If it wasn’t clear before that Russia intends to be prepared to “fight the Arctic,” it should be now. A report from last week indicates that the Russians plan to put “Bastion” anti-ship missile systems at their Arctic bases in 2015, to go along with airfield improvements, aircraft deployments, and installation of mobile anti-air missile systems and early warning radars for a network of bases that extends from one end of Russia’s Arctic coast to the other, and well into the Arctic Ocean.
There is certainly a question as to what “threat” Russia imagines herself to be countering with the deployment of the cruise missile systems.
But that’s really asking the wrong question. Given the dearth of non-Russian surface ship traffic through the area in question (maps 1 and 2), and the certainty that other nations with Arctic claims have no motive to put ships in that area against Russia’s will, a more accurate interpretation of this move is that Russia seeks to hold a geomilitary veto over the sea-lanes, in a manner similar to the veto sought by China over the South China Sea.
I’ve written a number of times before about the pattern of regional hegemony and exclusivism we will see with increased domination by Russia and China. When there’s no global “sheriff” to set an overarching standard, for either openness or security, the Asian giants’ first move is to enforce dominance over the areas adjacent to them, both to deepen their security boundaries and to ensure that they hold a veto over the use of resources — by everyone.
The veto isn’t something they want in order to manage resources for the long term – although they will undoubtedly use those terms to argue their position in international forums. Those terms resonate with Western ideologues. But Russia and China want the veto over resource use because they intend to collect tribute from anyone who wants to harvest or trade in those resources.
This isn’t about taxation; it’s about institutional bribery and extortion. In addition to their own resources, both nations will intend to hold a hammer over resources that the United Nations would recognize as belonging to others. Russia and China have no intention of honoring the American principle of “open doors” and equal access for trade and resource use.*
To the maps
At any rate, what Russia will do with the Bastion anti-ship cruise missiles is begin to create an impenetrable maritime exclusion zone along her northern coast, from which to project power further into the Arctic – presumably (in part) to enforce her claims there, which are dubious, which conflict with Canada’s and Denmark’s (parts of which may also be dubious), and which have yet to be accepted by the UN under Law of the Sea procedures.
Compare the depiction of Bastion missile systems (which use the P-800 Yakhont missile) in the Arctic (map 3) with the notional depiction of Chinese anti-ship missile systems, and the risk corridor they would create in the South China Sea (map 4).
In addition to the cruise missile deployments, which cannot be considered defensive (there’s simply no threat), Russia plans a fleet of Arctic-capable ships (e.g., destroyers and landing ships with ice-hardened hulls, along with submarines). She is also improving old Soviet-era bases to house thousands of troops and support helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, including strategic bombers and air-defense fighters. The Russian defense ministry reportedly plans to have 14 airfields operational in the Arctic region by the end of this year. (See additional reporting on Russia’s Arctic plans here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)
(Map 3 depicts the continental air bases above the Arctic Circle which Russia is specifically known to be improving for use as part of the Arctic military network. Russia is also improving airfields on some of the islands; known base complexes undergoing airfield improvement include the ones on Alexandra Land Island, southern Novaya Zemlya, Kotelny Island, and Wrangel Island.)
Map 3’s depiction of cruise missile deployments shows both likely and potential areas for positioning launchers. There is no likelihood of this many deployment positions being operationalized in 2015; the map shows a mature network which would be several years down the road. The “likely” areas are either co-located with bases being improved, or – as with the threat rings surrounding the Northern Fleet headquarters – are in areas where Russia has maintained access and infrastructure since the demise of the USSR. (Notably, the westernmost threat ring near the Northern Fleet HQ represents an area where Russia conducted several exercise cruise missile launches, extremely close to Norwegian territorial waters, in 2013.)
The “potential” deployment areas depict launcher locations that could be supported, given the additional infrastructure being put in at the bases nearby. Launchers would require manning and maintenance, and in the potential deployment areas would probably be put in place and kept at the ready only during the summer months, when the northern maritime route and waters of the Arctic Ocean are most navigable. The effort required to man and tend deployed launchers would be unnecessary and unsustainable year-round. But well developed base complexes, even 100-200 miles away, could support them for 3-4 months out of the year.
Map 5 shows the Arctic claims of the five nations with Arctic territorial frontage. The overlapping areas near the North Pole are where the claims of Russia, Canada, and Denmark conflict. Superimposed on this map is a depiction of the notional (likely and potential) cruise missile threat rings anchored around the Russian offshore island base complexes. (A service of Liberty Unyielding that you won’t find anywhere else.)
Other nations’ Arctic military presence
No other nation has anything like the network of military assets Russia is building up in the Arctic. As Ron Arnold of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise pointed out in a recent article, the United States certainly doesn’t. (We have no military bases with offensive capability north of the Arctic Circle. Our only Alaskan military facilities on the Arctic coast are radar sites.)
Norway’s Svalbard Archipelago is demilitarized by a treaty dating to 1920. On the Norwegian mainland, the only fighter base north of the Arctic Circle is at Bodo. (See map 5 for the NATO-nation bases.) The air bases north of it – Banak, Bardufoss, Andoya – support helicopters (used mainly for rescue) and Norway’s P-3 Poseidon maritime surveillance squadron. Norway has a logistics station for her navy at Ramsund, but only coast guard vessels are stationed north of the Arctic Circle.
On Greenland, neither Denmark nor the U.S. keeps offensive military assets at the lightly manned bases of Nord and Thule (the former used primarily for civilian purposes; the latter now for early warning and space surveillance).
Canada has announced plans to position more military capability in the Arctic region, but cost issues have whittled those plans back. Improvements to the Nanisivik coast guard base on Baffin Island will reportedly be limited to increasing the station’s capacity as a refueling spot for the navy, with the proposal for an airfield now abandoned. A small signals base at Alert, on Ellesmere Island, is Canada’s northernmost military facility (at latitude 82.5 deg N), but hosts only 50-100 people, depending on time of year. Alert and Nord station on Greenland are the only NATO-nation bases as close to the North Pole, and to the area of conflicting claims, as Russia’s growing Arctic network. But both are tiny and lack any capability to project military power.
The Canadian airfield at Inuvik, near Alaska, has no permanently stationed air units, but is used by CF-18 strike-fighters as a forward operating base. It is currently the only Canadian base with potential as a launching spot for offensive operations (and only for air operations). In 2013, a new Arctic training facility opened at the remote village of Resolute, on the southern tip of Cornwallis Island in the Barrow Strait, but it accommodates only 140 personnel, and, as a training base, is also inadequate for supporting offensive operations into the Arctic Ocean.
There are differences, of course, in the geographic character of the exclusion areas being created by Russia and China, in – respectively – the Arctic and the South China Sea.
The South China Sea is a much smaller area, one that is heavily trafficked and widely accessible 365 days a year. The threat range of Russian- and Chinese-designed anti-ship cruise missiles enables China to hold the entire area at risk, whereas Russia can only put Arctic chokepoints at 100% risk. The rest of the Arctic region is simply too large for saturation coverage by today’s land-based ASCMs. The need to create a tactical “risk veto” in the Arctic, meanwhile, is highly seasonal: something Russia would want to expand and contract with the ice and weather, which dictate when ships can operate there.
But in both places, laying out geographically the threat of land-based anti-ship cruise missiles provides a unique way to visualize the military-operational view taken by Russia and China of these vital regions. The potential reach of fighter or short-range bomber aircraft is too abstract to clarify the littoral giants’ intentions. Likewise the range of air defense missiles, which conveys a purely defensive range, but doesn’t convey what area the aspiring regional hegemon means to turn into a defensible bastion: a space to control and react from, and project power.
The ASCMs by themselves don’t create that space; they are part of a multi-service suite of military power, which includes aircraft, ships, and special-purpose ground forces. But the land-based ASCMs are geographically defining. They plant a visible stake and bespeak the geography-tethered intention to exert power.
They are also a menace not only – not even mostly, perhaps – to other armed forces, but to general shipping and commerce operating in the globe’s common areas. This is the point that probably ought to give us the most pause.
Ships have sailed most of the world’s seaways and major chokepoints for decades now without fresh menace being added from coastal missile batteries. (The Strait of Hormuz is a notable outlier in that regard.)
With the recession of American power, a proliferation of coastal batteries holding general shipping at risk is precisely what we can expect, especially from the Asian nations, and any that are ruled by autocrats. Sea-lanes and chokepoints will be consolidated into hegemonic bastions wherever political geography makes them vulnerable.
No other nation has the commitment America has had to general freedom of navigation through the world’s tradeways, or honestly-negotiated access to maritime resources. In the absence of American power, those ideals will have no enforcement.
* On this head, it’s probably a supreme irony that trade pacts are being negotiated in such secrecy at the moment, with the concern of many Westerners being that they will subvert national prerogatives in favor of a sort of “global governance” pact. The weak leg of that stool is the rapid, ongoing collapse of the basis for the globalist UN idea; that is, American power. Without a global hegemon, there is no global system. There are only regional hegemons, arming and bristling against each other. Russia and China are both dangerous, but neither is in a position to become a global hegemon any time soon. There is no one to enforce the trade pacts currently under negotiation – nor would Russia or China enforce them if they could.