final logo red (RGB)


International Relations and Defence Committee

Corrected oral evidence: The Arctic

Wednesday 26 April 2023

10.35 am


Watch the meeting

Members present: Lord Ashton of Hyde (The Chair); Lord Anderson of Swansea; Lord Boateng; Lord Campbell of Pittenweem; Baroness Coussins; Baroness Morris of Bolton; Lord Robertson of Port Ellen; Lord Soames of Fletching; Lord Stirrup; Lord Teverson; Lord Wood of Anfield.

Evidence Session No. 2              Heard in Public              Questions 19 - 42



I: Dr Duncan Depledge, Lecturer in Geopolitics and Security, Loughborough University; Lieutenant Commander Dr John Ash (Rtd), Associate Professor, University of Tromsø; Dr Rowan Allport, Deputy Director, Human Security Centre.




Examination of witnesses

Dr Duncan Depledge, Lieutenant Commander Dr John Ash (Rtd) and Dr Rowan Allport.

Q19            The Chair: Good morning. Thank you very much for coming. This is the second evidence session we have had and we are very grateful for your time. Thank you so much.

We are going to focus today on the security threats in the Arctic and the UK and NATOs role in Arctic defence. This is a public session. It is being recorded and there will be a transcript, which you will receive so that you can make any corrections if necessary. I remind members to declare any interests they have. It would be good to introduce yourselves the first time you answer a question.

We will direct questions to one of you to start. Feel free to add anything else that you want to but, for the sake of time, do not feel that all three of you have to answer every question. I think that is all I need to say to begin with.

I will start. The UK Government have argued that the era of Arctic exceptionalism is over, and it might be the focus of increasing competition from the great powers. Do you agree with that assessment and what are the implications of greater military activity in the Arctic for UK security? Dr Depledge, perhaps you could start.

Dr Duncan Depledge: Yes, of course. I am a lecturer in geopolitics and security at Loughborough University. I am someone who has always been cautious about the term Arctic exceptionalism. It was always a little bit overblown to suggest, even 10 or 15 years ago, that there were no security dynamics to think about in the region. We can talk about growing military interest in the region from at least the early to mid-2000s. This has a far longer trajectory. Nevertheless, it is quite clear that there is a growing consensus now that talking about the Arctic in those terms does not make sense any more, given the things that we have seen.

Related to Arctic exceptionalism, there are two other things we should think about. One is the breakdown of circumpolar consensus in the region. The idea that there is a circumpolar vision, a shared vision for the future of the Arctic held by the eight Arctic states, has been lost as a consequence. Increasingly, we need to think about Arctic fragmentation, the idea that we will start to see a break-up of the region into distinct parts, where there will be very different visions about what activity can go on there. This will have consequences for what sorts of military activity we might see.

The Chair: Would anyone else like to add anything?

Dr Rowan Allport: Yes. I think that Russia is definitely in the mindset that there has been a shift. It recently altered its Arctic strategy to remove reference to the Arctic Council entirely, and it now just focuses on national interest issues. It has certainly changed its perspective, almost regardless of what we perceive.

Lieutenant Commander Dr John Ash: I am a retired military officer, having served in the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy. I have military experience in the Arctic. I am currently an Associate Professor at the University of Tromsø and, therefore, an employee of the Norwegian Government.

I agree with my colleagues that Arctic exceptionalism existed to a great extent as an aspiration. We should, none the less, try to preserve and protect the progress that has been made by the Arctic Council, which has been impressive. For some time the Arctic has been an exemplar of political co-operation. However, we should also remember that the Arctic has always been a battle space, and that has never changed. Historically, we can look back as far as the 14th century and it has generally been the case that conflicts have spilled into the Arctic.

I am afraid that security has always taken a very strong hold within the Arctic. It was never the case that there was going to be some kind of zone of peace as long as it was likely that, in extremis, missiles and bombers would be crossing it to hit their targets.

Q20            Lord Campbell of Pittenweem: One thing we have discovered is the difference between perception and reality in quite a lot of the discussions about the Arctic. My question is to Dr Allport. To what extent, if any, has the region been militarised? In particular, now that Finland and, we hope in due course, Sweden are joining NATO, what are the relative capabilities of NATO on the one hand and Russia on the other? Have any other states, apart from members of NATO—and there are questions later about the role of NATO—taken any decisions and indulged in any military deployment?

Dr Rowan Allport: I am a deputy director at the Human Security Centre, a foreign policy think tank based in London.

With militarisation, I think you are looking at two trends. Russia had a significant Arctic deployment during the Cold War, and obviously during the 1990s and early 2000s the Russian military degraded to a great degree. What you are seeing, to a point, is a return to the median with Russias self-defence capabilities and restoring things such as radar stations and airfields. You are seeing a lot of old Soviet facilities being reactivated. While there has been a significant degree of militarisation, it should not perhaps be measured using a 1990s or early 2000s baseline.

More broadly than that, you are seeing a return to militarisation from NATOs point of view. The UK has recently started to increase its deployments of nuclear submarines. There is significant US activity with nuclear submarines under the Arctic. You are seeing not necessarily militarisation, but more recapitalisation with some NATO nations. Norway is buying F35s. It is procuring a number of new submarines. It has just recapitalised with its new P8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft. You are seeing a number of capabilities regenerate there, but there is a limit to how drastic it has been so far.

Sorry, could you just repeat the second part of your question?

Lord Campbell of Pittenweem: It was about the extent to which other countries, beyond NATO countries, have taken steps for military deployment of any kind.

Dr Rowan Allport: Yes, the US is re-upping its Arctic strategy. The US army in particular is now looking north. The 11th Airborne Division in Alaska is now being reconfigured as its lead Arctic formation. As a country it obviously has Arctic territory in Alaska and it has concerns in the Indo-Pacific that are related to that. Historically, it had to deal with imperial Japan and the Soviet Union. These days it has to deal with Russia and, to an increasing extent, China.

You are seeing the US invest in that. It is also recapitalising its coastguard fleet with three new large icebreakers. It is not rivalling the capability that Russia is building up with its new generation of nuclear and conventionally powered icebreakers, but it is certainly aware that there is a gap in its capability and it is moving to fill it now.

Lord Campbell of Pittenweem: I have a brief supplementary. Are any of these deployments able to be described as being in response to Russia, so far as the NATO countries are concerned, or, in Russias case, a response to NATO?

Dr Rowan Allport: It is difficult to tell within publicly available information. A lot of the things that happen are quite literally underwater and are not made publicly available. We do not have public information about Russian submarine deployments. Obviously, they will have a great bearing on NATO activity in and around the Arctic and what assets are deployed there. I do not have access to that information, I am afraid.

Lieutenant Commander Dr John Ash: You asked about other nations. China has deployed to the Arctic. You may recall the visit to Alaska of President Obama, and there was a coincidental deployment of a flotilla of Chinese warships, which I believe was two destroyers, two frigates and a support vessel. It looked principally as a political statement but it was, none the less, to what might be technically classified as the Arctic. As you know, there is no simple definition of the Arctic.

Regarding other capabilities, my colleagues have mentioned improvements to the defence capabilities of the Russian Arctic perimeter. One of those has been the installation of an underwater acoustic detection system. I cannot advise the committee on its capabilities.

Lord Campbell of Pittenweem: Is there any sense in which there is now a race?

Lieutenant Commander Dr John Ash: There is always a race, I am afraid. With technology, it is always the case that rival state parties are looking for an advantage and looking at their own weaknesses. If they cannot counter a particular technology in one way, they will look to do it in another way.

Q21            Lord Teverson: We hear so much about global warming in the Arctic that we tend to think of the north Russian coast as the next Mediterranean Spain or whatever, but it is far from that. It is sometimes said that the only way you keep communities and facilities alive on Arctic coasts is that you need people with at least military expertiseit is that tough out there. Is there a truth to that? Are we overhyping what is going on militarily there or is that just propaganda from the Russian Federation?

Lieutenant Commander Dr John Ash: I would treat that with some reservation. However, the reverse may be true. I draw your attention to Canadian Rangers. They are often First Nations people who have field survival skills in the Arctic. They are legally associated with the army. The equipment that they receive is very minimal. They still provide their own transport but they have a minimal issue of clothing, a rifle, an ammunition allowance and those sorts of things. They teach cold weather survival to troops because that is their skill set. And in a situation, for example, in which an airliner crashed somewhere in northern Canada, they might be the first people who came to rescue you. So those abilities have a military application and in fighting in the Arctic, certainly with ground forces, if you do not have those skills you will not survive. So it can actually be the other way around.

Lord Teverson: Indeed, thank you.

Q22            Lord Soames of Fletching: Was there a cathartic moment in your minds when the spirit of co-operation that used to exist in Arctic affairs definably went out the window? It has just been a period of time, has it?

Lieutenant Commander Dr John Ash: Not really. How can I explain this? You have to co-operate in the Arctic anyway. Let me give you an example: the co-operation between Norway and Russia in the Barents over fishing. That is a fishing stock that migrates across boundaries. To manage it responsibly, scientifically, you have to have communication. We now have a search and rescue treaty. The resources available are not adequate, but it was a great advance.

There can be potentially inflammatory incidents that are solved easily with collaboration. An example was the instance of the Elektron trawler in 2005. Two Norwegian fisheries inspectors were on board and discovered that it was fishing illegally and had broken the rules. The skipper panicked and ran for Russian waters. That is a very serious situation, and consideration was given to landing special forces. The weather was foul and they could have lost them overboard. It was solved with a phone call. They contacted the Russians, who sent a warship out, arrested the vessel and took it back to a Russian port. In the subsequent court case, the skipper was fined a substantial amount of money.

Very often you can solve these issues with collaboration and de-escalate them but, more importantly, for day-to-day survival you need to be talking to your neighbours in the Arctic.

Q23            Lord Anderson of Swansea: On the Rangers carrying out the operations in cold weather training, is that confined to Canadian forces or do they extend their skills to NATO forces, including our own?

Lieutenant Commander Dr John Ash: I am not aware of UK Special Forces or UK forces having been trained by the Canadian Rangers. I believe—I am prepared to be corrected on this point—that the Americans have a collaborative agreement with Canada, but I do not have any details on that, I am afraid.

The Chair: Thank you very much. That was very interesting.

Q24            Lord Stirrup: Good morning, gentlemen. I have a question about risks. What is your assessment of the issues, triggers and flashpoints in the Arctic that could lead to crisis and potentially to conflict? Presumably, there are a considerable number of them, but if you could outline them to us that would be very helpful.

If they were to lead through crisis into conflict, what would the nature of that conflict be? What would it look like, given the answers that you have already given to some of the questions here today about the circumstances?

Dr Duncan Depledge: The things that usually get cited in the media immediately will be that there will be some sort of conflict over resources or over territory. That was a particularly popular narrative back in the late 2000s, but a lot of that was hyperbole and it has calmed down. There is a recognition that those are not the issues that we should be interested in.

For me the key challenge is around the fact that both Russia and NATO countries have perfectly legitimate reasons to be active in the Arctic. The challenge is how they do that while operating around each other in a safe manner, while being able to understand what each other is doing, having a predictable sense of what that behaviour involves and so on. What we have seen, particularly since 2014 but also towards the late 2010s, was a growing sense that that activity was becoming more difficult because some of the behaviour was being a bit more provocative. We might think of GPS jamming coming out of Russia as one example.

It is that potential for accidents, miscalculation and misunderstanding as these two sides are both trying to navigate a similar space; for NATO trying to maintain its access into the Arctic, and for Russia trying to maintain its access out into the Atlantic. As I said, it is perfectly legitimate activity, but as the tensions have ratcheted up there are risks associated with an accident that maybe 10 years ago could have been dealt with quite easily and responsibly. If you have that kind of accident now, you imagine that there would be an awful lot more tension involved.

Lieutenant Commander Dr John Ash: The most likely situation is a conflict that spills into the Arctic. There are things in the Arctic that have been in the past worth fighting for: information, for example. We fought a war over weather information during the Second World War. That was against the Germans. We cut off the supply of information. That is to say we encrypted the weather station reports during the Second World War so that they would be of no advantage to the Germans. The result of that is what has been referred to as the weather war; they tried to install various stations in different locations in the Arctic. One of these was on the east coast of Greenland. It gave rise to the smallest army to participate in the Second World War, an organisation largely of hunters, which eventually gave rise to the modern-day Sirius Dog Sled Patrol, which is a function of Special Operations Command in the Danish forces.

Resource wars are very rare historically. It happens very infrequently. The territorial issues are almost entirely maritime now and those will be solved through the United Nations, through the law of the sea. There was only one terrestrial disagreement in the Arctic and that was over Hans Island, which is a half square mile area of land in the Nares Strait. The disagreement, between Denmark for Greenland and Canada, arose in the rush to submit the papers for the law of the sea applications. Essentially, it was a conspiracy of cartographers. They divided the two lands or the two maritime areas. You have a line, which is defined by a set of geographical points. Because the island is right in the middle of the Nares Strait, they ran the line right up to one end of the island, stopped it and then started another line on the other end. That dispute went on for many years and the rival states, if you can refer to them as that, would visit the island, run up their flag and leave a bottle of spirits for the other party. It became known as the Whisky War. That has now ceased. They have now agreed how they will divide the island.

All the maritime disputes can be solved through the United Nations. What does that leave you? Well, I have looked at some of these scenarios and I have previously exercised one in a tabletop exercise that I wrote for Chatham House. They include the following. The escalation of an incident involving Russian illegal fishing in Norwegian waters. Open defiance by Russia of Norwegian jurisdiction regarding fishing in Svalbard. There is a disagreement regarding the interpretation of the 1920 treaty, and Russia feels that it has not been well served by that.

A demonstration nuclear blast by Russia to signal intent. As you may be aware, more than 120 nuclear explosions have been staged in the Arctic by Russia, principally in Novaya Zemlya, but also three blasts in the Aleutians by America. What would be the effect of this? What would happen? It is very difficult to think of how you could gain an advantage. If you are going to make a political statement, this is probably not the best way of doing it. For a start, where would you undertake the blast? If it is on somebody elses claim, arguably it is not their territory in law as that claim has not been perfected. You could argue that you are simply undertaking this action in a remote part of the world as a demonstration. However, NATO might view that differently because the pollution from the blast may contaminate somebody elses areasomebodys territory.

Inadvertent interaction between NATO and Russian forces during an exercise. The establishment of Chinese port privileges in Greenland, similar to the privileges that China now has in Sri Lanka. I recently wrote a paper on security issues associated with full Greenlandic independence. One of the issues that I think would provoke America would be if a commercial port was established by a Chinese interest in Greenland, if it was a deep-water port and had good facilities so that you could, for example, berth submarines there.

Finally, terrorism. A classic example of that would be an assault on a cruise vessel. That would be very easy to do and make an extreme political statement. It looks as if you are announcing the ability to do something spectacular; in fact, it would be relatively easy because you would not need many resources. You would not need particularly good navigational skills. You would not need a particularly large vessel. All you would really need is a box of anti-tank rockets and you could go up alongside a cruise vessel and just set it on fire. You do not need to get on board the vessel. So terrorism could be an issue there.

Those, my Lords, are the potential in-theatre issues that I have considered.

Lord Stirrup: That is very comforting; thank you.

The Chair: What we would like to know are the solutions, but we will move on to Lady Morris.

Q25            Baroness Morris of Bolton: Following on from those very interesting and comprehensive answers, Dr Depledge, do you think that there is a possibility that any conflicts between Russia and the West in another region might have the possibility of spilling over into the Arctic? It has been partly answered, but are there others further afield that might have a similar knock-on effect?

Dr Duncan Depledge: I agree with what my colleague said. If you look historically at this, in most of the major conflicts in Europe, whenever there has been a regional war in Europe there has been an Arctic dimension to it. You can trace that back to the Napoleonic wars, the Crimean War, the First World War, the Second World War—you can just reel them off. This is where the question about Ukraine obviously comes up. If that escalates into a regional war between NATO and Russia, yes, it is almost bound to spill over into the Arctic.

Dr Rowan Allport: The two regions of the European Arctic and Europe in general are strategically interlocked. For example, one of the interesting things in the debate about Finland joining NATO is that we say, Oh, well, we have this new, lengthy border with Russia. How much of this is a benefit? How much is a liability?. That is often seen in the context of the Arctic. In the eastern European scenario, the standard is of Russia perhaps invading Estonia or the Baltic States, but what we do not perhaps think of is that in a few years, pretty soon, one of the most powerful air forces that will be on call in that region will be in Finland. Obviously, Finland has Arctic territory so the two areas cross over.

More broadly, a lot of Russias capabilities in a general war are based in the Arctic in terms of disrupting NATO sea lines of communication and deploying precision strike capabilities. It would be very difficult to separate the Arctic out from a more general conflict in eastern Europe.

Dr Duncan Depledge: Can I add one more thought? We do not think about it enough but there is also the Indo-Pacific dimension. A conflict in the Indo-Pacific will probably also have an Arctic dimension, depending on the role of Russia and where it might fit into that, coming down from the Bering Strait. We always talk about NATO and the Arctic as the European Arctic and neglect to think about Alaska and what that speaks to on the Pacific side of things. It is just worth acknowledging that it is not just European conflicts; it could be an Indo-Pacific conflict that would spill into the Arctic.

Q26            Lord Teverson: One of the things that we know is talked about a lot—it may be exaggeratedis new sea routes and all that side of things. On a military basis, the Western world, particularly NATO, is very exercised by rights of passage through waters and freedom of navigation. What risks are associated with this? The Greenland-Iceland gap is often talked about. I do not know whether that is an issue; it seems quite a large gap to me. If you take the Northern Sea Route across Russia, it seems to me that the Russian Federation is very jealous about that route. At the moment it is still very difficult to navigate, but in the future that will change. We tend to be very fixated on rights of navigation. Are we in a position in which NATO, or the United States in its own right, will at some point assert its rights under UNCLOS there, and could that be a problem? I am trying to think what some of those areas of potential flashpoints or problems might be.

Lieutenant Commander Dr John Ash: The answer is yes and yes. It has been discussed in the United States and it could well be a problem.

On freedom of navigation, yes, it is a right, and rights have to be exercised and be tested. However, on proposals for freedom of navigation exercises, I urge you to consider the following. First, does this play into Putins narrative of an aggressive NATO? Second, is this a poor ice year for the Northern Sea Route? The ice ablation is not linear but subject to complex physical phenomena, and therefore you get good and bad years. Just because the French manage to get a supply ship through, that does not mean that you could. In fact, the total volume of traffic that goes through is relatively limitedI think 2021 saw a total of 85 vessels; that is the most that have been through. Because it is unreliable, it tends to favour bulk rather than container.

Bear in mind also that there are other aspects of the law of the sea that favour Russia. For example, under Article 26 Russia is entitled to charge you for services, pilotage, ice-breaking and those sorts of things. If you fail to pay, it might be provoked. Under Article 234 on ice-covered seas, it is entitled to bring in legislation to protect that environment. It has been partial in the way that it has applied that law. In the Arctic Sunrise casethat is Greenpeace in 2013it was judged afterwards that Russia had acted counter to the provisions of UNCLOS. However, that is what they did.

Other things that could go wrong: you could lose the legal high ground, particularly in the case of a casualty vessel. Salvage in the Arctic is very challenging. I take the view that there is still much research and development to be done to ensure that it can be done appropriately. Bear in mind that in addition to the Russian laws that you may break, it has a legal personality as a Government. They can sue you: come and take your rubbish away. So there is a lot there that you might lose.

In addition to losing the moral ground, if there is a pollution incident you could be cast in the role of an aggressor or a military incompetent, so there are some serious issues to be considered before an exercise of that sort is undertaken.

Lord Teverson: Do you think that it might at some point? Do you think it will happen, asserting those rights?

Lieutenant Commander Dr John Ash: Yes, I do.

Dr Rowan Allport: I think there needs to be a careful balance between asserting points of principle and playing into a narrative that is favourable to Putin.

One thing that the Ukraine crisis has reminded us of is that our audience, to a large extent, consists of non-aligned countries. They do not necessarily have any particular emotional attachment to either side in this and if we go in, no matter what the legal justification—and, frankly, as my colleague has said, the legal justifications are not as black and white as perhaps the Chinese activity in the South China Sea—we will be blamed by the wider world community, potentially, for escalation and causing problems where previously there were none.

Lord Teverson: That is very useful. Thank you.

Q27            Lord Boateng: Thank you for your evidence, gentlemen, and indeed for your service, Dr Ash.

I would like to ask you about countering threats below the threshold of war. How serious a problem are the so-called sub-threshold threats in the Arcticthe jamming of GPS communications, damage to undersea cables or disruption of military exercises? What is your assessment of those and what might be done to counter them?

Also, from listening to you, Dr Ash, and your references to First Nations peoples, this has come very much to the forefront of my mind. The reality is that in operations in the sub-threshold battlefields, the grey zone as it is often referred to, very often the key tactic of some grey-zone actors is to sow doubt and confusion as to legitimacy and the value of long-standing legal and ethical principles. The point you made, Dr Allport, about how the rest of the world, the non-aligned world, sees this is very significant here. The Arctic Council has become a place where the rights of First Nations peoples have been rightly profiled and given greater emphasis. What is the potential there for malicious actors to sow doubt and confusion as to our legitimacy in relation to those First Nations peoples, whose interests, after all, very often range across territorial boundaries and are deeply rooted in environmental issues where our hands are not always clean?

Dr Rowan Allport: To answer the second question first, on propaganda and persuasion, one area that a lot of people are ignoring is that until recently the satellite communications networks that covered the Arctic were quite poor, and that is currently in the midst of being rectified by a number of private and semi-private providers. That could provide an avenue for influencing the opinions of indigenous people. I think that is something to bear in mind.

Lieutenant Commander Dr John Ash: I have two elements to contribute here. The first is that sub-threshold incidents are extremely serious. If you jam GPS—and the Russians are capable of doing that; unfortunately, the signal strength of GPS when it gets to ground level is very limited—you can overwhelm it quite easily. Bear in mind that in the Arctic the satellites that you depend on are often at very low altitude, so you may be restricted by the terrain. Also, because you are seeing those satellites, if you like, at an angle through a larger distance through the earths atmosphere, there is much more absorption there, so jamming GPS, in an environment in which navigation is difficult anyway, is an extremely serious thing to do. Similarly, so is economic damage associated with damage to underwater cables.

As far as the First Nations element is concerned, trying to subvert them might be more difficult than you think. They gave very loyal service during the Second World War, in both the United States and Canada. There have been concerns that it might be possible to, for example, alienate or stoke up disaffection among other First Nations people, but that might be more difficult in practice than you think. The impression I get is that First Nations have always tried to co-exist peacefully with the states within which they find themselves. Of course, we have made a great deal of political progress both in recognising their rights and their skills, which are significant, and in recognising their territorial rights and privileges. For example, Canada has to a great extent. The wrongdoing of the past in trying to force a culture on them has been recognised and is still being recognised.

Q28            Lord Robertson of Port Ellen: My interests are that I am an adviser to BP and I was Secretary-General of NATO, but NATO does not give former Secretaries-General a pension so I do not think that qualifies as an interest to declare, grossly unfair though it is.

I want to talk about the new relationship with NATO. With Finland and now Sweden coming into membership, clearly the geopolitics of the Arctic have changed quite dramatically. Would you like to speculate now on what NATO will do about it? There is no policy at the moment; it does not appear in the strategic concept. Would you like to talk about that?

Dr Duncan Depledge: It is clear that over the past decade NATOs posture towards the Arctic has very much shifted in favour of giving more attention to the region. In 2009-10, NATO was quite clear that the Arctic was not a priority compared with all the other challenges it had to deal with, whereas from about 2014 onwards the return to Europe and the refocusing on its core tasks brought the North Atlantic and the High North back into the equation. NATO has already been building an interest in the region, and that has been apparent through exercising and other activities.

Where the interesting shift occurred was with the Brussels summit communiqué in 2021, I think, when the High North started to enter the communiqué language for the first time; prior to that, NATO had been very cautious about referring to the High North of the Arctic specifically. This was then reinforced in the 2022 strategic concept.

On where we are going, with Finland and presumably at some point Sweden joining, this obviously gives NATO new resources and new territory to think about in the Arctic, but it also means that NATO has to do some fundamental rethinking about how it will divide up responsibilities and organise the defences of two more nations in that part of the world, whereas primarily it was concentrated on Norway before. There are lots of questions to think about there.

On the NATO command structure, my understanding is that it is very much under debate at the moment as to whether the command that was set up in Norfolk, JFC Norfolk, which was set up a few years ago, is still the sufficient way to go with its focus on transatlantic reinforcement from North America to the Nordics, or whether some other command will be needed, particularly to try to think about how you integrate more of the land component. Of course, Finland is bringing a very large land army to the table. The question is whether JFC Norfolk’s role needs to be developed and built out or whether a change is required in the command structure, and I think that is very much under consideration within NATO at the moment.

Lieutenant Commander Dr John Ash: The enlargement of NATO to include Sweden and Finland changes the military geography entirely. If you have a unified air defence system across the whole of the northern Baltic, you change the ability to defend the North Cape. For example, additional routes for attack become available to you against the northern fleet resources. It is also the case that it is more difficult for Russia to strike at north Norway because the routes that they might have taken from that direction would be pinched off by the air defences. Requiring Russia to defend a much larger territory also means that it stretches Russia’s resources, so it loses comprehensively in its ability to both exert power and do the thing that they are moist passionate about, which is to defend their second strike capability.

Lord Robertson of Port Ellen: These are quite serious implications.

Lieutenant Commander Dr John Ash: It changes the military geography.

Q29            Lord Robertson of Port Ellen: What about China? NATO has only begun to look at China, but China is looking at the Arctic.

Lieutenant Commander Dr John Ash: Yes.

Lord Robertson of Port Ellen: China has already said it represents the commanding heights for strategic competition as part of its strategy for a three-continent, two-ocean geographic advantage. China is now looking very carefully at the implications, especially through space and its ability to dominate in space.

Lieutenant Commander Dr John Ash: China will want to make sure that its commercial routes are properly protected, but there is much more than that. You have to see the Arctic as a battle space; it starts from space and goes right the way through to the seabedall of it. That is a comprehensive system that you have to work with that includes, obviously, the realm of cyber and electronic warfare as well.

If China could access the Arctic Ocean with ballistic missile submarines, that would confer a significant advantage in three ways. First, China would not have to shoot across Russia to hit America. Second, the number of targets China could hit with missiles of the current ranges they have would be enlarged. Third, China could use the Arctic environment to compensate for the disadvantages it currently suffers from acoustically. If you look, for example, at its Type 094 submarine, a ballistic missile submarine, its noise signature is quite significant but you could compensate for that by using the Arctic environment to your advantage, once you had developed those skills.

The problem is: how do you access it? It would be difficult, but not impossible, to get through the Bering Strait. Yes, you could sow it with all sorts of sensors, but there are ways to defeat sensors. The critical issue is climate change. As the ice ablates, one of the key problems in accessing the Bering Strait goes away; part of the equation disappears. For example, the account by Anderson and Blair of the Nautilus trip to the North Pole, Nautilus 90 North, describes the problems they had getting through the Bering Strait where you have ice above and shallow water below, so much so that you have only a few metres above the fin and below the boat. It takes very capable boat handling to do that. If you take the ice part of the equation away, it becomes simpler.

Dr Rowan Allport: One of the consequences of the Ukraine war will be that China has a greater degree of leverage over Russia, and there is potential there for China to exploit that leverage to gain greater access to the Arctic.

Russia does not see China as a benevolent force. It is aware that it has its own interests and security needs, but if it is put in a position where it is perhaps no longer strong enough to deny it access on a level that it wishes, that could have quite significant security implications.

More broadly, it will depend on what global military footprint China is looking for in the long term, and we do not have a clear picture of that quite yet.

Lord Robertson of Port Ellen: But we should worry about it.

Q30            Baroness Coussins: Dr Ash, alongside what you have just been saying about NATO, what specific contribution do you think the UK, given our resources or perhaps lack of them, could or should be making in defence and deterrence in the Arctic? What is your assessment of the capacity of the UK, the US and other NATO states to mobilise forces into the European Arctic if there were a conflict?

Lieutenant Commander Dr John Ash: Our contribution could be significant, in particular the submarines and potentially a carrier battle group, if one was available. The problem with having only two is that you also have a servicing routine associated with it; you must have a maintenance period at some point, so one may not be available.

The P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft are critical. Anti-submarine warfare is something that we can make a great contribution towards. On amphibious warfare, we can certainly provide troops and we have trained to do that with our partner nations in NATO. There is much that we can do. We also provide services for other partner nations. For example, we provide transportation services for the Dutch marines, so they can make a contribution as well. They can be transported by our vessels.

One of the issues that I have considered in the past and that is a matter of concern is what would happen if there were escalation that for whatever reason politically the United States chose not to respond to under Article 5. Under those circumstances, we need to have contingencies in place.

The Chair: On that note, Lord Teverson was next, but you have asked your question already.

Lord Teverson: Sorry, yes. I did not want a supplementary at that particular time, so my apologies, Lord Chair.

The Chair: That is all right. You do not want to follow up?

Lord Teverson: No, the answer was completely comprehensive. Thank you.

Q31            Lord Soames of Fletching: Having spent on two occasions some very disappointing and extremely uncomfortable evenings with the Royal Marines on the Northern Flank, I wonder whether you can tell me what you think—apart from it being very cold—are the specific challenges facing the military capabilities required in the Arctic.

Dr Rowan Allport: The whole gamut, really. Equipment may not respond well to cold or to the kind of damp that it gets. Logistics: friction is added to every process. There may not be the infrastructure there or, if there is infrastructure, it may not be the one that we are familiar with operating. I have mentioned that satellite coverage is patchy, although it is improving. Health and medical support: it is very different treating someone with an illness or injury in extremely cold temperatures, and it may be difficult to pull them out of the region. There are shelter requirements and there are navigation challenges. Obviously, there is a difference between the geographic North Pole and the magnetic North Pole that needs to be compensated for. Then there is navigation: aircraft are often operating over featureless terrain, which is one reason why GPS jamming in particular can be so damaging. You need that support in order to maintain a good picture of where you are.

Dr Duncan Depledge: That is a very good description of the challenges that have been faced for decades in the Arctic. We also need to think about the challenges to come as a consequence of climate breakdown in the region and the fact that this environment will become a lot more unpredictable, extreme and uncertain when we factor in things such as permafrost thaw and the impact that will have on logistics and military basing. We can think about changing precipitation patterns: increased rain, less snow. Those marines who will be out there camped in the snow? No, they will be camping on ice, which is very different and a lot more challenging. Equally, if the ice is thawing, the ground will be boggier and they will be dealing with being wet and cold in the dark. There are all these other things to think about.

The past models and ways of forecasting annual climate variation and what conditions we will face in the Arctic on exercise next year are going to become a lot more unreliable. There will be a lot of change to factor in.

Q32            Lord Soames of Fletching: I understand that the Russians have been stripping their Arctic brigades of equipment to send to Ukraine. Do you know whether that is true?

Dr Duncan Depledge: It is not just equipment. They have been sending personnel from their Arctic brigade, in essence. The last assessment that I saw of this was that the land component of what Russia has on the Kola Peninsula has been significantly degraded as a consequence.

Lieutenant Commander Dr John Ash: And these are highly specialised troops; you cannot just replace them easily. This is one of the worst battle spaces in the world to fight in. The challenges are extraordinary. Anything that can break will break, and that includes human beings. You reach a point, at about minus 40, where flexibles start to disintegrate or become brittle. Metal changes its properties. The weather becomes completely unpredictable. Yes, we can send a carrier up there but would it be able to operate? Think about issues such as whether the cooling water intakes for engines would still work effectively. I do not know the answer to that. I am sure the Navy will be able to give you chapter and verse; it works very hard on it, I am sure, but you will reach a point at which you start to get major problems. At some point, the deck will go out of limits. You will not be able to launch and recover aircraft. Visibility: you will have issues when you are flying solely on instruments. I have in print a paper on aeromedical rescue. The pilots of the helicopters very often find themselves flying on instruments, and not any pilot can undertake those duties. You can take a competent pilot and that person would not be fit for duty in the Arctic.

Dr Rowan Allport: Russias deployment of its Arctic units to Ukraine raises the question of whether it would be in NATOs interests, potentially, to develop a posture where those forces are at least psychologically pinned down in the Arctic and are not available for use anywhere else. That is something to consider in terms of what NATO wants to do and how it wants to impose itself there.

Dr Duncan Depledge: I will briefly add one more line on the human security aspects of this. All those climate challenges that I mentioned will render the human communities of the Arctic increasingly insecure. That could potentially have consequences for the mission set that the militaries deployed to the Arctic will be asked to do, because there may be far more humanitarian response-type missions that they will have to engage in, stretching that resource even further.

Q33            Lord Campbell of Pittenweem: This is a question for Dr Allport. Based on what you have just described about activity in the Arctic having an impact on the capacity of Russia to maintain its presence, what activity do you have in mind? One would have to be pretty careful that it was not something that spilled over into something much more serious than the original intention.

Dr Rowan Allport: It would not be overly aggressive action. What I am saying is that Russia is confident that there is no immediate threat in the Arctic. If it could have that level of confidence reduced in some way, either by periodic deployments or by permanent deployments, that would potentially be helpful, particularly in the defence of Europe. If those troops are stuck there guarding against a NATO operation, even if it is quite a low-probability scenario, they are not available for use anywhere else. I think that is potentially beneficial.

Lord Campbell of Pittenweem: It would require a sufficient amount of personnel on the part of NATO if it was trying to be credible in the way you describe.

Dr Rowan Allport: It would, but I think you could use local forces. That would probably be the best option there. There are also possibilities for deploying long-range standoff munitions that are launched from aircraft and multiple-launch rocket systems that could be put in place there to pose a threat that is not overwhelming but at least puts at the back of Russia’s mind that it is not free to deploy its Arctic resources—particularly ground forces—wherever it pleases.

Lord Campbell of Pittenweem: I am sure they will be listening to this in the Kremlin.

Q34            Lord Stirrup: Can I ask you to confirm a conclusion that I draw from what you have just said, relating back to our earlier discussion on the development of NATO structures and capabilities?

The accession of Finland and, we hope, Sweden to NATO brings important additional resources, but the difficult circumstances you have described with regard to operating in the Arctic, in terms of both materiel and people, mean that it will not be possible for NATO to exercise great flexibility in the movement of its forces. You will require, it seems to me from what you said, forces that are pretty much dedicated, in terms of the people and of their equipment, to operating within that area. This could lead to some important conclusions with regard to NATO force levels. Would that be a fair assessment?

Dr Rowan Allport: Potentially. I would probably say that NATO would be best to focus on enabling capabilities—long-range fires, intelligence gathering and things such as that—and leave the mass to more local forces.

Lieutenant Commander Dr John Ash: Combat in the Arctic is primarily associated with air and sea, because land warfare is extremely difficult. In winter, mobility is extremely restricted. In the summer, very often there is so much melt that it restricts you equally.

As far as capability is concerned, I think we should consider a capability that counters what might happen in terms of threat as opposed to generating something more broad based and focused on threats that we have not considered yet. It is worth while understanding that, yes, it is highly specialised but once you develop a level of professionalism in personnel to deal with issues such as the Arctic, they can probably be adapted to other locations and other theatres.

Lord Stirrup: But not vice versa.

Lieutenant Commander Dr John Ash: No, not everybody is suitable for deployment to the Arctic.

The Chair: Like Lord Soames.

Lord Soames of Fletching: Thank you.

The Chair: Presumably, all the difficulties you have alluded to also apply to any potential enemy.

Lieutenant Commander Dr John Ash: Yes, they do.

The Chair: It is not all doom and gloom in the sense that they have to suffer too, so it is a question of who has the most specialist forces available.

Lieutenant Commander Dr John Ash: The Russians are not necessarily the best at cold weather warfare. I think the Finns taught them that in 1939.

The Chair: Exactly.

Q35            Lord Robertson of Port Ellen: During my time at NATO the American defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, tried to abolish Allied Command Atlantic, which was based at Norfolk, and it was converted to Allied Command Transformation when I rescued it by appealing to the President. Do you think now that the command structure will have to be adapted with this new dimension here? We have no Allied Command Atlantic. There is Joint Force Command at Norfolk. Can you speculate as to whether there will have to be some new command structure taking into account the new NATO members?

Lieutenant Commander Dr John Ash: I have some comments I want to make with regard to amphibious warfare, but I was going to leave those to the end of the session. As for the overall command structure, I do not have any recommendations to make at this time.

Dr Duncan Depledge: I think I set out my thoughts on that earlier. It is a live question about whether you build out JFC Norfolk to do more. It is interesting because listening to some of the Finns talking about it, they would look to America and Norfolk before they would look south to, say, Germany, in terms of where they would get their reinforcements from, the command structure and so on. I think there is an appetite, particularly within the Nordic countries, to keep looking to Norfolk rather than to other potential commands further south in Europe, but that is about as much as I know about the state of the debate at the moment.

Q36            Baroness Morris of Bolton: This has been a fascinating set of supplementary answers to Lord Soames’s question. Dr Ash, you talked about the speciality of troops in the Arctic, but should things escalate for whatever reason, what timeframe are you talking about to get people up to the capabilities they need?

Lieutenant Commander Dr John Ash: That is a critical question because there is not any time. These skills take years to develop. They have to be maintained, though; they are perishable skills. They require the ability to operate specific equipment and to make judgments to protect individuals on the ground. The only thing that we can do is preserve currency in our capability through regular deployments, so that we know we can engage on land, sea and air.

There is also the underwater dimension. It is very important that we retain our ability to deploy submarines to the Arctic. I have done that myself, and it is a different environment in which to work. Submariners are used to using the ocean to their advantage, but it is a different environment and it teaches you a lot. There is no time to grow skills if something suddenly happens. If you consider some of the issues or the potential scenarios that I mentioned to the committee earlier, there might not be time to develop the skills to counter these. We would have to have them ready to go.

The Chair: Thank you very much for that. I think that Lord Wood’s next question has been covered, so we will move on to Lord Anderson.

Q37            Lord Anderson of Swansea: Gentlemen, the context you have described is that of increasing military competition and increased security threats. What in your judgment are the infrastructure implications required in the future to counter this? I notice that in 2018 the House of Commons Defence Committee stated that the relevant capabilities are in high demand elsewhere, resulting in the Armed Forces “struggling to meet commitments and sustain levels of training”. The 2022 policy paper of the MoD stated that in investing in a new generation of anti-submarine warfare frigates, it would focus on “deep interoperability” and foresaw a new High North and Atlantic commitment of a standing response force built around either the Littoral Response Group (North) or the JEF, the Joint Expeditionary Force. What are the likely implications for the availability of resources and the nature of resources of the increased international competition?

Dr Rowan Allport: From an Arctic perspective, one thing that always comes back when I try to analyse the question of whether we have enough to do XYZ is that there are two problems here. First, a lot of the equipment has multiple roles in anti-submarine warfare and Royal Marine deployments. What is dedicated to the Arctic and what would be available potentially if conflict, as we have already looked at, were to start in Europe and then spread to the Arctic? The answer is not a great deal, I think. We are quite thinly spread as it is. Adding a new dimension or expanding the commitment to the Arctic is potentially problematic in terms of what we can do.

The other question is about infrastructure. We may want to look at equipment prepositioning in places such as Finland and Sweden in particular. The US has been doing that in Norway for decades now. That would speed up our ability to reinforce. That is the infrastructure you might want to be looking at.

Lord Anderson of Swansea: Is the new institutional infrastructure foreseen in the defence paper already being planned and under way?

Dr Rowan Allport: As my colleague said, it is an ongoing debate. It is a slow move, but the core elements are there. Whether it is formalised as an Arctic command or whether it is built out from existing institutions is still an open question, though.

Q38            Lord Stirrup: I am not sure we have nailed down completely one very important point from our earlier discussion, which is that the specific requirements operating in the Arctic mean not only that you need the appropriate equipment and the appropriate people but that they need regular training in that environment. We all know that when financial pressures bite, as they nearly always do, training is one of the first things to go. Do you agree that regular training, expensive though it might be, is essential if we are to have those capabilities ready in the event of a conflict and that we will not have time, as you pointed out to Baroness Morris, to play catch-up at the last minute?

Lieutenant Commander Dr John Ash: Yes, certainly. Absolutely. Unfortunately, as incidents arise and as you go to war, you fight with what you have. However, if you do not have recently trained personnel or the right equipment, you are unlikely to prevail.

Dr Rowan Allport: I think that one of the greatest benefits of both JEF as it stands and the potential Arctic command for NATO would be that at some point in the future there will be something else that distracts NATO, potentially across the Mediterranean. There will need to be an anchor so that attention can remain focused on the Arctic, almost regardless of what is happening elsewhere. From an institutional point of view, that would be useful.

Dr Duncan Depledge: There is a certain nuance to add about the geography of all this. Generally, the further north you go, the harder it gets. If you are trained to operate just north of the Arctic Circle, say northern Norway, that might be all very well for that part of the Arctic, but if you were then to go up to the North Cape or something, you would be confronted with very different challenges. I imagine that the conditions you face in northern Norway are probably subtly different to what you might face in Finland or Sweden, or even the Baltics. Think about how that fits into your training as well. It is very interesting that UK forces have expanded their training now. They are not just exercising in northern Norway; they are also going to Finland and Sweden.

Q39            Lord Campbell of Pittenweem: Very quickly, not only do you need the training and the equipment but you need a constant supply of the numbers to be trained and to use the equipment. You will probably recall that when the Government’s papers were published, there was an outcry that we need another 10,000. The very sensible point was made that you should have them only if you have a job for them to do. It seems self-evident from the evidence that you gentlemen have given this morning that there is a job to do, and that certainly would be an argument for ensuring that we have a larger number of personnel than the Government presently contemplate. Do you agree with that?

Dr Duncan Depledge: Yes, I would. Some of this was covered by the Defence Committee in its 2018 report. I served as a special adviser to that committee and I was on the trip out to northern Norway where British Royal Marines were engaged in training US marines, who had basically lost their capability and were trying to get it back. Anecdotally, one of the things I remember hearing from the US marines was that because the turnover of personnel is so high—they come in, they serve for a year, they move on—that skill set is lost immediately. You have to have a very high tempo to keep putting your forces through this training, so that has to be factored in.

Q40            Lord Teverson: Given the fact, as Lady Morris asked about, that you cannot wind this capability up very quicklyand one of the issues we have in the UK is that we are trying to do everything pretty well everywhere, from the Indo-Pacific to the Atlantic or whatevershould we not just say, frankly, that this is not one of our capabilities? We should maybe keep the submarine capability and the ability to operate there, but apart from that we should act in a support way to those other NATO nations that do have these capabilities, rather than everybody stretching themselves out thinly. Is that not a conclusion we should perhaps make from this?

Lieutenant Commander Dr John Ash: I would say no. We certainly need to make choices and to consider priorities, but the Arctic is closer to us than the Indo-Pacific is. I appreciate that may not be politically fashionable at this time, but I have more concerns about what might happen in the Arctic, in terms not so much of incidents arising there but of conflict spilling into it and our ability to deal with that, as it is that much closer to us than, for example, something in the Pacific.

Lord Teverson: I would tend to agree with you, but I wanted to test the argument.

Lieutenant Commander Dr John Ash: This does involves hard choices, of course, but my concern has always been that we must engage only in those tasks that we are able to meet, rather than sending individuals off to do something impossible.

Lord Teverson: Are we saying that we can meet it at the moment, whatever “it” is and however we define it?

Lieutenant Commander Dr John Ash: It depends what it is.

Lord Teverson: Well, tell me. What can we meet?

Lieutenant Commander Dr John Ash: The problem is that you cannot predict wars. Since the ancients, people have tried to predict wars. The only individual who has had any success whatever that I have discovered in the literature or in the academic world is Dr Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, who produced a utility-based model called Policon, which was then developed into another model for the American Government called Senturion. The CIA claims a very high success rate with that. Whether that would apply under these circumstances, considering that they are changing so quickly, I do not know.

The way that you deal with it in risk management terms, and I should perhaps explain that a lot of my work is as a risk scientist, is that you cover both options. If you really do not know that something will happen, the probability is 0.5. Something either will happen or it will not. How do you cover that in military terms? You work for the best and you prepare for the worst. Under those circumstances, you need to choose your operational theatres and develop those, and that is the best advice I can offer.

Lord Teverson: Should this be one of them?

Lieutenant Commander Dr John Ash: I believe so, yes.

Q41            The Chair: Moving on from that, and we want to put you all on the spot finally, in their Arctic policy do you think that the UK Government have set the right priorities as they have outlined them? Are there sufficient resources to achieve that policy? This is why we want to put you on the spot: what is one key recommendation from each of you to improve the UK policy towards the Arctic?

Lieutenant Commander Dr John Ash: I will answer last, if I may, gentlemen.

Dr Rowan Allport: As my colleague indicated earlier, we need to know what “it” is. Is there a metric that the UK Government can attach to this? For example, the Army always has this ambition of deploying a war-fighting division. That is possible to assess in a relatively straightforward way. What capabilities are we looking to take to the Arctic and to the High North? If we could get a firmer answer on that, that would give us the ability to better understand what we can do. I would personally argue that, no, there are obviously significant shortfalls. We have not procured enough anti-submarine warfare aircraft. We are not planning on procuring enough airborne early warning aircraft, for example. Again, a quantifiable metric would help.

As for recommendations, it is fairly top level but I would say, whatever you are planning to do, come up with a version of the plan that does not require the US to carry the heavy load. I am perhaps less concerned with regard to domestic US politics. I am more concerned with any action that the US may get involved with in the Indo-Pacific with regard to China and particularly Taiwan. Whether the US is actively involved when we perhaps need its assistance in Europe, or has just come out of a conflict, it will either be distracted or exhausted and severely depleted. While I cannot see it cutting us off entirely—it would provide enablers and things like that—we cannot just expect it to be the cavalry to come riding to the rescue if a major conflict were to ensue.

Dr Duncan Depledge: That is a very important point that my colleague has just made. From a defence perspective, and we were leading into that discussion towards the end, the division of labour piece is the one that still needs to be considered, particularly with Sweden and Finland now. I and others have offered this concept of a wider north rather than a High North, which is about thinking through the North Atlantic, the High North, the Baltic and the Arctic as one space and then, within that, trying to figure out which bits you will contribute. There is that angle.

Related to that, there is a diplomatic piece that we have not touched on in too much depth today but is still worth considering. That is where the rest of the world fits into this picture. Going back to the first thing I said about the fragmentation of the Arctic, there are now probably at least two visions of what the future of the Arctic should look like, and I do not think the West should take any comfort from Ukraine that its vision is the one that the rest of the world will necessarily opt for, shall we say. In that sense, it is not just about engaging with our allies and partners; it is also about how we will bring the rest of the world along with our vision of what the Arctic should look like. There might be a role for the UK to have an Arctic ambassador or something to perform that function.

Lieutenant Commander Dr John Ash: May I please make two pleas to the committee? First, we have had an aircraft carrier holiday and an MPA holiday. Can we please not have an ammunition holiday? I speak particularly about precision-guided munitions. You have to have something with which you can fight, and it must work in all environments.

The second thing I would like to bring to your attention has to do with the Littoral Response Group; that is to say, our amphibious capability with specific regard to the Arctic. Some of you may be aware of and influenced by the work undertaken by RUSI and published in 2019 in an occasional paper on which the Littoral Response Group concept is based. I published my own observations on that in 2022 in a peer-reviewed journal outlining the severe shortcomings in the analysis and the critical errors that had been made in identifying the vulnerability of amphibious forces engaging on an anti-access/area denial penetration operation. I ask you, please, to give that consideration. I am more than happy to brief CGRM or any other person separately if that is your wish.

The Chair: Very good. Thank you very much. Do we have any other follow-up questions?

Q42            Lord Anderson of Swansea: It is not directly a follow-up but it is about the position of Canada. In the past, Canada has stressed national sovereignty to mean rather a brake on NATO involvement in the Arctic. To what extent has that position evolved?

Dr Duncan Depledge: There has been a lot of movement on the Canadian side, probably since the Trudeau Administration took over. It was very much a Harper Administration position that this was all about Canadian national sovereignty. From about 2016 onwards we have seen a shifting of the Canadian position and a readiness to allow more allies to come to Canada and to the Canadian Arctic. There was the visit of the NATO Secretary-General last autumn to the Canadian Arctic, where he spoke very much about NATO’s Arctic commitment. That was a complete change in the discourse around Canada, NATO and where it sits in the Arctic. The challenge still to be resolved is where the responsibilities of SACEUR end and those of NORAD begin, and what happens where they meet, essentially, in that seam.

The Chair: That is very kind. Thank you so much for all your very insightful remarks and particularly for the recommendations. We definitely have the message that the Arctic is a difficult place to operate in. We need training anywhere a military force is, but particularly in the Arctic because of the difficulties there.

I remind you that will be sent a transcript that you can look at. On that basis, I will thank you again and declare the public session closed. Thank you so much.