The northernmost polar region has been of interest to surrounding countries since the Cold War.
Today, with climate change, a global supply chain crisis, and the war in Ukraine, the inter-state relations in the Arctic are ever so important to look at. And not just for the big powers of the world, but also from a Danish and Greenlandic perspective.
We’ve had a talk with the Senior Vice President of Surveillance and Mission Systems at Terma, Thomas Blom, and Managing Director of Naval Team Denmark and former head of the Royal Danish Navy, Nils Wang, about these geopolitical challenges.
What do the new and more open pathways through the North Arctic regions mean geopolitically?
This article takes a look at the North Atlantic and the Arctic High North from an operational perspective – seeing the area as a whole.
Maintaining and Gaining Power
Why is the Arctic region getting increasingly more interesting?
According to Nils Wang, it is predominantly because of one word: power.
But, unlike previously, the power disputes of the Arctic are no longer just for the Arctic five (Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United States), but also China is showing great interest in the Arctic region:
“The world is getting more and more bipolar in a power distribution sense and with US and China as the big poles in the power game. And then you of course, have Russia, not least in Europe right now showing their wish to become looked upon as a great power,” Nils Wang explains.
The Arctic, that for a while has been quiet and uninteresting, is today part of a larger game of power. The area has become the scene for power disputes, which is why the Arctic needs security on the same level as other regions in the world.
Another reason why the Arctic is attractive to look towards is the revealed new northern sea route.
A New Northern Sea Route and Resources
Everyone has their eye on the Arctic because of the rivalry and because the Arctic has become increasingly more accessible.
The retraction of the ice creates new opportunities for sea transportation, and for extracting extra resources:
“The present situation with the war between Russia and Ukraine, and the supply chain challenges for many companies and industries are looking towards regions rich on resources. The Arctic and Greenland are containing the whole periodical system of resources,” Nils Wang explains.
The revealed new Northern Sea Route creates a heightened interest and focus on the Arctic. Climate changes have paved the way for new routes for the transportation of goods. The Northern Sea route along the Russian coast is open in more extended periods of the year, which has resulted in an increase in goods transported through the waterway.
The expectation is that in the next five, ten or fifteen years, we will see even more traffic through this route. However, the heavier sea traffic will create more tension:
“Where you have sea traffic, you have choke points and where you have choke point, you have strategic tensions. This is part of the reason why the Arctic is being normalized, when we are discussing security policy and tension,” Nils Wang says.
In the future this will mean new international straits, like the Strait of Hormuz, the Danish Straits, or the Malacca Straits. It is expected that straits in the Arctic will appear and be of great concern, as Russia probably will be claiming the Northern Sea as their territorial water, while the rest of the world will claim that it is not. These are some of the discussions popping up due to the changes happening in the Arctic.
But another question is how does this development affect Surveillance strategies in the Arctic?
The Cold War and Why Surveillance is Important
The interest in the Arctic is making an impact on the investments in surveillance technology. These investments stem from the second world war and the Cold War in the 50’s, when the Arctic was an interesting touchpoint for Russia and the US, where they would touch – literally.
“The shortest path from Russia to the US is through the Arctic region over Canada and Greenland. That is why there was a huge focus on the Arctic during the Cold War in the 50’s [for] bomber aircraft and, later, missiles. [This] became the origin of what is known as the Thule Base today – a ballistic missile defense,” Thomas Blom explains.
After the Cold War ended collaborations, the Arctic region has been quiet. However, the modern circumstances create a new arena for power disputes.
When it comes to keeping the rights to a territory, the ability to have a presence and have surveillance in the area is historically important. The Danish way of showing our presence in Greenland and around the coast, back in the day, was with the Sirius dog sled Patrol; a patrol that is still operational today. Through history nations needed to prove their right to a territory through actively being present and having surveillance. This is still the case today.
This can be done most effectively through a mission system collecting all data of interest from a combination of sensors in space, on land and at sea:
“A mission system is all about data management – taking all the input from the sensors and human intelligence and combining it to get an understanding of what is in the territory in the air, on land and below the sea’s surface,” Thomas Blom explains and adds:
“It’s all about enforcing your sovereignty. If you don’t enforce your sovereignty, somebody else will exploit that weakness.”
However, making mission systems and adequate surveillance in the Arctic is very different than anywhere else. The Arctic environment is characterized by a harsh climate with a varying terrain and extreme variations in temperatures and light, alongside extensive snow and ice cover during winter.
This means there is a need for new and updated ways of generating surveillance technology.