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Climate Change Is Creating a New Battleground as Russia, US Increase Arctic Military Presence

09/03/2015 13:05 | Updated 06 May 2015

Commanders of Russia’s Northern Fleet recently held a competition to see who could orchestrate the best torpedo attack.

Submarine forces battled it out in sub-zero temperatures at the fleet’s main base in Gadzhiyevo, near Murmansk: the north-west tip of Russia along the Finnish border and the Barents Sea. Winners received the Northern Fleet Commander’s prize.

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A nuclear submarine at a pier of the Russian Northern Fleet's naval base in the town of Gadzhiyevo. Photo via Wikipedia Commons

This was the culmination of Arctic training exercises which focused not only on torpedoes but also mines, anti-mine weapons, anti-submarine weapons and electronic warfare. Special attention was given to using torpedoes to open ice to allow submarines to surface and launch missiles.

Welcome to the new frontier, where Russian officers are mastering the art of underwater warfare in the frozen depths of the Arctic.

Climate change is creating this new battleground. As global temperatures increase, annual Arctic ice coverage is slowly melting away. New data released this week shows sea ice thickness is down 65 percent since 1975 directly because of global warming.

With the opening of these polar waters comes the lure of new oil and gas resources, minerals to exploit and shorter trade routes to navigate. Currently, around 10 percent of global oil production and a quarter of gas production takes place in the Arctic – 97 percent of this comes from onshore fields in Russia and Alaska.

It is estimated that undiscovered conventional oil and gas north of the Arctic Circle amounts to 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered, recoverable gas and 13 per cent of its undiscovered, recoverable oil.

Access to these highly coveted resources will be fought over and, with the longest stretch of Arctic coastline, Russia is gearing up to defend its frozen assets.

In the summer of 2013, Russia re-established a permanent military presence in the Arctic. It has reopened Soviet-era military bases and begun construction on a missile early-warning radar in the Arctic. It is also developing new nuclear attack submarines, modernising its forces and creating new Arctic brigades.

And, just last week, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu asserted that a permanent military presence in the Arctic – and the possibility of protecting national interests in the region with military means – is part of Russian national security policy.

It follows President Vladimir Putin instituting a revised military doctrine in December 2014, which, for the first time ever, has named the protection of national interests in the Arctic among the main priorities for its armed forces in times of peace.

But Russia isn’t the only country preparing its defences. Canada, Denmark, Norway and the United States are all looking north.

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Submarine USS Honolulu while surfaced 280 miles from the North Pole. Photo via Wikipedia Commons

America reaffirmed its commitment  to maintaining a military presence in the Arctic this week during an Armed Services Committee hearing. The US Secretary of Defence, Ash Carter, argued that the Arctic should be included in the nation’s defence budget.

“The Arctic is going to be a place of growing strategic importance,” Carter said. “The Russians are active there.”

Republican Senator Dan Sullivan added: “That we would even contemplate taking one soldier away from Alaska is lunacy given Putin’s recent actions in the Arctic.”

In addition, the US Navy released an Arctic Road Map on March 2, detailing how the service will have to increase the number of ships in the region over the next 20 years due to climate change.

Predicting how quickly the ice is expected to melt will help Navy leaders plan how many ships are required. To do so, the Navy has deployed underwater drones to measure temperature and salt content.

This data is then used by scientists to develop more accurate computer models for predicting the future pace of melting ice, explains the Office of Naval Research. But it also proves US underwater drone capability in extreme Arctic temperatures.

Non-Arctic states are also eager to get involved. The UK’s House of Lords released a Select Committee Report, Responding to a Changing Arctic at the end of February which called for Britain to be a “premier partner” in the Arctic.

The committee called for the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to “maintain and develop its cold-weather operational capabilities, expertise and resources.” It added that the UK’s 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review “must give urgent consideration to reintroducing a maritime patrol capability for the UK. This is needed for both defence and search and rescue operations.”

According to the committee report, the MoD recognises that “inter-country disputes within the Arctic, driven by access to, and control over, resources, are possible”. However, it argues that this is unlikely to result in military conflict.

But is it? The committee noted that it is extremely difficult to interpret Russia’s intentions. Current crises in Crimea and Ukraine certainly don’t help ease tensions.

Is the country simply trying to regain the influence it once held during the Soviet era or is it “pushing the ‘sphere of influence’ policy in a way that threatens neighbouring states,” the report asks.

Unfortunately, the Russian Embassy refused to engage with the inquiry; so the committee concluded that: “Russia’s foreign policy has become increasingly difficult to predict, and we cannot be confident that peaceful co-operation in the Arctic will continue indefinitely.”

It’s no secret that at the heart of many wars lies valuable resources, chief among them petroleum. Is it too far-fetched to think this won’t happen in the Arctic?

Kyla Mandel is the Deputy Editor of DeSmog UK, a climate blog dedicated to clearing the PR pollution that clouds climate science.