By Paul Beaver

Summer or winter, the High North has become the new frontier for the United Kingdom's energy and security concerns. The catalyst is climate change which, in turn, is causing the ice cap to retreat and new opportunities to open up. With those opportunities come risks and, some would say, threats.

This increased interest in the High North comes at a time when arguably the United Kingdom (UK) and its allies are least prepared to exploit and police the broadening horizons of one of the last frontiers on earth.

The Coalition Government in Westminster has made the High North its own security agenda item and has been developing policy during its first two years in office. Defense Secretary Liam Fox has visited the High North, including the Svalbard archipelago, and has encouraged others to follow his footsteps.

Dr Fox is also engaged with Denmark, which considers Greenland to be its territory, and with Canada. Both nations share common values and, like Norway, have supported NATO-led operations in Afghanistan and Libya. This makes them natural allies to the UK, with its interests in the High North.

This interest comes at a time when the UK is at its least prepared to operate in the High North, probably since the end of the Second World War. The demise of the Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft, the reduction in Arctic training for the Royal Marines and the distinct lack of surface warships all contribute to the lack of military presence. Welcome, then, must be the British government's increased political awareness and its role in bringing together the key nations in the Northern Group of nations which includes Scandinavia, the Baltics and the Netherlands chaired by the UK.

The UK Royal Navy still patrols the northern Norwegian Sea and the Barents by submarine, or so we are lead to believe as submarine operations are never made public. However, there is a wider issue of maritime patrol which has been dormant since March 2009 when Nimrod patrols ceased.

It is easy to argue that nothing untoward has happened but that is really not the point. It is the capability to respond to a crisis which is paramount and, although Norway in particular maintains a presence in the region with its small number of maritime patrol aircraft and Coastguard surface ships, it is the ability to react which is key.

At a strategic level there are sub-surface sensors from the Cold War and regular space overflights - for which Svalbard's downlink stations are ideally placed to capture the polar orbiting satellites - but situational awareness lacks the detail. Norway is the only nation to have a national joint military headquarters above 66 degrees north at Reitan, near the arctic gateway city of Bodo. For the Norwegians, this means focus on the High North can be demonstrated.

It is not just the UK which is interested in the High North, of course. All five Arctic Ocean facing nations - Canada, Denmark (through Greenland), Norway, Russia and the United States (US) (through Alaska) - see new opportunities as the ice retreats further each summer.

In September 2010, the first merchant ship sailed east along the North East Passage from northern Norway, along the Siberian coast and through the Bering Strait to China. It cut forty days off the passage around Africa for very large vessels, and is seen as an indication of things to come, showing why China is increasingly interested in the High North. At the Norwegian Polar Institute in Tromsø, there is even talk of trans-polar crossings by ice-strengthened merchant ships by 2030.

The North East Passage and the Trans-Polar route are ironically seen by the Norwegians as opening up quicker than the fabled North West Passage. The latter, which is mostly in Canadian territorial waters, is seen as having greater risks through its shallow and restricted channels and unchartered shoals. This is despite the fact that Canada has one of the most effective environment controls and search and rescue organisations in the world. Other nations are not so well prepared, particularly Russia with its huge expanse of coastal waters which goes unmonitored.

There is space in the waters to the west of Greenland, which are now frequented by cruise ships and yet which have limited search and rescue cover. The life expectancy of a shipwreck victim from a cruise ship, trying to survive in the water is measured in minutes even in the summer and with passenger lists of several hundred people, the existing rescue facilities in Canada or Greenland would be hard pressed to cope.

Across the High North, there is a need for coordinated surveillance and response. Denmark and Norway have environmental concerns because according to the Security Policy Department in Norway's Ministry of Defence, it has been shown that oil spills in the Barents Sea do not naturally disperse. Neither, it is said, do detergents normally used in lower latitudes work on oil spills. The prospect of very large crude carriers transiting the Barents Sea causes concern in Oslo and Moscow.

Russia and Norway are working closely together here, especially following June's signing of the agreement on the exploitation of the seabed in the Arctic. This has manifested itself in several, immediate, ways. Norwegian search and rescue helicopters work closely with the Russian authorities and earlier this year transited through Russian airspace to medically evacuate a crewmember of a Russian ship. This level of cooperation bodes well but it is, so to speak, just the tip of an iceberg. The rescue was relatively close into shore and there were no environmental implications which might have occurred from a collision and sinking.

Russia admits that it cannot police its northern sea border adequately at present, despite the presence of its Red Banner Northern Fleet with submarines, icebreakers and helicopters. More importantly, the level of surveillance is weak, the hydrological survey of the seabed is sparse and the search and rescue capability fluctuates.

Moscow is not blind to these deficiencies and this will partly explain the pragmatic relationship-building with Oslo during the last few months. Norway is also sceptical of too many nations being involved in the High North. These include, for example, South Korea and India creating bases on Svalbard under the Spitsbergen Treaty terms, agreed nearly a century ago. It also extends to its closest friends and neighbours like the United Kingdom and even other Arctic Council members with no territorial connection to the Arctic Ocean

In June, Moscow announced the formation of two new Arctic equipped and trained brigades. This might seem like shades of the Cold War when British marines and Canadian soldiers stood alongside their Norwegian counterparts, facing the Soviet forces, but these new Russian formations are tasked with the security of the whole of the Siberian coastline and have a posture which is directed at security rather than confrontation.

The lack of good situational awareness across the Arctic Ocean and the Barents Sea in particular is a concern. A white paper by Norway's former defence and foreign minister, Thorvald Stoltenberg, delivered to an extraordinary meeting of the Nordic Council meeting in February 2009, called for a disaster response unit and greater situational awareness. So far, other than the shaping of a new British policy and increased diplomatic efforts by Norway, there has been little noticeable response.

The reduced British military presence, particularly in the Royal Navy and the maritime patrol capabilities of the Royal Air Force, has been noticed in the High North capitals. This lack of capability and the ability to deploy disaster response teams, let alone support the continuing surveillance of the Barents Sea will affect the United Kingdom's aspirations to be a player in the High North. But it is not just the UK's lack of patrolling warships with their attendant helicopters, nor the complete lack of maritime patrol and domain awareness; it is the focus on other places such as the Middle East which perplexes the Arctic Council members.

In Britain's Parliament there are signs of renewed interest in the Polar regions as the United Kingdom prepares to celebrate the Centenary of the Scott expedition to the South Pole. The formation of an All Party Parliamentary Group on the Polar regions and the increase in the size of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office staff can only add to the renewed focus given to it by Dr Fox.

Although several years ago, the British Ministry of Defence set up a small working party on the implications of climate change in the Arctic on the British maritime security interests, there has been little output. The focus, quite rightly, has been on fighting wars but the time is now right to re-direct energy to the Arctic.

The key dilemma for Fox is just how much attention to give the High North. Britain is not a main player but it brings generations of expertise and diplomatic clout. It is not just about diplomacy, however, as Arctic Council members are keen to show physical presence as more and more non-traditional Arctic players show interest. South Korea, India and China are increasing their presence in the High North.

With no maritime patrol aircraft and limited surface ship capability, Britain is hampered in showing a physical presence. This comes at a time when Denmark has also deleted its patrol aircraft capability, and both Canada and Norway have aeroplanes in the midst of upgrade programmes. Although Russian aircraft regularly patrol the Norwegian Sea, this is seen as military power projection rather than a supportive presence as there is no sharing of the data.

Where Britain can immediately show support and presence is in the development of a recognised maritime picture through the deployment of supporting maritime air and sea capabilities. Filling the lack of maritime domain awareness void, known in NATO as the 'Nimrod Gap' would be a good first stage for Fox to consider. It would be welcomed by the Arctic Council whose trust the UK's capability in this area has been dented in recent years.

(Paul Beaver is a defence analyst and advisor based in London. He has travelled in the Polar North and underwent arctic training in Norway in the 1980s. Paul advises several House of Commons Select Committees and is an invited member of several All Party Parliamentary Groups with interests in defence and the Polar Regions.)


Available at

Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America's Wars in the Muslim World

Displacement and Dispossession in the Modern Middle East (The Contemporary Middle East)

Enemies of Intelligence

The End of History and the Last Man

The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order

The Tragedy of Great Power Politics


Copyright ©, Chatham House; Distributed by TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

World - High North: The New Frontier | Global Viewpoint