No Need for Hoo Hah over Under-Ice Dragons in the Arctic

(Caption for photo at top of the post: “A large Jin-class ballistic-missile submarine likely could transit the Bering Strait, but it would be a dangerous proposition for an important Chinese asset. Associated Press (Mark Schiefelbein)”.)

Further to this November 2020 post,

No, Virginia, the Arctic is not a Hotly-Contested Region like the South China Sea–and China is not a Big Deal up there at This Point

excerpts from a sensible piece by two Canadian academics in the US Naval Institute’s magazine, Proceedings:

Chinese Submarines Under Ice?

By Adam Lajeunesse and Timothy Choi [see end of this quote]

May 2022

Cold Realities

In principle, there are clear strategic opportunities for China in the Arctic, but a closer examination limits their appeal. The Arctic eventually may become the “Polar Mediterranean” Canadian explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson predicted; however, today it is unique among the world’s oceans in its isolation.9 The Northwest Passage carries negligible traffic and nothing of strategic importance. While climate change eventually will open the region to more traffic, geography makes the Arctic a poor candidate for Chinese sea control or denial.

As a sea route, the Arctic offers time and distance advantages to ships moving between Europe or the U.S. Eastern Seaboard and Asia, but even in a future of heavy transpolar trade, much of this commerce would be to or from China. In times of conflict, trade between the West and China would be closed or limited regardless of what presence China maintained in the Arctic. China still could interdict shipping to its democratic neighbors, but it is hard to see how doing so would be easier than attacking South Korean, Taiwanese, or Japanese shipping closer to home, where ports lie within easy reach of Chinese missiles.

Interdicting U.S. military sealift also seems a questionable proposition. Deploying warships from Norfolk to the Sea of Japan is roughly 2,000 kilometers (km) shorter through the Northwest Passage than through Panama; however, the northern route is hampered by unpredictable ice conditions. Even in an ice-reduced future, the region will remain inaccessible to non-ice-strengthened ships during the winter, with hazardous sailing conditions persisting in the shoulder seasons. While sealift through the Northwest Passage or the Polar Basin to reinforce an Asian theater may make sense in some circumstances, it will remain a niche alternative confined to the summer—and perhaps not even then.

Likewise, Chinese SSBNs using the Arctic as a missile-launching position is probably exaggerated, given the serious operational problems inherent in sending large missile boats into the Arctic Ocean [emphasis added]. The first of these is simply entering the region. Access to the Arctic is through the Bering Strait, and that means traversing an 80 km–wide passage bordered by Russia and the United States. Sitting in the middle is St. Lawrence Island, U.S. territory that has hosted submarine detection systems since the 1960s.

In addition to the dangers in running directly over U.S. listening systems and within easy range of antisubmarine warfare assets, the Bering Strait offers a shallow seabed below keel and thick winter sea ice above the sail…

…Arctic submarine expert Richard Boyle suggested that any boat longer than 107 meters (length of the Seawolf [SSN-21]) is probably incapable of meeting the maneuverability requirements under ice in shallow water.13 At 135 meters, aJin-class SSBN and its successors would struggle to move safely through the region during much of the year [emphasis added]. A transit would not be impossible, but it would be a very dangerous and uncertain proposition for an important strategic asset whose safety and stealth the PLAN prioritizes at all times.

There would seem to be better options. The range of China’s current and planned submarine-launched ballistic missiles would place most of the United States in jeopardy from anywhere in the Pacific. From the Aleutians to French Polynesia there are tens of millions of square kilometers of deep water in which to hide, all a safer bet than the Arctic [emphasis added].

Possible, Not Probable

While China certainly possesses the technical capacity—and perhaps even the political will—to deploy a submarine to the Arctic, the operational advantages of a regular Arctic presence likely are overstated.

This is not to say a Chinese Arctic presence would be of no concern. PLAN boats in the Polar Basin would create new dangers and add layers of complexity to continental defense planning, requiring a U.S. and allied response. Yet, such deployments also would impose costs on China, leading to dangerous and probably inefficient diversions of some of its most valuable naval assets [emphasis added–no kidding, the PLA navy has other fish to fry].

Adam Lajeunesse [tweets here]

Dr. Lajeunesse is the Irving Shipbuilding Chair in Canadian Arctic Marine Security Policy and an assistant professor at the Brian Mulroney Institute of Government, St. Francis Xavier University. He works on questions of Arctic sovereignty and security policy and has written extensively on Arctic history and operations.

Timothy Choi [tweets here]

Mr. Choi is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Calgary’s Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies, where his dissertation is entitled, “Controlling the Northern Seas: The Influence of Exclusive Economic Zones on the Development of Norwegian, Danish, and Canadian Maritime Forces.” He also serves on the editorial board of the Canadian Naval Review.

Some relevant posts:

US Maritime Strategy and the High North–No Mention of Western Arctic, Alaska or Canada (or Northwest Passage)

US Navy doesn’t seem all that Concerned about the North American Arctic

No Need to go Bananas over the Bear in the Arctic

Mark Collins

Twitter: @Mark3ds

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