NATO and the Arctic

Remote Visualization

This series—featuring scholars from the Futures Lab, the International Security Program, and across CSIS—explores emerging challenges and opportunities that NATO is likely to confront after its 75th anniversary.

In the future, NATO should broaden its approach to the north. With the alliance’s center of gravity shifting northward following the accession of Finland and Sweden, NATO should enhance its ability to deter and defend its northern flank.

Unprecedented climate change has converged with Russian belligerence and strategic competition to reshape the security environment of the north. Warming trends are a key enabler for regional activity, which will yield potential for both competition and friction. The U.S. Geological Survey released a Circum-Arctic Resource Appraisal in 2008, estimating the presence of about 90 billion barrels of oil and 1,669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the Arctic. That’s about 22 percent of the world’s undiscovered conventional oil and natural gas, including 13 percent of global oil reserves and more than 30 percent of the world’s natural gas, though about 84 percent is estimated to be located offshore. The Arctic is also a region with trillions of dollars’ worth of minerals, such as silver, copper, gold, nickel, iron ore, and rare earth elements.

With tremendous natural resources and potential as a transpolar bridge connecting the trade centers of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the region is emerging as a key arena for strategic competition. Not only are the eight Arctic states—Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark (Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden, and the United States—exploring economic opportunities, but a number of non-Arctic states have also begun developing commercial and military capabilities to operate in the region. In particular, China has demonstrated significant Arctic ambitions and has a robust scientific research and foreign investment plan in the Arctic. An increasing Sino-Russian partnership should alarm the West.

During the Cold War, NATO’s role in the Arctic was limited. While submarines were active under the ice—particularly near Russia’s strategic bastions—and airspace was monitored for intercontinental ballistic missiles and strategic bombers, the inhospitable climate precluded significant military or economic activity. The collapse of the Soviet Union marked a period of remarkable cooperation among all eight Arctic nations, with the establishment of the Arctic Council and other cooperative bodies.

Yet Russia’s war in Ukraine froze Arctic relations among the eight Arctic states. Indeed, NATO welcomed two additional Arctic states into the alliance, resulting in seven of eight Arctic states—about half of the Arctic—falling under Article 5.

Conflict in the Arctic is not new. Norway has defended its coastline from attacks since the twelfth century. During World War II, the U.S. Aleutian Islands of Attu and Kiska were occupied by the Japanese, while Germans expanded their reach to occupy a large portion of Northern Europe’s strategic ports and mines. Allied convoys fought their way across the North Atlantic, with Iceland serving as a strategic base and resupply missions entering the ice-free port of Murmansk. The Arctic became a dangerous battleground during the Cold War, albeit predominantly under the ice or in the airspace marking the shortest flight path between the two superpowers.

After the peace dividend years enabled years of “high north, low tension,” Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has shattered Arctic cooperation. Indeed, China is now filling an economic investment gap in Russia’s Arctic zone. In addition to increased economic and technological cooperation, the “no limits friendship” is also seeing a greater frequency of Russian and Chinese warships operating together, as they did off Alaska last year. Even the Russian Federal Security Service has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese coast guard to enhance maritime security cooperation.

NATO should accept the realities of a warming Arctic and the emerging Sino-Russian partnership. It is time to reinvigorate the alliance’s approach to the defense of the northern flank. Critically, key enablers should be funded and developed to ensure successful deterrence and defense.

First and foremost, NATO should reexamine command and control in the north. With the accession of Finland and Sweden, it is necessary to reevaluate the Allied Joint Force Command structure and responsibilities to ensure that no seams are present between Brunssum and Norfolk.

Communications and domain awareness should also be enhanced in a region that experiences unique polar atmospheric conditions that diminish the spartan capabilities that exist. The lack of a robust communications infrastructure diminishes the capabilities of units operating in the region. Systems must be optimized for northern latitudes—and extreme cold.

Further, NATO should prepare to respond to a wide array of threats, from hybrid activities that threaten critical infrastructure such as data cables and pipelines to high-end warfighting. The Kola Peninsula is home to some of Russia’s most advanced naval assets—and NATO forces must be prepared to counter them.

The warming waters of the north will further challenge the ability to find Russia’s high-end submarines as the water profile evolves with the influx of fresh water and warming temperatures. It is critical that NATO redoubles its efforts to advance its skill sets in a demanding environment against a determined and capable threat.

Above all, NATO forces should be equipped to excel in the Arctic. Extreme cold, inhospitable weather conditions, darkness, and a lack of infrastructure demand expertise in order to survive—let alone to deter and defend. The Arctic is not a pickup game and requires tailored systems, training, and tactics.

Increasing the size and frequency of NATO’s northern exercises will be critical to ensuring that allied forces hone the unique skill sets required for Arctic warfighting. While exercises and operations like Dynamic Mongoose and Nordic Response are excellent starting points, they should be expanded in scope and complexity.

Though warming, the Arctic will continue to be a challenging region. NATO should recognize the future challenges posed by strategic competition in the region and an emerging Sino-Russian partnership and prepare now to develop the command and control, infrastructure, and capabilities required to successfully deter and defend its Arctic allies.

Commander Rachael Gosnell is a U.S. Navy foreign area officer and strategist currently serving as a military faculty member in the Strategic Security Studies Department of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. Her views presented in this article do not reflect those of the Marshall Center, U.S. Navy, or U.S. Department of Defense. Benjamin Jensen is a senior fellow in the Futures Lab at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and the Petersen Chair of Emerging Technology and professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps University, School of Advanced Warfighting.

Commander Rachael Gosnell

U.S. Navy Foreign Area Officer and Strategist and Military Faculty Member, Strategic Security Studies Department, George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies
Benjamin Jensen
Senior Fellow, Futures Lab, International Security Program