Category Archives: Current Operations

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China’s Yuan-class Submarine Visits Karachi: An Assessment

In May 2015, a Chinese Type 041 Yuan-class submarine (pennant number 335) entered the Indian Ocean and made a week-long port call at Karachi, Pakistan. This development caused alarm in India, at least in the media circles, particularly since it comes barely six months after the first-ever Indian Ocean deployment of China’s Song-class submarine between September and November 2014, and its docking in Sri Lanka’s Colombo port. Notably, following the Colombo docking, NMF view-point titled “PLA Navy’s Submarine Arm ‘Stretches its Sea Legs to the Indian Ocean” of 21 November 2014 had predicted future Chinese submarine dockings in Pakistan’s ports. These seminal developments call for an objective assessment in terms of China’s intent underlying its submarine deployments in the Indian Ocean and its implications for India.

Alike the port call in Sri Lanka, China is likely to justify the submarine visit to Pakistan as a replenishment halt enroute to PLA Navy’s ongoing counter-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden. However, these deployments may be seen in context of the growing volatility of the security environment in the South China Sea, including the increasing brinkmanship between China and the United States. In case of a maritime conflict in the area, China’s energy shipments transiting the Indian Ocean are strategically vulnerable. Through its submarine deployments, China may be seeking to deter its potential adversaries against interdicting its Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) in the Indian Ocean.

Route of the Yuan class submarine.

By virtue of its opaque operating medium, a submarine has always been a potent platform of war. The technological advances in satellite and air surveillance have not been able to offset the submarine’s inherent advantage of stealth. On the other hand, the advances in underwater weaponry – particularly submarine-launched anti-ship and land-attack missiles – have further enhanced the submarine’s lethality. The only constraint of a conventional (diesel-driven) submarine – like the Song-class – is to re-charge its batteries, for which its need to come up to the sea surface (for access to atmospheric oxygen) every two or three days, depending upon the usage of the batteries. This limits the submarine’s operational role and makes it highly vulnerable. However, Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) technology – such as on the Yuan class – has eased this constraint substantially, since its stored liquid oxygen enables the submarine to operate underwater for an extended durations of as much as two to three weeks.

Among the aims specific to the Yuan 335 call at Karachi, the foremost may be to showcase the Yuan to the Pakistan Navy. Notably, news-reports indicate that Pakistan Navy (PN) is likely to acquire up to eight Chinese Type 41 Yuan-class submarines. The contract between Karachi Shipyard and Engineering Works Limited (KSEW) and China Shipbuilding and Offshore International Co. Ltd. (CSOC) includes building some of these at KSEW. These submarines are equipped with Sterling AIP system, which the Chinese claim is more efficient than the AIP systems currently available in the world. The week-long docking of the Yuan at Karachi – too long merely for replenishment – may also have been utilised for training of the KSEW and PN personnel on the submarine, and its machinery and weapon systems, particularly the AIP system.

In broader terms, the two sets of Chinese submarine forays into the Indian Ocean (Colombo and Karachi) are likely to be ‘trial balloons’ for regular operational deployments of Chinese submarines in the region. The current deployments are also likely to be meant to familiarise the PLA Navy with the new operational environment in the Indian Ocean, train them for distant missions, collect intelligence, and collate hydrographic data specific to the Indian Ocean, which is essential for future submarine operations in the region. At present, the Chinese submarines need to replenish only fuel, food and fresh water. In the longer term, with the PN (and some other regional navies such as the Thai Navy) operating the same submarines, the PLA Navy is likely to benefit from a more comprehensive logistics support – technical services, machinery and equipment spare-parts and even ammunition. This will enable the Chinese submarines to remain deployed in the Indian Ocean for extended periods.

While China may continue to deploy its conventional submarines in the Indian Ocean, these are likely to be supplemented with the upgraded version of its new-generation Type 093 nuclear attack submarines (SSNs), whenever these are operationally deployable. These SSNs are likely to be armed with anti-ship and land-attack missiles, and capable of launching Special Operations Forces (SOF) via Swimmer Delivery Vehicles (SDV). Since SSNs do not need replenished, these submarines would not need to enter any regional port, unless China wants to demonstrate a deterrent posture.

China and India share a complex relationship, competitive, and even potentially adversarial. Hence, even if increasing Chinese submarine deployments in the Indian Ocean is not directly targeted at India, the development has severe national security implications for New Delhi. The response to increasing Chinese submarine forays in the Indian Ocean lies in developing affective air, ship and submarine based Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) capabilities, including sub-surface Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA).

Captain Gurpreet S Khurana, PhD is the Executive Director, National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Indian Navy, the NMF or the Government of India. He can be reached at

Damen’s Presence in the Latin American and Caribbean Market, Part 2

Selling To Everyone

The list of Damen’s current clients in the Western Hemisphere highlights one curious fact about this company: the Dutch company sells its equipment to both U.S. allies and foes alike. Certainly, Washington sees no fault in Damen’s decision to upgrade Mexico’s naval equipment. On the other hand, the U.S. government probably frowns at Damen equipping countries that Washington is at odds with, such as Venezuela (which was declared a national security threat by the White House this past March). Similarly, Damen’s shipyard in Cuba, a country that was on the U.S. State Department’s list of states that sponsor terrorism until this past May, is not considered a positive development in Washington.

Nevertheless, Damen has remained neutral in Western Hemisphere geopolitics, as it has dealt with any government willing to pay. This issue deserves further analysis by stating two obvious facts: the U.S. and the Netherlands have generally enjoyed good security relations over the past decades, and Damen is a privately-owned company, which means that the Dutch government has limited influence in the contracts and initiatives it chooses to carry out. With that said, it is bizarre that Damen chose to build a shipyard in a country that has been at odds with the U.S. for decades, and is also selling vessels to countries like Ecuador and Venezuela, which have become a thorn on Washington’s side for years (in the case of Caracas’ for a decade and a half). Certainly, Damen does not need to take into account U.S. foreign policy in its business decisions, but it is nevertheless important to keep in mind how the sale of military equipment can upset regional geopolitics, particularly if this equipment is sold to nations that have carried out aggressive foreign policies in recent years (i.e. Venezuela).

Damen is Important, But Not A Pillar

While Damen has made a name for itself in the Latin American and Caribbean market, the shipbuilding company has not fully cornered this market, as it still faces a number of competitors.

One of Damen’s major competitor is Navantia. The Spanish company has been trying to sell Peru its frigate F-538 model as well as attempting to sell Colombia (and Peru) its F-110 frigate. The company already has a strong presence in the region, best exemplified by a 2013 contract to upgrade the motor system of a Brazilian corvette, the “Julio de Noronha.” Government-to-government exchanges are also common as South Korea has donated one of its corvettes, the now-called “ARC Nariño,” to Colombia. The Donghae-class vessel served in the Republic of Korea Navy for 27 years before it was given to the South American state.

Navantia Warship. Source:
Navantia Warship. Source:

Finally, the know-how of Latin American military industries is improving. Case in point, the Peruvian shipyards Servicios Industriales de la Marina (SIMA) is currently constructing a new training vessel for the Peruvian Navy, the “BAP Union” – a project worth around $50-55 million USD. Moreover, with support from the Daewoo International Corporation and the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency, SIMA is building a new multi-purpose vessel for its Navy.

These examples stress how competitive the shipbuilding industry is in Latin America. Not only are there several major companies trying to sell brand new warships, but governments are also donating surplus naval technology. Furthermore, regional shipyards are rapidly improving their knowledge when it comes to shipbuilding, as we now have modern shipyards in countries like Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela  that are constructing their own vessels.

In fact, countries like Ecuador, Mexico and Venezuela want Damen to construct some vessels in their own shipyards in order for local technicians to learn from Damen’s experts. Certainly, none of these facilities are in a position to build a ship as complex as a carrier, but they can now construct smaller vessels, like patrol boats or support ships.

What this means for a company like Damen is that while it will continue to enjoy new contracts for the immediate future, it will have to continue developing more modern and improved equipment that its Latin American and Caribbean clients cannot purchase, maybe at a better price, from other suppliers, or even construct themselves in the not-so distant future.

A Need for Stronger Naval Forces

As transnational crime over the Caribbean Sea and other maritime crimes, such as illegal fishing, continue throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, it has become a major priority for regional states to have modern and capable navies and coast guards in order to protect their exclusive economic zones.

Certainly, it can be argued that the current purchases of some naval technologies are generally unnecessary, given that the region has enjoyed inter-state peace for decades (the last inter-state war in the region was in 1995 between Peru and Ecuador, while the last conflict with naval warfare was the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas War between Argentina and the United Kingdom). Moreover, while transnational crime remains a persistent problem, Latin America has enjoyed cooperation at the inter-state level for two decades (the 2008 Colombia-Venezuela incident notwithstanding). Given this period of peace, some may argue that these defense dollars would be better spent in social programs, especially since many Latin American nations, including Damen-clients like Honduras, are very poor and underdeveloped.

Unfortunately, the reality is different. First, Latin American and Caribbean nations must have some capabilities for deterrence as inter-state tensions continue, such as between Peru and Chile or even the aforementioned 2008 incident between Colombia and Venezuela. Second, transnational drug trafficking remains a major problem from Mexico to Argentina, particularly throughout the Greater Caribbean waters as cocaine is transported from Colombia and Venezuela to the U.S. and Mexico markets. Just last May, the U.S. Coast Guard and the USS Kauffman (FFG 59) interdicted almost 1,800 kilograms of cocaine in the Eastern Pacific.

USS Kauffman. Source:  Mark D. Faram/Staff.
USS Kauffman. Source: Mark D. Faram/Staff.

Hence, it is necessary for Latin American and Caribbean naval forces, including their coasts guards, to have fast and technologically advanced vessels for both internal and regional security – which in turn would diminish their dependence on U.S. security aid. In this sense, the involvement of companies like Damen and Navantia in the Western Hemisphere is a necessity (at least until regional states can build their own high-tech vessels).

Final Thoughts

In recent years the Dutch shipbuilding company Damen has made a name for itself as a provider of high-tech, fast vessels, from multipurpose boats to coast guard speedboats, for various Latin American and Caribbean states. Their clients include nations with small defense budgets like Honduras and Trinidad & Tobago, to major buyers like Mexico and Venezuela. Nevertheless, Damen has not cornered these region’s shipbuilding markets, as there are several other companies selling their products, such as the Spanish Navantia, in addition to regional states enjoying growing maritime defense industries.

Moreover, while Damen’s sales to the region have generally controversy-free, the incident over the overpriced vessels sold to Honduras highlights the potential for corruption, i.e. kickbacks, in countries renowned for lacking good governance. I have been unable to confirm if there were other similar discrepancies in Damen’s other contracts in the Western Hemisphere. Nevertheless, countries like Venezuela are known for their lack of transparency (case in point, the billions of petro-dollars spent by Caracas to purchase Russian military technology) while Mexico is infamous for its corrupt state-run oil company, PEMEX. Given these precedents, there are valid reasons for concern over Damen’s deals with its Latin American and Caribbean clients.

Ultimately, the question comes down to whether the region requires new vessels. Inter-state conflict may be scarce, but it remains a possibility given recent tensions between regional nations (i.e. Venezuela and Colombia, Peru and Chile or currently between Venezuela and Guyana). Thus, it is necessary for nations to maintain capable deterrent capabilities. Additionally, these states must have strong navies and coast guards to crack down on maritime crimes that range from illegal fishing to transnational drug trafficking.

In 2015, the waters along Latin American and Caribbean states are far from peaceful and Damen’s vessels, while not the cornerstone of regional navies, are an important addition to hemispheric maritime security.

W. Alejandro “Alex” Sanchez Nieto is a Senior Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) where he focuses on geopolitics, military and cyber security issues in the Western Hemisphere. His research interests include inter-state tensions, narco-insurgent movements and drug cartels, arms sales, the development of Latin American military industries, UN peacekeeping operations, as well as the rising use of drones (UAVs) for civilian and security uses in Latin America. Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez

Damen’s Presence in the Latin American and Caribbean Market, Part 1

Though shipbuilding is a competitive global industry, one company has become a major provider to the naval forces (coast guards included) of various Latin America and Caribbean states: Damen Shipyards Group. Damen is now a household name among Latin American and Caribbean navies as it provides multi-purpose vessels, patrol boats and speed boats. These sales have enhanced the capabilities of Damen’s clients as they face transnational threats.

While the defense budgets of Latin American and Caribbean states cannot be compared to those of the usual suspects (i.e. the U.S., Russia or China), a significant number of weapon deals have occurred in recent years between the Dutch-based company and these two regions.

Damen’s sale of technologically advanced vessels is a positive development for the region for a variety of reasons. Most notably, since Latin America and the Caribbean are enjoying a marked lack of inter-state conflict  (the last war between two regional states was in 1995), the region’s security forces are now focused largely on transnational crimes, particularly drug trafficking. Thus, it appears that Damen’s clientele will continue to grow for the immediate future as the company is looked upon as a reliable supplier of vessels necessary to combat criminal activities that occur at sea, particularly in the Greater Caribbean region.

Recent Sales

In order to discuss Damen’s effect on the shipbuilding industry and naval defense sector in Latin America and the Caribbean, a brief enumeration of confirmed deals and equipment delivery is necessary. This will also give us a clearer view of Damen’s clients.

  • The Caribbean

Damen has a number of clients in the Caribbean whose naval forces are more akin to coast guards rather than traditional navies. One good example is the Bahamas, which formalized a deal with Damen in 2014 for a variety of vessels, including four Stan Patrol 4207, four SPa 3007, and one roll-off ship Stand Lander 5612. The shipbuilding portion of this multi-faceted contract is valued at around $149 million.

The company has already delivered the four 4207 patrol boats. Moreover, this past January the Damen Gorinchen shipyard in the Netherlands received the hull for the Stan Patrol 3007. It is important for the 3007 to become operational soon as this vessel is urgently needed by Nassau to combat narcotics trafficking, a further example of how Damen technology is being utilized for positive security initiatives.

Another one of Damen’s clients in the Caribbean is Trinidad & Tobago. This past May, the government in Port-of-Spain ordered 12 new vessels for its coast guard, including four type Stan Patrol 5009, two Fast Crew Supply 5009 and six Interceptor speedboats. The deal is worth $189 million USD. In early June, the “TTS Point Lisas” (GC 23), one of the FCS ships, was delivered to the Caribbean government.

  • Latin America

When it comes to the mainland, several Latin American states are turning to Damen for naval equipment. For example, the Colombian Navy purchased one of Damen’s Swath-type vessels, which was constructed in Singapore.  Additionally, in 2014, Ecuador signed a deal with Damen to obtain two Stan Patrol 5009 for the country’s coast guard. The vessels are being constructed in Ecuador by the country’s shipyard, Astilleros Navales Ecuatorianos, under the oversight of Damen technicians. Additionally, Damen obtained a contract in early 2014 to construct a fourth Stan Patrol 2606 (the country already operates three),  which will also be built in Ecuador.

Additionally, Mexico and Venezuela have purchased various types of Damen’s vessels. Just this past January, the Mexican Navy received the Coast Guard vessel Tenochtitlan-class “ARM Mitla” (PC-334), which was constructed as a joint project between the shipyards of the Secretaria de Marina (the Mexican Navy) in Tamaulipas and Damen. The “Mitla” is based on the Stan Patrol 4207 model. This is the second of two vessels that Mexico and Damen are building together following a 2014 agreement. The other vessel is a supply variant of the Fast Crew Supplier 5009. Like the “Mitla,” it is also being constructed in Mexico’s Sonora state. These developments suggest that Damen has become an integral part of the country’s naval shipbuilding. Apart from the aforementioned vessels, SEMAR and Damen jointly constructed three other patrol vessels based on the 5009 model.

 Mexico’s new “ARM Mitla." Source: Cuartooscuro /
Mexico’s new “ARM Mitla.” Source: Cuartooscuro /

As for Venezuela, Caracas has ordered a number of new vessels for its Navy including a 2014 deal for 18 type Interceptor 1102 speedboats. The speedboats are being constructed in Cuba under the Havana-Caracas cooperation agreement. The first of these vessels arrived this past May and is currently undergoing testing. In addition, Damen has also constructed four support vessels for the South American nation based on the Stan Lander 5612 model. On February 2014, a new contract was signed for an additional eight vessels, a deal worth around $132 million USD. Finally, Venezuela’s military complex (UCOCAR) in Puerto Cabello is building five patrol boats based on the Stan Patrol 2606 model. The country’s navy already has one operational vessel based on that model, the “Pagalo” (PG-51).

Damen Interceptor 1102. Source:
Damen Interceptor 1102. Source:
  • Cuba’s Shipyards

It is important to note that Damen has a construction facility, Damex Shipbuilding & Engineering, in Cuba. The facilities, which were established in 1995, are located in the bay of Santiago de Cuba. Damen’s website explains that “the yard is equipped with one slipway provided with transverse parking facilities for new buildings and repairs and a lateral slipway for new buildings of up to 100 metres.” As previously noted, the shipyards have constructed vessels for Venezuela.

  • The Honduran Affair

It is important to stress that not all Damen deals have been scandal-free. This is best exemplified by a 2013 contract via which the government of Honduras purchased six Interceptor speedboats and two Stan Patrol 4207. The contract deal was reportedly worth almost $62 million. However in late 2013, the Honduran judiciary investigated it due to various irregularities, specifically the accusation that the vessels were overpriced  – according to the Honduran newspaper La Prensa, the vessels were overpriced by some $29 million. The newspaper argued that the Honduran Secretariats of Defense and Finance created a paper company called “Servicios Maritimos S.A.,” which was utilized by Florentius Antonious Florentius Kluck,  a Dutch citizen and honorary consul, as the intermediary for the sale.

In spite of these accusations, the deal ultimately went through, and the Honduran Navy has begun to receive the vessels. This is an important deal for Honduras since drug traffickers utilize the country’s coast for transporting illegal narcotics, and thus it is especially necessary for small Central American country to have vessels that can locate and seize the infamous narco-speedboats. Nevertheless, the details of the deal themselves are problematic, as the question its transparency and whether the Honduran government could have obtained similar vessels at a cheaper price. Even more, even though the Honduran judiciary never passed judgment on the  deal, scandals like the Honduran affair throw into question whether other contracts gained by Damen were due to shadowy middle men and nefarious deals.

W. Alejandro “Alex” Sanchez Nieto is a Senior Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) where he focuses on geopolitics, military and cyber security issues in the Western Hemisphere. His research interests include inter-state tensions, narco-insurgent movements and drug cartels, arms sales, the development of Latin American military industries, UN peacekeeping operations, as well as the rising use of drones (UAVs) for civilian and security uses in Latin America. Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez

Assessing the U.S. Navy’s Arctic Roadmap

By Andreas Kuersten

Shielded by a significant expanse of sea ice, the Arctic Ocean has historically had limited naval strategic relevance outside of submarine and early warning operations.  But the process of climate change is increasingly melting away this covering and laying bare previously inaccessible northern waters.  As a result, and in concert with the region’s vast natural resource endowments and potential shipping lanes, one of the world’s five oceans and adjacent marine areas are slowly opening to human maritime activity – both in terms of state and private actors.  As the military branch responsible for fielding forces “capable of winning wars, deterring aggression and maintaining freedom of the seas,” the United States Navy has understandably turned its attention northward. 

In planning for the Arctic Ocean’s opening and its ensuing responsibilities in the region, the Navy researched and published the Arctic Roadmap: 2014-2030.  The report lays out how the service views the high north as a theater for operations and its priorities in the area in the near- (2014-2020), mid- (2020-2030), and long-terms (2030-beyond). 

The Arctic Naval Strategic Environment

As outlined at the beginning of the Roadmap, the Navy expects the Arctic “to remain a low threat security environment where nations resolve differences peacefully.”  It sees its role as mostly a supporter of U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) operations and responder to search-and-rescue and disaster situations.  However, the presence of vast resource endowments and territorial disagreements “contributes to a possibility of localized episodes of friction in the Arctic Region, despite the peaceful intentions of the Arctic nations.” 

For the most part, this assessment appears accurate.  The Arctic has consistently remained an area of peaceful interaction despite periodic disagreements, and its harsh environment minimizes conflict potential.  But the region also presents a completely unique geopolitical and military situation for the Navy.  As Arctic sea ice melts, the Navy will find itself engaging a theater where it is not the most capable force for the first time in recent history.  Russia’s Northern Fleet, designated in 1937, has been based and operating in the Arctic for nearly 80 years.  Russian naval and support capabilities in the high north surpass those of the Navy: currently, they possess the only fleet of nuclear powered icebreakers and extensive naval bases. 

Direct comparisons with Russia, however, are not very telling in terms of what the Navy’s Arctic priorities should be.  Russian interests in the Arctic have always been far greater than those of the U.S.  As such, the Roadmap is right to avoid any language seeking American naval predominance in the region, or comparisons to the northern capacities of others.  But given Russia’s recent provocative actions in Ukraine and elsewhere, and the fact that the Roadmap was published before these commenced, the Navy would be right to incorporate awareness of Russian activities and capabilities into future Arctic policy publications. 

Russian warships en route to New Siberian islands, including Kirov class battlecruiser Pyotr Velikhiy.

The Navy’s Arctic Capabilities

Turning to the more technical issue of actual Arctic capabilities, the Roadmap presents the region as a unique operational environment.  It astutely notes that “Navy functions in the Arctic Region are not different from those in other maritime regions; however, the Arctic Region environment makes the execution of many of these functions much more challenging.”  This observation was born out in the Fleet Arctic Operations Game naval exercise of 2011.  Unfortunately, so was the reality that the Navy is currently ill equipped to operate in the high north.  A report from the U.S. Naval War College on this exercise noted the following:

The U.S. Navy is inadequately prepared to conduct sustained maritime operations in the Arctic region.  This assertion is due to the poor reliability of current capabilities as well as the need to develop new partnerships, ice capable platforms, infrastructure, satellite communications and training.  Efforts to strengthen relationships and access to specialized capabilities and information should be prioritized. 

The Roadmap seeks to take each of these failings into account, though it does so to varying degrees of prudence.  It presents the need for strong cooperation and partnership with foreign states, the USCG, and other government agencies.  Such interactions are aimed at helping to manage shared Arctic spaces, engage in multilateral training and operations, and develop Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) for the region. 

The Roadmap puts a heavy emphasis on the advancement of MDA and logistics capabilities in the Arctic, and these foci are well warranted.  The principal restrictive variables in Arctic operations are severe and erratic weather, sea ice, poorly developed nautical charts, remoteness, and the absence of support infrastructure.  Tackling these issues begins with extensive data gathering and MDA development.  In this regard, the Roadmap asserts that partnerships with government agencies responsible for meteorology and geography – such as the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – are crucial for helping “the Navy better predict ice conditions, shifting navigable waterways, and weather patterns to aid in safe navigation and operations at sea.”  A force with a robust understanding of a harsh environment has a significant advantage in any undertaking or confrontation therein. 

Arctic MDA will, in turn, aid in the maintenance of critical logistical support for naval assets deployed in remote northern theaters and the alleviation of infrastructure failings.  The distribution of fuel and other resources, along with the conservation of these assets, are important considerations in Arctic operations and ones the Roadmap shrewdly highlights. 

Beyond MDA and logistics, the Roadmap puts an emphasis on Arctic training and exercises.  These are often conducted with other countries and military branches and are touted to “improve knowledge of the Region and provide a positive foundation for future missions.”  While this is certainly true, training can only go so far when a force lacks the requisite equipment for operating in a region, and this is the Roadmap’s main problem. 

The Naval War College’s assessment of the Navy’s Fleet Arctic Operation Game, noted above, serves to illuminate the branch’s deficiency in terms of material capacity when it comes to the Arctic.  In addressing its equipment needs for northern operations, the Navy’s Roadmap is lacking.  Rather than stating the need to procure necessary equipment, it simply “directs review and identifications of requirements for improvements to platforms, sensors, and weapons systems.” 

For years, the needs of the Navy in terms of Arctic acquisitions and refitting have been extensively researched and presented.  Many individuals and organizations have laid out the various basic purchases and upgrades necessary for effective Arctic naval action.  Moreover, as reported by the website DoD Buzz through interviews with top Navy Officers, the branch is well aware of its needs and has undertaken numerous research and development projects to address them.  Ice-strengthened hulls, topside icing prevention and management, surveillance and reconnaissance sensor establishment and maintenance, and network systems adaptation to northern conditions are all clear areas of need with available remedies. 

Training and operating within equipment limitations enhances effectiveness, but being properly outfitted allows for substantially more freedom of action and strategy, as well as for the more likely attainment of superiority in any future confrontation. 

Even though the Navy is currently experiencing a time of relative budget constraint and massive asset redistribution – namely to the region of East and Southeast Asia – a policy roadmap encompassing the next several decades must make Arctic-directed equipment procurement an expressed priority.  These sorts of undertakings require a good deal of lead-time, and continuing to tread water by solely emphasizing need assessment over need fulfillment is a recipe for future shortfalls in necessary capabilities. 

In addition to equipment, the Navy is also lacking in terms of Arctic infrastructure.  Aside from Thule Air Base in Western Greenland, American deepwater ports are non-existent above the Arctic Circle.  The Navy has utilized temporary ice bases in the past for submarine exercises – the most recent being Camp Nautilus north of Prudhoe Bay in 2014 – but to support the necessity of an increasing naval presence in the next several decades a permanent base and deepwater ports will eventually be needed. 

These, however, are incredibly costly undertakings, both in terms of money and capital as well as force deployment to occupy such facilities.  The absence of any clear intent to look into permanent presence possibilities, or commit to equipment procurements, evinces the Navy’s desire to hedge its commitments to a remote and relatively minor area in the face of important responsibilities elsewhere.  While this is certainly prudent, such policies could become problematic if they result in the inconsequential development of Arctic capabilities over the period the Roadmap encompasses. 

Crewmembers of the Los Angeles-class submarine USS Annapolis (SSN 760) man the bridge watch after breaking through the ice during Ice Exercise (ICEX 2009) in the Arctic Ocean.
Crewmembers of the Los Angeles-class submarine USS Annapolis (SSN 760) man the bridge watch after breaking through the ice during Ice Exercise (ICEX 2009) in the Arctic Ocean.

The Navy’s Near-, Mid-, and Long-Term Arctic Assessments

The Navy’s concluding presentation on its ambitions over the timeline of the Roadmap lends credence to concerns over its intent to meaningfully prepare for future Arctic obligations. 

Within the near-term (2014-2020), the Navy plans to have a limited Arctic presence, “primarily through undersea and air assets.”  Surface operations will only take place in open water conditions.  More broadly, the Navy states that it aims to “increase the number of personnel trained in Arctic operations,” maintain ongoing exercises, “focus on areas where it provides unique capabilities,” “leverage…partners to fill identified gaps,” and “emphasize low cost, long-lead time activities to match capability and capacity to future demands.”  From this information, it appears that the Navy has minimal Arctic ambition in the near-term and is content to expand very little on its current capacities. 

In the mid-term (2020-2030), the Navy predicts that it “will have the necessary training and personnel to respond to contingencies and emergencies affecting national security.”  Its “surface vessels will operate in the expanding open water areas” and the Navy “will work to mitigate the gaps and seams and transition…from a capability to provide periodic presence to a capability to operate deliberately for sustained periods when needed.”  Although this language may be interpreted to push for accelerating Arctic initiatives in the mid-term, it actually simply shows the Navy moving at the speed of climate change.  Surface-wise, it will expand into the high north wherever the melting ice allows, but no real impetus is noted to engage the region outside of those areas that become like other environments in which the Navy already operates.  Furthermore, there is not even an ambiguous expression as to how the Navy plans to facilitate “deliberate and sustained” Arctic operations.

In the far-term (2030-beyond), the Roadmap asserts that the “Navy will be capable of supporting sustained operations in the Arctic Region as needed to meet national policy guidance” and “will enable naval forces to operate forward.”  Once again, however, no clear avenue, let alone a vague one, is presented through which these capabilities will be developed.  Consequential investment in region-adapted equipment and infrastructure are needed before the Navy can meaningfully operate in a forward capacity in the Arctic.  Unfortunately, as noted throughout this analysis, there is scant mention of any such commitment. 


The Roadmap ultimately shows the Navy having a keen understanding of the capacities it must develop to be a truly Arctic-capable force, but also evinces an organization weary of any real commitment to a region currently possessing little national security importance.  As the Navy puts it in the report’s final sentence: “The key will be to balance potential investments with other Service priorities.”  The Roadmap, however, currently shows that balance tipping away from any substantial Arctic engagement.  Hopefully the Navy’s fiscal apprehension will not hamstring its ability to operate in a future Arctic environment requiring its capable presence and leadership. 

Andreas Kuersten is a lawyer working in international law who has previously held positions with NOAA and the U.S. Navy and Air Force JAG Corps.