Category Archives: Arctic

Analysis related to the global polar regions.

Strategy On Top of the World, Pt. 2: Regional Arctic Perspectives

Read Part One here.

By Tyler Cross

Strategy and Security – Canada’s Perspective

Canada, much like Russia, is heavily invested in the Arctic. Ranking second in Arctic interests, it also ranks second in land holdings with 1.2 million square miles found above the Arctic Circle. Canada’s northern borders have also long been secured by the vast expanses of Arctic ice, but they may find their Arctic holdings precariously exposed if ice sheets become non-existent.

The Northwest Passage dispute involving Canada is set to come to the forefront of security concerns as it becomes increasingly navigable. This dispute, however contentious, is unlikely to seriously threaten regional stability. At the same time, a solution does not appear to be in the making. The Canadians have lesser disputes over parts of the Lincoln Sea and Hans Island with Denmark and parts of the Beaufort Sea with the U.S. But all disputes are with staunch NATO allies, and they are poised to find diplomatic solutions.

There exists a dichotomy of Canadian strategy in the Arctic. Diplomatically, Canada tends to take a “lean back” approach, but at the same time there is a consistent focus on the Arctic. Of all 28 NATO countries, Canadians are the least excited to see an allied military presence in the Arctic. Multi-national military presence there, they feel, will undermine their near hegemony in large portions of the high latitudes. Anti-military cultural bias is relatively higher in Canada, and a significant portion of the populace ardently supports indigenous societies who call the Arctic home. The Canadians prefer decisions to be made by the diplomatic and intergovernmental Arctic Council as opposed to the more military-oriented policies of NATO.2 In sum, there is a general aversion to military development in the Arctic.

But ice cap depletion may bring a change of heart on High North militarization. While much of Canadian Arctic policy is characterized by a “lean back” strategy, there has been a bit of a pivot to the North in recent years. The Canadian military has developed its operational capacity in cold, remote regions. Recently, the Canadian military has purchased a new icebreaker to complement its six working ships, while creating a winter fighting school and a deepwater port in Baffin Bay. Likewise, former Canadian Chief of Defense General Walter Natynczyk has an appreciation for Arctic defense and began increased allotments to strategic security there.

Location of Baffin Bay in Canada’s uppermost reaches. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Canadians are willing to protect assets that they see as rightfully theirs, but are inclined to pursue multi-nation diplomacy at the same time.3 The dichotomy appears a bit contradictory, and they would do well to continue Arctic operations, even if they are limited. This would help rebut Russian advances and strengthen general security. The Canadians are strong NATO members and have participated in coalition efforts worldwide, making them a vital cog in mutual defense. 

Strategy and Security – European NATO States

Norway favors the most proactive Arctic defense policy of all NATO nations. They see Russia as particularly threatening, and recent history has only validated their claims. Norwegian security is driven by defense against Russia, as they feel the shadow of the resurgent giant looming over their relatively small population of five million. The Norwegian island of Svalbard, according to former NATO supreme allied commander Admiral James Stavridis, “constitutes a significant thorn in the side of Russian ambitions in the region.” Fisheries teem off the icy island’s coast, and are of great value to the Norwegians. Defense of the island and its nearby fish stocks are paramount and will be important in future defense strategy. Hydrocarbons are also of concern, and will become increasingly important as easily extracted oil is depleted on the mainland.4 

The location of the Norwegian island territory of Svalbard. (Oceanadventures.com)

Of the NATO members, Norway has the most active military in the Arctic. They see the region as the alliance’s unguarded flank, and constantly prompt other member states to be well-informed and combat ready.5 

In 2008 Russia resumed surface patrols in the waters surrounding Svalbard. The Norwegians found this deeply concerning, and it has only prompted further active preparation and defense readiness. A microcosm of the tensions played out when in 2005, one Russian fishing vessel, the Elektron, encroached on exclusive fishing zones off the coast of Svalbard. It was chased by a Norwegian Coast Guard ship. Tense days ensued, but the dispute was eventually resolved diplomatically.6 The Elektron incident was indicative of future fishery confrontations and tensions between the two Arctic states as a whole. Luckily, the diplomatic solution resolved the affair peacefully, but one must also remember that Russia was not as powerful or assertive on the world stage in 2005. While still unlikely, the chances of more confrontations are higher today than they were before. Norway, feeling rather threatened by Russia, has continued its “lean forward” policy in the years since.

Iceland was viewed as an unsinkable aircraft carrier during the Cold War. It would again be stuck between the United States and Russia in a Cold War 2.0 in the Arctic. Iceland desires the waters to their north to be a zone of cooperation. Ideally for them, Reykjavik would become a stop and central location to a North Atlantic trade highway. With oil to be found within their 200 mile exclusive economic zone, there is much economic growth potential.7 Iceland may look to distance itself militarily from the United States if a free economic zone is achieved, or if the island’s leaders fear they could become ensconced in another Cold War. It is also likely that the American military presence will reappear in Keflavik, particularly in response to Arctic tensions. If Icelanders feel threatened, they look to the U.S. Navy to assuage concerns. Iceland was a pivotal halfway point during the Second World War, and could serve as a vital way-station for the future. They are also close allies with the Danes, and this close alliance and increasing needs for mutual defense could bring the two states further into NATO and closer to the U.S.

Denmark is an Arctic state by virtue of Greenland and the Faroe Islands. Greenland has been an important location for NATO defense, especially because of the bases the Danes provide. In addition to its strategic importance, predominantly through early missile warning, Greenland has increased in importance lately with the discovery of natural gas deposits, and Denmark will look to aggressively map the Arctic floor in search of more resources while simultaneously increasing military presence. Their claims are likely to go all the way to the North Pole itself, and Copenhagen will look to back its claims with naval presence.8 In 2009, the Danes began establishing an Arctic military command.9

Iceland officially has no standing military, although its Coast Guard and Crisis Response Units are fully military in all but name. It is largely for this reason that the Danes have complete naval access to Icelandic ports. The two states also work as an alliance within the NATO alliance. Iceland acts as a strategic stopping point for Danish ships in transit between Greenland and Europe.

The United States should prioritize the Danes, as their provided NATO bases in Greenland are vital to Arctic defense. A relic of the Cold War, Thule Air Force Base, located on the island’s northwestern edge, was one of the most vital ICBM missile detection bases monitoring potential missile routes over the Arctic.

American Strategy – What To Do?

The NATO alliance helps defend the Arctic. Thule Air Base is a good example of cooperation in the Arctic, as it is home to approximately 400 Danes, 50 Greenlanders, three Canadians, and 140 Americans. Locked in ice nine months of the year, sea lanes are opened by a Canadian icebreaker. While extreme in location, being found 700 miles above the Arctic Circle, it is a good example of inter-alliance cooperation on top of the world.10 Activity in the Arctic is predicted to increase and could bring about similar bases in the future.

Thule Air Base (Wikimedia Commons)

For the United States, this would likely begin in Alaska, where there has already been talk of further military development. But it will be important for planners to learn about the particular challenges and needs of Arctic militarization and prepare as traffic flows increase and the ice melts. The United States military will be unable to secure and protect all of the Arctic alone, and much of this will fall to NATO allies. Cooperation will be paramount in times to come.

The Russian Federation’s prioritization of the Arctic will be a primary driving factor in security strategy. Until 2009, the United States did not even have an articulated policy on the Arctic.11 But as the Arctic takes on new importance, American strategy will hopefully diversify and strengthen. Besides remote locations and harsh weather, the U.S. will face difficulty with a lack of inter-agency doctrine and cooperation in the Arctic. Plus the Arctic takes on new meaning with North Korea’s development of ICBMs that can reach the United States, where missiles have to travel through and over the Arctic in order to reach American soil.12 The U.S. will also have to consider both fighting and search and rescue forces, which will lack resourcing and enjoy limited interest from policy-makers.

But nonetheless, progress is being made. The Department of the Navy, including the Coast Guard and Marine Corps, have created a joint cooperative strategy that recognizes the opening of sea lanes in the Arctic. Their strategy recognizes new challenges. The Navy’s currently stated goal in the Arctic is “to foster and sustain cooperative relationships with other Arctic nations and, within the joint, interagency, international, and academic communities, to improve its understanding of the Arctic environment, enhance its ability to predict changes to it, and prevent or contain any regional instability, through the creation and maintenance of security at sea.”13 This is an encouraging start. There is a strong environmental focus, and understandably so. But Russian militarization in the High North will require the further development of security in this somewhat neglected region.

The United States needs to foster close allegiances and play a leadership role in NATO. In the summer of 2007, Russia explorers planted their flag on the underwater Lomonosov Ridge, deep in the Arctic and far beyond their exclusive economic zone. They claimed this underwater ridge for themselves.14 As if their militarization was not enough, the Russians are claiming international waters as their own, attempting to monopolize natural resources in the High North. It will take a concerted effort on the part of the NATO allies to rebuff the advances of the Russians, and deter them from claiming internationally recognized areas of open sea.

The Lomonosov Ridge (shown in dark blue) links Greenland’s continental shelf with the North Pole. The red dotted line shows the extent of the five Arctic countries’ claims on the region under existing international law, which allows them to claim ownership of land up to 200 miles from their northern borders. (Dailymail.co.uk)

What is worse is that rules for free trade in the Arctic are meager. Moscow cannot be allowed to form hegemonic control of the Arctic and dictate terms retroactively. By mid-century, it is predicted that warm summers will see no polar ice coverage. If this happens, and Russia has an early and strong head start, freedom of navigation could be severely jeopardized. Plus, some of Russia’s Arctic stations are mobile.15 Control and mobility would provide a substantial advantage in a zone of conflict. By comparison, NATO stations are stagnant and sporadic. It will take a rejuvenated effort and concern for defense to appropriately meet this challenge.

The U.S. alone will be unable to counter Russian challenges, particularly north of the European theater. But help from NATO allies and close friends will act as a counterbalance. It will not take a large force to provide security in the Arctic, but a well-equipped and mobile one. Arctic exercises with active NATO members will be highly beneficial in identifying problems with joint warfighting maneuvers. Finland, Norway, Canada, and Denmark should be incorporated in these activities, and other allies should be invited. Swedish involvement would be ideal. It would also be wise to consider opening the military base in Keflavik, Iceland again. It was decommissioned as a military station just over a decade ago and is an active airport today. The station could help keep an eye on the growing Russian submarine fleet, and would greatly benefit both the Navy and Air Force to gather intelligence from this forward observation post. Additionally, its proximity to Reykjavik would make it a more tolerable post for servicemen when compared to other High North stations like remote Greenland.

In order to avoid security dilemmas, military exercises should be complemented by dialogue with Russia. One of the best avenues of discussion is via the Arctic Council, where Russia and the Arctic NATO states are members. Council meetings occur frequently, and include scientific, military, and geopolitical topics.16 Dialogue through the Arctic Council will be one way to soothe relations with Moscow in this region.

Break the Ice

Building icebreaker capability will be absolutely paramount to security and science in the Arctic. Icebreakers provide the ability to maneuver and supply remote bases. It is here that the United States is at its greatest disadvantage when compared to Russia. Currently the United States Coast Guard operates only one active icebreaker, the Polar Star. The other two icebreakers are inactive and at the end of their service life. And the Polar Star, many years removed from her christening, has seen 40 years of service and is set to retire in the early 2020s. By contrast, Russia operates 40 icebreakers, seven of which are nuclear powered. They are also building their new icebreaking nuclear powered flagship, the Arktika, slated for service before 2020.17 

Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker Taymyr smashes through layers of ice just feet away from a group of adventurers in northwestern Russia. (Anton Panov/Oper_11 via Instagram)

The previous Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, Admiral Paul Zukunft, implored Congress to fund the building of new icebreakers. He found success, albeit somewhat limited. Zukunft asked for three heavy and two medium ships, and the first heavy icebreaker will be completed in 2023.18 This is an encouraging start, but the U.S. has a long way to go before it can compete with Russia or even smaller states in frozen seas. Finland has seven, Sweden seven, Canada six with another on the way, Denmark four, and China three with more in development.19 Congress will need to get serious about funding if it wants to compete in the Polar regions and enforce freedom of navigation in navigable ice flows. Luckily, the construction of each icebreaker pales in comparison to substantial Navy projects. The cost will be comparatively low, but the repercussions great.

The advantage of building icebreakers is that they facilitate freedom of navigation and trade in the Arctic. While the ice may be receding, northern shipping lanes will still be covered in ice for much of the year. Some lanes that have opened up remained locked in ice year-round, but the ice is thin enough for an icebreaker to pass through.

Ships looking to traverse the open ocean cannot rely on Russian help. As nice as cooperation will be, it is unlikely. When speaking at the Heritage Foundation, Admiral Zukunft said “I don’t think you’ll see tranquility about to break out.”20 Likewise, he openly discussed the idea of outfitting future icebreakers with cruise missiles. It suffices to say that it will take until 2023 for the next U.S. icebreaker to be completed, and Russia will complete two more by 2020, both possibly outfitted with cruise missiles of their own.21

Conclusion

The High North will almost certainly be a zone of competition. If Russia can take a hegemonic role there, it will lean on its military presence and the relative lack of international rules and norms for it to control the region. The Chinese are not far behind. American absence from the Arctic has weakened its stance with respect to great power competition and serves to upend the Navy’s stated mission of freedom of navigation. In a contentious Arctic, Russia will be unlikely to provide icebreaker coverage to international shipping and will try to claim resources and open sea. The United States Coast Guard must lead the way, and find close support from the other military branches.

The United States must remain a player in the Arctic Council and coordinate NATO defense in Arctic and near-Arctic regions. As long as the NATO alliance is strong, Russia will be deterred from exceedingly brash actions. With a strong presence, freedom of navigation will reign and peace can continue.

Tyler Cross recently completed a master’s degree in International Security at George Mason University. He will continue his career in international security cooperation.

Bibliography

Bender, Jeremy. “This is What Its Like to Live at The US’ Most Remote Air Base.” Business        Insider. Last modified Nov. 24, 2014. http://www.businessinsider.com/what-its-like-to- serve-at-thule-air-base-2014-11.

Clark, Wesley. “Russia: Cold War 2.0?.” Lecture at the Michael V. Hayden Center for      Intelligence, Policy, and International Security, Arlington, VA, March 5, 2018.

Dibb, Paul. “The Geopolitical Implications of Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine.” Strategic and            Defense Studies Center, June, 2014.

Eckstein, Megan. “Zukunft: Changing Arctic Could Lead to Armed U.S. Icebreakers in Fleet.”    USNI News. May 18, 2017, https://news.usni.org/2017/05/18/zukunft-changing-arctic-            environment-could-lead-to-more-armed-icebreakers-in-future-fleet.

Hill, David D. “Force Projection, Strategic Agility, and the Big Meltdown.” Naval War College. May 18, 2001.

Kofman, Michael. “Russia’s Fifth Generation Sub Looms.” U.S. Naval Institute, Proceedings        Magazine 143, no. 10 (Oct. 2017).

Roberts, Kari. “Jets, Flags, and a new Cold War? Demystifying Russia’s Arctic Intentions.”         International Journal 65, no. 4 (2010): 957-976.

Rozman, Gilbert. Strategic Thinking about the Korean Nuclear Crisis Four Parties Caught            between North Korea and the United States. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Slayton, David and Brigham, Lawson W. “Can the US and Russia Preserve Peace in the Arctic?”            Investor’s Business Daily, May 13, 2015.

Spohr, Kristina. “The Scramble for the Arctic.” New Statesman 147 (March 9-March 15, 2018):    22-27.

Stavridis, James. Sea Power The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans. New York:         Random House, 2017.

Titley, David and St. John, Courtney. “Arctic Security Considerations and the US Navy’s            Roadmap for the Arctic.” Naval War College Review 63, no. 2 (2010): 35-48.

Todorov, Andrey A. “The Russia-USA Legal Dispute Over the Straits of the Northern Sea Route            and Similar Case of the Northwest Passage.” No. 29 (2017): 62-75.

“Zukunft to Congress: US Must be Serious About Icebreaker Acquisition,” U.S. Naval Institute    News. Last modified May 18, 2017, https://news.usni.org/2018/04/17/zukunft-congress-u-s-must-serious-icebreaker-acquisition.

Zysk, Katarzyna. “Russia’s Arctic Strategy: AMBITONS AND CONSTRAINTS.” Joint Force   Quarterly. 57 (2010): 103-110.

References

[1] Stavridis, pp. 344-345.

[2] Ibid., pp. 345-347.

[3] Ibid., 345-346.

[4] Ibid., p. 351.

[5] Ibid., pp. 351-352.

[6] Roberts, pp. 958, 968.

[7] Stavridis, pp. 349-350.

[8] Ibid., pp. 350-351.

[9] Zysk, p. 109.

[10] Jeremy Bender, “This is What Its Like to Live at The US’ Most Remote Air Base,” Business Insider, last modified Nov. 24, 2014, http://www.businessinsider.com/what-its-like-to-serve-at-thule-air-base-2014-11.

[11] Stavridis, p. 353.

[12] Ibid., pp. 353-356.

[13] David Titley and Courtney St. John, “Arctic Security Considerations and the US Navy’s Roadmap for the Arctic,” Naval War College Review 63, no. 2 (2010): pp. 42-43.

[14] Roberts, p. 958.

[15] David B. Hill, “Force Projection, Strategic Agility, and the Big Meltdown,” Naval War College, May 18, 2001, pp. 4-5.

[16] Stavridis, p. 338

[17] Ibid., p. 357. Some estimate Russian icebreaker capability is higher, as much as 44 in fact (source: Eckstein article)

[18] Eckstein.

[19] Stavridis, p. 357.

[20] “Zukunft to Congress: US Must be Serious About Icebreaker Acquisition,” U.S. Naval Institute News, last modified May 18, 2017, https://news.usni.org/2018/04/17/zukunft-congress-u-s-must-serious-icebreaker-acquisition.

[21] Eckstein.

Featured Image: Crewmen walk across the ice toward the US Coast Guard icebreaker USCGC POLAR STAR (WAGB 10). The POLAR STAR, first Coast Guard icebreaker to circumnavigate the Antarctic continent, has paused during its journey to give crewmen “ice-liberty.” (PA1 Ed Moreth, USCG)

Strategy On Top of the World, Pt. 1: The Outlook for Arctic Competition

By Tyler Cross

In 1827, Sir William Parry of the British Royal Navy made the first serious attempt to reach the North Pole. Captain of the Hecla, he and his crew reached 82°45’ N, a record for humanity for the northernmost latitude reached; it remained unbroken for 49 years. Exploration of the Arctic, closely related with the search for the ever-elusive Northwest Passage, became the fascination of explorer and layman alike during the 19th century.1 But frozen in time and locked in ice, the Arctic was impassable, mysterious, and unobserved until the early 20th century. 

The High North that Parry and other explorers tried to reach was quite different from the Arctic today. Polar ice caps are receding at a steady rate. The titanic expanses of ice sheets are shrinking, exposing greater topography at the top of the world.

This will present unique security challenges for the 21st century. The Arctic may become a highway and natural resource center in the future. Tensions between NATO states and Russia are already palpable, and are poised to increase. Security challenges are driven in part by trade and resource potential in the Arctic Ocean. Oil, natural gas, immense fisheries, and potential maritime highways via the Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route are likely sticking points.2 The Russian Federation has, through its own renewed tension building and aggressions, positioned itself as the principal potential adversary in the High North. Moscow sees great developmental opportunities in the Arctic. The Russians are far greater equipped – both psychologically and materially, for staying power in the frozen wilderness. It is an integral part of Moscow’s future plans.

Time lapse of the relative age of Arctic sea ice from week to week since 1990. The oldest ice (9 or more years old) is white. Seasonal ice is darkest blue. Old ice drifts out of the Arctic through the Fram Strait (east of Greenland), but in recent years, it has also been melting as it drifts into the southernmost waters of the Beaufort Sea (north of western Canada and Alaska). Video produced by the Climate.gov team, based on data provided by Mark Tschudi, University of Colorado-Boulder. (NOAA via Climate Central)

In contrast, high latitudes receive far less attention and interest in the United States. The NATO alliance, driven particularly by the Arctic nations, will be pivotal in a joint security role there. Canada, Norway, Iceland, and Denmark, all NATO allies with shores on the Arctic Ocean, should be incorporated and extensively consulted. Finland, another NATO partner in the Arctic but with no direct access to the Arctic Ocean, and Sweden, a friendly security partner with ties to the alliance, will also play their respective roles in mutual cooperation.

Cooperation with Moscow, while ideal, is unlikely. Contingencies must be prepared. Russian capability, at least for trade supported by icebreaking, dwarfs that of the United States. NATO allies and Northern European friends also largely outpace U.S. icebreaking capability. The development of icebreakers will be a focal point of the road ahead. They open sea lanes in the warmer months, facilitating trade and movement of the naval surface fleet. Of secondary concern is China, which has an active duty icebreaker capability and is currently using its icebreakers to explore potential oil drilling sites that could impede U.S. economic zones in the Arctic.3

Security in the Arctic Ocean will grow in importance as the polar ice caps shrink. Therefore the United States, in conjunction with NATO allies, must develop appropriate security doctrine and measures that confront the dangers of the High North and Russian militarization in order to provide freedom of navigation in this often neglected theater.

Less Ice, More Activity

The Arctic is a treasure trove of natural resources. It is also the least understood ocean. Thus, the story of security there has an air of mystique and discovery. Largely untapped resources exist, and much of them are yet to be discovered. Humanity has mapped the surface of the Moon and Mars to a greater extent than the ocean floor of the Arctic. But what is generally understood is that there are vast resources to be harnessed. It is estimated that 30 percent of the world’s untapped hydrocarbons can be found in the Arctic, including a full 25 percent of proven hydrocarbon reserves. Much nickel, platinum, palladium, lead, diamonds, and other rare Earth metals are there as well.4 In the 21st century, there will be a maritime “gold rush” to the upper latitudes once conditions permit.

Russia, an energy giant, has made great economic strides in the 21st century through the export of oil. It has found dependable markets in Europe and Northeast Asia. Even NATO member states with unfriendly relations with Moscow find themselves largely dependent on Russian oil imports. Likewise, in Northeast Asia, new markets have been found in historically unfriendly states, like South Korea.5 Vladimir Putin is now looking to the Arctic to help solidify his nation’s status as Eurasia’s energy giant. And as the economic, industrial, and military power of Russia and China increase, they will both look to the Arctic as a natural resource center from which they can pull materials.

The Arctic is a considerable source of fisheries. In the United States, 50 percent of fish stocks originate within the 200-mile exclusive economic zone off the coast of Alaska. Many of the other Arctic states have similar extensive fishing operations off of their immediate coasts. There is great competition and overfishing beyond the EEZs.6 In future food crises, industrial fishing will be forced to venture farther to find plentiful stocks, and many will certainly look to the Arctic. Increased economic competition and interest will likely drive a greater need for security. This will in turn lead to a degree of militarization previously unseen in the Arctic. 

If for no other reason, U.S. interest is prompted by increased trade. One of the core stated goals of the United States Navy is upholding the principle of the freedom of navigation. Currently, the U.S. Navy is the world’s enforcer of free trade on the open ocean and carries exponentially more of the burden than any other state’s navy. If the Arctic finds itself inundated with commercial fishing interests between competing states, especially ones desperately looking to compensate for declining fish stocks elsewhere, the Navy will likely be pulled toward the Arctic.

It would behoove decision-makers to recognize the future of the Arctic’s importance, and they must be willing to provide security to American and allied civilian operations there if in danger. But the U.S. Navy is currently stretched thin, focusing on protecting freedom of navigation and security, especially in the Pacific, while supporting other interests worldwide. The opening of the Arctic Ocean and its subsequent intensive economic development will almost certainly require naval expansion. If prepared with doctrine now, later challenges will be mollified.

One of the biggest driving factors in sending more naval forces to the Arctic will be newfound trade routes that come from melting ice caps. The Northwest Passage, long a source of fascination for countless explorers, Parry included, is rapidly becoming a viable trade route. But as the ice thins and becomes a potential sea lane, the future of the Northwest Passage remains unclear. The sea route stretching from Baffin Bay to the Beaufort Sea runs through Canadian waters. The Canadian government would like to see this recognized as their own territorial waters, while other maritime powers, particularly the United States, would like to see the region be recognized as an international highway.7 Far more contentious and potentially volatile is the Northern Sea Route. With the potential to cut transit distance between Europe and Asia by 40 percent, the Northern Sea Route could become an international highway in a more open Arctic. But disputes over its use between the United States and Russia date back to the 1960s. Then and today, Moscow treats the passage as territorial waters over which they have control. The United States, in its freedom of navigation mission, declares that the lanes must be open. Russia will continue to exercise claimed rights, citing the Law of the Sea, that the straits are their historic territorial waters. Under such provisions, they can claim modern legislation.8 Russia’s economy is largely dependent on energy exports, and it may look to diversify and tax shipments moving through the Northern Sea Route. Putin may try to use the opening lanes as a source of steady income and as a pressure point on other powers. He will also likely use militarization in the High North to enforce and buttress territorial claims.

Optimal September navigation routes for ice-strengthened (red) and common open-water (blue) ships traveling between Rotterdam, The Netherlands and St. John’s, Newfoundland in the years 2040-2059. (Laurence C. Smith and Scott R. Stephenson, Proceedings of the National Academies of Science). Click to enlarge. 

Another developing commercial route is in the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia’s Easternmost reaches. The United States Coast Guard reported a 120 percent increase in Bering Strait traffic from 2008 to 2012.9 The Bering Sea is unforgiving and with all of this increased traffic there are bound to be more sailors in danger due to the intense weather and equipment failure that often occurs in these locations. Barrow, at the northern tip of Alaska, is generally accessible only by air, but traffic will increase in the warm summers to come. Remote Arctic littorals near Alaska experience year-round tempestuous weather, little cellular coverage, and limited search and rescue availability. The nearest USCG air station to Barrow can be found in Kodiak, 1000 miles away. In the words of Admiral James Stavridis, “All of this means that if a mariner is in trouble in the Arctic, he or is she is in serious trouble.”10

Traffic has grown at an unprecedented rate, and now is the time to develop more search and rescue proficiency and capability. Much of this will fall on the Coast Guard, but it is unfortunately underfunded and understaffed despite the fact it will bear the greatest burden in a developing Arctic. Creating new or better search and rescue capabilities in Alaska is substantially cheaper than most military projects. The funding would be comparatively little, but the repercussions great. This will be a continuous theme in the Arctic, and some modern investments in Coast Guard capabilities will not come easily, but they will be well worth the effort and remain economical within the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security budgets.

As of 2011, Russia and the U.S. created the new Arctic Search and Rescue Agreement. The safety realm seems to be one of the few topics their armed forces can agree on. Russia has been developing ten search and rescue bases along its Northern Sea Route, yet this development coincides ominously with more militarization in the same area.11 But cooperation between Russian and American Coast Guards will be beneficial in saving lives. More cooperative capability for search and rescue will hopefully not coincide with greater tensions vis-à-vis military development. The Arctic Search and Rescue Agreement is an encouraging step in separating great power rivalry from life-saving operations that benefit all.

Strategy and Security – The Russian Federation

The Arctic is central to the Russian worldview. Part of the Russian identity is that of the rugged individual capable of self-sustaining life in harsh, cold climates. The High North, with its frigid tundra and plentiful natural resources, is integral to the very fiber of Russian culture. In addition, Russia has the largest population living above the Arctic Circle, totaling approximately four million.12 By contrast, the Arctic is far removed from the culture of American society. It would behoove strategists to appreciate these cultural difference when approaching security concerns and understanding motivations. The world’s northernmost reaches will never hold the same societal importance to Americans as it does to Russians.

Perhaps more so than the average Russian, leaders in the Kremlin look to the High North with envy. Putin’s plans for Arctic development can be thought of like former President Barack Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” strategy. Much of Moscow views the Arctic similar to how the 44th president saw the Western Pacific, a place of developmental opportunities and of increasing importance to national strategy. According to The National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation Through 2020, the Arctic is set to become Russia’s “top strategic resource base by 2020.”  Furthermore, the Kremlin did not rule out military conflict in the region if this strategic goal was threatened.13 A large portion of the National Security Strategy document was devoted to the Arctic, embodied in the “Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Arctic Through 2020 and Beyond.” Included was a plan to strengthen military presence.

A Russian soldier stands guard in front of a Pantsir-S1 air defense system on Kotelny Island, part of the New Siberian Islands archipelago located between the Laptev Sea and the East Siberian Sea, Russia. (Vladimir Isachenkov/Associated Press)

Putin’s pivot to the North is not just economic, but also militaristic. The Arctic is home to the North Sea Fleet, which includes much of the Russian ballistic missile submarine fleet. During the Cold War, American and Soviet nuclear submarines played endless “cat and mouse” games in the frigid, quiet waters beneath the Arctic ice.14 Despite the thaw of the Cold War, tensions have again risen to significant levels, and Russia has a large military that it is willing to utilize. This was illustrated in 2008 with the short war against Georgia, in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea, and from 2015 to the present day in Syria. In recent years, the number of troops in Arctic bases has increased, and the bases themselves have grown with haste. As the polar ice caps recede, there will be a strong inclination to develop naval capabilities to defend newly exposed northern shores.15

Russian military and economic development in the Arctic will be linked in the coming decades. Military centers are not far from important sources of income. Approximately 22 percent of the Russian Federation’s GDP is produced above the Arctic Circle. Russian sources claim that as much as 90 percent of their hydrocarbon reserves can be found in the Arctic, concentrated mostly in the Barents Sea and Kara Sea.16 The Barents Sea, situated north of the European theater, is naturally critical to the Russians. Murmansk and Arkhangelsk are two of Russia’s most important historical cold water ports. Both are situated at the southern reaches of the Barents Sea, or at the northern tip of Europe. Both ports are home to the Northern Fleet, and Murmansk is the administrative center of the fleet. And important offshore natural resources can be found not far away from long-established military bases in Russia’s most militarized regions.

A map showing the location of the Barents Sea north of Russia and Norway, and the surrounding seas and islands. (Wikimedia Commons)

Russia is an oil producing giant, and where Gazprom is the largest Russian energy firm. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is tightly controlled by the Kremlin, and when Gazprom makes money, the state makes money.17 Putin and his associates will look to jealously guard their economic development in the Arctic, and the Kremlin has explicitly stated it needs a “necessary combat potential” in the Arctic. Regular border guard patrols out of Murmansk and Arkhangelsk were re-activated in 2009, reminiscent of the Soviet Union days. Around this time, it was announced that a new Arctic Spetsnaz unit would come into existence.18 In March of 2015, Russia practiced the largest Arctic military deployment since the Cold War when it mobilized 45,000 soldiers, 3,360 vehicles, 110 aircraft, 41 naval vessels, and 15 submarines in a force readiness exercise.19 Likewise, submarine capability beneath the ice has been revitalized and Russia’s submarine fleet has grown. While some militarization is probably just for basic security purposes, much of it coincides with the protection of expanding oil wealth generated near and within the Arctic Circle.

The Russian Federation’s true power at sea, like the Soviet Union before it, lies in its submarine fleet.20 And nowhere is a submarine force more independently powerful than under the Arctic ice. Russia’s submarine force is plentiful, but aging. Moscow has accordingly begun developing Russian submarine capabilities that will make the fleet formidable well into the 21st century. In the Russian Navy’s 2011-2020 modernization plan, it has completed the construction of three Borei class ballistic missile submarines and two Yasen-class guided-missile submarines, along with the refurbishment of Soviet-era nuclear powered subs. By 2021, Russia plans on completing five new Borei-class ships and four to five new Yasen-class ships by 2023.21 With assets to guard in the Arctic, Russia’s increasingly formidable submarine force will likely look to increase patrols in these icy waters. Maneuvers and rhetoric, however, have not gone unnoticed and have begun to attract the attention of NATO.22 And although the Russian military is outmatched by NATO in certain dimensions, a Russian military advantage in the Arctic is conceivable.

Conclusion

The Arctic, with great potential for development and cooperation, is also a theater of growing tension. For this reason, the U.S. must give much greater priority to the Arctic. Development of strategic planning is the first move – something that has only recently begun to appear. It is encouraging that defense planners and policy makers alike have recognized this, but there are great improvements still to be made. The second move is the creation of serious military capability in the High North, spearheaded by the United States Coast Guard, which at present lacks the ability to sustain operations in the frozen wilderness of the planet’s northernmost reaches.

The story of Arctic security invariably involves the Russian Federation. Moscow is motivated by prestige, nationalism, and economic potential. Vladimir Putin has made public his intentions to defend and build Russian pride.23 This will be transposed to the High North. In recent history Moscow has pursued an active military policy, and this trend is poised to continue. Understanding Russian motivations and goals in the Arctic will be imperative in creating sound Arctic defense policy.

Tyler Cross recently completed a master’s degree in International Security at George Mason University. He will continue his career in international security cooperation.

References

[1] Hampton Sides, In the Kingdom of Ice The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette, (New York: Anchor Books, 2014), p. 21.

[2] James Stavridis, Sea Power The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans, (New York: Random House, 2017), pp. 332-333.

[3] Megan Eckstein, “Zukunft: Changing Arctic Could Lead to Armed U.S. Icebreakers in Fleet, U.S. Naval Institute News, May 18, 2017, https://news.usni.org/2017/05/18/zukunft-changing-arctic-environment-could-lead-to-more-armed-icebreakers-in-future-fleet.

[4] Stavridis, pp. 329, 332.

[5] Gilbert Rozman, Strategic Thinking about the Korean Nuclear Crisis Four Parties Caught between North Korea and the United States, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), pp. 91-93.

[6] Stavridis, p. 332.

[7] Andrey A. Todorov, “The Russia-USA Legal Dispute Over the Straits of the Northern Sea Route and Similar Case of the Northwest Passage,” Arktika I Sever, no. 29 (2017): pp. 71-73.

[8] Ibid, pp. 62-65.

[9] Stavridis, pp. 333-334.

[10] Ibid., pp.336-337.

[11] David Slayton and Lawson W. Brigham, “Can the US and Russia Preserve Peace in the Arctic?,” Investor’s Business Daily, May 13, 2015, p. A13.

[12] Stavridis, pp. 341-342.

[13] Kari Roberts, “Jets, Flags, and a new Cold War? Demystifying Russia’s Arctic Intentions,” International Journal, 65, no. 4 (2010): p. 966.

[14] Stavridis, pp. 342-343, 354.

[15] Ibid., p. 342.

[16] Katarzyna Zysk, “Russia’s Arctic Strategy: AMBITIONS AND CONSTRAINTS,” Joint Force Quarterly, 57 (2010): p. 105.

[17] Roberts, pp. 963-964.

[18] Zysk, p. 107.

[19] Kristina Spohr, “The Scramble for the Arctic,” New Statesman, 147 (March 9-March 15, 2018): pp. 22-27.

[20] Michael Kofman, “Russia’s Fifth Generation Sub Looms,” U.S. Naval Institute, Proceedings Magazine 143, no. 10 (October 2017).

[21] Ibid. The Yasen class is commonly referred to as “Severodvinsk” in NATO circles.

[22] Zysk, p. 109.

[23] Paul Dibb, “The Geopolitical Implications of Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine,” Strategic and Defense Studies Center, June 2014, p. 5.

Featured Image: Navy Seals training for winter warfare at Mammoth Mountain ski area in California on December 9, 2014. (U.S. Navy Photo by Visual Information Specialist Chris Desmond)

China’s Arctic Policy and its Potential Impact on Canada’s Arctic Security

This article originally featured in The Canadian Naval Review and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Sherman Xiaogang Lai

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is not an Arctic country but it was admitted into the Arctic Council in 2013, making the total at that time 12. (Today there are eight member states, plus 13 observer states as well as 13 inter-governmental organizations, and 13 non-governmental organizations.) The PRC is, nevertheless, not content with its current status and is determined to increase its voice in Arctic affairs by exploiting the Arctic situation for its economic and financial strength.1

It has been 40 years since Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997) started his market-oriented economic reforms in 1979. Through abandoning China’s Stalinist command economy and trading with the West (including Japan), Deng’s reforms brought the Chinese people a good life that their ancestors had not dreamed of. Trading with the West also enabled the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to build up a modern air force and a blue-water navy while providing it with sufficient financial resources to become a state with global influence. But, contrary to the expectations of the West that economic liberalization would lead to democratization, since 2012 the PRC has moved toward dictatorship under Xi Jinping’s leadership.2 As well, Deng’s economic reforms did not help solve a set of explosive issues inherited from Imperial China and the CCP revolution (1921-1949). Among the issues that remain to be resolved are the South China Sea, Taiwan, and Korea. These issues directly concern the legitimacy of the CCP’s rule. China’s Arctic policy, therefore, has to be examined in the context of its domestic politics and its geopolitical and geostrategic concerns.

The PRC’s Arctic Policy

In January 2018, five years after it was admitted into the Arctic Council, the PRC government released a 10-page white paper, “China’s Arctic Paper.”3 The white paper claims at the beginning that the melting of the Arctic sea ice has profoundly raised the Arctic’s strategic value as the intersection between North America, Europe, and East Asia, as a region of unexploited resources such as natural gas, oil and fish stocks, and as the birthplace of storms that will affect the entire northern hemisphere. The melting Arctic, according to the white paper, has a “direct impact on China’s climate system and ecological environment, and, in turn, on its economic interests in agriculture, forestry, fishery, marine industry and other sectors.” China, the white paper claims, is therefore a “Near-Arctic State” and “an important stakeholder in Arctic affairs.”

China also has “rights in respect of scientific research, navigation, overflight, fishing, laying of submarine cables and pipelines, … and rights to resource exploration and exploitation in the Area,” as stipulated in treaties such as UNCLOS and the Spitsbergen Treaty, and general international law. In addition, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China “shoulders the important mission of jointly promoting peace and security in the Arctic.”4

In other words, the PRC government believes that China is entitled to rights in Arctic affairs. The white paper states that China is capable of claiming its rights of “utiliz[ing] sea routes and explor[ing] and develop[ing] the resources in the Arctic.”5 The white paper goes further by saying that “China’s capital, technology, market, knowledge and experience is expected to play a major role in expanding the network of shipping routes in the Arctic and facilitating the economic and social progress of the coastal States along the routes.” The white paper states that China’s goals and approaches in the Arctic are “to understand, protect, develop, and participate in the governance of the Arctic, so as to safeguard the common interests of all countries and the international community in the Arctic, and promote sustainable development of the Arctic.” As proof to support China’s right, the white paper traced China’s participation in the Svalbard Treaty in 1925 that acknowledges each state’s right in Arctic research. International law thus is the PRC’s foundation to participate in the Arctic affairs.

Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs, Kong Xuanyou, holds a copy of China’s Arctic White Paper during a press briefing in January 2018. (Xinhua)

There is, however, a critical problem concerning the PRC’s justification of its rights in the Arctic. It was the government of the Republic of China (ROC) – i.e., what became the West-friendly Taiwan rather than the PRC that joined the Svalbard Treaty. At its birth in 1949, the PRC government denounced the international obligations of China’s preceding governments. In contrast, the ROC government honored the international treaties that the Chinese Imperial government had signed when it came into being in 1912. The PRC thus voluntarily gave up its entitled rights in the Arctic at its birth. Moreover, the PRC committed itself to anti-West revolutionary wars for 20 years, even disregarding the Soviet Union’s advice of caution. The PRC did not try to work with the West until the late 1970s. By then, the PRC leaders were facing a Soviet military threat and a financial crisis. Through forming a de facto alliance with the West, the PRC under Deng’s leadership could not only ignore the Soviet military menace but also overcome its financial crisis. When the West opened its markets to the PRC, Deng started his market-oriented reforms.

During the process, the PRC leaders came to know the United Nations Conventions on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and learned that China was entitled to some maritime rights and could benefit tremendously from international collaboration.6 Among the earliest benefits was China’s successful Antarctic program in the mid-1980s.7 Another benefit was controlling some atolls in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in 1988. China conducted this operation in the name of implementing a resolution of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to build a few observation stations in the South China Sea. The operation led to a China-Vietnam naval skirmish in March 1988.8 It foreshadowed the current escalated tension in the South China Sea and reflected the PRC’s pragmatic attitude toward international law. When the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague (PCA) concluded in July 2016 that a China-controlled shoal in the Spratly Islands belongs to the Philippines, the spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry termed the arbitration decision a “piece of waste paper.”9 Although compliance with PCA rulings is voluntary, it goes without saying that China’s attitude toward the PCA’s arbitration raised suspicion over its sincerity about international law on which its Arctic policy is founded.

Nationalism and the Legitimacy of the CCP’s Rule

The PRC’s pragmatic use of international law in the Arctic and the South China Sea comes from its attempt to preserve the CCP’s legitimacy to rule China, a constant challenge that it has faced since its birth in 1921 in its rivalry against Chinese Nationalists. The CCP was a creation of the Soviet Union’s efforts to export its Bolshevik revolution through the Communist International (Comintern) association (1919-1943). Communism therefore became the basis of the CCP’s legitimacy. Moscow convinced the leaders of the influential Nationalists, who were determined to unify the country, to form a coalition with the CCP in exchange for Moscow’s military and financial assistance. The CCP then exploited the Nationalists’ efforts of national unification, and the outcome was the First Nationalist-CCP war (1927-1937). Japan’s invasion of China saved the CCP from destruction. During China’s war of resistance (1937-1945), the CCP followed Moscow’s instruction and accepted the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist government. After Japan surrendered, the CCP refused to put its army under the Nationalist government’s command. The Second Nationalist-CCP war (or the Chinese civil war) (1946-1949) thus broke out. With Moscow’s limited but essential covert military assistance, the CCP defeated the Nationalists and drove them to the island of Taiwan in 1949. The CCP’s victory strongly encouraged its North Korean comrades and triggered the Korean War in 1950. As a part of its efforts to stop communist aggression worldwide, the United States sent its navy to patrol in the Taiwan Strait. The Republic of China therefore survives in Taiwan.

Taiwan forms a constant challenge to the CCP’s legitimacy to rule China. Nationalism and national unification formed the basis of the Nationalists’ legitimacy. The CCP’s foundation was social justice based on communism, although it also shared the goal of nationalism and unification. After it took over China, to maintain its legitimacy, the CCP had to outperform the Nationalists domestically and internationally. Mao Zedong, the PRC’s founder, therefore, was determined to industrialize China and show off China’s strength. And one of the show-offs was an Antarctic exploration that was proposed for the first time in 1964.10 But the PRC did not have the necessary resources following Mao’s programs of industrialization that cost over 30 million people’s lives in three years, and threw the country into turmoil. Exploration was thus delayed until 1984, five years after Deng started his economic reforms and led China back to the West-led international community.

The PRC’s Antarctic program was based on international collaboration. With many countries’ assistance, China built up its first Antarctic station in 1984 and obtained valuable experience in polar research. China’s Arctic program was a post-Cold War extension of its Antarctic program. The end of the Cold War fundamentally reduced the Arctic’s value in national defense. At the same time, Soviet Arctic technologies, including a half-finished ice- strengthened freighter which China converted into an icebreaker, became accessible to China. The State Oceanic Administration (SOA), which was in charge of the PRC’s maritime affairs, seized the opportunity and started China’s Arctic program in the mid-1990s.11 When it became clear that the Arctic sea ice was melting, a situation that would bring profound changes to the geopolitical posture in the northern hemisphere, Beijing found itself, in the mid-2000s, in a position to have its voice heard in Arctic affairs.

One of China’s new purpose-built Arctic cargo ships, Tian En, transits the Northern Sea Route in this 20 August 2018 photo. (Liu Hongxia, Xinhua)

The sudden conclusion of the Cold War turned the issues of Taiwan and South China Sea into critical threats to the PRC. Global attention was no longer focused on the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, and China had quietly become an economic power that relied heavily on imports and exports traveling by sea. Taiwan was on track toward de jure independence while the South China Sea countries consolidated their control over the atolls and shoals that China claimed as its territory. The two issues of China’s territorial integrity and national unification became a focus in Beijing. Thanks to its alliance with the United States, the naval force of the Nationalists in Taiwan was a powerful force in East Asia. But Taiwan’s naval forces had to concentrate their resources on the defence of Taiwan against the CCP. Mao ignored the South China Sea until oil deposits were discovered in its seabed in the early 1970s. Before Mao took any action, other South China Sea countries had controlled a number of disputed atolls and shoals in the Spratly Islands. The question of how to improve China’s position in the territorial disputes thus became urgent.

In order to dominate the South China Sea and to deter Taiwan from independence, the PRC developed a maritime-oriented military strategy in 1992.12 The outcome of the implementation of this strategy has been the development of China’s naval and air superiority in the South China Sea. Nevertheless, instead of a sense of security, a number of PRC’s military strategists found their country falling into a security dilemma. Although China’s booming economy could afford to build a modern navy, it was dependent on overseas trade and the shipping through Malacca Strait. But China cannot control the Malacca Strait without defeating the U.S. Navy and winning a major war against the United States. The more powerful the Chinese navy grows, the more uneasy the situation in the South China Sea becomes and the less secure the PRC leaders feel. As China’s maritime-oriented military strategy was guiding the country to nowhere, the prospect of a commercially beneficial Northern Route became an option for China to go around the southern impasse.

China’s Arctic Strategy and Its Potential Impacts on Canada

China’s commitment to Arctic affairs is rooted in China’s economy. Beneath the high-toned sentences in the white paper outlining China’s Arctic policy, are the shrewd geostrategic considerations and well-developed plans that have been in existence for over 15 years. As early as the mid-2000s, Chinese engineers started designing high ice class merchant ships.” In August 2018, at least two Chinese high ice class merchant ships were in commercial operations in the Arctic. China’s shipbuilding industry is therefore ready for Arctic shipping. In the meantime, the SOA implemented a comprehensive research program on the history, politics, economy, and society of the Arctic countries.14 The implementation of the program helped PRC governmental agencies and academia achieve a consensus on China’s Arctic strategy. Although the consensus has not been explicitly articulated, its principal contents can easily be identified in the publications open to the public. In addition to the principles of international collaboration, international law and contributions to Arctic research and the well-being of Arctic countries, which are addressed in the white paper, Russia-China partnership and mediation of the difference among Arctic countries are among the key components in the consensus.

China and Russia formed a quasi-alliance after the Cold War due to their geostrategic need to counterbalance the United States and its allies. Their bilateral history, however, has not been without difficulties, and currently Russia is concerned about the security of Siberia and China’s growing influence in Central Asia. The Arctic Route is the best approach to consolidating Russo-China relations without touching these sensitive issues. Collaboration with Russia is thus essential in China’s Arctic strategy. With Russia’s consent, even support, China could use its financial and economic strength to mediate controversies among Arctic countries and gradually alter its current status within the Arctic Council.

Chinese participation in the Arctic has several interesting potential benefits for China. For example, China could use Canada’s argument that the Northwest Passage is historic internal waters, to argue that the South China Sea is also historic internal waters of China. This would be a pragmatic use of Canada’s legal arguments to counter criticism of Chinese actions.

As well, in addition to studying the various current and potential controversies among Arctic countries, Chinese researchers also studied the internal challenges of the Arctic states, especially the deplorable history of indigenous peoples within the Arctic Circle. A number of works on Arctic indigenous societies have been published. Among the works is a monograph on Canada. Pan Min, the author, examined the relations between the aboriginal communities and the provincial and federal governments.15 She discussed the socioeconomic disparities between the Arctic and south Canada. She suggested that the PRC government should adopt a strategy of ‘wait-and- see’ about the indigenous issues while increasing investment in the indigenous areas.

A chart from a Statistics Canada report shows over half of Canada’s Inuit population have experienced food insecurity over a one-year period. The dramatic disparity in food security between Canada’s northern indigenous peoples and the southerners may be exploited by foreign actors. (Paula Arriagada, Statistics Canada)

It goes without saying that Pan’s suggestion was based on the PRC’s interests rather than the well-being of the Canadian indigenous peoples. In the context of the PRC’s post-Cold War strategic dilemma and the opportunities to be developed out of the melting of the Arctic sea ice, Pan’s suggestion shows that the PRC leaders have been searching for the weak and exploitable points of the Arctic countries. And they have identified the issue of indigenous peoples. It is the same issue that PRC diplomats in Australia have directly threatened to use if necessary.16 Fortunately for Canada, China’s current interests in the Arctic are around the Northern Sea Route rather than the Northwest Passage. Unfortunately for Canada, the PRC has little stake in Arctic Canada. This implies that the PRC could use indigenous issues in the Arctic to rebuke or embarrass the Canadian federal government when it feels unhappy with Canada’s criticisms or wants to divert public attention (domestic or international) away from China. The Arctic indigenous issue is thus leverage for the PRC to restrain the Canadian government’s freedom of movement.

China’s challenges to the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea have taken numerous forms short of violent conflict. Here, China’s maritime militia interfere with the American naval research ship USNS Impeccable’s towed-sonar array south of Hainan Island in March 2009. Neither wishing to fight an actual war nor able to discourage the United States from operating in the South China Sea, China is increasingly interested in using Arctic waters for its maritime trade.

Conclusion

The PRC has committed itself to Arctic affairs. The origin of its polar policy was Chinese nationalism that led to its Antarctic exploration program. And its commitment to the Arctic comes, in part, from China’s maritime security dilemma over the issues of Taiwan and the South China Sea, and relates to maintaining the CCP’s legitimacy to rule China. As well, the PRC’s commitment to the Arctic is intended to consolidate China’s relations with Russia in order to reduce Russia’s concern over the security of Siberia and China’s growing influence in Central Asia. Canada’s position in China’s geostrategic plan and Arctic strategy is marginal but Canada’s peripheral position might make it an easy target for China to exploit. And the issue of Arctic indigenous people appears to be the issue that China could use to mute Canadian government criticism, divert China’s domestic attention, or use in exchange for agreement about issues somewhere else. China’s Arctic policy therefore could form an indirect and long-term threat to the security of Canada’s Arctic.

Dr. Sheman X. Lai, a PhD graduate at Queen’s University (2008) and MA graduate of War Studies at Royal Military College (RMC) (2002), is an Adjunct Assistant Professor with the History Department, Queen’s University, and Department of Political Science, Royal Military College of Canada.

Notes

  1. Zhao Ningning, “China and the Paradigm of the Arctic Governance” (translated title), Socialism Studies, No. 2 (2018), pp. 133-140.
  2. “Vice President Mike Pence’s Remarks on the Administration’s Policy Towards China,” Hudson Institute, Washington, DC, 4 October 2018, available at www.hudson.org/events/1610-vice-president-mike-pence-s- remarks-on-the-administration-s-policy-towards-chinal02018.
  3. See the State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, “China’s Arctic Policy,” English version, January 2018, available at http://eng- lish.gov.cn/archive/white_ paper/2018/01/26/content_281476026660336.htm,
  4. Ibid, Section 1.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Dumitulu Majilu, “Exclusive Economic Zones” (translated by Liu Nanlai), Global Law Review, No. 6 (1980), pp. 42-64; Mololianyoufu, “On the New Phase of the International Law of the Seas” (translated by Liu Nanlai), Global Law Review, No. 1 (1979), pp. 60-67; IK. Kolosovsky, “The Signifi- cance of the UNCLOS and the Approaches to Obtaining Worldwide Sup- ports for it” (translated title), Global Law Review, No. 4 (1990), pp. 51-54.
  7. Hu Lingtai, “Antarctic Exploration and Research” (translated title), in Center for Scientific and Technological Information of State Oceanic Ad- ministration (ed.), China Ocean Yearbook, 1986 (Beijing: Haiyang Chu- banshe, 1988), p. 457.
  8. Liu Huaging, Liu Huaging’s Memoir Chubanshe, 2004), pp. 539-540,
  9. Chua Chin Leng, “What is the Permanent Court of Arbitration?” China Daily, 14 July 2016 available at www.chinadaily.com.cn/opin- ion/2016-07/14/content_26091459,htm.
  10. Xie Zichu, “Zhu Kezhen: The Pioneer of China’s Polar Studies” (translated title), in Wu Chuanjun and Shi Yafeng (eds), A Collection of Memories of China’s Geography of Ninety Years (Beijing: Xueyuan Chubanshe, 1999), p. 29. (translated title) (Beijing: Jiefangjun
  11. Sheng Aimin, “The Preparations for the Arctic Exploration” (translated title), in China NGO Research (translated title), No. 7 (1994), pp. 17-18.
  12. Sherman Xiaogang Lai, “China’s Post-Cold War Challenges and the Birth of its Current Military Strategy,” Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, Vol. 16, No. 4 (2016), pp. 182-209.
  13. Zhang Dongjiang, “Analysis of Arctic Marine Shipping and Research on Arctic Ship General Performance” (translated title), MA Dissertation, Harbin Engineering University, March 2012.
  14. Li Zhen-fu, “Analysis of China’s Strategy on Arctic Route” (translated title), China’s Soft Sciences, No. 1 (2009), pp. 1-7; Li Zhen-fu, “China’s Opportunities and Challenges from the Arctic Route” (translated title), Journal of Port and Waterway Engineering, No. 8 (Serial No. 430) (August 2009), pp. 7-15; Li Zhen-fu, “The Dynamics of the Arctic Route in Geo- politics” (translated title), Inner Mongolia Social Sciences, Vol. 32, No. 1 (2011), pp. 13-18.
  15. Pan Min, Researching Arctic Indigenous People (translated title) (Beijing: Shishi Chubanshe, 2012), p. 314.
  16. Clive Hamilton, Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia (Mel- bourne: Hardie Grant Books, 2018), p. 280.

Featured Image: China’s research icebreaker Xuelong arrives at the roadstead off the Zhongshan station in Antarctica, Dec. 1, 2018. The research team has carried out unloading work by using the helicopter. Xuelong carrying a research team set sail from Shanghai on Nov. 2, beginning the country’s 35th Antarctic expedition. (Xinhua/Liu Shiping)

Why Icebreakers Matter

By Matt Hein

One week before Christmas 2017 the USS Little Rock left Buffalo, New York on its maiden voyage to its future homeport in Florida. The crew of the newest Littoral Combat Ship in the Navy proudly entered the port of Montreal seven days later as part of a goodwill port visit between the United States and Canada. A frigid cold snap sank in while Little Rock sat pier-side and the St. Lawrence river froze over three weeks earlier than anticipated. Commercial icebreakers, frequently used to navigate the St. Lawrence river, were unable to operate after January 11th due to ice thickness, and the riverway was closed to traffic by the St. Lawrence River Authority. The Little Rock, the newest ship in the Navy, left Montreal nearly three months later once ice levels decreased sufficiently for the river authority to allow commercial icebreaker operation.

The story of the Little Rock unfolds across the Arctic, albeit on smaller scales, as climate change provides unprecedented access to the region. Fishermen push farther north, cruise lines dare to operate through the Northwest Passage, merchant shipping increasingly travels along Arctic routes, and native communities are forced to travel greater distances to maintain subsistence traditions. Within American waters the Coast Guard is solely responsible for providing mariners with safety from the elements, illicit activity, and man-made disasters. With limited resources they accomplish their mission in the areas they are able to access. With only two operable icebreakers the Coast Guard is unable to safely conduct their mission in regions which are increasingly accessible due to receding ice levels. This gap in capability exacerbates international and economic consequences of an increasingly accessible Arctic against American interests. To conduct sustained Arctic operations in the national interest new icebreakers are needed and soon.

Current Capability

The U.S. Coast Guard lists three active commissioned icebreakers; USCGC Polar Star, Polar Sea, and Healy. Of the three, only the Polar Star and Healy are capable of Arctic operations. The Polar Sea suffered major propulsion problems in 2010, relegating it to a spare part depot for the Polar Star, and where both ships are over 10 years past their designed service life of 30 years.1 Furthermore, Polar Star is reserved to ensure access to McMurdo station, rendering Healey the only commissioned vessel to access Arctic ice-covered regions.

The medium-class icebreaker Healy breaks ice around the Russian-flagged tanker Renda 250 miles south of Nome Jan. 6, 2012. (P.O. 1st Class Sara Francis/US Coast Guard)

The Coast Guard has 11 statutory missions, nine of which pertain to the Arctic and require icebreaking capability.2 The Healy solely executes these missions from the sea. In 2017 these missions included extensive research with 40 embarked scientists, ice breaking patrols miles north of the Alaskan coast, and search and rescue (SAR) training. These missions also include protection of marine living resources, drug interdiction, search and rescue, and migrant interdiction, which haven’t required persistent icebreaking capabilities in the recent past. Increasing levels of human activity in the Arctic indicate those missions are increasingly relevant and the recent dearth of those mission sets reflects a period of good fortune rather than trends to be continued. Finally, the Coast Guard allots 185 “Days Away from Homeport” (DAFH) per ship per year, including transit time and port visits to actual on-scene operations.3 Budgeting Healy’s DAFH reveals, optimistically, an icebreaker availability during only one-third of every year.4 The Coast Guard’s Arctic icebreaking forces are very capable but extremely limited. They are being are asked to do more now and will be asked to do even more in the future, but this will far outstrip existing resources.

Why Icebreakers Matter

Rapidly decreasing ice levels and increased human activity in the Arctic change the mission from seasonal operations to a year-round endeavor. Historically, Arctic patrols occur during warmer months when activity levels necessitate a Coast Guard presence. In 2012 a record low minimum sea ice extent was observed, followed closely by record low sea ice maximum extent in 2016.5 Those changes allow higher levels of human activity throughout the year, requiring a concomitant year-round icebreaking capability.

The lack of capability immediately threatens U.S. interests in the region including energy security, disaster response, and Maritime Domain Awareness. In the winter of 2011 Nome, Alaska nearly ran out of fuel used for heating and cooking. A Russian ice-hardened tanker managed to break through extensive inshore ice to provide refueling but no American assets were able to provide similar services. The refueling shows a fortunate coincidence of Russian capability and American need, however, an alternative scenario can be easily imagined.6 Privatized icebreakers such as the Aiviq, an ocean-going tug owned by Dutch Shell Oil company, provide extremely limited ability to assist offshore developments in production and disaster response.7

Russian nuclear Icebreaker Yamal during removal of manned drifting station North Pole-36. August 2009. (Wikimedia Commons)

In congressional testimony, following the 2010 British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon oil spill, USCG Admiral Thad Allen stated the Coast Guard doesn’t have enough icebreakers to respond to a major spill north of the Alaskan coast.8 The World Wildlife Foundation models spills in oil and gas producing regions, such as the Barents and Beaufort Seas, and claims the ecological damage of those potential spills is greatly exacerbated by a lack of access which is in turn worsened by a lack of icebreakers.9 Maritime Domain Awareness requires constant monitoring via multiple sensors and engagement from multiple platforms. Much of this can be accomplished by remote sensing but human knowledge and experience on how to operate in Arctic environments cannot be replaced.10 The crew of the Healey comprises the majority of American government maritime experience in Arctic ice-bound environments, revealing a major gap in Maritime Domain Awareness. These examples project the need for more icebreakers to operate in the Arctic, although many needs already go unmet.

A 2011 report by the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General found the Coast Guard delinquent in meeting four interagency icebreaking missions including persistent assured access for the Department of Defense, fisheries enforcement, search and rescue, and winter research for the National Science Foundation and National Aeronautics and Space Administration.11 In total, governmental agencies made 32 requests for icebreaking services from the Healy in 2017, only 25 of which went fulfilled.12 Central to each deficiency is icebreaker availability, and even more requests could have been filed. Using the aforementioned “Days away from Homeport” allotment provided by the Coast Guard, a minimum of three icebreakers is required to provide persistent access and capability in the Arctic.

Critics contend that procuring more icebreakers is optimal but untenable within current budget constraints. The Coast Guard High Latitude Mission Analysis Report in 2010 concluded six icebreakers (three medium and three heavy) are required to meet mission demands in the Arctic and Antarctic.13 That same report cites four core missions as the minimum requirements driving icebreaker acquisition: Arctic West Science, Arctic North Patrol, McMurdo Station resupply, and Polar Freedom of Navigation missions.14 The consensus of multiple sources is that specific Arctic missions are going unmet and the minimum procurement requirements to close that gap illuminate the desperate need for more icebreakers.

International Implications

Among Arctic nations the United States uniquely lacks robust icebreaking capabilities. Russia already boasts an icebreaking fleet 46 strong, including seven nuclear-powered vessels. Other nations, such as Finland, Canada, and Sweden all employ seven or more icebreakers, providing sufficient capability to operate routinely in Arctic waters.15 This disparity in capability opens the door for external intervention against American interests in the Arctic and challenges American leadership on Arctic issues.

The icebreaker gap exacerbates traditional maritime issues such as freedom of navigation and commerce by predetermining which nations can access waterways. Russia notably exploits this difference in the North Sea trade route where merchants may transit, aided by Russian icebreakers, for a hefty toll.16 Icebreakers further enable Arctic nations to conduct regular commerce in the Arctic during times the U.S. is unable to without their assistance. Additionally, as the Little Rock incident shows, ice heavily limits military mobility. The lack of domestic icebreakers makes freedom of navigation vulnerable to the whims and interests of countries with the capacity to outdo U.S. efforts. Ongoing international arbitration over Arctic economic claims under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea could become a moot point if nations able to access disputed areas do so unilaterally and lay de facto claim to the resource rich region.

Russian oil platform in the Arctic Ocean. (Photo by Krichevsky)

Freedom of access to Arctic areas has broader implications than the immediate effect of restricted access. International institutions are resource driven. Those who hold relevant resources in an international organization (such as NATO) are able to drive the agenda for how those resources are used. To date, the Arctic Council has passed three binding agreements. Two of those agreements, on search and rescue and maritime oil spill response, pave the way for icebreaker-laden states to take larger roles in the implementation of those agreements. If the United States is unable to match resource contributions for these efforts then the U.S. bargaining position for future Arctic Council resolutions will be significantly hampered.

It might seem that parity in the number of icebreakers is a worthwhile outcome. However, icebreaker parity with Russia is an undesirable and unachievable goal for American Arctic operations. The Arctic is central to the Russian way of life, demanding more and better ways to cope. An American icebreaking fleet simply needs the ability to access areas in pursuit of national interests and contribute to international efforts under existing agreements. Given the relative size of the American Arctic coastline and population compared to other Arctic countries a small but capable icebreaking fleet is sufficient to ensure American interests.

Funding and Procurement

The lack of action to date stems from a lack of funding and not recognition of the need. The Coast Guard traditionally lacks the independent funding to procure icebreakers or other large-scale expenditures. Consequently, large Coast Guard acquisitions frequently partner with the Navy Shipbuilding and Conversion Fund (SCF) to make the size of those acquisitions tenable within the context of the Coast Guard’s meager budget. The Coast Guard’s Procurement, Construction, and Improvement Fund is responsible for all new purchases and upgrades of the Coast Guard’s entire fleet with only a $1.54 billion budget.17 Conversely, the Navy was appropriated over $20 billion in 2017 explicitly for new ship construction.18 Icebreaker procurement considerations are included in the Navy’s new shipbuilding budget as part of a “block-buy” contract system. Under a block-buy system procurement costs over multiple years provide the total cost of a project as it is built. This process, combined with fixed cost contracts, helps decrease the total cost of the project and budget demands on a yearly basis. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018 allots the Navy’s Shipbuilding and Conversion Fund $150 million for domestic construction of a heavy polar icebreaker to be built and transferred to the Coast Guard.19 This initial step is crucial, but insufficient, toward reestablishing an icebreaker fleet.

Detractors argue that foreign construction or leasing provide the best path to more icebreakers. The first option happens to be illegal, requiring a waiver from the president for foreign construction of military platforms.20 The political component of the equation removes the likelihood that foreign construction is viable considering domestic shipyards are capable of producing these ships. Additionally, domestic production provides domestic shipbuilding experience, a significant factor in reduced costs for purchases of multiple icebreakers. Because of those learned efficiencies projections for purchase drop nearly $200 million as additional platforms are purchased.21 Leasing is similarly constrained by the lack of available assets on the global market to provide medium to heavy icebreaking capability.22 To lease a heavy icebreaker it would have to be built, a process that takes a comparable amount of time to building them domestically. The only commercial icebreaker available for lease, the Aiviq, has a poor track record of performance, including responsibility for the grounding of a drilling rig in 2012 when it lost propulsion. For legal, political, and marketplace reasons leasing and foreign construction are untenable options for meeting American icebreaker needs.

Conclusion

Climate change provides unprecedented Arctic access but much of the region remains restricted by ice. The United States Coast Guard uses icebreakers to meet that challenge. Established icebreaker levels fail to meet current interagency demands and are projected to meet even fewer of those demands. International icebreaker competition has immediate economic first-mover consequences and institutional repercussions for nations with adequate Arctic resources. Building heavy icebreakers in the short-term to complement Healy proves the most tenable option while meeting the minimum requirements for Arctic capabilities and international obligations. In a resource-constrained budgetary environment prioritization of other interests prevented purchase of replacement icebreakers. Recent steps toward expansion of the icebreaker fleet are encouraging but remain insufficient to meet the minimum force level needed for persistent American Arctic presence.

Matt Hein is a Surface Warfare Officer currently studying for his Masters in Security Studies at Georgetown University.  He can be found on twitter @Matt_TB_Hein. These views are presented in a personal capacity.

Works Cited

[1] O’ Rourke, Ronald. Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Modernization: Background and Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service, 2017, fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/RL34391.pdf. 9

[2] The two missions not explicitly linked to the Arctic are drug interdiction and human smuggling interdiction.

[3] O’ Rourke, Ronald. Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Modernization: Background and Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service, 2017, fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/RL34391.pdf. 48

[4] “One-Third” based on transit time from Seattle to Nome, and assumes three port visits of 5 days each while away from homeport subtracted from 185 days.

[5] Meador, Ron. “As Climate Change Reshapes the Arctic, Scientists Are Struggling to Keep Up.” MinnPost, 27 Apr. 2017, www.minnpost.com/earth-journal/2017/04/climate-change-reshapes-arctic-scientists-are-struggling-keep.

[6] Demarban, Alex. “Russian Icebreaker to Deliver Fuel to Nome, Highlighting Shortage of U.S. Icebreakers.” Anchorage Daily News, Anchorage Daily News, 5 Dec. 2011, www.adn.com/rural-alaska/article/russian-icebreaker-deliver-fuel-nome-highlighting-shortage-us-icebreakers/2011/12/05/.

[7] “Vessel Details for: AIVIQ (Offshore Supply Ship) – IMO 9579016| AIS Marine Traffic.” MarineTraffic.com, 7 Oct. 2017, www.marinetraffic.com/ais/details/ships/367141000.

[8] “U.S. icebreakers can’t handle Alaska oil spills: official” Reuters, 11 Feb. 2011, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-arctic-oil-vessels-idUSTRE71A5RM20110211

[9] “Oil and Gas in the Arctic.” WWF, 17 Mar. 2018, wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/where_we_work/arctic/what_we_do/oil_gas/.

[10]United States, Congress, Chief of Naval Operations. Maritime Domain Awareness Concept, 30 May 2007. www.navy.mil/navydata/cno/Navy_Maritime_Domain_Awareness_Concept_FINAL_2007.pdf.

[11] The Coast Guard’s Polar Icebreaker Maintenance, Upgrade, and Acquisition Program. Department Of Homeland Security, Office of Inspector General, 2011, www.oig.dhs.gov/assets/Mgmt/OIG_11-31_Jan11.pdf.

[12] O’Rourke, Ronald. Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Modernization: Background and Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service, 2017, fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/RL34391.pdf 26

[13] United States Coast Guard High Latitude Region Mission Analysis Capstone Summary. ABS Consulting, 2010, assets.fiercemarkets.net/public/sites/govit/hlssummarycapstone.pdf. 10

[14] United States Coast Guard High Latitude Region Mission Analysis Capstone Summary. ABS Consulting, 2010, assets.fiercemarkets.net/public/sites/govit/hlssummarycapstone.pdf. 12

[15] O’ Rourke, Ronald. Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Modernization: Background and Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service, 2017, fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/RL34391.pdf. 13

[16] Lavelle, Marianne. “Arctic Shipping Soars, Led by Russia and Lured by Energy.” National Geographic, National Geographic Society, 1 Dec. 2013, news.nationalgeographic.com/news/energy/2013/11/131129-arctic-shipping-soars-led-by-russia/.

[17] United States Coast Guard 2019 Budget Overview. United States Coast Guard 2019 Budget Overview, Coast Guard Office of Budget and Programs, 2018. http://www.uscg.mil/Portals/0/documents/budget/2019%20BIB_FINALw.pdf

[18] Labs, Eric. “The 2018 Outlook for Navy Shipbuilding.” Congressional Budget Office, 15 Jan. 2018, www.cbo.gov/publication/53446. 7

[19] H.R. 1625 – Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018, 2018. www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/1625/text?

[20] O’Rourke, Ronald. Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Modernization: Background and Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service, 2017, fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/RL34391.pdf. 37

[21] O’ Rourke, Ronald. Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Modernization: Background and Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service, 2017, fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/RL34391.pdf.19

[22] Judson, Jen. “The Icebreaker Gap.” The Agenda, 1 Sept. 2015, www.politico.com/agenda/story/2015/09/the-icebreaker-gap-000213.

Featured Image: 16 May 2003, Antarctica — Coast guard icebreaker travels through ice floes which have broker off sea ice edge in late summer, McMurdo Sound, Antarctica (Image by Norbert Wu/Minden Pictures/Corbis)