China’s growing interest in the Arctic has become a worrying factor for the Pentagon. There is concern that as Chinese activities in the Arctic increase, so does China’s military presence in the region. This article analyses the likelihood of such a scenario, as well as possible logistic support facilities for Chinese submarines.

In January 2018, China published its White Paper ‘China’s Artic Policy’. It clearly identifies the economic opportunities that the Arctic has to offer and the trade routes that will be made possible by the melting of ice in the region. In addition, it makes clear that countries outside of the Arctic region – those that do not have territorial sovereignty in the region – enjoy certain rights, including “scientific research, navigation, overflying, fishing, laying submarine cables and pipelines on the high seas and other relevant marine areas in the Arctic Ocean”, and rights to explore and exploit resources in the area under treaties such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and general international law. Ultimately, China hopes to develop a “Polar Silk Road” similar to the “Belt Road Initiative” (BRI). The White Paper also mentions security as a crucial role for China in the Arctic.

China’s Arctic Policy

China has already developed an icebreaker called XUE LONG (which means SNOW DRAGON in Chinese). China is also focusing on nuclear-powered icebreakers, just like the Russians. According to James Stavridis, a former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, icebreakers are the key to two crucial elements which make the Arctic so strategically attractive. The first is the enormous wealth of hydrocarbons that are exposed when the ice melts. Some estimates suggest two trillion cubic feet of natural gas and almost 100 billion barrels of oil. Icebreakers open up the logistical routes for the construction of oil and gas platforms and, by opening new shipping routes, they are also part of the BRI.

All these activities would have to be accompanied by a military presence in order to safeguard China’s interests in the region, also in view of its rival – the US. According to US intelligence Chief Dan Coats, China’s military capabilities and reach will continue to grow as it invests heavily in the development and deployment of modern weapons, and Beijing will use its military clout to increase its political and economic influence.

China has already stepped up the militarization process in the South China Sea (SCS), a region it considers economically and strategically crucial. China has placed anti-ship missiles and surface-to-air missiles in the region. At present, China already operates six JIN class SSBNs that can carry 12 JL-2 submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) with a range 7200 km and that constitute China’s ‘first viable sea-based nuclear deterrent.’ There is little doubt that these SSBNs would patrol the region to strengthen its deterrence vis-à-vis the US in the SCS.

Using the transport costs for LNG from the Yamal gas field to China, the researchers were able to show that the Western route via the Suez Canal is almost 25% more expensive than the Northern Sea route through the Arctic Ocean. The Western route takes 48 days and the North Sea route only 35 days. (Graphic: mawibo-media)

A Polar Silk Road

In the long term, China could also make its SSBNs patrol the Arctic. According to reports, China has already taken steps to deploy sophisticated command and control systems and refine associated processes to ensure the integrity of a more dispersed nuclear force, including road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine deterrent patrols. China wants to have its submarines patrolling far away from China in the SCS and possibly in the Arctic. However, submarine operations in the Arctic require technological sophistication from China, as submarines there cannot rely on GPS and have poor communication capabilities. In the future, China wants to develop ports, airports and military bases in the Arctic. There is also a high probability that China will cooperate with Russia to protect its port facilities against the common enemy – the US. China has already developed artificial islands in the SCS and is heavily militarising these islands. China is also making progress in deploying floating nuclear power plants in the region and can build similar capabilities in the Arctic to exert its influence there as well. This would not be surprising as Russia is already using floating nuclear reactors there. They provide electricity to Arctic port cities and industrial infrastructure and enable Russia to achieve its goals. However, floating reactors in combination with nuclear submarines would be beneficial, as the submarines could protect the nuclear power plants from hostile attacks in times of crisis.

Floating Nuclear Power Plants

The attack submarine USS SEAWOLF surfaces through Arctic ice at the North Pole. Submarine operations in the Arctic are tricky as submarines there cannot rely on GPS and have poor communication capabilities. (Photo: US Navy)

If China plans to station floating nuclear power plants on an aircraft carrier in the Arctic, it may need nuclear submarines to protect them. Moreover, the Arctic nuclear power plant could become a recharging point for the nuclear submarines patrolling the area. Nuclear submarines can also give China more opportunities to study the climatic conditions in the Arctic, as US Navy submarines currently do. Russia will operate unmanned nuclear submarines in the Arctic in the future and it is likely that China will follow suit.

Russia and the US have already begun to strengthen their military presence in the resource-rich Arctic, and, therefore, China will not want to be left behind. Analysts have found that the discovery of nuclear submarines is difficult there for three reasons. First, differences in salinity resulting from multiple layers of temperature cause acoustic refraction. Second, Arctic waters are much ‘louder’ than other oceans, which is caused by the shifting and breaking of ice, creating acoustic camouflage that confuses listening devices. Third, ice can become an obstacle to submarine defence. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union had already operated the Kola base to receive its SSBN fleet, namely the TYPHOON and DELTA IV-class nuclear submarines.

In 2019, Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, director of the US Defence Intelligence Agency, warned that Russia was conducting secret nuclear weapons test in remote Arctic regions. In 2019, Russia also launched its largest nuclear submarine – the BELGOROD in the Arctic port of Severodvinsk and has capability for deep sea operations, such as small nuclear reactors on ocean floor to power secret military installations in the Arctic. Another nuclear submarine – the LOSHARIK – has also operated in the Arctic collecting samples to prove that the Lomonosov Ridge and Mendeleyev Ridge were a part of the Russian continental shelf. In fact, Arctic remains the primary home for Russian nuclear ballistic missile submarines although the US SEAWOLF attack submarine (SSGN) already stayed submerged under Artic ice in 2015 while the OHIO class SSBNs have been converted to SSGNs and arm land attack cruise missiles. Attack submarines, on the other hand, are being assigned the task of detecting and chasing SSBNs. The US also sent the USS HARTFORT SSN in 2018 in the Arctic to cruise along Arctic waters.

The Northern Sea Route

The Russians operate the SSBNs in the Arctic region because they want to control the Northern Sea Route (NSR). To this end, the Russian Army are preparing to monitor airspace and secure the NSR. Russia has also expressed interest in cooperating with China on the NSR, and according to Russian Deputy Prime Minister Maxim Akimov, Russia wants to cooperate with the Chinese BRI in developing the NSR. This is because the development would require considerable investment and because it would be economically advantageous for Russia to cooperate with China due to the current sanctions.

Amid these developments, not only will China want to deploy its SSBN fleet in the region, but owing to the SSBN threat from Russia, China could also work towards deploying a sophisticated SSGN attack submarine fleet in the region as a deterrent against adversaries’ sea-based deterrence. China will also realize the importance of possessing a SLBM/SSBN fleet that is capable of under-ice operation. In fact, not only does Russia host the SSBN fleet in Arctic, it also has deployed an SSGN attack submarine thereby, strengthening its sea-based offence-defence posture in the region.

The Russian floating nuclear power plant AKADEMIK LOMONOSOV (Photo: via author)

Chinese trade routes in the NSR would need to be secured to allow for a safe passage of goods. For this, a sea-based deterrent would be needed to allow the Chinese Navy to patrol the region in order to ensure the safe passage of resources. In addition, placing a nuclear submarine with an intercontinental range SLBM force, especially with multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) capability, holds strategic significance vis-à-vis the US given that US mainland is within the reach of a Chinese counter-strike and second strike capability. China is also developing hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs), which can be mounted atop their SLBMs too thereby, further strengthening their deterrence posture in the Arctic.

As submarines are easier to remain undetected in shallow waters, especially in ice-covered shallow waters than in deep seas and hence, the Arctic would provide a greater scope of survivability for Chinese submarines strengthening their nuclear deterrence vis-à-vis the US.

Operating submarines in those harsh conditions, however, will be a cumbersome task owing to the harsh conditions and also the icey- conditions that would become a variable factor. China would need to pay heed to such factors. Hence, thorough preparation will need to be made before setting nuclear submarines for patrol in the region. Breaking through ice for communication will remain a challenge while finding open water surrounded by ice hat does not freeze will require careful analysis on the ocean. The US Navy uses systems like side scan sonar, conductivity temperature and pressure detectors as a well as Submarine Radio Video System for detecting the best locations available to surface the submarine.

There is little doubt that China will not want to be left behind in exerting its influence in the Arctic. Military build-up had been suspected to be a key component in China’s BRI and there is little doubt that it will be any different with China’s ‘Polar Silk Route’ initiative.

Debalina Ghoshal, Non Resident Fellow, Council on International Policy Asia Pacific Fellow, EastWest Institute.