Analysis & Opinions - Arctic Yearbook

The Return of the Strategic Arctic

| March 2023

During the Cold War, the Arctic was a significant arena for strategic competition and was an important factor in the nuclear rivalry between the superpowers. The Soviet Northern Fleet was based on the Kola Peninsula, in a basing infrastructure near Murmansk. This fleet, and particularly the Soviet Union's large number of nuclear-powered attack submarines, represented a worrisome threat to NATO sea lanes in the North Atlantic that would be crucial conduits of sea-borne reinforcements in any NATO-Warsaw Pact war in the center of Europe that did not end quickly. In addition, most of the Soviet Union's nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) were also based on the Kola Peninsula and used northern waters, including the Arctic Ocean, as operational staging areas when on deployment. Particularly as improvements in the accuracy and lethality of nuclear delivery systems made land-based forces increasingly vulnerable, Moscow's sea-based nuclear forces came to be regarded as its most survivable nuclear assets, the heart of its deterrent capability. Hence, ensuring and enhancing the survivability of its ballistic missile submarines was for Moscow a very high, even essential, priority.

These considerations pulled the Soviet-American and East-West competition northwards. For the Soviet conventional navy, the Norwegian Sea was a transit route and staging area for surging its forces into the North Atlantic. The USSR could not effectively contest NATO maritime power in the Atlantic if it could not operate effectively in the Norwegian Sea. Indeed, the strategic value of substantial Soviet investments in naval capability depended on the state of play in the Norwegian Sea. In addition, the Soviet Union sought to use the Norwegian Sea and waters further north as a protected bastion within which its nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines could operate with greater safety. This bastion strategy made northern waters one of the pivotal military theaters for Moscow, critical to its overall deterrent posture.

Washington had a parallel but inverse set of interests in the Arctic region. In the conventional context, the United States Navy (in league with NATO allies) aimed to keep the potential Soviet threat to NATO sea lanes bottled up north of what was universally known in those days as the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom (or GIUK) gap — the Soviet Navy could not menace NATO sea lanes if it could not deploy its naval assets in force in the North Atlantic. In the NATO conception, Iceland was the cork in the bottle, a centrally located obstacle to free Soviet passage from the Norwegian Sea into the sea lanes of the North Atlantic and an unsinkable platform for NATO maritime air capabilities. Further, an array of sensors deployed across the GIUK gap gave NATO considerable capacity to monitor the movement and location of Soviet naval vessels, a critical advantage in naval warfare. Where Moscow needed the Norwegian Sea to be a highway into the Atlantic, NATO sought to make it a dead-end street, a catchment zone that would impose serious attrition on the Soviet Navy. Similarly, in the nuclear context, Moscow's hope of creating a protected bastion for its ballistic missile submarines came up against Washington's determination to break into the bastion and vigorously pursue the Soviet Union's nuclear-armed submarines. (See, for example, Daniel, 1986, Stefanick, 1987, and Cote, 2003). The United States has never been content to give Moscow's nuclear capabilities a free ride; the more important the SSBNs became to the Soviet deterrent posture, the greater the interest of the US Navy in hunting, tracking, and if necessary, destroying them — and there is some evidence that during the Cold War the United States had made significant advances in its ability to threaten Soviet submarines. (See Long & Green, 2015). There is no doubt that US attack submarines were operating in northern waters, including the Barents Sea and the Arctic Ocean, and by late in the Cold War there was growing attention to issues such as the conduct of anti-submarine warfare (ASW) in the under-ice environment in the Arctic (a distinctive problem because ice formations both impeded freedom of movement of submarines and affected the performance of sensors). "For some thirty years," writes Jean-Louis Lozier, "the Barents Sea and the Norwegian Sea were the scene of intense underwater competition…." (Lozier, 2022, p. 28)....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Miller, Steven E.“The Return of the Strategic Arctic.” Arctic Yearbook, March 2023.