As the U.S. maps out plans to protect American military bases susceptible to climate change, its partner nations are growing increasingly concerned that global warming may lead to weapons and technology proliferation as now-frozen waterways open.
Norwegian officials worry that melting Arctic ice will lead players such as Russia, China and the U.S. to increase use of undersea and aerial unmanned weapons as well as intelligence gathering platforms in the newly opened areas.
The drones could be programmed to “follow strategic assets,” including Norwegian or ally submarines, a top Norwegian Ministry of Defense official said in early May.
He added that the presence of such drones may increase the potential for collisions.
“I don’t think all these unmanned things work perfectly at all times,” he said.
Military.com spoke with officials here as part of a fact-finding trip organized by the Atlantic Council, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, through a partnership with the Norwegian Ministry of Defense. The group traveled to Oslo, Bergen and Stavanger to speak with organizations and government operations officials May 6-10. Some officials provided remarks on background in order to speak freely on various subjects.
The official’s concern is not unfounded. Norway’s military has reportedly spotted unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) surfing alongside Russian submarines in the Barents Sea. Russia is also funding research into aerial UAVs that can operate longer in the cold climate, according to a recent report from TASS.
And during the U.S.-led exercise Trident Juncture in 2018 — the largest iteration of the drill since 1991 — troops observed multiple drones flying nearby, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Roughly 50,000 U.S. and NATO forces participated in the three-week exercise. It spanned central and eastern Norway, as well parts of the North Atlantic and Baltic Sea, including Iceland and the airspace of Finland and Sweden, NATO said at the time.
Officials could not confidently say the observing drones belonged to Russia, but noted the increased risk posed by the flights.
While Russia and Norway’s coast guards deconflict on a near daily basis, Norway’s MoD has not held top-level talks with its Russian counterparts since 2013, officials said. Norwegian military officials instead call up their Russian peers on a Skype line they keep open, checking in weekly.
Russia has been clear about its push for additional drone operations in the Arctic circle.
“There has to be some sort of deconfliction in order to avoid collisions,” said Svein Efjestad, policy director for security and policy operations at Norway’s Ministry of Defense. “If you use UAVs also to inspect exercises and weapons testing and so on, it could become very sensitive.”
Complicating things further, China, which considers itself a “near Arctic state” is planning to create new shipping lanes with its “Polar Silk Road” initiative. Officials expect that process with include drones to surveil the operation.
Commercial drones also compound the congestion issue. For example, Equinor, Norway’s largest energy company, is partnering with Oceaneering International to create drones able to dock at any of the company’s offshore oil drilling facilities to conduct maintenance. The smart sea robot will be controlled from a central hub at Equinor’s home facilities, a company official told Military.com.
Another MoD official highlighted further risk, worrying that “smart drones” could be manipulated in favor of an adversary.
“What if [the drone] can collect data, but [put that data out there] out of context?” the official said, citing spoofing concerns. “The risk is getting higher.”
Norwegian officials plan to pursue regulatory changes to help avoid “nasty reactions” due to the growing congestion of drone operators in the region.
Because as the ice melts, the Arctic “will be an ocean like any other,” the MoD official said.