A Look at Defense Competition in the Arctic Region

By Debalina Ghoshal

In the recent years, the Arctic region has not witnessed militarization and weaponization by erstwhile Cold War super powers, the United States and Russia alone, but also by powers like the People’s Republic of China (PRC) that has already declared itself as ‘near Arctic state.’

In addition, Arctic countries have increased their military presence in the region with credible modernization of their deterrent and combat capabilities.

The region has become one of the most contested regions strategically with concerns over conventional as well as nuclear developments in the region.

Arctic states are focusing on credible means to bolster their ‘defense by denial’ capabilities and hence, focusing on robust air and missile defense capabilities.

How might missile defense developments in the Arctic region including the developments in the Arctic countries be viewed from this perspective?

Offensive Developments in the Arctic Region

As global powers tussle for superiority, the region of the Arctic has also faced the brunt of great power politics with weaponization and militarization.  Deployment of hypersonic weapon systems which include Russia’s decision to deploy Kh-47 M2Kinzhal hypersonic missiles puts pressure on strategic stability. Russia may have tested or planning to test nuclear capable cruise missiles on its own base in the Arctic region.[1]

Nuclearization of the region due to deployment of nuclear deterrent assets make deterrence complex in the region. The Arctic region remains a hot spot for clashes among powers. The ongoing Ukraine War further makes Arctic states apprehensive and concerned about their own security and seek to develop missile defense capabilities.

Missile defense systems in the Arctic region could create strategic destabilization as it could lead to states focusing on offensive means that could defeat air and missile defense capabilities.

Nevertheless, missile defense capabilities seem to be the perfect solution at this moment to strengthen deterrence in the region and also strengthens the deterrence of Arctic countries as intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capabilities, the nuclear deterrence backbone of both the United States and Russia have trajectories that cross Arctic region.

China has also increased its presence in the Arctic region under “Polar Silk Route” strategy. If Beijing deploys SSBNs and SSNs in the region, such deployments will be accompanied by submarine launched ballistic missile capability and sea-launched cruise missile capability.

However, the intensification of missile threats in the region with cruise missiles also being used as tools to protect maritime trade routes in the region, there will be pressures built up on missile defense systems.

Arctic Countries and Missile Defense Developments

The Arctic countries include Denmark with Greenland, the United States because of Alaska, Russia, Canada, Norway, Iceland, Sweden and Finland. Countries in the region are focusing on area defense in the region for strengthened deterrence.

Owing to the Ukrainian War, Finland too focused on a strengthened ‘defense by denial’ capability though the desire for a credible air and missile defense capability predates the conflict. Finland’s participation in the NATO’s ‘Ramstein Legacy 22’ highlighted its interest to integrate its own capabilities with NATO’s missile defense capabilities to bolster deterrence. [2]

In 2023, Finland is reported to have made progress with long-range air defense system, the U.S.-Israeli David Sling system. [3] Israeli defense systems have Link 16 communication protocol that makes their defense system compatible with NATO defense systems.

Denmark has been focusing on an inclusive role in NATO’s ballistic missile defense (BMD) framework. Since 2016, Denmark sought to upgrade its frigate to BMD sensor roles in order to make NATO’s BMD capability more foolproof. [4]

In 2022, there were reports that Danish Armed Forces and the Danish Ministry of Defence Acquisition and Logistics Organisation (DALO) were focusing on integration of the SM-2 interceptors, procured through the U.S. NAVY with their Iver Huitfeldt class frigates to intercept enemy aircraft and missiles at longer distance.[5] Not only do such frigates based BMD options provide affordable means of defensive capabilities[6] but also survivable means as frigates are movable and hence, less difficult to track.

Interoperability of its air and missile defense capabilities with NATO air and missile defense systems remains the major focus for Denmark. This would include the “ability to be part of different configurations of air capabilities within land, sea and air domains” by following NATO “standards, procedures and guidelines.”[7]

In 2023, the U.S. run ballistic missile warning site in Greenland that was called the Thule Air Base was renamed as Pituffik Space Base. The region is specifically important to the United States as the Space Force guardians in the region guard the U.S. homeland against ballistic missile attacks. The upgraded Early Warning Radar weapon system is a phased array radar located in the region that could detect and “report attack assessments” of sea-launched ballistic missiles and ICBMs. Thus, Greenland forms major backbone of U.S. homeland missile defence.[8]

Sweden’s security dilemma in the recent past has worsened. This is owing to the Russia-Georgian conflict, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the recent Ukrainian War. Given this deteriorating security situation in the Baltic Region, Sweden’s ‘National Defence Strategy’ even focuses on ‘territorial defence.’

Sweden has realized these security implications and focused on its role in strengthening security in the Baltic Region. Moreover, if Sweden is to join NATO, it needs credible ‘defense by denial’ mechanism to support NATO air and missile defense structures. The strategic importance of Gotland, an island which is hundred kilometers off the Swedish coast provides a commanding view of the Baltic Sea.

Hence, it is necessary that Sweden possesses a credible air and missile defense capability for Sweden even more as its location lies within NATO’s air defense architecture that extends from the Northern shores of Norway to Iceland and Greenland.

Even before the Ukrainian War commenced, the Swedish Armed Forces in 2021 introduced the new Patriot System which is also known as the Air Defence System 103 or LvS 103. The system reached its Initial Operational Capability (IOC) by December 2021, which means that it could now be put to service.[9]

This would enable Swedish Armed Forces to strengthen its air defense capability. According to the Defence Minister, Peter Hultqvist, the LvS 103 would enable the Swedish Armed Forces to “counter long-range missiles and air attacks and we will also be able to fight ballistic missiles.” He further explained, “[t]his is a powerful modernization and upgrade of Swedish Air Defence and Swedish defense capability as a whole.”[10] Th Patriot system will be using two types of missiles:[11] Robot 103A GeM-T and Robot 103B (PAC-3 MSE) (more optimized against ballistic missiles).

Both Finland and Sweden could play a crucial role in NATO IAMD architecture in the near future. While the former has already joined NATO in early 2023, the latter is yet to join NATO officially.

Again, on the other hand, Canada realizes the importance of defending against strategic weapons but is not supportive of becoming a part of continental defence. [12] Though there are contemplations on the benefits of focusing on continental defence which could include issues pertaining to North American Aerospace Defence (NORAD) and NATO’s own IAMD architecture.

This is probably the reason why Canada never gave importance to construction of integrated air and missile defence architecture but instead focused on “pairing Canadian units with allied forces that have effective air and missile defence.”[13]

Though the growing threats of missiles from North Korea and Iran as well as Russia continue to threaten Canada, the country is yet to be a part of the U.S. BMD program. Nevertheless, in 2023, Canada and the United States entered into an agreement to bolster defence in Arctic with Over the Horizon (OTH) radar installations that would operate under the NORAD Command. [14]

This could enable Canada to push their line of sight further north to be able to respond to high speed weapons effectively. [15]

There are debates in Canada to participate in U.S. Ground Based Air Defence (GBAD) program, a step Canada refused to pursue in the past. Canada realizes the lingering threats and as stated by the then Chief of the Defence Staff in 2022, Gen. Wayne Eyre, “in decades to come, that threat, that tenuous hold that we [Canada] have on our sovereignty, at the extremities of this nation, is going to come under increasing challenge.”[16]

Norway on the other hand, operates the National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems (NASAMS) which was originally developed for providing air defence capabilities but eventually upgraded and modernised for incorporating BMD capabilities as well.[17]

Iceland possesses long range surveillance radars that are upgraded to eliminate obsolescence and increase life-span to cater to NATO’s Integrated Air and Missile Defence (IAMD) architecture.[18]

For the United States, the Arctic remains strategically relevant for homeland missile defense capabilities. It hosts a greater part of the U.S. missile defense architecture meant for homeland defense. Alaska, the region that makes the United States an Arctic country, is referred to as “the most strategic place on earth.”[19] In 2021, the United States completed construction of Long Range Discrimination Radar (LRDR) that would help track and defend against long range ICBMs and hypersonic weapons [20] forming the backbone of US layered missile defense to protect its homeland.[21]

In addition, the United States is also working on Next Generation Interceptors (NGI) to replace the existing Ground Based Interceptors (GBIs) which had myriad limitations. The interceptor would need to counter enemy missiles as well as counter measures fitted on missiles as well as counter high speed missile systems.

Hence, LRDR could complement the NGIs. There are also recommendations to retain the GBIs also in Alaska owing to the North Korean missile threats as the GBIs are undergoing Life Extension Program (LEP). [22] In the near future, the United States could also consider deploying the Aegis Ashore system with advanced interceptors in the Arctic along with existing GBIs till the NGIs becomes a success story.

Some analysis also recommend a more holistic approach in the Arctic region with “coordinated planning” with the United Kingdom, the Baltic States, Poland and Germany to ensure that the U.S.-NATO force is able to possess an “Arctic defense coherence and enhanced deterrence posture across the Baltic-Arctic theatres.”[23]

However, that would mean getting countries like Poland and the Baltic States to also stress on Arctic region militarily which could prove difficult for such states.

In addition to this, Russia too has conducted missile defense tests in Arctic region which include the next generation S-500 anti-missile system that could intercept ballistic missiles, and high speed missiles. [24]

Its desire to build an Arctic ‘air defense’ dome called for its Northern Fleet to be armed with S-400 air and missile defense system. In fact, in 2019, Russia deployed its S-400 missiles in Arctic Novaya Zemlya archipelago to defend against aircraft, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles.[25] This is not the only defensive weapon deployed in Novaya Zemlya. Russia has also deployed there the S-300 surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems in 2015.[26]

The S-400s along with, S-300s and S-500 systems could form Russia’s Arctic holistic ‘air and missile defense’ dome forming a groundwork of anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) network in the region. In its military drills in the Arctic, Russia has also fired its coastal defense missile system called the Bastion missile at sea-based targets. [27]

With Sweden and Finland in NATO alliance, Russia’s security concerns in the Arctic would worsen further and hence, it could strengthen its air and missile defense capabilities. With Russian invasion of Ukraine in the recent past, Moscow is aware that Arctic region would experience credible air and missile defense developments by Arctic countries to mitigate Russian fears.

China too considers itself as a ‘near Arctic” state and an “important stake holder in Arctic affairs.” China wishes to become a major player in any negotiations or discussions on crucial Arctic-related decisions or policies.

China would be keen to place its submarines in the Arctic region but these submarines whether SSBNs, SSNs, or conventional submarines would need to be modified technologically in order to make them capable of operating under harsh weather and climatic conditions in the Arctic.[28]

China’s increased presence in the region could mean that China could resort to air and missile defense capability independently or integrate its systems with Russia’s considering that Russia and China are partners in the region or share Russian air and missile defense network. This would enable China to develop A2/AD capability in crucial choke points.


The Arctic region has become a hotbed for power tussle. Increased military presence of great powers further complicates the strategic stability and balance in the region. In addition, the Ukrainian War has led Arctic states to become more apprehensive and seek for defensive means for strengthening security. This means that air and missile defense development would continue in order to assure deterrence and security to states.

Interoperability of air and missile defense components and assets would become major focus for Arctic states in order to make their defense more credible. However, each country in the region would be focused their independent defense by denial capability too so as to operate under a sovereign defense command and mechanism.

Global powers vying for power in the region would continue to focus on sophistication of their defensive capabilities for strengthened deterrence in the region.  Great power competition in the region is leading to complex and yet most powerful chains to air and missile defense networking. As offense gets stronger in the region, defense would become more advanced and lethal against offense systems.

[1] Riley Mellen, “Russia May be Planning to Test a Nuclear-Powered Missile,” The New York Times, October 2, 2023.

[2] Debalina Ghoshal, “Finland’s Missile Defence Choice,” European Security and Defence, September 12, 2022.

[3] Elisabeth Gosselin- Malo, “Finland is one step closer to getting David’s Sling missile shield,” Defense News, August 4, 2023.

[4] “Denmark Progresses in NATO Ballistic Missile Defense Role,” Defense News, April 22, 2016.

[5] “The Armed Forces test launches SM-2 missile,” Danish Defence, May 6, 2022.

[6] “Denmark Progresses in NATO Ballistic Missile Defense Role,” Defense News, April 22, 2016.

[7] Dan Taylor, “30-year air & missile defense agreement for Danish military won by Terma,” Military Embedded Systems, January 20, 2023.

[8] Rachel S. Cohen, “Thule no more: US-run outpost in Greenland renamed Pituffik Space Base,” Air Force Times, April 10, 2023.

[9] “New era for Swedish air defence,” Swedish Armed Forces, November 19, 2021. .

[10] “New era for Swedish air defence,” Swedish Armed Forces, November 19, 2021.

[11] “Air Defence System 103- Patriot,” FMV.

[12] Lt. Gen Romeo A. Dallaire, “U.S. Strategic Ballistic Missile Defence: Why Canada Won’t Join It?,” The Simons Foundation Canada, July 11, 2023.

[13] “Canada,” Missile Defence Advocacy Alliance.

[14] Malte Humpert, “US and Canada to Step up Arctic Capabilities with Over-the-Horizon Radar and Facilities for F-35,” High North News, March 27, 2023,

[15] “Canada announces new Arctic air, missile defences with the US,” The Defense Post, June 21, 2022.

[16] Murray Brewster, “Canada’s ‘tenuous hold’ in Arctic could be challenged by Russia, China, says top soldier,” CBC, October 18, 2022.

[17] “Norway,” MDAA, <Norway – Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance.

[18] Gareth Jennings, “Iceland to upgrade long-range air surveillance radars,” JANES, October 15, 2020.

[19] Col. Michael J. Forsyth, “Why Alaska and the Arctic are Critical to the National Security of the United States,” Military Review, January-February 2018,

[20] “U.S. Military Installs Long-Range-Missile-Defence System in Alaska,” Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, December 7, 2021.

[21] John Keller, “In Dyne to maintain Alaskan long-range radar to help protect from ballistic missiles in midcourse phase,” Military Aerospace, October 5, 2022.

[22] John Grady, “NORTHCOM: U.S. Needs New Ballistic Missile Interceptor by 2028 to Keep Pace with North Korea,” USNI, March 25, 2022,

[23] Heather Conley, et.al., “Defending America’s Northern Border and Its Arctic Approaches Through Cooperation With Allies and Partners,” German Marshal Fund, August 17, 2023.

[24] Anwesha Majumdar, “Russia Successfully Tests S-500 Anti-missile Defence Systems Prototypes In The Arctic,” Republic World, December 30, 2021,

[25] “Russia plans to set up Arctic air defense ‘dome’ with S-400 missiles,” Reuters, December 9, 2019.

[26] Atle Staalesen, “Russia deploys S-300 in Novaya Zemlya,” The Barents Observer, December 9, 2015.

[27] “Russia conducts military drills in Arctic sea opposite Alaska,” Reuters, September 16, 2022.

[28] “Pentagon warns of risk of Chinese submarines in the Arctic,” The Barents Observer, March 6, 2019.

Featured Graphic: Photo 93538727 / Arctic Map © Marko Bukorovic | Dreamstime.com