The effects of climate change are making the Arctic more accessible to economic activity—including exploitation of oil, gas and fish—and increased commercial traffic. Arctic governments have responded with increased attention to the region in several fields, including the military.
However, rather than projecting power over the Arctic as a whole, the increased military capabilities described in the background paper are generally limited to forces and equipment for policing and protection of recognized national territories and territorial waters.
Military build-up occurring but cooperation remains the goal
Military interest in the region does exist. Canada, Denmark and Norway are moving forces into their respective Arctic regions and acquiring weapons and equipment for specific Arctic use. Russia has also started to expand its Arctic military capabilities, while the USA’s Arctic security concerns still play only a minor role in its overall defence policy.
Although some tensions have emerged in the region, cooperation, not conflict, is more visible in the Arctic. Norway and Russia have settled a 40-year border dispute in the Barents Sea and Arctic states are enjoying stable and peaceful bilateral relations. Meanwhile, the Arctic Council is coming into its own as an important sub-regional organization.
The so-called ‘scramble for the Arctic’, whereby Arctic states compete for the region's resources, has not proven to be a military affair. Rather, the littoral states remain committed to follow existing legal frameworks to settle border issues and claims on Arctic exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and continental shelves.
Confidence-building measures could be necessary in the future
‘While some media outlets, politicians and researchers have portrayed these changes in the capabilities of the Arctic littoral states as a significant and possibly destabilizing military build-up, the SIPRI analysis finds no basis for claims of an Arctic arms race,’ stated Wezeman.
Nevertheless, concerns about stability in the Arctic region cannot be discounted completely. Increases in military capabilities and activity, as well as overlapping claims of maritime economic zones and continental shelves in the Arctic, call for additional military confidence-building measures and regulation in order to mitigate risks of suspicion and misunderstanding in the future.
Siemon Wezeman is a Senior Fellow with the SIPRI Arms Transfers Programme. His areas of research include the monitoring of arms transfers, with particular focus on the Asia-Pacific region and North America, and the use of weapons in conflicts. He also researches military technology and transparency in arms transfers. Since 1992 he has worked with the Arms Transfers Programme.
This study is part of SIPRI's project on Arctic security which is made possible by a generous grant from the Foundation for Strategic and Environmental Research, MISTRA. The project is one of several, connected to the MISTRA Arctic Futures in a Global Context programme, administered by the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat.