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November 1993

The Last Front of the Cold War

You think the Cold War is over? Think again. Russian and American forces are still challenging each other in the Arctic

by Jon Bowermaster

At 12:46 a.m. last March 20, seventy-four meters beneath the icy surface of the Arctic Ocean--and in spite of the high-tech monitoring equipment each carried--a pair of submarines, one American, one Russian, collided. They were 105 nautical miles off the Kola Peninsula--by some measures the most heavily militarized region in the world--engaged in the kind of Cold War cat-and-mouse game that most people think has been consigned to history.

On that morning an American nuclear-powered attack sub, the U.S.S. Grayling, was shadowing a Russian Delta-class sub out on a routine patrol. (Such Russian subs are normally equipped with sixteen ocean-spanning nuclear-tipped missiles. Under the terms of START I the number of nuclear warheads they can carry is limited--but that agreement has not yet officially gone into effect.) That the Americans were tailing the "enemy" was routine too. Though tough economic times have forced the Russians to cut back on the amount of time their submarines spend at sea, when they do go out U.S. attack subs are sure to follow. Under decades-old U.S. military guidelines, attack boats tail the missile subs with the intention of torpedoing them if war breaks out.

The accident occurred as the Russian boat crossed in front of the American. If the U.S. submarine had been five seconds slower, the Russian sub would have been struck right on its missile bay; the bump could conceivably have opened a crack where the missiles were stored, sinking the sub and scattering nuclear warheads over the ocean floor.

After the collision the roughly half-a-billion-dollar American submarine--which according to the Pentagon sustained "slight" damage--circled to see if the Russian vessel was seriously damaged. A later report by the Russian Navy claimed that its sub sustained a "small dent." "But thirteen-thousand-ton submarines don't just go bump in the night," says Joshua Handler, a research coordinator for Greenpeace who has advised the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton Administrations on Arctic nuclear and military matters. This accident came just fourteen months after a Russian sub in the Barents Sea surfaced underneath the American submarine Baton Rouge, severely damaging both vessels.

The March collision was one of the items Boris Yeltsin brought up with President Bill Clinton at their Vancouver summit. Clinton apologized and promised to look into the matter, calling it "a regrettable thing" and saying "I don't want it to ever happen again." The President assured Yeltsin that he would order a review of the collision and would open talks with the Russians "to discuss whether the policy should be changed and where we should go from here."

In his post-summit statement Yeltsin brought the matter up again. By mentioning the submarine collision as one of the few irritants standing in the way of smoother U.S.-Russian relations, Yeltsin elevated the accident to a new level of importance in Washington. "Assuredly the White House boxed the ears of the Navy to make sure this kind of thing doesn't continue," says William Arkin, the director of military research for Greenpeace. "I promise you reviews are going on right now, at several levels, asking the question 'Why are we up there?'"

For much of the past decade the official word from Washington and Moscow has been that the superpowers were aligning, and thus nuclear threats were diminishing. Deals were struck to disassemble what remained of the arsenals of destruction built up over the previous fifty years. Today, however, the Arctic--long home to myriad missile silos, prowling nuclear submarines, and sophisticated radar and communications systems--is far from being disarmed. Though military spending and deployment are hot topics in both countries, the relatively empty Arctic (its population is just 10 million, at least three quarters of them Russian) continues to harbor American and Russian nuclear submarines and bombers equipped with long-range cruise missiles. Neither country has retargeted its Arctic ICBMs away from their Cold War positionings. The frozen lands and sea above the Arctic Circle are the last potential battlefront of the Cold War.

Sixty percent of Russia's submarine-based strategic nuclear forces are in the vicinity of the Kola Peninsula, and the Pentagon worries that a decreased Russian submarine presence along the eastern coast of the United States may imply a higher density in Arctic waters. With the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, Soviet bombers were moved from Hungary to northern bases; Russian Bear bombers, some of them capable of carrying terrain-hugging cruise missiles, still occasionally test the northern radar defenses and are challenged by either U.S. or Canadian fighters. Russia's only remaining nuclear test site is in the Arctic, on Novaya Zemlya. Two winters ago many Russian ships steamed out of the Black Sea and joined the northern fleet. The heavily armored divisions protecting the old Soviet northern flank have not withdrawn--in contrast to the Russian troops that were in Central Europe.

Though Defense Department appropriations continue to dwindle, so far no one from the new Administration has ordered the U.S. military to curtail or alter its activities in the Arctic. The Pentagon maintains both air and sea operations there, from a variety of bases in the northern tier of the United States. In cooperation with the Canadians, it also helped construct the North Warning System, the $2.5 billion defense project that included upgrading radar installations and building more airfields in northern Canada.

The initial arming of the Arctic began after the Second World War. The barren, sparsely populated region became strategically important as first the United States and then the Soviet Union developed strategic bombers capable of delivering nuclear weapons overseas. Soviet bomber attack routes were plotted across the North Pole, and the United States responded by building a string of high-tech radar stations in the Arctic. Soon the U.S. and Canadian militaries had established a major economic, environmental, and technological presence up north.

As ICBMs replaced bombers as the primary nuclear threat in the early 1960s, visions of the Arctic as a strategic battleground began to fade. In the late 1970s developments in long-range air- and sea-launched cruise missiles and submarine warfare once again fixed attention on the Arctic as an arena of potential superpower confrontation. The region's frequently ice-covered waters provided good shelter for ballistic-missile submarines, whose primary concern was to avoid detection. In the 1980s the Arctic seas became the foremost operational arena for the nuclear-powered attack submarines of both sides.

Throughout the eighties the dominant Navy strategy in the Arctic was the so-called maritime strategy, according to which upon the first sign of war in Europe the Navy would launch a sizable attack on the Soviet Union's Arctic bases and weaponry. The goal was to relieve the pressure on any main front in Central Europe by opening up a new front in the north, diverting both manpower and weapons. American military thinkers felt that the United States couldn't compete man for man against the Soviets in a land-based war in Europe. Their counteroffensive was intended to destroy the Soviets' valuable collection of 100-plus nuclear submarines in port or on the prowl in the Arctic.

Partly as a defense against the maritime strategy the Soviets employed what they called a bastion concept. This meant they kept their subs within small areas that they covered with surface ships and airplanes, to keep American forces at a distance. The subs at sea remained under the Arctic ice, where they were difficult to track.

Since the collapse of the Warsaw Pact such strategies would seem to be obsolete or at least unnecessary. But officially, few changes in Arctic strategy or policy have occurred on either side. The word in Washington is that neither country will change until the military hierarchy does.

"Yet it's dramatic how much has changed in the last two or three years," Josh Handler says. "In the early to mid-eighties we had a whole slew of incidents in the Arctic: intercepts, big exercises off Kamchatka, lots of literature referring to the Arctic as 'the strategic frontier.' That's all dropped off the map. Sure, the man on the street will be surprised that subs are still prowling and warning systems are being retrofitted. But it's essentially on autopilot up there."

Oran Young, the director of the Institute of Arctic Studies at Dartmouth College, believes that the Arctic will remain an attractive area for maintaining a limited military force as a deterrent. "You have to remember that policy in the Arctic is motivated by a lot of factors other than the larger strategic balance," he says. "There are a lot of players, with a lot of interests, who have little to do with the overarching issues. Some have major stakes in deployment patterns, ranging from protecting civilian jobs to members of the military in both countries desperately trying to carve out new reasons to justify their existence."

Some observers would argue that the Arctic remains important for one reason and one reason only: nobody owns it. Antarctica has been governed for more than thirty years by international treaty, and so the oceans north of the zones under the jurisdiction of the various Arctic countries are one of the least regulated places on earth. Even outer space is more heavily regulated.

In recent years Soviet and American leaders, most notably the former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, have talked about reducing the armed presence in the Arctic. Speaking in Murmansk in 1987, Gorbachev set forth ways he felt the two nations might cooperate and asserted the Soviet Union's "profound and certain interest in preventing the North of the planet, its polar and subpolar regions, and all Northern countries from ever again becoming an arena of war." His so-called zone-of-peace initiative called for nuclear-free zones, restrictions on naval activities, cooperative resource development, coordinated scientific research, environmental cooperation, and the opening of the northern sea route (which runs along the Arctic coast of Russia from Murmansk to the Bering Strait) to foreign ships. But there remains, as then Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov put it, a "lack of trust that has built up in a region so sensitive from the viewpoint of security interests" such that the cooperation Gorbachev envisioned is difficult to achieve.

A key to any change is the future of the Russian military. In the late 1980s more than four million Soviet soldiers were stationed at home and abroad, supported by thousands of planes, four naval fleets, and the world's largest fleet of submarines. In addition, 1,400 land-based intercontinental missiles tipped with nuclear warheads were in position for firing. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia inherited most of the state's military. Only about 2.2 million Russians are officially still in uniform, and money shortages have brought most naval vessels close to home ports and grounded much of the air force.

Russia does not intend to eliminate entirely its armed forces in the north, but it does not know how many troops to keep. One big problem is a housing shortage, which already affects the 1.2 million military-related civilians and soldiers living north of the Arctic Circle. Grave concern persists in nearby Finland and Norway that destitute soldiers could overrun the border and loot local stores.

One reason U.S. officials give for supporting the status quo in the Arctic is the still unsettled relationship between Russia and Ukraine. Despite a tentative agreement under which Ukraine will turn over its nuclear warheads to Russia in exchange for the uranium extracted from them, and its share of the Black Sea fleet in exchange for debt relief, there remains concern that a nuclear threat still exists in the former Soviet states. When Senator Sam Nunn, of Georgia, returned last winter from a tour of Soviet military bases, he cautioned that the "risk of accident or unauthorized launch of nuclear weapons has increased as instability has increased." Stephen Cohen, the director of Russian studies at Princeton University, insists that "the nuclear threat is greater than ever before." That's one reason the Navy continues to monitor the location and movement of Russian subs loaded with nuclear missiles.

The reality is probably that now no more than one Russian strategic ballistic-missile sub is at sea at a time, whereas two, three, or four American attack subs are constantly on the prowl in the Arctic. The disparity has to do with maintenance, or the lack of it. Keeping nuclear submarines afloat is very expensive. With budgets cut to a minimum, the Russian subs are simply not in good enough shape to be at sea.

Pentagon officials will say little about when submarine tailings and bomber flyovers might stop. "No" is all Defense Department officials will say as to whether an end is in sight. In regard to whether or not such games might cease, an anonymous Defense Department official told the Associated Press last spring, "It's something that we've never historically addressed." And although Defense Secretary Les Aspin said in June that the Navy had made a "dramatic" change in its submarine operations in order to avoid future collisions, no one in the Defense Department will say what this change means, or whether the tailings have stopped. Nor will Pentagon spokesmen detail deployments or any alterations in Navy strategy that may be in effect in the Arctic.

As part of its first move to shrink the military, the Clinton Administration did propose a reduction in the number of nuclear attack submarines from more than eighty to forty-five or fifty by the year 2000. And right now all branches of the military are experiencing tremendous ferment as competing factions develop new collections of war-room scenarios in order to justify their very existence. But how can the Navy rationalize a submarine force of even forty (now to be supplemented by new Seawolf submarines costing in the billions of dollars), given the condition of the Russian fleet?

"What the Navy is trying to do right now," says Bill Arkin, of Greenpeace, "is stay very, very quiet. Nothing is going to change unless things are brought to President Clinton's attention, and unfortunately for the Navy, Yeltsin brought this issue to his attention. I know the Joint Chiefs worked very quickly to respond to the President's desires after that--first by restricting naval operations in the Barents Sea, and second by beginning a review of the entire issue of naval activities in the Arctic. In an already strained relationship with the White House they don't want to give it ammunition with which to seek vengeance in the form of reducing their budget even more."

In 1991 Canada and the United States reinvested in the early-warning system they had set up back in the 1950s. Today from a necklace of sites making up the just-completed North Warning System a shiny new long-range radar network ceaselessly scans the skies for friend or foe. The NWS replaces the antiquated Distant Early Warning, or DEW, line, in monitoring the roughly 5,000-mile span from Alaska to islands off the coast of Greenland. The new system has fifteen long-range radar positions that can "see" 200 miles out. Eleven are in Canada. It also includes thirty-nine unattended short-range radars with a range of seventy miles. In addition, 400 people are spread out in stations along Canada's huge northern frontier, an area of land and water bigger than Europe, watching for the opening salvo of Armageddon.

Is such surveillance still necessary? A supervisor at one of the new radar stations in the Northwest Territories told a reporter for The New York Times, "Just because there are fewer burglaries in the neighborhood doesn't mean you throw away the burglar alarms."

One consequence of the continued military presence in the Arctic is a worsening of environmental problems. The Soviets have admitted dumping into Arctic waters since 1965 eighteen nuclear reactors, six of them laden with radioactive fuel, from submarines and an icebreaker. Most of the reactors were dumped off the coast of Novaya Zemlya, turning a site near northern fisheries into the world's largest known nuclear dump. (Over the past thirty years the U.S. Navy has lost two nuclear subs--the Thresher and the Scorpion--and has admitted to dumping one reactor, from the Seawolf, in 1959.) Detection, monitoring, and cleanup off the Siberian coast are difficult, because of the military presence, the climatic conditions, the remoteness, and the shifting interplay between land and sea-ice. International agreements for mopping up oil spills and resolving conflicts over water and air pollution do exist among the Arctic states, but these agreements are not comprehensive and have yet to be proved effective.

Of great concern to environmentalists now are the hundred or so of Russia's older nuclear submarines that are already decommissioned, and the fifty or sixty due soon to be taken out of commission. "All of those reactors that have been dumped came from submarines that had accidents," says Josh Handler, who was integral to an effort to encourage the Soviet scientists who were aware of the dumping to come forward with their evidence. "They simply didn't know what to do with them: they didn't have any land-based storage sites, they couldn't get the fuel out of them, they couldn't repair them--so they filled up a barge and dumped them at sea.

"Our concern now is, that may be the future of the decommissioned submarines. They have a backlog of about a hundred nuclear submarines that have been taken out of service, and they still don't know what to do with them. Greenpeace received a letter from the Russian navy last October, responding to our request to go to the Kara Sea, in which they said they did not have plans to scuttle these submarines. But that's all we have to go on." When a Greenpeace ship tried to enter the area on October 12 of last year to confirm the earlier dumpings, it was fired upon and seized by the Russian military. Twelve days later President Yeltsin ordered an investigation that eventually confirmed Greenpeace's suspicions.

Right now cooperative agendas for the Arctic are in short supply, largely because no state has developed a coherent Arctic policy or a process for making crucial decisions. And, since policy efforts by either the United States or Russia provoke opposition or skepticism from the other, neither Washington nor Moscow is giving high priority to Arctic affairs.

Questions remain: How do we reduce the military presence in the region? How do we codify reductions in arms? How could we make the Arctic nuclear-free? Would that include nuclear weapons as well as nuclear-powered ships and submarines?

Oran Young believes that maintaining some military presence in the Arctic is reasonable. "It's very easy to imagine a situation where both sides have a modest number of nuclear weapons in the Arctic as a kind of residual deterrent force," he says. Josh Handler, however, disagrees: "We say, get all of the nukes out of there."

Canada (which has long disliked that Arctic patrols often take place in its waters without its acknowledgment or approval) and the Scandinavian countries are very concerned about the future of all militaries in the North. The Scandinavians may have the most cause for concern, given the large number of troops stationed just across their borders and the large amount of radioactive waste that was dumped in their fishing waters. Last January, when Russia, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, and Denmark formed the Council of the Euro-Arctic Region, officials from the member countries called for better monitoring of radiation, improvement in nuclear safety, and a cleanup of areas contaminated by radiation and other pollution.

As for the United States, its future north of the Arctic Circle is anybody's guess. "I'd like to think that somebody is off pondering or reconsidering American military policy in the Arctic," says John Kroll, a professor at Dartmouth College who specializes in trade and arms agreements and the Arctic, "but I get different stories about whether the Navy is even bothering. It may take the budget to drive everyone to reconsideration."


Copyright © 1993 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 1993; The Last Front of the Cold War; Volume 272, No. 5; pages 36-45.

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