The ‘Know Your Region’ series is designed to support unit and individual professional military education on the South East Asian region and beyond. It’s important for all serving members of our military to have a foundational knowledge of the countries and lands surrounding Australia.
ANTARCTICA – MILITARY
On this page:
- Strategic Importance
- Military Activities
- Operation Southern Discovery
- Future Challenges
The Antarctic Treaty is of great strategic importance to Australia and New Zealand. The Treaty, which came into force in 1961, demilitarises all land and ice shelves below 60°S, and establishes an international order based on peace, cooperation, and science. The subsequent international agreements negotiated under the auspices of the Antarctic Treaty provide additional benefits for Australian and New Zealand interests: the effective management of marine living resources in the Southern Ocean, and a regime for environmental management and protection. Taken together the Treaty and its subsequent instruments are known as the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS). The ATS is not a United Nations (UN) system of governance, although the Treaty and its instruments are open to accession by all UN Parties. Collectively, the governance arrangements for the ATS establish the law-making framework over this significant portion of the planet.
The Antarctic Treaty is particularly important for the claimant states – Australia, Argentina, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom – these seven countries that had made sovereign claims to Antarctic territory before the Treaty was negotiated. Article 4 of the Treaty sets aside disputes over Antarctic territorial claims. As Antarctic claimant states, and original signatories, Australia and New Zealand have a common security interest in maintaining the strength of the ATS and ensuring that the region is free of conflict.
Antarctic science is a strategic activity. The development of science programs should have one eye on broader engagement in the ATS and collaboration with other parties. Yet, Antarctic science is expensive, logistically difficult, and very complex. Australia and New Zealand have clear-eyed strategies for engagement in collaborative science programs that engage other ATS parties and promote deep cooperation.
Nevertheless, a significant shift in geopolitical power both within and beyond the ATS, combined with minimal institutional growth of the Treaty over the last fifty years, means that it may be harder for parties to respond to resource issues than in the past. In 1959, the claimant states (as well as states reserving a right to make a claim) were in the majority both numerically and in terms of political and economic power. Membership is expanding and new states are demanding active participation in the management of Antarctic resources. The ATS is becoming more crowded. States with a territorial claim are now in the minority, while non-claimant states – notably China and India – are assuming leadership roles within the Treaty.
The ATS does not cope well with controversy or conflict, being designed to avoid it. The Treaty requires full consensus for all decision-making. This structure enables established Antarctic players to maintain the status quo, but it is not conducive to addressing new challenges. There is very little oversight of the various countries active there, and little enforcement through ATS instruments when nations break governance rules. The gaps in the framework could be exploited by states seeking to carry out a range of military and other security-related activities. However, the logistical challenges of operating in Antarctica remain and are explored in the following video.
In the last thirty years, the focus of both Australia and New Zealand’s Antarctic policies has been on environmental, political, and economic interests. But what is often not well understood, is the extent to which both nations have strategic interests in the southern continent. Antarctica has an important place in Australian and New Zealand national security – especially regarding stability along their respective southern flanks – any conflict or major shift would be a cause for concern. New Zealand has a 15% territorial claim in Antarctica, the Ross Dependency, while Australia has a 42% claim, the Australian Antarctic Territory (AAT). Both countries rely on the Antarctic Treaty to protect their interests and to maintain peace and stability in Antarctic affairs. Australia’s national Antarctic interests – strategic and scientific – and a long-term vision for future engagement is put forth in the Australian Antarctic Strategy and 20 Year Action Plan released in 2016.
Ensuring Antarctica remains free from military competition is essential to Australia and New Zealand’s national security. Both nations have issued official statements highlighting this in recent years. Australia's 2016 Defence White Paper noted, “It is in our interest to work with like-minded countries to prevent any militarisation of Antarctica which could threaten Australia’s sovereignty over the Australian Antarctic Territory and its sovereign rights over its offshore waters. Australia is a strong supporter of the Antarctic Treaty System.” New Zealand’s 2018 Strategic Defence Policy Statement highlights an awareness of malign military activity in the challenging Antarctic security environment: “While an evolved treaty system is likely to remain the key framework for governing activities in Antarctica, difficulty in distinguishing between allowed and prohibited activities under the Antarctic treaty system could be exploited by states seeking to carry out a range of military and other security-related activities.”
Australia and New Zealand both use their militaries for Antarctic logistics (New Zealand more so than Australia) and invest in new vessels, plans, and drones suitable for operating in the frozen environment. Canberra and Wellington present a united front by coordinating policy and sharing logistics on Antarctica, which has increased their respective capacities. Further amplified by being part of the United States’ Joint Logistics Pool. There are opportunities to do more with other like-minded states. Canada, with its Artic experience, is looking for opportunities to expand activities in Antarctica. Korea, Italy, and France have complimentary interests and activities with New Zealand and Australia in the East Antarctica area. For more information on Australia’s strategic Antarctic interests, check out the following interview by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute below.
For more information, check out this recent Australian Strategic Policy Institute report, ‘Meeting Antarctica’s diplomatic challenges: Joint approaches for Australia and the United States’, which delves into ways the U.S. and Australian governments can work closely to protect the ATS. Then access the following resources.
Even before the Treaty, Antarctica played a tiny military role. From 1940-1941, for example, German commerce raiders made considerable use of the Kerguelen Islands as a base to control interoceanic shipping. The Antarctic Treaty has since ruled out military use. Moreover, the importance of Antarctica as a strategic military location has declined in the 21st century because of the increasing capability of long-range aircraft, rocketry, satellite surveillance, and the changing nature of war.
Article I of the Antarctic Treaty restricts military activities on the southern continent and the surrounding seas to “peaceful purposes” only – a wide definition open to interpretation. Article I goes on to state that countries may not engage in any measure of a military nature, such as the establishment of military bases and fortifications, the carrying out of military manoeuvres, or the testing of any type of weapon. Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, China, New Zealand, Russia, and the U.S. use their militaries in Antarctica – as permitted by the Treaty – for logistics and scientific support. For Antarctic claimant states, the use of militaries in this way is a subtle and politically acceptable means to signify territorial rights. Utilising military forces in Antarctica also enables militaries to maintain familiarity with survival in extreme environments which, as a New Zealand Defence Force officer noted during an Antarctic training exercise in 2017 in the video below, is useful from Antarctic to Afghanistan.
Article VII of the Treaty requires countries to report details of any military personnel or equipment to be introduced into Antarctica and most states do so. However, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has a record of failing to report the extent of its military’s activities and the goal of its scientific projects on the southern continent. China is steadily expanding the level of involvement of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in its state Antarctic program to serve long-term strategic interests. For example, Beijing’s Navy is rapidly expanding its capabilities and reach in the polar regions to reduce its dependence on maritime chokepoints, especially the Malacca Strait. Since 2014, China’s only polar ice breaker has sailed annual voyages circumnavigating Antarctica and accessing these routes.
Movement is the utmost priority in the polar environments: icebreakers are vital tools in this regard. It takes up to US$1 billion and ten years to build an icebreaker. Russia is the clear leading power in this capacity with the largest fleet of icebreakers in the world, 40 or so, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. By contrast, the United States has a fleet of one functioning heavy icebreaker, the USCGC Polar Star, down from the eight it possessed in the 1960s. In 2012 it had to rely on a Russian ship to resupply its research based in Antarctica, which was simultaneously a triumph for great power co-operation but a demonstration of the polar capability gap. However, the building of three new Polar Security Cutters will modernise the U.S. Coast Guard’s fleet, with the first ship expected in 2024. No other nation presents a challenge to Russia’s numbers either: Canada has six icebreakers (with another on the way), Finland has eight, Sweden seven and Denmark four. China, Germany, and Norway have one each. It is important to note, the 'icebreaker gap' is often exaggerated. Russia has the longest Arctic coastline, the largest Arctic population, and a national policy which relies on the frozen ocean more than any other country. Thus, its need for large numbers of icebreakers is clear.
All icebreakers can break ice. However, design characteristics make a big difference to how much and what type of sea ice can be broken. The ships are classified as heavy or light, with icebreakers possessing capacity greater than 45 thousand horsepower are considered the former. Only Russia and the U.S. operate icebreakers this powerful. However, the extra capacity is unnecessary for most icebreaker operations. According to experts on U.S. Coast Guard icebreaking operations, the U.S. fleet rarely exceeds engine loads of 17 thousand horsepower for standard operations in ice. To see an icebreaker in action, watch the following video.
The Antarctic transpolar air route is less commercially significant than the Arctic transpolar route, but for great powers it is strategically significant. Any state that dominates the air space of Antarctica could potentially control air access to all Oceania, South America, and Africa. Currently, only the United States has this level of air capacity over Antarctica. However, China is setting up an intercontinental Antarctic air route and permanent airfields. It can be expected to utilise PLA Air Force planes in due course to expand capacity and build their cross polar experience.
The activities of the major nuclear powers who use their Antarctic bases to control offensive weapons systems and relay signals intelligence has the potential to shift the strategic balance which has maintained peace in the Asia-Pacific for nearly seventy years. The satellite receiving stations and telescopes housed at Antarctic bases have dual civil-military capabilities. Infrared telescopes can be used to search for enemy satellites, drones, and missile launches – and identify if they have been shot when targeted. If a nation was to use this technology during a conflict it would greatly enhance its defensive capabilities in an air-sea battle. Antarctic satellite receiving stations play a core role in helping militaries enhance Command, Control, Communications, Computers Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance (C4 ISR) systems capabilities, missile timing, and missile positioning.
The U.S. established global positioning system (GPS) ground stations in Antarctica in 1995. Antarctic GPS ground stations are hosted by a consortium of nations, all are allies or NATO partners of the United States. Both the Australian and New Zealand defence forces rely on the U.S. GPS for defence purposes. The U.S. and its strategic partners benefited from the undetermined sovereignty of Antarctica to locate the GPS satellite receiving stations, and now China and Russia are following suit. In 2010, China installed Beidou ground satellite receiving and processing stations at Changcheng and Zhongshan Stations; 12 at Kunlun Station in early 2013 and completed further upgrades to the Zhongshan Station facilities in early 2015. Russia installed three GLONASS ground stations in Antarctica in 2009 and plans to expand to seven ground stations there by 2020. In December 2018, The PRC’s Beidou-3 achieved full global coverage. Beidou has five open channels and five closed military channels, which makes jamming impossible.
Modern military technological capabilities are challenging Cold War era arrangements to prioritise peace and science. Australia and New Zealand’s military C4 ISR capacity rely on the U.S. GPS systems and its Antarctic receiving stations. This unravelling situation remains a conundrum for the ATS. The 2019 Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting passed a declaration stating all military activities in Antarctica will be peaceful. Yet, such a declaration is oriented towards traditional kinetic forms of warfare, not the new hybrid warfare environment.
For more information on military activities on the southern continent, explore the articles below.
- Sandboxx | Operation Deep Freeze: How the US military supplies Antarctica
- Military | More US Military Power Needed in Antarctic to Deter Malign Activity, General Says
- Stuff | Air Force carries out night-time medical evacuation from Antarctica's McMurdo Station
- Fair Observer | Russia and China Compete for Antarctica
- Polar Journal | Power struggles in Antarctica
- Polar Journal | China’s icebreaker departs for 38th Antarctic expedition
Operation Southern Discovery
Relatively few people have seen Antarctica. A myth to most of the world until the early 1800s, the ice-covered southern continent is difficult to get to and hostile to most life. Antarctica is a vast continent. Undertaking research and science programs there requires timely and efficient transport and logistical capabilities. Although some may believe that a logistician’s fundamental task is to move stores from A to B, when you consider the remoteness of the Antarctic supply chain, this becomes too simplistic. Logistics is a fundamental component of military capability and a critical enabler of air power. Ensuring efficiency in a supply chain that stretches 3,500 kms across the Southern Ocean to the coldest, windiest and driest continent on earth, brings many complex challenges.
Traditional doctrinal approaches describe the requirement to establish and sustain a remote ‘hub and spoke’ delivery model supported by air logistic support missions. The C-17A Globemaster provides the Australian Government with an unprecedented capacity for strategic airlift; however, the lack of air base logistics support in the Antarctic makes C-17A air operations demanding.
Supporting remote field operations is not a new concept for logistics planners; however, the uniqueness of the harsh Antarctic environment adds new complexities. Sensitive scientific equipment requires the establishment of a ‘warm chain’ and scientific samples require a ‘cold chain’ to keep essential equipment from alternately freezing or melting during transfer while being transported. In the 4.5 hour flight south during the summer season, temperatures can vary from 30°C in Hobart, to -25°C at Wilkins Aerodrome; the reverse applies on return. Such a sharp temperature change can jeopardise years of dedicated scientific research.
Timely and efficient transport and logistical capabilities are critical for the success of science in Antarctica. As the Australian government continues to provide regular access into the region through employing military platforms, dependency on airbase logistics support increases. Development of an aviation refuelling capability and the establishment of a temperature-controlled supply chain will reduce platform vulnerability, increase reach, and provide reliable air logistics support between the Australian point of departure and the Wilkins Aerodrome.
Operation Southern Discovery is the Australian Defence Forces (ADF) contribution to the whole-of-government, Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment led activity in the Antarctic region. This Operation is an enduring peace-time activity in support of the Australian Antarctic Division on the ground. It includes Australia's national interests, which are based on the region's scientific, environmental, strategic, and economic importance. The ADF involvement is consistent with the Antarctic Treaty's prohibition of any military activity other than the provision of personnel or equipment in support of scientific or other peaceful purposes.
Operation Southern Discovery covers approximately 7% of the world's surface and includes Antarctic locations, the Southern Ocean south of 60°, the internationally recognised Australian Exclusive Economic Zone of Macquarie Island, as well as the territory of Heard Island and McDonald Island. It occurs annually and is primarily – though not exclusively – in support during each Austral summer period (November to March). Australia’s commitment to Operation Southern Discovery – including the number of personnel involved – varies periodically, with a larger contribution during the summer months. ADF elements regularly allocated to the Operation include:
- Royal Australian Air Force C-17A Globemaster III aircraft providing a logistics air bridge from Hobart Airport to Wilkins Aerodrome in Antarctica;
- Royal Australian Navy Hydrographic capabilities to ensure safety of marine navigation and assist scientific research;
- Royal Australian Navy Meteorological capabilities providing weather forecasting and climate research and analysis;
- and Australian Army Geospatial Survey capabilities assisting infrastructure projects and airfield surveys.
To learn more about Operation South Discovery, explore the following resources including the lecture on air logistics by SQNLDR Lauren Bishop.
- The Cove | Operation South Discovery: A JFAO like no other
- Defence News | Special delivery crucial to climate research
- Defence News | Air drop successful despite challenges
- The Strategy Bridge | The Delineation of Militarisation in Antarctica
- ABC News (Australia) | China's Antarctic bases within Australia's claim are going unchecked
The current system provides Australia with a peaceful and non-militarised south. Yet, rapid political, social, and environmental change presents challenges for the management of Arctic and Antarctic regions. Climate change is already affecting national security and has implications for defence planning in the Antarctic region.
The geostrategic importance of the icy continent is steadily growing, matching the new global security environment and the challenges posed by hybrid warfare. The location of global navigation satellite stations by the U.S., and now Russia and China, has been a game-changer in terms of the military significance of the Antarctic continent. In 2018, China announced it was incorporating Antarctica into the Belt and Road Initiative, a China-centred strategic bloc, dubbed the ‘Polar Silk Road’. To learn more, watch the next video.
Thus, there is no doubt that the Antarctic Treaty System will be challenged by changing geopolitics. The three most likely challenges could be:
- Emerging powers exerting influence over norms and modes of working (for example China and Russia);
- New entrants bringing other geopolitical influences into the System (such as Belarus, Malaysia, Turkey); and
- Existing influential Parties ‘falling behind’ due to lack of resources, strategy, or political whim (it could be any of the original 12 signatories, including the claimant states).
Predictions on future security threats in Antarctica are just that, predictions, which may or may not eventuate. Australia and the 29 other states deeply involved in Antarctica all have their own specific national ambitions and unique international relationships. Strategic interests in Antarctica derive from two causes: economic and strategic. Antarctica has great potential economic value in terms of biota, mineral, and oil resources. For more information, see #KYR – Antarctica: Economy.
While plenty of countries would like to exert control over the frozen wastelands of the Antarctic, a combination of the extremely challenging environment, the Antarctic Treaty, and lack of obtainable and valuable resources, together largely prevent overt competition – at least for the present. The same cannot be said of its northern counterpart: the Arctic. A common perception is that the Arctic is a precursor for actions down south. To learn more about the security interests and tense geopolitics of the Arctic, watch the following videos.
China treats its Antarctic stake remarkably differently to its Arctic engagement. As an ATS signatory, Beijing is, in effect, on equal footing with both Russia and the United States within the Antarctic access and governance conversation. While Australia’s 42% continental claim is ‘frozen’ by the ATS, China has constructed most of its Antarctic bases within Australia’s perceived territory. Beijing is not breaking any rules by doing so. China’s assertive manner in Antarctica combined with its icebreaker capability is such that should the ATS collapse, it is unlikely the remaining Antarctic stakeholders could forcibly remove Beijing from the continent. This potential situation applies to all ATS signatories.
Central to influence will be the commitment of like-minded parties to invest in credible science programs that build collaboration in strategic areas of climate science, ecosystem studies and fisheries, and conservation and environmental protection. Through these programs, like-minded ATS Parties can collaborate with existing and new players. The challenges to the Antarctic Treaty System need to be met at all levels – diplomacy, research, and society. Hear how recent activities challenge the current world order and international law in the video below.
The one certainty is that Antarctica will be impacted by climate change, for more check out the #KYR – Antarctica: Special Issue. Access for large vessels that are not ice-strengthened is likely to become easier; albeit sea ice movements may be less predictable and more frequently trap ships. Also, the ongoing quest for autonomous systems, artificial intelligence, robotics, and big data could boost expedition logistics. All the above combined with a longer summer season will allow more time to undertake scientific research or tourism, albeit Antarctica’s unique flora and fauna will be waning as other species move in.
The Antarctic states know that theirs is a tough neighbourhood, not so much because of warring factions but because of the challenges presented by its geography. In facing the ‘Antarctic future’, more needs to be done to link other players: tourism operators and their clients, the fishing industry, and logistics and support-providers (whether they be military or civilian). A broad engagement of governments and their agencies with civil society will be an important factor meeting future challenges and building and maintaining a strong and robust Antarctic Treaty System. Listen to Australian academic Dr Elizabeth Buchanan on future geostrategic concerns in the Southern Ocean and Antarctica.
For more information, explore the articles below predicting the strategic and military interests of nations.
- Stuff | The Newest Battlefield between China and the US: Antarctica
- ASPI | CSIRO and China: We can’t just go with the floe in Antarctica
- Lowy Institute | Eyes on the Prize: Australia, China, and the Antarctic Treaty System
- Modern War Institute | Strategy and Competition at the Ends of the Earth
- Australian Institute of International Affairs | Will Great Power Competition in the South Atlantic Spill Into Antarctica?
- Australian Institute of International Affairs | Antarctica in the Grey Zone
- Polar Journal | Chinese parliament decides on “Polar Silk Road”