For more than half a century, the Arctic ice cap has been regarded by the military as a potential theater of war. Nuclear-capable missile-carrying submarines have been secretly patrolling the Arctic seas during and after the “Cold War”. That’s where a key threat comes from, Mikhail Khodaryonok, editor-in-chief of the Military-Industrial Messenger newspaper, told the Voice of Russia.
“As Arctic ice packs melt due to the continuing global warming, more ice-free areas emerge, which might serve as convenient launch spots for ballistic missile attacks. It’s one of the main threats to Russia. A surprise disarming strike involving ballistic nuclear missiles and cruise missiles might potentially come from the Arctic,” he said.
The Defense Ministry is planning to build new warships, including ice-breaking ones, and create a specialized coastal taskforce. The Soviet-era Arctic infrastructure will be restored.
“The Arctic airfields are the first to be restored. These are the Rogachyovo, Alykel, Tiksi, Khatanga, Nadym and many others. Airfields are crucial to ensuring the fast deployment of forces. They can also be used as bases for anti-submarine aviation and flying radars and as command headquarters,” Khodaryonok said.
The Arctic holds an estimated one-quarter of the global energy resources. Some experts predict armed conflicts in the Arctic in the coming decades. Others are skeptical.
“Such statements will always be made. One should take them calmly. There isn’t going to be any war or any armed clashes in the Arctic in the near future. Rather, it’s an information war, which has been gaining momentum lately, a kind of ‘Cold War’,” said Sergei Melkov, Co-chairman of the Association of Military Analysts.
As Russia moves to beef up its Arctic Force, it risks facing new accusations from the West that it militarizes the Arctic. But, as Mikhail Khodaryonok pointed out, that’s what all the Arctic nations have been doing to some extent.
The Arctic has always played a significant role from the perspective of Russian Navy. Although Russia is the only country in the world with a nuclear icebreaker fleet (Rosatomflot), limited maintenance and construction capacity has caused general deterioration since the 1990s. At present, Rosatomflot possesses 18 icebreakers, of which six are active nuclear-powered ones. However, they are aging quickly and will be decommissioned by 2020. Viacheslav Ruksha, head of Atomflot (which operates the fleet), warned that Russia will face a “collapse” of these capacities in 2016-2017 (Kovalenko 2012). Moscow already emphasized the priority of the acquisition of new nuclear-powered icebreakers in Osnovy 2008. In July 2012 Rosatom (state-run corporation) signed a deal to begin construction of a multi-purpose new-generation nuclear icebreaker budgeted at 1.1 billion US dollars. The new icebreaker will be launched in 2017. In addition, in the next few years, Kremlin plans to build another three third-generation icebreakers to maintain the country’s potential in the Arctic (Kovalenko 2012).
On the strategic level, the Arctic is particularly important for the maintenance of Russia’s maritime nuclear deterrent forces. The defence significance is underlined by the fact that only through the Arctic, Russia has full open access to the world’s oceans and the possibility of broad operational manoeuvre for the Navy’s submarine forces (unlike the ports on the Black Sea or the Baltic). Russia’s most powerful Northern Fleet with nuclear triad, is based close to Murmansk in the north of the Kola Peninsula at Severomorsk.