Center for Strategic Communication

Physicists clear ice from the U.S.S. Annapolis nuclear attack submarine on March 22, 2009. Photo: Navy

The exaggerated fears of a coming Arctic war with Russia have largely receded since a media freakout last year. But that isn’t stopping Russia from building new bases in the frigid north. Canada is also splurging on Arctic drones. Less assertive is the United States, which is boosting Coast Guard operations near Alaska.

On Monday, Russian Security Council chief Nikolai Patrushev said Russia is planning to build a string of new naval bases in the Arctic. The bases are intended to be “key double-purpose sites” for warships “in remote areas of the Arctic Seas.” There’s no word on what those double purposes might be. Russia’s plans to create a “combined-arms force” for the Arctic is also still on track, according to Moscow-based news wire RIA Novosti.

The logic behind Russia’s Arctic bases is seductive. The thinking goes like this: As global warming causes the northern polar ice to recede — and one day disappear during the summer months — nations like Russia, Canada, Norway and the United States will scramble for the bountiful deposits of oil, gas and minerals hidden beneath, sparking an Arctic resource war. Oh, and a swarm of media reports — and even videogames — about a hypothetical war on the northern horizon.

But a war is exceedingly unlikely — because Russia would lose. For one, the United States has an overwhelming and decisive advantage in submarines. U.S. subs are more advanced, there are more of them, and their crews are better trained. It’s unlikely Arctic nations would also begin killing each other over low-key — and remote — territorial disputes.

Still, Russia wants to catch up on the Arctic front. In late June, Russian President Vladimir Putin took up the Arctic boosterism while overseeing the construction of another Borei-class nuclear submarine, of which Russia plans to have eight by 2020. ”Obviously, the Navy is an instrument to protect national economic interests, including in such regions as Arctic where some of the world’s richest biological resources, mineral resources are concentrated,” Putin said.

Canada is also getting in on the binge. On Monday, Canada’s military was revealed to be planning a billion-dollar drone buy. The drones — intended to be armed — are reportedly focused (but not exclusively) on protecting Canada’s claims to the Arctic. The drones were last peddled by Canada’s Department of National Defence during the Libya war. With that war over, the looming Arctic war has moved in to fill the gap.

What those drones will be doing out there is anyone’s guess. Canada is also building new ships, and we shouldn’t forget about our neighbor’s plans to build stealth snowmobiles in case of an invasion of the tundra.

Since July, the U.S. Coast Guard has been conducting its largest Arctic exercise, called “Arctic Shield.” The Coast Guard is focused mainly on search and rescue operations; and responding to potential oil spills brought on by expanded drilling. On Monday, Commandant Robert Papp told a Senate panel — which had nestled into an Air Force hangar in Kodiak, Alaska — that the Coast Guard is “well-prepared” to operate in the region.

However, there are calls within the Coast Guard for more emphasis on military operations. Coast Guard Lt. Cdr. Brian Moore, writing in the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine, argues that the service should consider fielding armed high-speed “amphibious, or hover-capable aircraft.” Aside from responding to distress calls, the aircraft can respond “in the event that illegal activities or issues pertaining to national defense or sovereignty should arise,” Moore writes.

True, more Coast Guard activity will be needed as oil drilling and international shipping increase. But what’s not mentioned is what those national defense issues actually are. An even bigger mystery is what madness has taken hold of Canada and Russia’s admirals.