The Battle for the Arctic

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The Battle for the Arctic

Should the situation in the Arctic erupt into a military conflict? What form will the ongoing standoff take? The answer is here.

The article prepared by J.Hawk especially for southfront.org

The Strategic Context

With the West (and therefore, the global economy) in a systemic crisis that it does not appear able to overcome using its own, internal resources, it is little wonder that it is pursuing a very aggressive campaign of regime change, with “democratization” and “globalization” (and with it, rapacious exploitation of the so-called “emerging markets”) being a veritable “White Man’s Burden” of the 21st Century. However, the West is not only running out of planet to subjugate, it is encountering effective resistance. The stand-off in Ukraine is but one of many front lines in the West’s campaign to subvert and ultimately subjugate countries which are not under its dominion. But the time is beginning to run short. The internal crisis in the EU and the US, as evidenced by the growing social unrest, opposition to immigration, and the loss of credibility by the major, “official”, political parties means that the West, as a whole, is facing a dramatic choice. Either abandon the campaign of covert colonialization under the brand of “globalization” by embracing genuine internal reforms, or make a desperate bid to overcome the resistance of the major non-Western powers in order to give that project a  new lease on life.

Russia’s Adversary

The Arctic is the obvious avenue for expansion, one of the few areas of the “global commons” that have not yet been carved up. On the face of it, NATO has all the advantages here. Since the geography of the Arctic Ocean makes it a predominantly theater for aeronaval warfare, at first glance Russia is at a major disadvantage because its major military historical “comparative advantage”, namely “putting boots on the ground” due to its superior ability to carry out mass mobilization, would not be relevant here. Moreover, on NATO’s side, its airpower and naval assets represent the elite of their armed forces, which moreover have not been all that badly degraded by the counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan that have sapped the strength and morale of NATO’s ground forces. Not to mention the combined strength of NATO’s air and, especially, naval forces (which include the US Navy) greatly outnumbers Russia’s.

However, the peculiarities of the Arctic theater of operations suggest the advantage is not as great as it seems, and that moreover Russia has some advantages of its own. A major factor undermining NATO’s strength is its political disunity. Because, let’s face it, we are not going to see, for example, Italian or Spanish fighters over the Arctic. It is not their area of concern, and neither of these two countries has much to gain from fighting there. The only countries that can be reliably expected to engage in combat operations in the Arctic are the US, UK, (almost irrespective of which political party is in power) and possibly Canada, though here the situation is slightly more ambiguous. The obvious fourth candidate, Norway, is the closest to the theater of operations which also means it runs the risk of becoming a frontline state of that conflict. Moreover, the last time Norway served as a launchpad for military operations against Russia was during…World War II, and the “friendly” military belonged to Nazi Germany’s. That obviously makes Norway’s participation in the conflict impossible to guarantee.

But even with Norway allowing itself to become NATO’s “unsinkable aircraft carrier” (and a potential target for Russian missiles and bombs), geography plainly favors Russia. NATO simply has no air bases close enough to the theater of operations to project its airpower over the region. Aerial tankers help somewhat, but such aircraft are highly vulnerable and will not be risked against long-range air defenses or long-range fighters with extended-range missiles. Which greatly limits the number of aircraft NATO could put in the air over the Arctic. Let’s not forget that today and for years to come the single-engined and comparatively short-ranged F-16 will remain NATO’s most numerous combat aircraft. The Eurofighter is marginally better in the long-range role, but it too was not designed for such conditions. Conversely, it is in the Arctic that Russia’s large park of heavy, long-range fighters of the Su-27/30/34/35 and MiG-31 families comes into its own, and the new T-50 has likewise been designed with extended-range operations in mind.

US Navy’s carrier battle groups (with the Royal Navy contributing two carriers of their own in the foreseeable future) might offset this imbalance somewhat, but only up to a point. Each carrier carries only 40-50 fighters to begin with, and requires a large “fleet train” of vulnerable supply ships to sustain the battle group. Thus instead of CVN presence, it might be more appropriate to expect carrier raids into the Arctic so as not to allow Russian aircraft and submarines opportunities to target the vulnerable supply line the battlegroup requires. Moreover, the Arctic is not the most ideal location for carrier operations. Much of it is covered with pack ice for many months of the year, and flying conditions are difficult, at best, for much of the rest of the year.

The Battle for the Arctic

Click to see the full-size high resolution map (2921×2160)

Finally, NATO’s aeronaval power has a number of vulnerabilities of its own, some of them not being apparent yet. For starters, it relies heavily on GPS-guided munitions, datalinks, and satellite communications for targeting information. Since the US has not fought a technologically advanced adversary in decades, it seems to have taken these advantages for granted. However, as the F-117 shoot-down over Serbia which overnight burst the “stealth myth” demonstrates, air forces which believe their technological advantage is unassailable are often in for a rude awakening. Iran’s ability to bring down an advanced US surveillance drone likewise indicates these technologies have their vulnerabilities. And Russia’s electronic warfare prowess is vastly greater than Serbia’s or Iran’s. Russia’s pursuit of integrated air/space defenses covered in a SouthFront article makes it perfectly clear that its objectives include not simply shooting down aircraft but seriously degrading electronic communications and reconnaissance systems of all kinds.

Furthermore, NATO’s airpower mainstay in the future will the the F-35 Lightning II, which does have a sufficient radius of action to be a threat over the Arctic. However, that plane is plagued by major problems that will likely never be fully addressed, and in any event it is ill-suited for the air superiority mission against advanced fighters like the Su-35 or, especially, the T-50. The best it can do is launch AIM-120 active radar-homing missiles against targets (ideally non-stealthy ones) identified by AWACS aircraft, for it is a very poor performer in a maneuvering, visual-range, air-to-air combat. It is a de-facto attack bomber erroneously designated as a fighter. And yet this will be the most important aircraft to operate from US and British carriers in the upcoming decades…

Operational Scenarios

However, should the situation erupt into a shooting conflict, what form will it take? There are several possible scenarios, and one to keep in mind that the region’s remoteness means that the risk of escalation in the Arctic is much greater than it was in the case of Ukraine. There are simply no “value targets” in this nearly unpopulated area which means even a tactical nuclear escalation might not necessarily lead to a general nuclear exchange.

It is entirely possible that the conflict would start in the form of the US launching a Cuban Missile Crisis-style naval blockade of either designated Arctic zones or even the Russian coastline as a whole, with Russian attempts to breach it leading to a Korean War-style conflict with strict geographic boundaries and the actual national territory of the combatants (i.e., Russia, Alaska, Norway, etc.) being a safe haven of sorts, immune to attack due to the general desire not to escalate the situation. Because if NATO bombs and missiles were to fall on Murmansk and Arkhangelsk or, worse, NATO units were to cross the border from Norway, it might provoke a risk of geographic escalation. Here the US would likely take its “allies” concerns into account by shielding them from possible Russian retaliation by avoiding targeting Russia’s national territory.

Russia Strikes Back

The conflict would almost certainly be asymmetrical in nature. On NATO’s side the brunt would be borne by naval forces with air force support, while on Russia’s side it would be the Air Forces (VVS) that would play the lead role, with the VMF playing second fiddle. Russia simply can’t attempt to match NATO’s naval resources. Even if it could, its naval power is geographically handicapped. NATO and US can deploy overwhelming superiority to any conceivable naval theater, whereas Russian fleets can reinforce one another only in peacetime, and even then with difficulty. Moreover, a Russian naval build-up would use up resources needed for rearming the Ground Forces whose role is growing given the instability on Russia’s Western and Southern borders. But Russian airpower is fungible, as the same aircraft fighting for air superiority over the Arctic can do same anywhere around Russia’s periphery.

This asymmetry, incidentally, reduces NATO’s (and especially US) at conducting joint operations by limiting the number of branches of service actually engaged and relegating the VMF to a supporting role. While Russia is setting up its own unified strategic commands, unlike the US it has never fought a war using  them, therefore the concept is still relatively untested.

Coup de Main

In this aeronaval conflict Russia would have a unique trump card that could have decisive results, a trump card to which NATO does not have a ready answer. That trump card are the Airborne Forces (VDV) which are very clearly gearing up to fight a war in the Arctic. The history of the VDV suggests its preferred type of mission is the so-called “coup de main” (“blow by hand”), an operational approach surely familiar to anyone who’s familiar with the Three Musketeers (books or movies). In a fencing contest it looks something like this: while your opponent is drawing his sword, you punch him in the face (!) with your hand (hence the name of the trick) and then, while he is reeling back and fumbling for his sword, you draw your own and then run him through! There are at least major coup de main operations on VDV’s record: Czechoslovakia ’68, Afghanistan ’79, and…Crimea ’14. They were highly effective operations whose shock effect was so great that it made the operations practically bloodless.

This approach can be repeated in the Arctic and it would appear, judging by recent exercises, the Russian military is actively preparing to carry one out in that theater as well, should a need arise. We’ve seen paratroopers jump on pack ice, heavy airlifters land and take-off from glaciers, we’re seeing equipment being procured for the expanding VDV that has a great deal of applicability to Arctic operations. A coup de main launched against, say, Spitsbergen, or a contested/strategic island somewhere in the Arctic would instantly change the equation, as the initial VDV force could be quickly reinforced by airlifted long-range air defense and anti-ship batteries which would make any attempt to eject VDV from its new perch a costly one indeed. Which is a major factor to consider when dealing with NATO countries whose populations are so alienated from their own political leadership’s as to be easily turned off against any conflict that involves ground combat. The collapse of the Mistral contract does hurt Russia in that respect, because consider what these ships represented. Collectively, a force of four Mistrals would have been able to heli-lift a brigade worth of troops to any conceivable destination within range, which would have made them a very effective coup de main vehicle. So the US sabotage of the French contract was not merely political–the US no doubt was aware of the potential these ships represented in Russian hands.

However, NATO does not have an equivalent force. Royal Marines are too small, the USMC is still heavily oriented toward the Middle East. Moreover, NATO’s political workings virtually rule out such an operation from even being contemplated, and the US itself simply doesn’t have a history of such operations.

Toward a political resolution

It is relatively clear that Russia’s leadership is not eager to fight that kind of a war, no more than it was eager to launch Putin’s Polite People into the Crimea. The scenarios described above and the capabilities that are being developed to pursue them are part of Russia’s deterrent posture to dissuade NATO from attempting any unilateral mineral grabs in the Arctic. Ironically, the demonstration of Russia’s political will in Crimea greatly strengthens its hand in the Arctic, since now everyone knows that Russia will push back if pushed. Which means that the ultimate resolution of the conflict is likely to be a mutually beneficial sphere of influence arrangement in the Arctic that preserves Russia’s interests in the region.

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  • Curious_SLE

    Thanks for the analysis.