Britain’s long history of Arctic operations won’t end anytime soon | Polarjournal
The good guys don’t just wear white (Photo: UK Ministry of Defence)

When the British defence ministry says in its recently published policy paper, the UK’s Defence Contribution in the High North, that it is a close ally of “almost all” of the countries of the Arctic, it does not take much reading between the lines to figure out that what that really means is “everyone but Russia”. 

Indeed, long before Russia began waging war on Ukraine on 24 February, it had been on the radar of not just the UK, but all of the members of Nato and the alliance’s allies in the North as a potential threat; firstly, this was because of its on-going military build-up in the region; secondly, the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the subsequent violence it instigated in eastern Ukraine showed how the Kremlin might use those forces. One worry was that Svalbard might be the next Crimea. 

The most recent big Nato exercise, the month-long, 27-country, Cold Response, underscored this concern — and the fact that it has not a knee-jerk reaction. The alliance has been at pains to point out that the biennial exercise has been held in northern Norway since 2006, and that it traces its roots back to exercises that have been held there since the 1950s. Planning for this year’s exercise began well before Russia began moving troops the Ukrainian border. The point of inviting foreign forces to trian in Norway, according to the country’s military, is to give them experience fighting in cold weather and to teach them the lay of the land, both of which could prove decisive, should Norway ever be invaded. (The only realistic candidate to do this would be Russia.) 

Not so good in the Norwegian wood (Photo: Nato)

For the UK, participating in Cold Response was a chance to display just how important the High North (an area it defines as not just the Arctic but also the North Atlantic, since it serves at the maritime gateway to the region) is in its military thinking, and vice versa: HMS Prince of Wales, Britain’s largest warship, was chosen to serve as command vessel of the forces taking part in the naval portion of the exercise. Perhaps as much of a statement, though, was the decision by the defence ministry to publish its policy paper in Norway as Cold Response drew to a close.

Combining the two amplifies the defence ministry’s previous warnings that the region is becoming an area of increasing military competition, and that, given the potential impacts that could have on Britain’s own security, it is ready to send more forces north, and it believes that Nato should be prepared to do the same. Britain has already been sending its ground and air forces to Norway for cold-weather training for years, but in, 2020, it resumed its routine naval operations in the region, and now occasionally sends ships there as part of what are known as “freedom of navigation” operations, making sure that another country’s navy is not making it hard for foreign vessels to sail in an a particular, often contested, area.

Paying more attention to the North will mean even more activities of this sort, just as it will see Britain establish a unit that, according to the paper, is “optimised” for fighting in the region. It is also planning to carry out aerial and naval surveillance missions there. “The UK armed forces will be doing more with our close Arctic allies and partners,” Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, said at the time of the presentation. No need to read between the lines there, at least.

Kevin McGwin, PolarJournal

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