“Why NATO Needs a Standing Maritime Group in the Arctic” –CIMSEC

NoCGV Svalbard (W303), an icebreaker and offshore patrol vessel of the Norwegian Coast Guard (Kystvakten).

A recent CIMSEC article makes a case for a standing NATO group in the Arctic.

“…NATO needs to improve its capability and capacity to operate on the Arctic front. In order to deter the Russian threat and safeguard maritime security, sustained presence in the region is needed. To this end, NATO should create a new standing maritime group dedicated to the Arctic and separate from the maritime groups focused elsewhere.


“Instead of relying exclusively on frigates and destroyers from NATO navies to form the new group, NATO should look to its coast guards as well, recognizing that many of these forces field ships that are optimized for Arctic operations.”

The post also sees a standing NATO Group as a counter to Chinese militarization of the Arctic as well,

“How China might move to militarize the Arctic is anyone’s guess, but its 2018 white paper on the Arctic, as summarized by Lieutenant Commander Rachel Gosnell, USN, clearly states China’s interests in the region, and it has plans to protect them. While much of the paper touts adherence to international law, the world has very little reason to believe China will do so. One example of how China could move to militarize the Arctic is on the back of its seemingly benign fishing fleet. China has stated it has inherent rights to the fish migrating to the Arctic because of its large population. And where China’s fishing fleet goes, militarization will soon follow, as has been demonstrated already by Chinese fishing “militias.””

My take:

While I earlier I suggested something similar for the Western Pacific, a “Combined Maritime Security Task Force Pacific,” a maritime law enforcement alliance between Asian nations and other interested parties (probably including the US, Australia, France, and New Zealand) to ensure a rules based maritime environment in the Western Pacific, the situation in the Arctic is very different. 

A picture taken on November 16, 2011 from a South Korean helicopter shows Chinese boats banded together with ropes, chased by a coastguard helicopter and rubber boats packed with commandoes, after alleged illegal fishing in South Korean waters in the Yellow Sea.
Credit: Dong-A-Ilbo

In the Western Pacific, multi-unit cooperation is desirable to push back against Chinese bullying of her neighbors. Huge numbers of fishing vessels including many that are Chinese maritime militia, backed by Chinese Coast Guard vessels, can overwhelm and intimidate individual enforcement vessels. They have even been known to be violent. Having numerous international witnesses on scene can counter the Chinese narrative. So far we are not seeing huge Chinese fishing fleets in the Arctic.

Certainly we can benefit from international cooperation and coordination in the Arctic, for now at least, a wide ranging dispersal of assets, rather than concentration seems more appropriate.

A Combined Interagency Task Force (or maybe two), modeled on our Joint Interagency Task Force (JIATF) but including staff from other Arctic nations rather than a grouping of ships, might be a better near term solution. (In considering a “Freedom of Navigation Operation” through the Northern Sea Route, former USCG Commandant, Admiral Zukunft, even suggested formation of a JIATF–Arctic based on an augmented JTF Alaska.)  Missions potentially include SAR, Environmental Protection, and Fisheries Protection. Those concerns, have been to some extent addressed by the Arctic Coast Guard Forum. For now at least, Russia shares those interests. 

The limits:

In the CIMSEC article, there is discussion about the possibility of “Freedom of Navigation Operations” through the Northern Sea Route. Canada is likely to side with Russia on this question, because they consider the North West Passage Canadian internal waters.

Communications in the far North are still difficult. Recently the Commandant noted the difficulty of maintaining communications with USCGC Healy.

Western nations’ access to the Arctic is limited to widely separated Pacific and Atlantic Approaches. Inevitably we have to see the Arctic as two separate theaters. The Arctic Ocean that we approach from the Atlantic and the Arctic Ocean approached from the Pacific.

While Russia actually has naval bases in the Arctic, Western nations generally do not. The only exceptions are Sortland Norway where the Norwegian Coast Guard has their headquarters and Northern base, and Nanisivik, where Canada has converted a former mining site to a refueling station near the Eastern Entrance to the North West Passage.

The US has no Navy bases in Alaska. On the Atlantic side, the US Navy has no surface vessels based north of the Virginia Capes. The US Coast Guard has no ice-capable vessels larger than large buoy tenders (WLBs) based on the Atlantic side. Basing for future USCG medium icebreakers has not be made public. 

Canada is building eight Harry DeWolf class ice-strengthened “Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships,” six for the Navy and two for their Coast Guard.

Canada has no true naval bases in the Arctic, though their bases are further north than those of the US. Denmark patrols Greenland waters from Naval Base Frederikshavn on the Jutland peninsula. Sweden and Finland extend above the Arctic circle, but they have no coast line on the Arctic Ocean. Iceland is just below the Arctic Circle.

What we can do: 

A comprehensive common NATO operational picture of the Arctic and its approaches is desirable and doable. There are probably economies possible in maintaining air surveillance over the Arctic access points.

Icelandic Coast Guard Cutter Thor. Photo credit: Claus Ableiter

What is in place?:

We have the Arctic Coast Guard Forum.

Denmark has a Joint Arctic Command for the defense of Greenland and the Faroe Islands Area.

Canada has a Joint Task Force (North) and exercises annually under the name Operation Nanook. The US Coast Guard has participated in Operation Nanook at least three times.

Pacific Area Coast Guard, Third Fleet, and Canada’s Maritime Forces Pacific have been in discussion, but it does not appear that the Arctic was high on their agenda.

What we lack:

Seems a good next step would be a standing staff, to maintain maritime domain awareness of activities in the Arctic, and coordinate cooperative international monitoring efforts.

Do we include the Russian? Good question, but they may currently have the best information about what is going on in the Arctic.

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