Monday, January 23, 2017

The Arctic Great Game

As Climate Change makes the world warmer, the size of the arctic ice cap during summer months is decreasing [1].  Most of this global warming has greatly benefited Russia's northern coast. Russia's main northern supply line - the Northern Sea Route (NSR) is now much easier to navigate during the summer months. A number of Asian shipping companies  are trying to see if the NSR is a commercially viable shipping lane.

Arctic Sea Routes - courtesy Wikipedia

As the Northern Sea Route has become more navigable and the ice sheet further north has thinned, a number of seismographic surveys of the Arctic are now possible and early studies indicate the presence of massive ONG deposits in the Arctic circle [2]. Russia for its part is now aggressively exploring and exploiting (wherever possible) this ONG wealth, they are keen to supply it to the EU, China and India. The Russians are actively promoting oil exploration in the Shtokman natural gas field in Barents Sea and they have even planted a Russian flag on the sea floor under the North Pole. The Russian enthusiasm is understandable the melting of the ice also makes their sensitive northern coast easily accessible to adversaries. [thanks Strannik_1981]

Crude estimate put the total ONG deposits in the Arctic circle at about 15% of total global amounts. Other nations like the US, Canada, Norway and Denmark are keen to become profit from these opportunities in the Arctic as well. There is talk of new shipping routes emerging by 2050 when the Arctic ice cap finally melts.  These new routes would be about 50%  shorter than current routes which run via the Suez Canal and the Malacca Straits

You would think that global warming is a bad thing - but as fears of peak oil (the point beyond which ONG cannot be profitably recovered from proven reserves) grow - the oil addicted world nervously taps its veins and scrounges in the nearby dirt for its next oil hit!

Unfortunately for all concerned parties - no one truly knows if the pattern of Climate Change (i.e. the reducing size of the Arctic ice-cap) is entirely predictable. No one knows if the shipping routes will actually materialize and no one knows how much of the total ONG deposit is actually recoverable. The result is a climate of fear and misperceptions - kind of like the climate that existed in New Delhi when the British ruled. The Arctic is now ripe for a Great Game just like Afghanistan.

The Russians ofcourse are no strangers to this fact. They have been positioning infrastructure along their northern border for a while now. Unfortunately for them the economic collapse of the USSR led to a serious degradation of this infrastructure and pretty much grounded their vaunted Northern Red Banner and Pacific fleets. As these fleets administer most of Russia's aging submarine nuclear deterrent, the situation has been quite alarming for the last few decades.

Over the last decade however using the NSR and Shtokman as a lure and OPEC-breaking ONG sales as a lever, the Russians under Putin's leadership have been able to rebuild substantial parts of the old North Red Banner and Pacific Fleets. Last year the Northern Fleet (nee NRBF) was able to mount a massive 2000 mile sortie from Murmansk to Kotelny Island and back. Just a few months ago the Kuznetsov and the Northern Fleet left for Latakia allegedly to bomb ISIS in Aleppo but then they still haven't quite made their way back home a month later*. The Russians have also built a significant amount of ground units - that are constantly training in Arctic warfighting techniques. 

The US, Canada, Norway and Denmark are not well prepared for this Great Game. The North West Passage (NWP) which runs via Canadian shores still has greater ice accumulation than the NEP near Russia. There are no large naval bases rivaling the size and strength of Severomorsk along those coasts. Neither Canada nor the US have military units capable of sustained warfare in glaciated conditions. People are starting to pay attention to these issues but coverage is slim.

The Norwegians and Danes do not have the resources to compete with Russia by themselves. An alliance of Scandinavian countries (Norway, Finland, Sweden and Denmark) could possibly come up with enough resources but there is still the question of manpower. Right now  Russia has a sizable military force in Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea in the south and in and around the Murmansk area in the north. If the two tips of this pincer are  pushed upon Putin's command, large chunks of Finland and Sweden would be under severe distress. While there is no direct indication that Putin intends to do this right now - it seems exceedingly foolish to stand around and wait for it to happen.

As part of Operation Atlantic Resolve - Obama Administration put several hundred marines in Trondheim in Norway [3].  These units have been training for the last few years with their Norwegian counterparts but this is just a trip wire force at best. Without air cover and a missile shield - they will meet the same fate as the expeditionary force in ill-fated Norwegian campaign of 1940.

We need to watch this space quite closely as this is exactly the kind of human stupidity that precipitates a major conflict. 

* At the time of writing this the Kuznetsov was slowly making its way across the Bay of Biscay with its tugboat Nikolai Chiker hanging close behind towards its home port in Severmorsk near Murmansk. The Kuznetsov had been observed crossing the straits of Gibraltar at a relatively high 15kts (usually runs at 10 kts) but no black smoke was emerging from its stacks indicating that the engines were either working extremely efficiently or it was under tow. Additionally all ships in the Northern Fleet were suddenly sent south last week and an EAM was picked up the week before. This was reminiscent of a "lost boat" drill. 

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