Russia’s Joint Strategic Command North (JSCN)

In October 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed to never surrender Russia’s Arctic. The Russian Defense Ministry then starting working on a plan to protect Russia’s interested in the vast region.

The new Russian Joint Strategic Command North (JSCN) was deemed operational on December 1 2014. It has been created to strengthen the vast border’s security and the growing Russian interests in the Arctic.

Russian Navy Severomorsk, an Udaloy-class Destroyer, is currently sailing toward the Northern Sea Route.
Russian Navy Severomorsk, an Udaloy-class Destroyer, is sailing toward the Northern Sea Route.

The first major move towards creating the new Arctic command—JSCN— was the withdrawal of the Northern Fleet from OSK West in September 2014. Russia’s Defense Ministry has announced that the Northern Fleet and two Arctic-warfare brigades—approximately 9,000 soldiers— would form the newly established JSCN. In addition to these two elements, air force and air defense units are to be included by the end of 2017.

The fact that it was called a Joint Strategic Command instead of a military district really raises questions. It is believed that the Russian presence in the Arctic is solely based on the economical possibilities and the military is being deployed to Cold War-era military bases to protect the extensive available natural resources.

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The reason behind establishing a wartime Strategic Command raises doubts on the true nature of the permanent military presence in far-flung regions of Russia. Russia is also planning in building new military installations—even in environmentally-protected areas— where many will be operational in 2015. It was likely created that way to justify a larger budget and so OSK Sever gets priority on other military commands that are still on a peacetime organization so they can quickly get those military bases operational.

The Northern Fleet Headquarter will be kept in Severomorsk and will also include the 200th Independent Motor Rifle Brigade, based at Pechenga in the Murmansk Oblast.

Russian Army Soldier in the Arctic
Russian Army Soldier in the Arctic

Russia has already planned to build 13 new airdromes and 10 radar sites in the Arctic. Such a move is demonstrating the willingness to keep Russia’s borders tight and almost hermetic. The radar sites could be used to eavesdrop and gain valuable data on the adjacent country’s military manoeuvers and border security. The new military installations are believed to be located in these areas.

  • Cape Schmidt in the Far Eastern Chukokta region.
  • Kotelny Island off the coast of Yakutia.
  • Alakurtti village near the Finnish border.
  • Southern Island of the Novaya Zemlya Archipelago.
  • Tiksi airdrome in Yakutia’s northernmost locality, inside the Arctic Circle.
  • Alykel, Krasnoyarsk Territory.
  • Vorkuta, Komi Republic.
  • Anadyr, administrative center of Chukokta
  • Novosibirk Islands

 

The increased military presence of Russia in the Arctic might have an effect on the cooperation through the Arctic Council. Recent claims made by Canada, Denmark, and the Russian Federation to the United Nations clearly present signs of future dispute. The United States have taken the chairmanship of the Arctic Council in 2015. It could potentially raise tension between them and Russia based on their territorial claims to the United Nations and the current event in Eastern Europe.

These four points are clearly the main factors for reinforcing the security in the much coveted Arctic. However, the risk of future conflicts differs for each of them.

  • Oil and Natural Gas – High especially with the current low oil prices.
  • Natural Resources – Moderate.
  • Water – Moderate but could become extremely high in approximately 30-40 years.
  • Northern Sea Route – Low mostly due to capitalism ruling the Western world and possible trade agreements.
Russian Borei-class SSBN capable of launching Bulava SLBM
Russian Borei-class SSBN capable of launching Bulava SLBM

 

Could the militarization of the Arctic by the Russians start a new arms race? We can assume that a slow but steady buildup of a permanent military presence in the Arctic will occur in the next 5 to 10 years. It will be mostly based on the necessity of defending country’s interest in the Arctic, as well as providing security to their naval and civilian vessels. Elements of Search and Rescue (SAR) teams should also get some much needed installations so they can quickly respond to emergencies in their area of responsibility, especially in the Northern Sea Route where we will see a growing number of commercial ships passing through it.

Although we call this a new arms race, we don’t predict another nuclear buildup since the Arctic needs boots on the ground to protect it. There is no point in dropping a nuclear bomb in a vast plain of frozen snow. However, we will see an augmentation of nuclear-powered ships in the Arctic. The Russian Northern Fleet has the largest amount of nuclear-powered ships in the Russian Navy.

The type of units and equipment used by the JSCN will be based on defined priorities. We assume these 8 points are what Russia will take into consideration when establishing an operational order of battle (ORBAT) for JSCN.

  • Nuclear Weapons – Low but still present.
  • Submarines – High due to the thick ice during the winter.
  • Ground Troops – Moderate due to the constant needs of soldiers for sovereignty purposes. Too much ground to cover for conventional troops, mostly based around key villages and military installations.
  • Airborne Troops – Moderate due to their deployment capabilities. They can be staged at nearby airdromes and act as Quick Reaction Forces (QRF).
  • Electronic Warfare (EW) – Very high, we can confirm with the 10 Radar sites and EW units planned in the Arctic-brigades.
  • Navy – Very high due to the large amount of territory covered by water.
  • Air Force and Anti-Aircraft (AA) – Very high based on interception missions and strategic aerial reconnaissance.
  • Coast Guard and Search-and-Rescue (SAR) elements – High due to the presence of civilian companies extracting oil and other natural resources.

 

The JCSN  is becoming the strongest and biggest military command in the Arctic region. Its capabilities and purpose are solely based on defending Russia’s huge economical possibilities in the region. In addition, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said that the Russian military will be ready to meet unwanted guest from the north and the east, making their border more secure.

Because of that, my predictions are that the other four countries of the “Arctic Five” will strengthen their common borders with Russia and work on new Arctic policies, including a stronger military presence in the region and a better cooperation through military exchanges and multinational training.

The Russians will start exploiting their vast resources in the near future and they believe a strong military presence will dissuade possible attempts to claim part of their land.

The future conflicts will be fought over oil, water and natural resources and the “Arctic Five” have no choice but to follow Russia’s initiative in militarizing the Arctic. Russia is putting a lot of efforts in establishing a strong footprint in the Arctic and will continue to do so for a long period of time. This footprint is based on protecting their territory, however.

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Jonathan Wade, CD

Jonathan Wade is the director of the ‘The Sentinel Analytical Group’ and a decorated veteran of the Canadian Forces. Specialized in tactical, strategic, intelligence and geopolitics analysis, Jonathan has a fondness for technical details. His military experience brought him valuable insight on the realities of conflicts and war. A combat veteran of Afghanistan, Jonathan brings in in-theatre experience. Jonathan writes about Russia, Canada and Arctic.