Richard Reeve

31 October 2018

Read the Primer


This primer explains what military presence, relations and obligations the UK has in the “High North” region comprising the Arctic and the adjacent Northeast Atlantic Ocean between Scotland, Iceland, Greenland and Norway.


Barely mentioned in the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review, the UK’s commitment to defence of the Arctic has gradually become a pressing issue. On 30 September 2018 the UK Government announced that it would launch a new Defence Arctic Strategy in 2019 in response to geopolitical and climatic changes in the region due north of the British Isles. This is likely to reassert the UK’s key Cold War role within NATO in defence of Norway, Iceland and the waters between them. During October and November 2018, Exercise Trident Juncture 2018 will be the Alliance’s largest military exercise since the 1980s, with over 50,000 personnel simulating defence of Norway against invasion. Russia has said that it will retaliate with its own military exercises and presence in the High North.

Key Points:

  • The UK is not an Arctic state but believes that the most direct military threats to its security derive from the High North, binding it to the defence of Norway, Iceland and the Norwegian Sea.
  • Climate change has altered the geopolitics of the Arctic region by opening a potential passage for commercial and military vessels between Asia and Europe. Russia has responded with a revived military presence and China is investing heavily in Arctic infrastructure.
  • Seven of eight Arctic states are UK allies, with five of them being members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Key bilateral defence relationships are with Norway, the United States and the Netherlands.
  • The British Armed Forces have no standing presence in the Arctic but are regularly present in, off and above Norway. In 2019, a short-term deployment of RAF fighter aircraft to Iceland will also be made.
  • Capabilities being revived or reinforced in 2018-2020 include cold weather training and equipment for the Royal Marines, under-ice training for Royal Navy attack submarines, and submarine-hunting aircraft for the Royal Air Force (RAF).
  • Reviving cold weather capabilities, especially for anti-submarine warfare, is expensive and may well involve trade-offs with the UK’s ambitious global military posture and efforts to project military power into the Middle East and Asia-Pacific.

Image credit: Defence Images/Flickr. 

About the Author

Richard Reeve is ORG's Chief Executive and the Director of the Sustainable Security Programme.