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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
The Atlantic Monthly; November 1993; The Last Front of the Cold War; Volume
272, No. 5;