

However, the growing international interest for the Arctic in general is compounding the challenges for Greenland’s small population and its plans to develop a robust state apparatus, with the necessary institutional volume. 

In short, working the specifics of how the Greenland defense and security challenge is worked with Denmark, the Nordics, the United States and other Europeans is a key part of the future of Western defense and security.

It is not simply about an abstract Arctic security problem.

It is integral to the evolution of Europe and of NATO in the years ahead as wealth and influence shift North within Europe as a whole.

This is the fourth of a four-part series:

See also the following:

Danish Air Force Receives First F-35: A Key Building Block for Defense Transformation