Emerging Strategic Challenges: The Case of Arctic Co-opetition


2010-06-23 By Robbin Laird
([email protected])

The Northwest Passage: A Dream To Come True?
As the Arctic becomes altered by climate change, three key elements are re-shaping global dynamics.

  • First, the melting Arctic is creating new transit routes so that past dreams like the Northwest Passage are becoming possible. Instead of the longer, more traditional transoceanic transit routes, east-west routes will open up through the Arctic.
  • Second, the melting Arctic is opening up raw materials to exploitation, notably oil and gas. At the same time, climate change has made the Artic environment very fragile, so that it is necessary to effectively and delicately manage the technical aspect of oil and gas extraction.
  • Third, melting ice will alter the flow of water in the region, and, more importantly, alter where fish travel. Enhanced management of the fisheries will be a core challenge for countries in the Arctic Circle.


This map shows potential routes of the Nortwest
Passage and Russia’s Northern Sea Route.
Though the Northwest Passage is currently iced over,
analysts think global warming might reduce the ice
and make passage a viable shipping route in 30 or 40 years.
Credit: Arik Hesseladahl, “Wrangling over Arctic Territorial Claims,”
Business Week (January 28, 2009)

A Five-Party Management
Five states with legal claim to the Arctic will directly manage these challenges, namely, Denmark/Greenland, Norway, the United States, Canada, and Russia. The outcome of this management process will affect the core strategic interests of the entire world, including the major Asian and European powers.
The transit routes affect the conveyer belt of trade and commerce worldwide, from Asia to America to Europe, as well as the availability of oil and gas from fields closer in proximity than the Middle East.


“Scientists have come up with the first comprehensive map
of global shipping routes based on actual itineraries.
The team pieced together a year’s worth of travel itineraries
from 16,693 cargo ships using data from
LLoyd’s Register Fairplay
and the Automatic Identification System,
which tracks vessels using a VHF receiver and GPS.”

  • Northern European states may be able to accrue wealth and strategic advantage for themselves. At the same time, interaction of the larger European states, such as France and Germany, with the new oil rich states will significantly affect intra-European relationships, including the future of the Euro. Denmark and Norway could well have a different view of Russian behavior in the Arctic than the Germans. Indeed, differences over the management of the relationship with Russia could become a central flashpoint in the evolution of the European Union as the Arctic opens up.
  • Canada’s role as an Arctic power could overshadow its other global interests. Canada has scarce dollars to invest in its defense budget, including the air and naval assets most important to managing its Arctic interests. Investments in protecting its Arctic interests could dominate the defense budget causing a decrease in spending on ground forces that are necessary to participate in global peacekeeping. Canada has real strategic interests in the Arctic, which any governing party would likely not ignore.
  • For the United States, the Arctic should be a central strategic issue, but currently it is not of paramount interest. Ground operations in Iraq and Afghanistan take precedence. However, the continued inability of the US to fund new ships and aircraft for the US Air Force, Navy, and Coast Guard remains very important when focusing on the future strategic impact of the Arctic. At present, eco-preservation of the Arctic is more prevalent than any interest in the strategic impact of new transit routes and strategic commodities. Polar bears are important, but not really pawns in global geo-politics.
  • Meanwhile Russia sees the Arctic as an added jewel in its crown of commodity ownership. The Russians have struggled throughout their history to translate their mineral and energy riches into sustained economic growth and development. The Arctic will once again give the Russians a chance to do this. But even without an effective investment policy, the Russians will become king makers in shaping global energy politics. Certainly, their leverage over Europe will increase.

The High North: The Testbed for New Forms of Pacific Coexistence?
Even a quick review of likely national responses underscores the co-opetition aspect of the Arctic competition. Co-opetition is a term used in business literature about the need to cooperate while competing to achieve market leadership. “In most of the modern theories of business, competition is seen as one of the key forces that keep firms lean and drive innovation”. Adam Brandenburger of the Harvard Business School and Barry Nalebuff of the Yale School of Management have challenged that emphasis. They suggest that businesses can gain advantage by means of a judicious mixture of competition and cooperation. “Cooperation with suppliers, customers and firms producing complementary or related products can lead to expansion of the market and the formation of new business relationships, perhaps even the creation of new forms of enterprise.”
The co-opetition concept seems appropriate to the Arctic engagement. To facilitate transit and exploitation of raw materials in the region, the major states involved will need to work out arrangements for joint operations. At the same time, rivalries are inevitable in a relatively undefined situation whereby boundaries can be disputed and access routes contested. Hence, posturing for advantage in a situation where cooperation is crucial seems evident.

Norway clearly sees the stakes of the Arctic competition.[1] The Norwegians are emphasizing the need for NATO to have a High North strategy and are focusing on how to most effectively protect their interests in the High North. Comments made by the Norwegian Defense Minister in the Spring of 2009 clearly illustrate Norway’s understanding of the comprehensive nature of the Arctic challenge:

We could in the foreseeable future see the Arctic Ocean free of ice during summertime. This tells us that the global challenge of climate change needs to be addressed now through solid international cooperation and commitment. It also implies that reduced ice coverage combined with technological improvements may allow this region to become accessible to large-scale economic activity to a degree never experienced before.
So what are the security challenges in all this? First of all, there are existing and potential conflicts of interest in the area which could undermine the stability in the area. Our security policy aims to build confidence and prevent negative developments in the High North. Second, the Northern Fleet’s continued role in the Russian nuclear triad and the sheer weight of the Kola military infrastructure are of vital strategic importance to Russia. Third, the Barents Sea continues to be a training ground for military forces and a test bed for new weapon systems. Fourth, opening of new sea lines of communication will enhance the High North’s military-strategic significance. Fifth, the situation in the Arctic could be negatively affected by crises elsewhere. Russian foreign policy statements and strategy documents regularly emphasize the primary role of international law and multilateralism in international relations. This view also seems to be reflected in the new Russian Arctic strategy from 2008, where maintaining the Arctic as an area of peace and cooperation is highlighted as one of four main policy aims. Russia is the only non-NATO member of the five Arctic Ocean states. It therefore seems reasonable to conclude that the state of High North security in the long run will be determined by the bilateral and multilateral interaction between Russia and the other states. Over the last years, Russia has shown an increased willingness to engage in political rhetoric and even use of military force. The “zero-sum” approaches in Russian security thinking are a challenge for the West. This includes the increased tendency on the part of Russia to think in terms of geopolitical spheres of influence. This political rhetoric has over the past couple of years been accompanied by the renewal of training sorties of strategic bombers across the Barents Sea into the Norwegian- and North Sea. There has also been an increase in naval exercise activity and deployments. So, Russia is sending mixed signals. We nevertheless choose to be optimistic regarding future relations in the Arctic. The reason is simply that Russia and Norway have a shared interest in maintaining the High North as an area of cooperation and absence of military confrontation. Still, we must maintain effective military forces in the north, and continue to cooperate actively with our most important Allies. This will ensure stability in the High North. Potential points of dispute exist, and the Kola military complex with its inherent activities will always be a factor in Russian-Norwegian relations.[2]

The Norwegian government put in place in September 2009 a new defense strategy to act upon these concerns. As reported by Defense News:

Grete Faremo
Grete Faremo addresses the Oslo Military Society (Photo: Taral Jansen, FMS, 01/2010)

“We are now witnessing a gradual trans­formation in the global security policy land­scape,” Defense Minister Grete Faremo said. “This underlines the need for a sharper fo­cus on our interests in the High North.” Faremo said the main regional challenges are connected to the exploitation and man­agement of resources, particularly petroleum in Arctic regions. Dubbed Capable Force, the new strategy, as outlined in a Ministry of Defense (MoD) report rolled out in September, sets out several goals, including:

  • Work more closely with NATO to strengthen High North regional security.
  • Create land-force units that can deploy rapidly.
  • Increase interoperability with NATO.
  • Spend a larger proportion of defense spending on its High North defense systems. Help NATO improve relations with Russia.
  • Pursue multinational acquisition part­nerships to cut force modernization costs.”[3]

The Need For a 21st Century Air and Naval Integration Approach
The Norwegian view is shared among the Northern European states as they seek to shape a strategy to deal with the Arctic and their Russian neighbor.[4] States will re-enforce their maritime assets to manage their strategic interests in the Arctic. On the one hand, this will clearly require new ships able to operate in the period of transition in the Arctic. To quote Jane’s Navy International, the new Arctic situation creates simultaneously “opportunities and threats.”[5] On the other hand, new air and space assets are required to monitor activity, to provide ISR in the region, and to support actions as needed.
With a 21st century approach to air and naval integration, it is clearly possible to combine air and surface assets into joint operations to monitor, protect, and act as required. Now with multi-mission systems such as the F-35, F-22, and Aegis, the integration of these systems carries with it simultaneous capability to perform defense, security, ISR, or strike functions.

An “F-35-Enabled Arctic Task Force” As Part of the Puzzle?
Lockheed Martin has provided a briefing that lays out how the F-35 as a “flying combat system” working with surface assets can provide for Arctic security missions for Norway. The key really is the ability to integrate an aircraft with an on-board database of intelligence and to be able to distribute this intelligence to other elements of an Arctic “task force” to protect Norwegian interest.

The slides below lay out a notional area of interest to protect from a Norwegian point of view.



These areas of interest will require Norwegian investments over the next thirty years in capabilities to shape and protect their engagement. Norway could stovepipe the acquisition of key assets with little regard to the integration of those assets, and could do so in virtual isolation from its allies. Alternatively, Norway could have significant integration among the assets it acquires with maximum interoperability with its allies, notably with its Arctic allies. In this light, the F-35 could become an important piece for solving the co-opetition puzzle.
The graphic below identifies the different operations, which could be pursued sequentially or simultaneously by an F-35 enabled Arctic “task force.” The advantage of the F-35 is that with a small number of aircraft able to integrate across the maritime and air spectrum, the “task force” could be small indeed.

Slide 4

In any case, nations will acquire new capabilities to deal with the ambigious Arctic future. Comments made by one Arctic expert as quoted by Jane’s Navy International (JNI) provide a good characterization of the fluidity of the evolving Arctic situation: “Arctic expert Dr Rob Huebert, associate director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary, says that the main challenge until recently was getting people to take Arctic issues seriously. “Now the problem is trying to define the threat,” he says. The main concern is uncertainty, but he believes that, within this context, there are three variables: climate change, resource potential and changing geo-political reality. What makes the situation more complicated is that analysts are unable to ascertain how the three variables will interact. “Under one scenario, climate change and resource development [will make] northern resources more accessible, but when you start developing those resources, you add to climate change,” says Huebert. “The Russians are rebuilding their military capabilities through their petro dollars, and guess where their future petro dollars are coming from? The North.” He adds: “My feeling is that we’re in for a really complicated situation and if you get people doing dumb things, it can get real ugly, real fast, because it’s the interface of the politics that gets things out of control.”[6]

[1] “Guardians of the North: Norway Country Briefing,” Jane’s Defence Weekly (January 8, 2009).

[2] Minister of Defence, Anne-Grete Strom-Erichsen, “Norway’s Security Outlook,” Ministry of Defence, May 12, 2009. Address made to the Atlantic Council of Finland on the 11th of May.

[3] Gerard O’Dwyer, “Norwegian Strategy Targets High North,” Defense News (November 23, 2009).

[4] For example see the Stoltenberg report, Nordic Cooperation on Foreign and Security Policy (February 2009).

[5] “Shrinking Ice Cover Creates Opportunities and Threats,” Jane’s Navy International (January 2009).

[6] “Shrinking Ice Cover(…)”, ibid.