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International Relations and Defence Committee

Corrected oral evidence: The Arctic

Tuesday 11 July 2023

11.05 am


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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. 11              Heard in Public              Questions 121 - 132



I: Rt Hon James Heappey MP, Armed Forces Minister, Ministry of Defence; Sebastian Carr, Head of Europe and Canada, Directorate of Euro-Atlantic Security, Ministry of Defence; Brigadier Chris Ordway, Royal Marines Officer, Ministry of Defence.



Examination of witnesses

James Heappey, Sebastian Carr and Brigadier Chris Ordway.

Q121       The Chair: Thank you very much for coming. We appreciate the time, given that you are extremely busy. This is the committee’s 11th public evidence session in its inquiry into the Arctic. We are going to focus on the Ministry of Defence’s approach to the Arctic and its assessment of the potential for conflict in the Arctic region.

This is a public session that is being streamed live on the Parliament website. We will give you a transcript afterwards to make sure you are happy with what is in it. If members have any interests pertinent to the inquiry, please declare them when first speaking.

We have had evidence in our sessions that there is a worry that other conflicts could escalate and reach the Arctic. I wondered whether you agreed with that. Within the Arctic itself, what do you consider to be the issues, triggers and flashpoints that might lead to conflict? Lastly, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has changed a lot worldwide. Has this led to the Government’s decision to revise their view of the risk of conflict in the Arctic?

James Heappey: Thank very much indeed for having us. Before I respond to those introductory questions, I will just introduce Seb Carr, who is the head of the Europe and Canada team in the MoD, and Brigadier Chris Ordway, who is the head of the Euro-Atlantic security team. They are the pol and mil leads on our High North policy in the department.

To answer your initial three questions, it is eminently possible that a conflict that starts in one part of the world might escalate into another. That is what we have seen repeatedly. It underlines the importance of the High North to Russia that, whereas every other military district has been ransacked for the purposes of resourcing its war in Ukraine, the Northern military district has seen very little movement away from it. That goes to show just how important the north is to Russia and thus why we in NATO must have regard for the High North as a potential point of challenge.

The risks of the war in Ukraine escalating outside Ukraine full stop, be that into anywhere else in Europe or beyond, are pretty minimal. Russia is very clear on the overwhelming supremacy of NATO, and therefore it is in its interests as much as anybody else’s that the war remains contained within Ukraine.

The triggers for conflict in the High North are numerous, a number of which are probably above the classification of this evidence session, but suffice to say that the High North is strategically very important to the Russian navy. My guess is that it that it is just another point of potential competition and confrontation between NATO and Russia.

More than that, I am sure that we will come in the session to the opening up of sea routes and the fact that the High North is probably becoming ever less remote as a consequence. It is still a very difficult place to do your sailing, but, as it becomes ever more relevant as an international seaway, one can see how challenges to freedom of navigation might lead to rising geopolitical tensions.

We can discuss whether those tensions play out physically in the High North. There is the obvious and enduring fact that NATO’s frontier goes from the North Pole all the way down to the Mediterranean, and arguably further south than that. Then there is this reality about the High North, through growing levels of navigation and potentially through the opening up of resources, becoming a point of competition and confrontation in its own right.

How do we respond to those risks? The Royal Navy has, for the last couple of years, been fairly routinely going up into the Norwegian Sea and, on occasion, the Barents Sea, alongside other like-minded partners, occasionally under a NATO flag and occasionally just as a task force of similarly minded nations, to demonstrate our right to be in that part of the world. There is a danger of ceding your freedom of navigation in an area that Russia self-defines as its bastion when actually they are international waters and everybody has a right to be there.

We make sure that we challenge and assert our rights to be in those parts of the world. We look at the capabilities we might need in order to operate more effectively there. For example, the Royal Air Force has in the last couple of years, on a number of occasions, pulsed jets up into Norway and rehearsed operating from a non-home base in Arctic conditions, which extends our range in that region. The carrier was up in the Norwegian Sea last autumn, again to test that capability in Arctic conditions. Our ice ship is ever busier, in both the Antarctic and the Arctic. Of course, there is also what the Royal Marines do in Norway. The Army does winter tours of Estonia, and there are lots of opportunities to develop Arctic warfare skills in the regular Army as well.

Across the piece, there is a growing acceleration of the recovery of many of the capabilities that were widely held during the Cold War. While the focus has been Iraq and Afghanistan, the need to be able to operate in the cold has been less pressing. Those are being recovered. Across NATO, all allies, quite similar to us, are regrowing those capabilities and making sure that, as an alliance, we are able to manage the risks wherever they may come, whether that be on the northern flank, the southern flank or in the middle of the continent.

Q122       Lord Robertson of Port Ellen: I am not sure whether it is relevant, but I am an adviser to BP. I declare that at the beginning.

There is an increasing militarisation in the Arctic level, as you say. The Russians claim it to be defensive; it can easily be seen as being offensive. In the MoD’s policy paper on the High North, a lot of attention is paid to the protection of underwater communications and critical national and international infrastructure. How will we be able to deter any action that might be taken against undersea cables, especially in that region? What co-operation do you see us having with the private sector in protecting our national infrastructure?

James Heappey: A lot of our response to that sits above “secret” and is therefore not for discussion in Parliament. Those involved in developing subsea critical national infrastructure, be that fibre-optic cabling or energy infrastructure, will increasingly have to have regard to the necessity of being able to monitor those networks and seeing where they may have been sabotaged or be at risk of sabotage. That cannot be an entirely military endeavour. The military cannot be held responsible for every inch of the cabling that runs through the City of London or Wall Street, for example.

That said, we very obviously need military capabilities that can survey that critical national infrastructure to understand whether it has been tampered with in any way. The Royal Fleet Auxiliary is bringing into service at the moment ships that have the ability to mount those sorts of missions and launch those sorts of submersibles. It is an area of capability that we are developing at pace, the details of which, as you know very well, are probably ones that are not necessarily for the Russian embassy to be handed on a plate.

Lord Robertson of Port Ellen: I am sure they are watching the live stream of this. Lord Stirrup and I know only too well the sensitivity of some of these issues. On the other hand, undersea cables and the protection of them, especially after the attack on Nord Stream, have become very public issues. In what way can you reassure the public that we have sufficient deterrent capability in place to make sure that critical international and national infrastructure will be secure?

James Heappey: RFA Proteus is in Portsmouth getting her respray, if my memory serves me correctly. Residents on the south coast will see very visibly a merchant ship being resprayed grey. That will shortly enter service with the Royal Fleet Auxiliary as part of this programme. There is a very visible investment in these sorts of capabilities.

It is strange. At a time of heightened geopolitical tension, when there is a war in Europe with which Russia is involved, the most visible investment is not stuff with lots of guns and missiles; it is stuff to get after that sort of threat. That definitely feels like the priority. In a shooting match with NATO, Russia does not win. It is the sub-threshold stuff where Russia can be a menace and can threaten our strategic interests. That is why there has been investment in the last couple of years in the skills and, with some of these new Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships, in the hard platform capability to be able to mitigate those threats.

Q123       Lord Stirrup: Minister, good morning. Can I take the question of capabilities a bit further? To an extent, the degree to which we invest in different capabilities depends upon the priority we give to that particular capability. As you said and as we have heard in evidence, the High North and the Arctic are not easy places in which to operate. Even with global warming, it is not suddenly going to turn into the Mediterranean. It is extremely demanding.

The Navy only has one ice-protected ship and no icebreakers, and yet the Arctic is clearly becoming an area of much greater importance than it has been for quite some time. Is that sufficient? Should we invest more in that sort of capability? The submarine force is very low on numbers. Clearly, underwater capabilities will be crucial in that area as well. Although everyone is agreed in policy terms that the Arctic is becoming more important, is the investment in capability following that argument sufficiently in the case of our own Armed Forces? In this instance, I am looking particularly at the maritime domain.

James Heappey: Yes. When one does an evidence session specifically on the High North, it becomes very easy to think that all capabilities must revolve around the High North. There is a balance to strike between the different theatres within which we may need to respond to challenges against our national interests. Some of those might be sub-zero, but others might be very tropical indeed. Therefore, it is important not to specify ships to be extraordinarily capable in one environment to the exclusion of their capability in another. If we specify them to be extraordinarily capable in both environments, we will only be able to afford one, not six. There is always a balance to strike. Within NATO, there are a number of nations that do operate full-on icebreaking capabilities and a number of other nations, us included, that have ice-hardened shipping. Within NATO, therefore, there is the right blend of capabilities to be able to operate in the maritime domain in the High North as an alliance, as that sea-route opens.

In other domains, clearly, there is a need to reinvest in skills. For marines and soldiers, it is predominantly a skill thing rather than a platform thing. On the Air Force, I once, just to be sure, checked with one of your successors as Chief of the Air Staff whether there are any differences between flying above the Arctic and anywhere else, to which he looked at me with a wry smile and said, “No, sky is sky”.

In the platform space, this is principally a maritime thing. The ability to operate under the ice is very classified. It is a capability that we may or may not have. The ability to break ice is not something we have identified as a requirement for ourselves, but, clearly, the importance of ice-hardened hulls is as relevant as ever. Within NATO, we are confident that the wider capabilities for icebreaking exist.

Lord Stirrup: As somebody who flew in the Arctic skies during the Cold War, I can confirm the accuracy of that statement. I take the point about NATO. Do we train sufficiently in the maritime environment with the nations that have these capabilities to ensure that, should we need to operate together effectively in those very difficult environments, we are able to do so at short notice?

James Heappey: Yes. The grey-hulled warships tend to be exercising in the high North Atlantic or in the Norwegian Sea, which are challenging sea conditions. Going further around, beyond the Barents Sea and into the White Sea, even if that were within international waters, has not happened in the last few years. I am not sure it happened very often during the Cold War either.

There are opportunities to rehearse these things in less contested waters in the Northwest Passage on the north of Canada. “Protector” cuts her teeth every year down in the Antarctic, but the skills she gains down there and the capacity of her ship’s company from what they do in the austral summer is clearly very relevant, were she to be called upon to assert our freedom of navigation in the High North as well.

Q124       Lord Campbell of Pittenweem: Minister, I am rather encouraged by the fact that the High North strategy of the MoD at the moment talks about examining options to bolster cold-weather capability to ensure Arctic-appropriate equipment, environmental support and infrastructure are all developed and maintained. We could all subscribe to these objectives.

We had some rather interesting evidence at one stage to the effect that so taxing are the conditions of service in the Arctic that we would be well advised to consider whether we should have units whose sole purpose was to serve in the Arctic. That would be a very high degree of specialisation. No doubt, if we were to proceed toward it, it would engender a certain amount of political response from elsewhere. If it is such a particular and special responsibility, is it not sensible to consider whether we should have a unit whose sole purpose is to fulfil that responsibility?

James Heappey: I will let Brigadier Chris come in with some military reflections in a second. I do not know whether a military the shape and size of the UK’s should have units that are specific to a single environment. We should and increasingly we do have units that have real specialisation. Although the Royal Marines are perfectly capable of hopping across islands in the Second Island Chain with the US Marine Corps, they also invest an awful lot of time every year being expert in the Arctic.

As I said, Operation Cabrit in Estonia rotates twice a year, every year. We are now six years or so into that operation. On every winter tour, the infantry battalion or the cavalry regiment that is there gets lots of people through Arctic warfare instructor courses and develops cold-weather fighting skills. I would rather see a broad base of that capability.

That is also more useful to SACEUR, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, if the UK division is likely to be fighting within the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps with a focus on the Baltic coast and northwards. You want to get to the point where everybody has some degree of experience in that environment rather than just one or two units that are absolutely expert. Chris, do you want to offer any reflections?

Brigadier Chris Ordway: As a marine I am going to say this, but we never stopped having troops who specialised in mountain and cold-weather warfare. We had that through the 3 Commando Brigade during the Cold War. Even through the Afghanistan and Iraq years, we maintained that. We never lost the ability to have troops who were specially trained. We may have reduced that to a certain degree, but we then rebuilt it when the opportunity arose.

It is the same for the capabilities that come with that in the Rapid Response Brigade. Yes, air is air, but aircraft have to land. Being able to operate and maintain aircraft in those extreme environments requires continual training. Again, we never stopped doing that. That ability has never gone; we have always maintained a specialist capability.

Would you then want to use those highly trained troops and preserve them purely for that eventuality? That is a judgment for Ministers, but, given the other reasons you may need to use those highly trained troops, that might not be what you wish to do.

Lord Campbell of Pittenweem: Let me ask the question in a slightly different way. At the moment, are you increasing the frequency and scale of cold-weather training, given the increasing importance of the Arctic?

James Heappey: Yes, and across all domains. The number of frigates that have painted their bows blue because they have been up into the Arctic Circle is the highest it has been since the end of the Cold War. The Air Force is pulsing up into the High North ever more frequently in order to rehearse the operation of complex fast jets in very austere cold environments.

The size of the exercises the marines have been engaged with, added to growing levels of regular Army involvement in Estonia, Finland and Sweden, has meant that the number of people with recent experience of operating in Arctic conditions will be higher now than at any point since the early 1990s, I would guess.

Lord Campbell of Pittenweem: Will you maintain that?

James Heappey: Yes.

Lord Campbell of Pittenweem: We heard it here first.

Q125       Baroness Coussins: Good morning. What can you tell us, Minister, about how the UK’s and NATO’s approach to defence in the High North and the Arctic is responding to the accession of Finland, and shortly Sweden, to the Alliance? How sustainable is the Arctic’s official designation as a region of low tension, given Russia’s increased militarisation and the potential for all the rest of the Arctic states all being in NATO and that being seen by Russia as de facto militarisation, whatever the actual intent?

James Heappey: I will bring in Seb and Chris on this in a second, because it is fundamentally their job to understand this stuff. The fact the Arctic Council has gone from having three countries that are not NATO members to one country that is not a NATO member in the course of a year is nobody’s fault but Putin’s. We should not have tons of sympathy that they now find themselves in a club of one on the Arctic Council. We should also question any allegation that the simple fact of NATO membership equals militarisation by comparison to the very overt militarisation of the Arctic that Putin has been indulging in over the last few years.

In fact I will pause there. Otherwise you will not hear the brilliance of Seb and Chris. I will hand over to Seb.

Sebastian Carr: Thank you, Minister. It is worth noting that the Arctic Council since its inception has not had a role in military security. It has excluded itself from that quite deliberately, and that remains the case to this day. Yes, you have seen a change in the membership. Seven of the eight are now in NATO or will shortly be in NATO. That does not fundamentally change what the Council is for, how it operates or how it will operate. We still continue to look to the Arctic Council as the main forum for discussion of Arctic issues to this day.

Brigadier Chris Ordway: I would almost flip it around and look at Russia’s perspective and how it is focusing its interests in the North. It has established the joint command so that it is able to command and control the North and is establishing bases. On the accession side, that increases our ability to work together. The increased interoperability that you talked about becomes easier than it was before, which therefore increases the pressure on Russia to treat this as a low-tension and high-interoperability region because everybody else can work together.

James Heappey: The most startling thing about Sweden and Finland’s accession, beyond the pure geopolitics of it and the fact that for the entire Cold War they stayed out and now they are in, is this doubling of the length of the NATO-Russia land border. The bit that NATO has gained is a High North land border. It is the Finnish border.

On the one hand you would think, “Gosh, that brings with it a real requirement to think particularly about NATO’s land capabilities, to make sure that within the Alliance there are the capabilities to service the Finnish and Swedish borders”, but in reality Sweden and Finland are net contributors to NATO. There is no doubt about it. The expertise they have is extraordinary.

My old battalion was in Estonia as part of the doubling up of our contribution there in the wake of Putin’s invasion. They sent the reconnaissance platoon across to Finland. They were going to exercise in a forest. UK doctrine is that exercising in a forest means a forest that is a kilometre or so long, with cut-offs at either end, and you clear it knowing there is no seepage. The forest in Finland is the entire country. There are no cut-offs.

The expertise that Finland and Sweden have in fighting in their own domain means that they will be net contributors to the Alliance as a whole and will teach the UK Armed Forces and others, who need to learn to operate adequately in that environment, an enormous amount. We are already seeing an enormous benefit from those relationships.

Q126       Lord Anderson of Swansea: There was already very close co-operation between NATO and Finland and Sweden. How major a jump is formal membership from the situation that currently exists, with joint exercises and so on?

James Heappey: I will turn to Chris, because he sees it with a pair of military eyes, and he will see things that I do not. My instinct is that the interoperability between the Finnish, Swedish and NATO armed forces is already extraordinarily good. I would imagine that their accession will be pretty seamless purely from the perspective of the interoperability of military capabilities.

Clearly, the big difference is that there is a whopping great bit of landmass that now has Article 5 applied to it. In the Supreme Headquarters in Brussels and at Brunssum and/or Norfolk, there is a discussion within NATO about how the High North will be commanded and controlled. They will have to revisit those plans to bring Finland and Sweden into our thinking. Do you want to add to that, Chris?

Brigadier Chris Ordway: No, you have covered it really well, Minister, to be honest. I will add something, now that you have rolled your eyes at me. It has made it a lot easier. Before accession they had to think about their position in the world and manage that quite carefully. Once countries have acceded to NATO, they no longer have to consider that because they are part of NATO. Therefore, you do not feel any form of restraint and constraint on your ability to do interoperability training.

As you said, there is the increase in the size of the plan and involving countries that are part of that plan. If you are Sweden or Finland, it is not just thinking about what NATO contributes to you, but what your responsibility is to contribute to NATO and how you are part of that wider organisation. It effectively opens those doors when it comes to the ability to interact.

Sebastian Carr: Just to pick up on Chris’s thread, what it gives them that they have not had before is formal roles in NATO’s command structure and decision-making. As my Minister just said, they are bringing huge expertise here. That is additional expertise in those command structures and additional expertise in the decision-making structures of NATO, which is another huge benefit.

Lord Anderson of Swansea: It is not just in personnel but in procurement and military supply.

James Heappey: Yes. I was in Visby the week before last, and the chief executive of Saab was part of the conference I was at. For a country of its size, Sweden has an extraordinarily robust and broad industrial base. Lots of NATO countries have been doing business with Swedish defence companies for many years. In that sense, you could say, “Plus ça change”, but it is undoubtedly an enhancement to the Alliance to have countries such as Sweden and Finland, with such expertise in the environment in which they operate and with fantastic industrial bases. Finland is a real hub for tech. All round, it is incredible. NATO has done nothing to court that. This is entirely the consequence of Putin’s belligerence. It is arguably the biggest strategic failure of his war.

Q127       Lord Wood of Anfield: I would like to ask you about the Joint Expeditionary Force, which has just finished a month-long redeployment in Iceland. Could you explain what role the Joint Expeditionary Force plays in the Arctic and how that sits alongside NATO’s role?

James Heappey: It is complementary to NATO. The JEF is best defined by looking at what NATO is not. NATO requires a positive decision in the North Atlantic Council to respond to an event by complete consensus. The JEF is a grouping of like-minded nations who, whether it be one, two, three or all 10, can, under the JEF flag, respond to emerging events.

Although the JEF does not limit itself to operating only in that region, as geopolitical tensions start to climb in the region the initial response might be made under a JEF flag. That may not be a kinetic response but just an enhanced posture or some sort of flexing of military muscle to deter or to signal. That is rather complementary to whatever SACEUR might be doing as he seeks to ready forces and exercise the deterrence he has through the mobilisation of NATO.

I would argue that the JEF is as much a geopolitical tool as it is a military one. It is a more agile way for northern European countries to respond outwith the strictures of the North Atlantic Council. It used to have some relevance because Finland and Sweden were not NATO countries. Even now that all 10 JEF countries are NATO members, that ability to have a pre-crisis response to geopolitical tensions rising under the JEF flag means that it is still a really relevant group through which to do stuff.

Q128       Baroness Morris of Bolton: Thank you, Minister, and thank you all for joining us. Do you anticipate that Russia’s deepening dependence on China will lead to greater Chinese involvement in the Arctic? If so, what implications might that have for the UK?

James Heappey: That cuts both ways. On the one hand, the way Russia is having to mortgage itself to China at the moment will bring with it ever-greater Chinese influence in Russia. One might cynically argue that that is a challenge, but you could look at it the other way around. China is an emerging superpower. The High North is a problem, or an opportunity, that will require international collaboration and co-operation in order to work out how it will be governed and how international laws of the sea are applied. As a global superpower, China should play a leadership role in asserting the right of freedom of navigation through the High North. It should stand up for the rules-based international system through which Chinese trade will benefit because of that shipping lane.

It cuts both ways. It could be an opportunity through which the West and China find common cause and co-operate. It could, of course, be a threat, if China and Russia seek to conspire to make it such.

Q129       Lord Boateng: Minister, thank you for your evidence and indeed for your service. The Chinese Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army have talked about three warfares. Two of them are undermining international institutions and then changing borders. China has claimed to be a near Arctic state, which is a status that is not recognised in international law and not recognised by the Arctic Council.

China has described the Arctic as a global common, part of global heritage belonging to no one. Le Yucheng, the former Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs in China, has said that China is a polar power and it needs to be a polar great power by 2030. Should we be concerned about that?

James Heappey: Arguably, the global commons point is the point I was just making. To assert that it is global commons is to assert that it is high seas, over which freedom of navigation is an international right. A country that seeks to exert control over the high seas wrongly should be stood up to. In that sense, we have common cause.

Lord Boateng: They have gone a bit further than that. They have said that they possess a fifth of the world’s population and they should have a fifth of the natural resources under the Arctic.

James Heappey: That is an interesting rewriting of the way the polar regions have traditionally been divided into areas of influence. If you will excuse me, it is somewhat beyond my portfolio to opine on matters of that sort. They are very obviously matters of foreign policy and things to be resolved within the UN or other appropriate international fora.

The fact that China seeks to be a great power in the High North by the end of this decade—even by Chinese industrial standards, that feels like quite a big challenge to have set itself—reflects the importance the High North will have as a global seaway. In time, it will be every bit as important as the Strait of Malacca, Bab-el-Mandeb, Suez and Panama.

As a global trading nation seeking to defend its global interests, it is investing in that capability. To connect to the answers at the front end of the evidence session, so are we and our allies in NATO.

Q130       Lord Teverson: Minister, you will be well aware that in December last year the Russian Duma passed legislation to restrict the freedom of navigation of warships through certain parts of the Northern Sea Route and, in doing so, declared them inland waters. It is only a proportion of that route, not all of it. We have been very clear about freedom of navigation in east Asia, which we have demonstrated with our own aircraft carrier.

Do we have any plans to assert freedom of navigation within a NATO context, or in our own context, in the future on the Arctic? Do we see this as a genuine UNCLOS dispute that has to be resolved in a different way?

James Heappey: The UK never shies away from demonstrating our rights to freedom of navigation on the high seas, but we do not disclose the details in advance.

Q131       Lord Anderson of Swansea: How will the work of our submarines operating in the Arctic be impacted by the warming of the seas around the Arctic? How will the warming of the seas affect the environment and the operation of our submarines in that area?

James Heappey: If the programme for various surface ships is relatively closely guarded, the exact capabilities of our submarines are very closely guarded. Suffice to say we are not worried.

The Chair: There was a technical aspect of that, which you may not be able to answer. As the salinity of the Arctic changes because of melting ice, what effect does that have on the different layers in the water, if you see what I mean?

James Heappey: I see exactly what you mean, but it is an art form that submarine captains are almost unique in understanding. They are not concerned that a very cold sea becoming marginally less cold will all of a sudden remove their capacity to hide. Arguably the bigger challenge is in warm seas that are becoming even warmer.

Q132       Lord Robertson of Port Ellen: Can I go right back to your statement at the beginning? You claimed that the Russians had not raided their northern district.

James Heappey: No, I said there had not been as much. There has been some.

Lord Robertson of Port Ellen: A lot of the evidence we have suggests that they have moved a lot of troops down to the Donbas.

James Heappey: If you look at it relative to the eastern and central military districts, it is a fraction by comparison.

The Chair: Thank you very much indeed to all three of you for your evidence. We are very grateful for that. We will send you a transcript.