The United Kingdom “must show greater ambition and apply more resources to address the developing security situation in the Arctic and the High North”, says a report published by the Defence Sub-Committee.

The report, On Thin Ice: UK Defence in the Arctic follows on from the Defence Committee’s last major report on the defence and security implications of a resurgent Russia, which identified the Arctic and High North as an area where Russia might seek to expand its presence and influence. This latest report examines military activity in the region in more detail.

You can read the full Report ‘On Thin Ice: UK Defence in the Arctic’ here or read the summary here.

“Although the Arctic has traditionally been an area of low tension, characterised by close multilateral co-operation among the Arctic States, the changing natural environment is being accompanied by a change in the security environment. The retreating ice sheet is making the Arctic more accessible to shipping and is exposing the region’s extensive natural resources to exploitation. Over the last two decades the Arctic has become increasingly globalised, with a growing number of nations including several from Southern and Eastern Asia declaring themselves to have interests in Arctic affairs. In an age of renewed great power competition, the continuing status of the Arctic as an area of low tension cannot be taken for granted. Alongside these broader changes, the Sub-Committee notes an increase in military activity in the Arctic and High North that has been led by Russia. This has included the construction and re-activation of manned bases along Russia’s Arctic coastline and on its islands on the edge of the Arctic Ocean; build-up of heavily armed, Arctic trained land forces near the borders of neighbouring states; the re-introduction of strategic bomber flights over Northern airspace, progressive installation of long range missile and air defence systems, and a marked increase in the level of naval activity that projects power from the Arctic into the North Atlantic.

The Sub-Committee’s view is that this build-up goes beyond what would be proportionate to a purely defensive posture and should be a matter of concern given Russia’s aggressive and revisionist behaviour. These developments have potentially serious strategic implications for the United Kingdom and for NATO. History has shown that the domination of the High North by a hostile adversary places the security of the UK and of the wider North Atlantic at risk. The increase in Russian submarine activity around the British Isles and the entrances to the North Atlantic poses risks to the UK’s maritime security, including the security of the nuclear deterrent, and could compromise NATO’s ability to convey reinforcements from North America in the event of a crisis in Europe. In the past the UK has committed substantial resources to the defence of the region. The Sub-Committee calls for the UK to revive its leadership in defence of the region, and for the renewed focus within NATO on the security of the North Atlantic to be accompanied by a renewed focus on the source of the threat emanating from the High North.”

The report also looks at the capabilities which the UK might use in the challenging operating environment in the Arctic and High North. While they are of a high quality, the operational priorities of the last two decades has led to a decline in focus on cold weather warfare. The multi-role nature of the specialist capabilities which can operate in these environments has also lead them to being in high demand elsewhere, an indication of the wider resource pressures in Defence that are leading to the Armed Forces struggling to meet commitments and sustain levels of training.

Chair’s comments

Madeleine Moon MP, Chair of the Defence Sub-Committee, said:

“The changing security environment in the Arctic and the High North is a matter of growing significance to the UK, given the strategic importance of the region and the increasing level of military activity we see. This has been led by Russia, which is continuing to expand its military presence and influence. The UK has previously played a leading role in defending NATO’s Northern Flank and in maintaining maritime security in the North Atlantic. The importance of this role is now returning to significance. The UK’s capabilities to perform these tasks still exist, but they are sustained at a low level and are in high demand elsewhere.

A new level of ambition backed up by adequate resources is required to meet the developing threats we have identified. If the definition of a leading—or even a ‘Tier 1’—defence nation is one which has the ability to deploy a full range of capabilities anywhere in the world, then this includes the unique operating environment of the Arctic and the High North. Being able to do so is ultimately a question of resource and a question of ambition, and the Sub-Committee calls upon the Government to show leadership in providing both.”

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Talk is cheap. If we want an effective artic defensive posture you need maritime recce aircraft, attack submarines and a fully manned / equipped Commando Bde and the amphibious assets required to deploy them. So while we talk about doing our bit up there they are also talking about scrapping assault ships and commandos. Can’t do both, that simple.


Antarctica is what we should concentrate on not the north. protect our waters north but to the south we have strategic advantage due to the Falklands etc.
America can look after the Arctic

Daniele Mandelli

If the RM are moving to this “raiding” posture of smaller sized forward deployed units, like Vanguard Company, who will provide the arctic trained units?

Which Commando is current on arctic warfare training? 45 Cdo was but unsure now?
Could the role move to the army?


I have a son in the RM and he is saying the future commando is just a code for cuts. We both know the army can’t fulfil the role because you need specialist shipping, equipment and men to work in that environment. That is what RM Commandos do and they could be increased in number within the current funding constraints by loosing some army infantry battalions. But that would take political leadership. Oh dear!

Daniele Mandelli

Or the Cap Badge Mafia in action. To be fair there are army units that support the RM that operate in that environment, so I don’t see why the army could not train some battalions in arctic role. Amphibious slightly different sure but again 1 Rifles did it years ago. As you say, there needs to be the leadership and desire to do it. If the RM are to be sea based specialists I think it inevitable that somebody will have to take on the role. As there is no indication arctic role is being given up. Lack of specialist… Read more »


The trouble is artic trained formations are useless in a reinforcement role without the specialist amphibious shipping, shore connecting vessels and helicopters because of the geography. We are in danger of forgetting the experience of operating there in 70s, 80s and early 90s. The use of STUFT vessels just didn’t work and the men and equipment need to train in that environment regularly. As for the Army supporting units they all pass the all arms course at Lympstone because you need better trained and fitter personnel than your average pongo. But why would any sane person make a decision to… Read more »

Daniele Mandelli

Yes, all good points SJB. “The trouble is artic trained formations are useless in a reinforcement role without the specialist amphibious shipping, shore connecting vessels and helicopters because of the geography.” Fair one, I will give way to your knowledge on that. Why did the STUFT vessels fail? Were NATO concerned the limited number of ports would be sabotaged by scuttling and they could not get in? The Bays I assume will remain, but they carry only 1 LCU or LCVP and Mexifloats, where’s the LPD carry 4 of each plus all the extras. So no way can they claim… Read more »


SJB – I think you need to take off the pongo bashing hat for a second and get back to an assessment of what capabilities are needed. 1. You don’t need to be a commando to be amphibious trained or be able to operate from amphibious shipping. What you do need are amphibious warfare specialist to operate the shipping and conduct the planning. 2. You don’t need to be a commando to conduct cold weather warfare. You can have mountain troops who aren’t commandos. However, you do need an arctic warfare cadre to provide specialists (as in the RM). 3.… Read more »


It’s an interesting point.

If national resources are discovered /obtainable from the artic region in the future, then Britain owns a large part of the pie.

If its economical to do so, i can easily see nations attempting to take over ownership.


Hi Steve,

I believe you are referring to Antarica, the article is referring to North Norway.

Cheer CR


Yeah that’s the Antarctic mate, sadly when we gave Canada independence we a,so gave them all the right to the Arctic. We should have kept the most northerly part of the now Canadian territory, just like the Dutch have kept Greenland.

But I still think the UK should still have some of the pie in the north though we were and ave been pioneers up there, and I’m really surprised the lack of british territory/islands north of Shetland, there’s enough of them, did we ever have any, or was it just the arctic circle above Canada we had?

Trevor G

Just for the sake of accuracy, Greenland is nominally Danish (not Dutch) but with a great deal of autonomy, and independence in the future is not out of the question.
We never had British territory north of Shetland, other than the Canadian Arctic as you mention. With regard to the lack of attention to northern defence since the end of the Cold War, Saxa Vord radar station was closed but has recently been reinstated as an unmanned radar to improve coverage. We really should not have disposed of the Upholders, which were specially designed for GIUK gap surveillance.


Yeah realise two separate areas, but triggered the thought that if there was say oil or rare earth minerals discovered there, it would suddenly make the overseas territory worthwhile.

There has always been the rumour that the only reason we went to way with the falklands was because we thought there was oil there.


Well Oil or Not, we went to the falklands for the people of the Falklands Not Oil!!. And an aggressor invaded British territory! (First time since ww2) and we should always protect and look after British territory and the people who live there.


That we will never really know, if there had been no oil there would we have gone to war or tried the UN route.

Meirion X

Feelings were running very high at the time!
It made No difference, oil or Not, that the government of the time were determine to get the Falkland Islands back in British hands.


From my understanding it wasn’t entirely that cut and dry. Once the task force left the nation and the press were very much behind getting it back, but prior to that it was really only Maggie that pushed it through, most of the government at the time were against it, as they didn’t see the point in the war over a place that most of the general public didn’t even know existed at the time. The full political story only really came out the last few years after the 40 years passed, and so most people believe the official story… Read more »


Yeah Danish is what I meant Trevor G


Hi Trevor G
Sorry for my ignorance……can you explain Upholders please……

Daniele Mandelli

Allow me. Upholders were the last British class of conventional submarines, which started to replace the Os. We’re to be a class of 12. After 4 boats were in service they were all cut and sold to the Canadians. I think it was mid 90s timeframe.

Since then the UK has operated an all nuclear force of SSN and SSBN.


Ice class rules for ship hulls. 1A Super is the highest/best/toughest. Then descending 1A, 1B to 1C which is the lowest. I have wanted the RN to specify a minimum of 1C for all new warship hulls.


It’s a dam shame our new ice capable ship Sir David A doesn’t have as high an Ice class as Australia’s new ice ship!. So we need more ice breakers in the UK? Yes I think we do need a couple RN ice breakers.


A warship built to Super !A, may not be much use in warmer waters. One built to 1C, should still be able to operate globally.


It’s good how we have an amphibious task group sailing at the same time we have a carrier battle group sailing, two assets we have to keep! and I’m proud that we have those assets, what other nations can do that?, bar our cousins over the pond.


At the same time as leading a fleet in the Barents Sea. Which also included the raf.

Simon m

Just some ramblings:
I can’t understand the retirement of Warthog did they scrap them all? Surely it would have useful to strip some of the armour and equip & train some of our light role infantry for cold weather ops?
For Icebreakers could we not purchase another commercial based vessel & convert?
I still think its worth building some SSKs even if we just update the upholder class?
Could we establish a forward presence in Norway or elsewhere in the artic region?


I can’t understand the logic of UK defence policy: seems all fur coat and no knickers……


In the 1980’s we had a 3-division corp sat on the east/west German border ready to repel a Warsaw Pact attack. We can now only deploy a division with the front line moving 1000 miles further east. US, Poland, Germany, France and Italy can still call upon corp-sized formations. If we chose to deploy our troops to mainland Europe for a war with Russia, our division will probably become a sub-unit of one of these corps, as we could not justify being a lead nation. Considering the distance to the Baltic’s, as well as warming up of the far North… Read more »


Of those five I think you’ll only find the US and maybe Poland can actually deploy a corps. The rest might be able to deploy a division, without outside log enablers (much like us)


You are potentially correct. I had not fully thought of the logistics required to support multiple divisions at once. I had simply based my statement on the number of fully rounded brigades a country had. However, I do think some of those countries have the potential to support a larger force than us. For example, each of the Nine Italian brigades has an integrated logistics regiment and an engineering regiment. Currently only the three brigades of 3 Div have this. Logistics is not always the sexy aspect of warfare, so finding info on a countries logistic capabilities is not always… Read more »


It’s more than just deployable HQs (those just co-ordiante, they dont actually supply much log support, and anyway the UK has two divisional and a corps command element so it’s a bit moot).
Integrated logistics regiments are only a part of it and even then, Tridentia, Vittorio Veneto, and Acqui have 9 log battalions between them for nine brigades. UK 3 Div has 15 logistics battalions in its orbat by comparison. That’s before factoring in strategic air (nonexistent for italy) and sealift to support divisions deployed outside of Italy.

Barry Curtis

The Arctic and the High North areas will become a major concern in the future, out of all the potential flash-point areas around the world, the Arctic will lead to a major confrontation between NATO and Russia, with large-scale military forces being deployed for action. I feel that it is more likely to happen than any confrontation with the Baltic countries that are NATO members. What needs to be done is for the United Nations to place the whole continent, as one big demilitarized zone and to remove all ownership of its land from all countries. The strangest thing is… Read more »