Banning nuclear attack submarines from the Arctic

Limiting or banning the operations of nuclear attack submarines in the Arctic Ocean is not disarmament, but it could advance efforts toward a nuclear-weapon-free Arctic and world.

The proposal to convert the Arctic region into a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone[i] is generally understood as a long range objective. Building declaratory support in principle for the idea is a constructive pursuit and, perhaps more to the point, exploring the details, opportunities, and obstacles to achieving the denuclearization of the Arctic is an essential part of the process toward the now near-universally accepted objective of a world without nuclear weapons. 

In the context of such explorations it is appropriate and useful to also consider specific changes to Arctic nuclear deployments and operations that would serve to reduce short-term risks of nuclear escalation or miscalculation.

Fortunately, of course, such risks are not now high in the Arctic Ocean, but neither are they non-existent. Furthermore, risk reduction measures are not disarmament, but they can make the world marginally safer and, in the long term, they can contribute to the emergence of a political and security climate more conducive to nuclear disarmament in the Arctic region and beyond.

The presence and patrols of nuclear armed submarines (that is, SSBNs capable of launching long-range nuclear missiles) in the Arctic have been substantially reduced from Cold War levels. US SSBNs do not operate in the Arctic. Part of the reduced Russian SSBN force operates out of the Kola Peninsula region (Russia is now understood to operate no more than six SSBNs in its northern fleet, each of which can be loaded with 16 ballistic missiles, and each of those could deliver at least three warheads).[ii]

Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists, a pre-eminent researcher on nuclear arsenals and deployments, considers the reasons for the sharp reduction in Russian SSBNs and SSBN patrols: “Perhaps the Russian navy is still not over the financial and technical constraints that hit it after the collapse of the Soviet Union. SSBNs can launch their missiles from pier side if necessary, although such a posture essentially converts each SSBN into a very soft and vulnerable target. Russia might simply have decided that it’s no longer necessary to maintain a continuous nuclear retaliatory force at sea, and that a few training patrols are all that’s needed to be able to deploy the SSBNs in a hypothetical crisis if necessary.”[iii]

At the same time, the Russians appear to be putting out stories designed to highlight their continuing commitment to under ice patrols. [iv]

As Kristensen notes, there is a negative, risk expansion, implication to Russian SSBNS staying in port while still being maintained as missile launch platforms. The practice abandons them to first-strike scenarios, making them tempting targets for American pre-emption, setting them up as a potential Russian pre-emptive force, or putting them in a launch-on-warning, “use ’em or lose ’em,” mode. In a climate of minimal Russian-America security tensions these are not high-probability scenarios, but should the political climate change the implications would be rather more serious.

For a small northern Russian SSBN force to be regarded as a second strike deterrent force, at least some of the boats need to be at sea and, significantly, not hunted by US attack submarines.

But when the Russian SSBNs are on patrol, they are invariably tailed by US attack submarines (SSNs) – notably, since the early years of the post-Cold War era neither US nor Russian attack submarines carry nuclear weapons. Wallace and Staples make the point that US fast-attack submarines continually “stalk” the Russian northern fleet. Of course, Russian attack submarines also get involved in tracking US subs and the result is an intricate nuclear-armed “cat and mouse” game played out in the sub-surface waters of the Arctic.[v]

Again, the risk that these “games” could escalate into real confrontations and risk the exercise of deliberate nuclear use options is very low, but, given that it is not non-existent, it is worth revisiting risk reduction measures advanced during the Cold War. Such measures could also, in the present climate of general political and security amity, be relatively simpler to implement.

There are three primary measures that the arms control community has repeatedly posed for lessening sea-based risks in general and in the Arctic in particular:

1. Both the US and Russia should reduce the launch readiness of their submarine-based ballistic missiles;

2. Both should refrain from deploying their SSBNs close to each other’s territories; and

3. The two countries should agree not to track and thus threaten each other’s SSBN’s with attack submarines in agreed exclusion areas for attack submarines.

The 1987 Murmansk Initiative of then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev proposed an expansive set of military and civilian measures to reduce tensions in the north and to begin “transforming the northern part of the globe from being a sensitive military theatre to becoming an international ‘zone of peace’.”[vi] One element of the proposal was to limit Western anti-submarine warfare operations against the Soviets in the home waters of their Northern and Baltic fleets. 

A recent report by Anatoli Diakov and Frank Von Hippel proposes again that Russia agree to confine its northern SSBN fleet to the Arctic and that the US agree to keep its attack submarines out of the Russian side of the Arctic.[vii] Expanding that proposal to exclude all attack submarines from all areas of the Arctic would have to address the reality that some Russian attack subs are based in the Kola Peninsula area – but measures to restrict anti-submarine warfare operations in the region are to be commended.

Promoting the Arctic as an area from which attack submarines are excluded is not a disarmament measure. It is, however, a realistic risk reduction proposal and, if implemented, would be an important confidence building development which would in turn be supportive of nuclear disarmament broadly, including in the Arctic .


[i] Michael Wallace and Steven Staples, Ridding the Arctic of Nuclear Weapons: A Task Long Overdue, Canadian Pugwash Group, March 2010.

[ii] Robert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen, “Russian Nuclear Forces, 2010,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 1 January 2010, vol. 66 no. 1, pp. 74-81.

[iii] Hans Kristensen, “Russian Nuclear Missile Submarine Patrols Decrease Again,” Federation of American Scientists Strategic Blog, 28 April 2008.

[iv] “Russia will continue under-ice nuclear submarine patrols in the Arctic,” India Daily, 2 October 2010.

[v] Michael Wallace and Steven Staples, Ridding the Arctic of Nuclear Weapons: A Task Long Overdue, Canadian Pugwash Group, March 2010.

[vi] Kristian Atland, “Michail Gorbacheve, the Murmansk Initiative, and the Denuclearization of Interstate Relations in the Arctic.” Cooperation and Conflict: Journal of the Nordic International Studies association, Vol. 43(3), pp. 289-311. NISA 2008

[vii] Anatoli Diakov and Frank Von Hippel, Challenges and Opportunities for Russia-U.S. Nuclear Arms Control, A Century Foundation Report, The Century Foundation (New York, Washington, 2009), pp. 15-16.

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