Establishing an Arctic Security Institution: Essentials From NORAD and NATO

Story Stream
recent articles

Interest in formal discussion concerning military security issues for the Arctic has continued to grow in recent years. Arctic and non-Arctic nations, China primarily, have all increased activities and/or attention toward the North with both direct and indirect military association. Shipping potential, natural resource exploitation, and environmental impacts represent a few of the strategic prizes of the Arctic. The Arctic, as it was throughout the Cold War, remains the shortest path for a Russian nuclear missile to hit the United States. But it is not all doom and gloom in the High North. The Arctic remains rather protected from external tensions and is a region of cooperative stakeholder engagement, for now.

The Arctic (an ocean surrounded by land masses) has been carved up in a sector-principle approach. Further, international law is treated as the gold standard for regional engagement. The remaining North Pole territorial dispute represents a commitment to the United Nations’ Law of the Sea, with overlapping claimants (Russia, Canada, and Denmark) all constructively referring their cases for North Pole sovereignty to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf for ruling. A treaty-based management system specific for the Arctic simply will not be accepted by the five Arctic sovereign states, let alone work as some have tried to argue.[1] Whereas, the Antarctic—landmass surrounded by ocean—remains an international commons protected by the Antarctic Treaty System. For the South Pole, the issue of sovereignty is essentially frozen whilst the Treaty is in place. The Treaty also holds off strategic competition for the continent—or rather its mineral resources, fresh water, and fisheries—until a “later stage.” So, when it comes to new Cold Wars and new great games, it is the Arctic that features predominantly. It is becoming apparent Arctic-rim powers need a security institution or mandated forum in which strategic-military issues can be dealt with collectively.

Geography in the Arctic (Reddit)

Many look to the Arctic Council as the preeminent international organization with which to help manage security issues for the Circumpolar North. The Ottawa Declaration of 1996 established the Arctic Council. Perhaps a lesser known fact is that, under explicit charter conditions set by the United States, the Council was designed to exclude consideration of any military-related security matters in its work. Since then the Council has stayed true to its whimsical mandate of “High North, low tension.” Indeed, it remains an area in which Russia-West relations are somewhat protected from renewed tensions beyond the Arctic.

Akin to the next great game, a final frontier set to host a battle for Arctic riches and unclaimed territory, the High North is a strategic theater devoid of agreed rules.

Yet, the High North is creeping back into the global strategic picture with increasing difficulty in avoiding discussion involving defense issues. Key studies on the question of what defense institutions, especially North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), should—or should not—do in the region have proliferated over the years, particularly following Russia’s 2014 Crimean fait accompli. Akin to the next great game, a final frontier set to host a battle for Arctic riches and unclaimed territory, the High North is a strategic theater devoid of agreed rules.

To make the strategic environment even more challenging, no single institutional body deals with Arctic security and military concerns. Due to the increased risk of the region reverting to Cold War tensions, the time has arrived for stakeholders to consider the need for a collective, singular Arctic security institution to fill this void. The primary stakeholders are the eight Arctic nations themselves—especially the littoral five—as diplomatic efforts not only would benefit from, but often rely on, defense collaboration or military diplomacy to help manage tensions. Moreover, key structures, processes, and global principles should be shaped from universal qualities learned from the histories and purposes of NATO and NORAD.

Calls for NATO to have a strategy for the Arctic region, or at the very least increase its formal presence, are often met with fierce debate against NATO creeping into a new strategic theatre. At the very least, NATO has a responsibility to the Arctic. This stems from a litany of member state interests wedded to the region, which the alliance under Treaty Articles 4 and 5 is committed to collectively protect. Additionally, NORAD’s potential role in development of this concept is also met with challenges. The NORAD framework is useful to the security of the Arctic, because NORAD’s historical mission has since evolved, as has NATO, to confront other global security issues that affect North America.

Rudiments from NORAD

Since inception, North American defense relied heavily upon early warning systems to meet its strategic goals. The opportunity and capability to maximize protection of Canada and the United States since the end of World War II was largely made effective, and even possible, as a result of their bi-national partnership. Moreover, NORAD’s legacy and continuing purpose remains distinctly related to the Arctic through an unprecedented modern partnership the likes of which are yet to be matched. Although legally binding through an agreement, working in partnership for defense has largely been a productive enterprise for each nation.

The Canada-U.S. defense relationship under NORAD is an organization born of their Cold War Arctic-related defense strategies. Focusing on the air and sea domains, NORAD offers security management blueprints for a cohesive Arctic security organization. One of the more consistent security interventions involving NORAD and the Arctic involves Russian incursions into the air identification zones of both the United States and Canada. Prior to 2018, the NORAD air identification zone boundary reflected a more seamless area, which was not synchronized with Canada’s maritime area of responsibility involving the Northwest Passage waters of its massive Arctic Archipelago. However, after the publication of the 2018 Strong, Secure and Engaged Canadian defence strategy, the new Canadian air identification zone was established to align more accurately with the internal Northwest Passage area of responsibility. The United States and Canada often take turns escorting Russian aircraft into and out of American and Canadian air identification zones, taking the opportunity to strategically communicate with Russia through such actions.

However, the threat to U.S. and Canadian airspace from such flights is minimal. As former NORAD commander, General Renuart stated, “The Russians have conducted themselves professionally; they have maintained compliance with the international rules of airspace sovereignty and have not entered the internal airspace of either of the countries.” However, airspace issues continue, and NORAD has unmatched expertise and experience in Arctic aerospace management.[2]

Canada and the United States have different capabilities and strategies for their respective northern waters. Regardless, combined efforts continued to contribute significantly to the defense of North America. In addition to North American defense, NORAD also maintains a global role in maritime domain awareness through information and intelligence sharing as part of its maritime warning mission. In the Arctic, maritime threats and risks currently remain marginal, as traffic and activity are minimal. Proactive policies and interests help keep Arctic maritime issues largely in the preventive/precautionary sphere for now, giving agencies valuable time to prepare for the inevitability of increased response struggles.[3]

Principles and Purpose from NATO

Lord Ismay, Secretary General of NATO from 1952 to 1957 (NATO)

NATO’s first secretary-general, Lord Ismay, stated, “The business—the paramount, the permanent, the all-absorbing business—of NATO is to avoid war.” Since establishment in 1949 via the North Atlantic Treaty, NATO has undergone notable changes, often a result of adjusting to crises. Realistically, deterrence has been the priority of the alliance  rather than invasion defense and response. A key component of deterrence in this regard is the underlying criticality in preventing even the articulation or implication for use of force—a serious and deliberate act which predictably elicits extensive civil and political alarm. To that end, NATO has regularly adapted to the shifting environment of global affairs and institutional systems, while also  meeting the challenges of the changing character of conflict. Stephen Rosen offers that “military organizations as complex political communities have this political character to a greater degree than other bureaucratic organizations.”

Arguably, political savvy is necessary for the role of “pluralistic security communities” like NATO, which include “reducing transaction costs in order to help states cooperate when possible.” In the past, not all large-scale conflicts required NATO attention. Occasionally, an approach to security-related challenges involved the possibility or proposal of a different organizational solution other than NATO. Non-NATO institutional alternatives have often effectively managed and resolved contingencies, often leading to post-conflict stability arrangements. Two examples effectively demonstrate when NATO did not have a lead contingency role: 1) during crisis management of the Cuban Missile Crisis and 2) during non-crisis management during Cold War nuclear proliferation.

In the Arctic, threats involving use of force are possible, however improbable. Northern conflict scenarios can be creatively imagined and conducted as exercises, as well as post-conflict stabilization options. Unsurprisingly, results might indicate that preventing conflict in the Arctic should be an increasingly higher priority and led by an institution properly positioned and empowered. The history and experience of NATO could greatly contribute to such efforts, especially in consideration of ways to proactively establish a collective security cooperation institute for the Circumpolar North in keeping with principles of deterrence.

For now, NATO is doing its best to avoid an Arctic-specific security mandate, mostly understood by the lack of a published strategy. In addition to NATO activity in the North, Russia is specifically against such policy development. NATO’s most recent 2010 Strategic Concept has no mention of the High North, nor the Arctic. This hands-off approach to the region is further highlighted by the alliance’s 2011 Maritime Strategy which also fails to make mention of the High North or the Arctic region. Of course, the disjuncture between NATO policy and the real-world threat assessments made by the alliance became rather stark after the 2016 Warsaw Summit. NATO’s 2016 Warsaw Summit reaffirmed a commitment to deter and defend the North Atlantic—an area into which the High North region necessarily falls.

The 2018 Brussels Summit reinforced NATO’s resolve to improve “overall maritime situational awareness” in the North Atlantic. And yet NATO muddled on without a strategy to deter and defend in the North Atlantic. The 2019 London Summit will prove to be a watershed moment for NATO in the High North, as the London Declaration makes no mention of maritime security, commitments to defend and deter in the North Atlantic, nor of safeguarding lines of communication in the region. All of these are traditional aspects of the alliance’s summit communiques. Entering the hybrid warfare, artificial intelligence, and disruptive technological age has apparently reformulated NATO’s threat assessment and purged some of the traditional alliance security commitments.

If the alliance is serious about its commitment to 360-degree security for its members, it must re-engage with the High North theatre. This theatre once fell within the area of responsibility for Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic. In 2002, when Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic was disbanded, the alliance lost all clear operational boundaries in the North Atlantic and the European High North fell from the agenda all together. Framing NATO’s post-Cold War return to the region ought not to be based on Russian aggression or Chinese activity in the Arctic. Instead, NATO should craft its re-engagement in the region in terms of its responsibility to protect and defend its members sovereignty in the High North. It is unlikely the alliance will be able to wade through the complex array of competing Arctic interests within NATO to arrive at a cohesive security strategy for the region. This is probably a blessing in disguise and a reality welcomed by Moscow. The lessons on how NATO balances competing Arctic interests, for example Canada rejects a role for NATO in the region whilst Norway all but welcomes it, are vital for the development of any pan-national security architecture in the Arctic.

NATO’s Military Command and Areas of Responsibility (History of NATO/Wikimedia)

Although Russian participation in a Western-dominated group may seem implausible, one need only remember the continuing effectiveness of the Arctic Council and the meaningful potential that consensus-based organizations enable. Inclusion is essential. The Arctic is a highly permissive environment for issue management through cooperation. Notions of Russian membership and commitment toward collective security are viable in the Arctic.


A focus on these two security organizations may seem counterintuitive if the purpose is to suggest an inclusive forum, since both were designed to deal with the threat presented by the former Soviet Union. Yet, this may also provide the very rationale needed from the leading defense agencies that best understand the West’s most formidable and long-time adversary in a region of the world which it finds itself on the same side of the security challenge: keeping the Arctic region open for business. There is recent precedent for a functioning Arctic security organization with active Russian participation, just look to the Arctic Coast Guard Forum. Coast guard cooperation presents a unique example of interagency cooperation and now includes a search-and-rescue agreement which helped establish maritime operating boundaries in the region. Building upon this achievement, stakeholders should push for a traditional defense network for the High North. There is now an opportunity to organize and support a process that facilitates increased security cooperation and understanding while decreasing competition, escalating tensions, and zones of miscalculation precariously positioned close to conflict.

The lack of an Arctic hard security organization, with defined scope of policy and operational jurisdiction and authority, has become a noticeable gap among the existing circumpolar governance system. Continued dialogue in the dominant non-security organizations indicates a growing need to fill this gap, a notion even Russia has clearly expressed. Both NORAD and NATO offer important fundamentals and useful capabilities for the development of a unified Arctic security institution. NORAD has demonstrated through its history an ability to integrate increased scope and purpose. NATO’s evolving purpose and principles illustrate how an organization adapts to a changing world. Together, they provide guidance in support of organizational architecture and purpose towards establishing, implementing and legitimizing a cohesive Arctic security effort.

Troy Bouffard is faculty at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and is a defense contractor with  Alaska Command, a joint subordinate unified command of U.S. Northern Command. He is also a research fellow at the Centre for Defense and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba.

Elizabeth Buchanan is Lecturer of Strategic Studies with Deakin University for the Defence and Strategic Studies Course (DSSC) at the Australian War College and a Fellow of the Modern War Institute at West Point. Dr. Buchanan holds a Ph.D. in Russian Arctic strategy from the Australian National University and was recently the Visiting Maritime Fellow at the NATO Defense College.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.


[1] The “Arctic 5” coastal nations are Canada, Kingdom of Denmark (via Greenland), Norway, Russian Federation, and the United States. The remaining three Arctic non-coastal nations are Finland, Iceland and Sweden.

[2] Of note, the U.S. capabilities to intercept and interdict Russia aircraft will improve starting in 2020 when two squadrons of F-35s arrive at Eielson Air Force Base, near Fairbanks, Alaska. When that occurs, about one-fifth of the most advanced fifth-generation fighter aircraft in the world will be stationed in Alaska.

[3] The Arctic nations generally prioritize reduced risk approaches to policy making as a result of increased operational expense, time, distance and other difficulties associated with emergency response throughout the Circumpolar North. For example, a recent Arctic treaty was signed based on the “precautionary principle” which advocates preventive-based decision making in the absence or lack of nominal information/data.

Show comments Hide Comments