Germany in the Arctic-North Atlantic: Reassessing “Forgotten Waters,” Part 1

By Michael Paul and Göran Swistek

Since the end of the Cold War, little attention has been paid to the Arctic-North Atlantic area and the so-called “GIUK gap”  the maritime space between Greenland, Iceland, and the United Kingdom. The GIUK gap borders the Arctic region and creates a maritime bottleneck between the Norwegian Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. Furthermore, it features a unique underwater topography with isothermal temperatures and hosts critical undersea infrastructure.Russia´s aggressive policies and military invasion of Ukraine has increased the relevance of this maritime space. It is therefore useful to remember a report published by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) a few years ago, after completing a series of table-top exercises called “Forgotten Waters.”2 The exercises focused on the current condition, role, and importance of the GIUK gap. In the report, the authors concluded that the exercises revealed a lack of familiarity among both European and American participants with this maritime space.

For all these reasons, the GIUK gap constitutes an important chokepoint today just as did during the Cold War, where the maritime capabilities of the Soviet Union had to pass NATO surveillance and tripwires. The first part of this two-part series will examine the importance of the GIUK gap and the wider Arctic-North Atlantic region in which it is located; the second part will focus on Germany’s strategic role in the region as a European leader and NATO member.

The Geo-Strategic Situation3

The West’s relationship with Russia is the worst it has been in several decades. This is evident not only in the Black Sea region, where the Russian war in Ukraine is ongoing, but also in the Arctic-North Atlantic region. There, the NATO state of Norway has a short but direct land border and a long maritime border with Russia. In the same ­region, the non-NATO states of Finland and Sweden­ are adjusting their security policy course vis-à-vis Moscow.4 As a result of Russian aggression against Ukraine, public approval for NATO membership has reached a majority of more than half of the population in both states. Helsinki and Stockholm submitted NATO membership requests on 18 May, putting the topic on the agenda of the upcoming NATO Summit in June.5 If accepted, their membership would change not just NATO’s strategic geography but also further enhance its force and capability contribution. At the same time, it might be portrayed as a further escalatory step in Russia’s threat perception towards NATO.

From a geo-strategic perspective, an Arctic-North Atlantic area can be defined. In the past few years, NATO has revived the description northern flank for this area, as a complement to the nearly analogous term High North. The expression northern flank is a verbal construct of the Cold War that has now been brought back into use, not just within NATO but also by many observers and analysts. In the 1980s especially, NATO protected the maritime dimension of its northern flank as a counter to the Soviet Union’s Bastion concept.6 At that time, the northern flank referred to the area formed by Norway, Denmark, and parts of the North German Plain; it was under the responsibility of Headquarters Allied Forces Northern Europe.7 Today, the expression is used as a collective term in a variety of contexts. Within NATO, the narrow interpretation counts Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Iceland, Norway, and the UK as northern flank states.8 A more comprehensive version adds the Baltic States and NATO’s Baltic rim.9

Geo-strategically, the European continent is an extension of the Eurasian land mass in the shape of a peninsula. However, most of Europe’s Atlantic coastline is freely accessible. For Russia, the shortest access route to the Atlantic is via the Baltic Sea or the Arctic. Important maritime and military capabilities have been relocated there; however, their freedom of movement is limited. Three of the Russian Federation Navy’s four basing areas — for the Baltic Fleet, the Black Sea Fleet, and the Pacific Fleet, respectively — are anchored in waters that are separated from the high seas. Russian warships can therefore only reach the open sea through maritime canals or bottlenecks, making them easy to detect and track.10 In the Arctic, the situation initially appears to be more convenient for Russia’s naval forces. However, limiting factors there include rough weather conditions, the temporary presence of ice, and military-operational bottlenecks, namely between the GIUK gap and the area from mainland Norway via Bear Island to Svalbard (the Bear gap). Russian foreign and security doctrine is dominated by geo-strategic areas and their interlinking with geo-economic advantages.

Russia’s Arctic policy, both economic and security-related, is also a part of its strategy for expanding its political and economic influence in Europe. For Russia, the joint and coordinated collaboration of its Northern and Baltic Fleets is therefore increasingly important both for preserving its geo-strategic and geo-economic interests and defending its territory. Whether from Russia or NATO’s perspective, the High North is not a clearly definable geographic area. Instead, it closely interacts — as does the Arctic — with the adjacent geographical and geo-strategic areas of the Atlantic, the Baltic and Black Seas, and their military, political, and economic uses. In its center are the forgotten waters, particularly the GIUK gap. This maritime bottleneck plays a key role in NATO’s military operational planning and is therefore once again in focus of Allied surveillance.

Russia’s military expansion and cooperation with China

All Arctic states are interested in a peaceful and stable situation in the Arctic­ region. However, Moscow’s military policy is based on the assertion­ that the United States and NATO are threatening Russia. In Russia’s National Security­ Strategy of July 2021, the United States and NATO, which are perceived as already engaged in far-reaching hostile activities vis-à-vis Russia, are­ labelled as the greatest military threat to Russia.11 In the Arctic region, Moscow has been steadily extending its military sphere of influence further and further beyond Russian territory. The Russian government has justified military modernization in the Arctic, including the reactivation of Cold War bases, by claiming these were necessary steps to protect its national interest. After all, it is one of the most crucial tasks of the armed forces to safeguard Russia’s interests in the region.12 But this also involves ensuring that fossil energy resources, which are vital as exports and a source of state royalties and tolls, can be transported safely by ship. Recently, indications have intensified that Russia plans to establish a separate Arctic Fleet.13 This fleet would be focused on securing the Russian Arctic front and the Northern Sea Route, relieving the assets of the Northern and Pacific Fleets that are currently fulfilling these tasks.

Developing and exploiting Arctic resources while simultaneously expanding the infrastructure of a main maritime transport route requires great expenditure. Russia cannot afford it on its own. Its dependence on fossil fuels as the geo-economic foundation of its national power and on China as a geostrategic partner leaves it in a fragile position. Chinese and Russian­ geo-economic interests in the Northern Sea Route as part of a future larger Polar Silk Road are not identical, but they are essential for Russia’s use of the Arctic as a national resource base and for its own role as a future trade hub­.

The desired ­strengthening of Russia’s great power ­status finds its military expression in the fact that Moscow is promoting the joint and coordinated interaction between Russia’s Northern and Baltic Fleets. This is intended to safeguard geo-strategic and geo-economic ­­interests and to ensure the defense of Russian territory. In addition, the melting sea ice will make it ­possible to send fleets­ across the North Sea to the Atlantic ­or the Pacific. As a result, despite efforts by Arctic states to preserve peace and stability, military activities in the Arctic-North Atlantic region will further increase, eventually strengthening its maritime partnership with China.14

Allied activities in the High North

Uncertainty is rising about the increasing militarization of the Arctic-North Atlantic region and the growing presence of Russian but also Allied naval units in its waters. Recently, NATO has been communicating its military determination and readiness in the region, most notably via the execution of the largest Allied maneuvers since the end of the Cold War. With the participation of 50,000 soldiers, 250 aircraft, and 65 ships, Trident Juncture 2018 not only involved the relocation of the then German-led land VJTF, but also the recapture of an occupied part of Norway and integration of an American carrier strike group to control the sea area between Iceland, Greenland, and Norway.15 In response, Russia conducted Ocean Shield 2019, involving a strategic scenario stretching from the Arctic and the North Atlantic to the Baltic Sea.16 In May 2020, the U.S.-led destroyer task group, comprising USS Donald Cook, USS Roosevelt, USS Porter, USNS Supply, and British destroyer HMS Kent, patrolled the Barents Sea for the first time since the end of the Cold War.17 Soon afterwards, in September 2020, HMS Sutherland, RFA Tidespring, and USS Ross repeated the patrol.18

In July 2021, Irish media reported the presence of a Russian reconnaissance ship not far from its territorial waters.19 Its position matched remarkably with the layout of the inner European and transatlantic undersea cables leaving Ireland.20 The use of unmanned, underwater drones was also observed. The Irish Armed Forces intelligence service then launched an official investigation into the incident.21 In early January 2022, one of the two existing underwater cables that connect the SvalSat park on Svalbard with the Norwegian mainland had been cut through human involvement, resulting in the loss of backup satellite connections for several days.22 The mechanical disruption took place half way in-between Norway and Svalbard at a water depth of around 2,700 meters. The sabotage has still not been attributed, but not many actors have the technical capabilities to execute such a sophisticated and covert manipulation of maritime infrastructure.

In August 2021, parallel to the implementation of the Russian large-scale exercise Zapad 2021, a small contingent of Russian warships and auxiliary ships was dispatched to the waters around Iceland,23 where it stayed for several days. Overall, the Zapad 2021 exercise was declared a priority for the Russian Northern Fleet,24 although in retrospect activities in the maritime domain by Russian naval units were equally noticeable from the Black and Baltic Seas to the Arctic-North Atlantic area.

This increase in Russian naval activity has triggered structural responses in the United States. Since July 2021, NATO’s newest joint force command (JFC) in Norfolk, Virginia has acted as the headquarters for the Atlantic and the maritime space of the Arctic and subarctic region. In the future, it is to lead regional activities within its sphere of responsibility. U.S. Second Fleet has also been re-established and assigned to JFC Norfolk, led by a dual-hatted U.S. commander, which promises to bring a noticeable increase in capabilities and more flexibility to NATO. Since its re-establishment, U.S. Second Fleet has already conducted an Arctic exercise, involving the use of emptied or long-time unused military bases in Iceland.25 The United States continues to provide reliable ­security­ for a stable northern ­flank of NATO, enabling the trinity of deterrence­, defense, and dialogue to be maintained undiminished for a decade­.

Only a few years ago, Norway still regarded the Arctic region as a region of cooperation. Traditionally, Oslo has tried to pursue a ­balanced policy ­between deterrence and ­cooperation. After 2014, this approach has become more difficult due to the changed security situation. In the last ­version of its Long-Term Defence­­ 2020, Norway acknowledged that the High North has become an arena of great power rivalry and therefore increasing instability.26 Norway sees itself as the eyes and ears of NATO and therefore invests considerable sums in reconnaissance. ­Starting from Evenes Airport, the Norwegian Air Force is currently testing its first Boeing P-8A Poseidon aircraft.27 Five of these maritime reconnaissance aircraft were ordered in 2017 and are to be ­gradually transferred into active service by 2022. The Norwegian Armed Forces intend to completely replace their aging fleet of Lockheed P-3C/N and Dassault Falcon 20 maritime patrol ­aircraft by the end of 2023.28

In the overall ­network of NATO defense planning, Norway plays a leading role in the region. Alone, it does not see itself directly threatened by Russia­. As a member of NATO, however, it is noticing the increasing­ deterioration of security relations and considers a shift of tensions to the High North as a real danger.29 Russia fosters such perception through an increase in exercises such as Ocean Shield 2019, which took place with around 70 warships and 58 aircraft in the vicinity of Norwegian territorial waters. In October 2019, ten Russian submarines passed through the North Sea on their way to the North Atlantic, the largest such deployment since the Cold War. The Norwegian Armed Forces are renewing their capabilities to monitor such activities. With the planned deployment of new maritime patrol aircraft in the­ High North, the distances to possible areas of operation will be minimized.30 Since the Arctic-North Atlantic region is an extensive sea area in which submarines can move almost unrestrictedly, the corresponding reconnaissance requirements must in principle be deployed everywhere and flexibly.

However, Norway’s five new maritime patrol aircraft are not alone sufficient to provide NATO with a comprehensive and virtually gapless picture of the vast maritime area in the Arctic-North Atlantic region. To this end, other NATO members must make contributions, especially those with appropriate capabilities and a geo-strategic connection to the area. Germany is one of these states, along with the United States, Iceland — with Keflavik as an important air base for the deployment of Allied P-8 aircraft — Denmark, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Part 2 of this article will focus on Germany.

Read Part Two.

Dr. Michael Paul is a Senior Fellow in the International Security Division of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin and Project Director of SWP´s Armed Forces Dialogue (in cooperation with the German Ministry of Defence) and SWP’s Maritime Security Dialogue. He has published extensively about the Arctic region, Asia-Pacific, China, Russia, arms control, international security, maritime security, and nuclear strategy; i.a. with Göran Swistek, Russia in the Arctic. Development Plans, Military Capability, and Crises Prevention (Berlin: SWP, 2021) and most recently a book about the Arctic, Climate Change and Geopolitics (Der Kampf um den Nordpol. Die Arktis, der Klimawandel und die Geopolitik der Großmächte, Freiburg: Verlag Herder, 2022). Recent publications:

Commander Goeran Swistek, German Navy, is a Visiting Fellow in the International Security Division of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). He was previously advisor to the Chief and Deputy Chief of the German Navy and Assistant Chief of Staff N3 (Current Operations) on the German Maritime Forces Staff (DEU MARFOR). He holds a master’s degree in International Security Studies. His areas of expertise include the German Armed Forces, International Security and Defense Policy, Maritime Forces and Navies, Maritime Security, NATO and Defense Planning, and Security Policy in the Baltic Sea Region. Recent publications:


[1] Smith, Julianne & Hendrix, Jerry, Forgotten Waters. Minding the GIUK Gap. A Tabletop Exercise, Washington, DC: CNAS, May 2017,

[2] Ibid

[3] This section is a revised and updated version of Paul, Michael &  Swistek, Goeran, Russia in the Arctic. Development Plans, Military Capability, and Crises Prevention, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP), 2022/SWP Research Paper,

[4] Paul, Michael & Ålander, Minna, Moscow Threatens the Balance in the High North. In Light of Russia’s War in Ukraine, Finland and Sweden Are Moving Closer to NATO,” Berlin: Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP), March 2022 (SWP Comments).

[5] NPR News, Finland and Sweden formally submit NATO membership applications, 18 May 2022,

[6] Russia has deployed submarines in the Russian Arctic with weapons that guarantee about two-thirds of the country’s maritime nuclear second-strike capability. The Soviet-era concept of the bastion, now revived, stipulates a protective zone for these submarines that stretches across the Barents Sea to Greenland.

[7] Milton, T. Ross, “The Northern Flank,” Air Force Magazine, 1 April 1988, flank/.

[8] Lorenz, Wojciech, “Defence Priorities for NATO’s Northern Flank,” Warsaw: Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM), 8 May 2019.

[9] See, e.g., “Maritimes Symposium über die ‘Renaissance der Nordflanke’”, bundeswehr-journal, 17 November 2016,

[10] English, Robert David & Gardner, Morgan Grant, “Phantom Peril in the Arctic. Russia Doesn’t Threaten the United States in the High North – but Climate Change Does,” Foreign Affairs, 29 September 2020.

[11] Dyner, Anna Maria, Russia’s National Security Strategy, 2021,

[12] Paul, Michael & Swistek, Goeran, “Russia in the Arctic,” Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP), 2022,

[13] Daly, John C.K., “Russia Considers Developing a New Fleet in the Arctic, Jamestown, 2022,

[14] Paul, Michael, “Partnership on the High Seas” China and Russia’s Joint Naval Manoeuvres,” SWP Comment, 2019,

[15] Argano, Maria Elena, “Trident Juncture 18 ‘From the largest ship to the smallest drone:’ the implications of the largest NATO exercise,” EU-Logos Athéna, 05 December 2018,

[16] Tømmerbakke, Siri Gulliksen, “Russia to Test Missiles Off the North Norwegian Coast This Week,” High North News, 04 February 2020,

[17] USNI News, “U.S., U.K. Surface Warships Patrol Barents Sea For First Time Since the 1980s,” 2020,

[18] Ibid

[19] H. I. Sutton, “Russian Spy Ship Yantar Loitering Near Trans-Atlantic Internet Cables,” Naval News (online), 19 August 2021,

[20] Details of the undersea cables can be found here: “Submarine Cable Map,” 23 September 2021,

[21] Mooney, John, “Navy called in as Russians suspected of targeting undersea internet cable,” The Sunday Times (online), 15 August 2021,

[22] Staalesen, Atle, “‘Human activity’ behind Svalbard cable disruption,”

[23], “Coastguard tracked Russian naval ships” (online), 31 August 2021,

[24] The Independent Barents Observer, “Northern Fleet Commander says Zapad-2021 will be next year’s main effort,” 28 September 2021,

[25] USNI News, “U.S. 2nd Fleet Flexes Arctic Operational Muscle,”

[26] Norwegian Ministry of Defence, Long Term Defence Plan 2020: Capability and Readiness,—english-summary.pdf.

[27] O’dwyer, Gerard, “Norway sets timeline to deploy sub-hunting aircraft in the Arctic,” Defense News, 27 August 2021,

[28] Dr. Åtland, Kristian, The Building up of Russia’s Military Potential in the Arctic Region and Possible Elements of its Deterrence, Centre for Russian Studies.

[29] Norwegian Ministry of Defence, Long Term Defense Plan 2016: Capable and Sustainable,

[30] O’dwyer, Gerard, “Norway sets timeline to deploy sub-hunting aircraft in the Arctic,” Defense News, 27 August 2021,

Featured image: The U.S. Military Sealift Command fast combat support ship USNS Arctic (T-AOE-8) conducts a replenishment-at-sea with the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75), right, and the German Navy frigate Hessen (F221) in the Atlantic Ocean on 28 February 2018. (Credit: U.S. Navy)

One thought on “Germany in the Arctic-North Atlantic: Reassessing “Forgotten Waters,” Part 1”

  1. World War 3 is probably on the horizon. And a militarized Germany will no doubt be a main player.

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