A. Denis Clift, former Naval Officer, president emeritus of the National Intelligence University, and Vice President for Operations of USNI, joins us to talk about his reflections on his time in the Antarctic, Cold War intelligence, life, and the United States Naval Institute. This is the first of a bi-monthly series that will be investigating his career during the Cold War.
Based on the warming trend in the Arctic Region, large portions of the Arctic Ocean are projected to be seasonally ice free by mid-century; between 2030 and 2050. This warming trend carries with it the risks and opportunities associated with seasonal access to the Arctic Ocean, rivers, and coastline which includes mineral deposits, petroleum resources, fishing stocks, and economically advantageous shipping routes. The central question is how the United States should prepare for the effects of a potential seasonal thaw of Arctic ice by mid-century.
US National Interest
Seasonal access to the Arctic Ocean significantly impacts US national interests. It has the potential to increase national economic security, encourage global economic stability, and create new theaters for global leadership in international cooperation.
The Arctic region is estimated to have over $1 trillion worth of precious minerals and the equivalent to 812 billion barrels of oil. All of which will become increasingly available for extraction. The U.S. could make great strides toward energy independence by developing these resources within its Arctic territory and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
Actors and Governance
The actors involved in strategic prepositioning for the Arctic thaw fall into two categories. The Primary Actors hold legal rights to Arctic territory in accordance with internationally accepted legal structures. These include the Arctic Nations (United States, Russia, Canada, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark) and indigenous populations (Athabasca, Inuit, Saami, etc.). Influential Actors have significant stakes in Arctic policy outcomes but do not hold legal rights. While some such actors may not yet be apparent, the most obvious are large environmental advocacy groups and multinational corporations in the energy, mining, shipping, and fishing industries.
Governance in the Arctic Region, particularly the maritime domain, remains in nascent form. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) broadly applies international law but does not address unique requirements for Arctic shipping. For example, there are no ship construction specifications or crew proficiency requirements for sailing within proximity to ice fields. Under the United Nations charter, the International Maritime Organization has begun to analyze potential Arctic regulatory actions.
The Arctic Council was established in 1996 as an intergovernmental forum to coordinate Arctic policy and resolve disputes diplomatically. This forum does not establish international law but provides a venue for Arctic Nations to settle bilateral or multilateral disputes as well as coordinate initiatives to be brought before the International Maritime Organization.
At the national level, laws pertaining to environmental protection and the rights of indigenous peoples produce a complicated legal landscape the policy makers will have to navigate in coming years. Shell’s recent decision to postpone drilling operations in the Alaskan Arctic highlights this tension.
1. Unclear Impacts of the Thaw
While a seasonal ice-free thaw by mid-century is generally accepted, several second order effects remain controversial or unpredictable. The total magnitude of shipping traffic, intensity of mineral and oil extraction, as well as weather impacts on fishing stocks and agricultural growing conditions are not commonly understood.
Most shipping estimates focus on the economically viable trans-Arctic shipping traffic between North Asia and Europe. By 2030, 1.4 million TEU (twenty-foot equivalent unit) could be transported across the Arctic on 480 total transits. By 2050, a potential 2.5 million TEU could be transported across the Arctic on 850 total transits. The wide array of other potential waterborne activities (i.e., commercial fishing, offshore drilling/exploration service traffic, and tourism) is not adequately captured in shipping estimates.
The Arctic warming trend could increase fishing stocks and shift populations northward, thus bringing with it commercial fishing fleets. This trend also may improve agricultural growing conditions across the Siberian plain and allow waterborne bulk transport of product via Arctic rivers. All of these activities could sharply increase the seasonal shipping density in the Arctic.
2. Delicate and Extreme Environment
The Arctic is an extremely fragile ecosystem. The risk of ecological disasters associated with resource extraction and transport will greatly impact the legal framework as well as rate and costs of development for exploitation of Arctic natural resources.
Human disasters will be just as likely. As Arctic infrastructure and maritime traffic increases, so increases the need for responding to human distress. Relief or Search and Rescue efforts in a region with significant radio interference and decreased satellite and GPS coverage will require a multi-national collaboration.
Policy Path Options
The United States can choose from three policy paths: a market-led policy, a regulatory-led, or a blended policy. A market-led path would place the government in more of a reactionary role by regulating as industries develop. A regulatory-led path would establish constraints or enablers ahead of industry to guide market development. The blended path would regulate areas of critical priority ahead of industry but otherwise allow the markets to develop naturally.
Potential Naval Efforts
While national policy seeks to minimize the militarization of the Arctic, the United States Navy could still play a significant role in the development and organization of Arctic maritime shipping management.
1. Lead an Interagency effort to develop infrastructure and regulations to ensure safe navigations of Arctic waters.
At the national level, the Navy could identify site and asset requirements for comprehensive Maritime Domain Awareness across all U.S. arctic territory and EEZ to include weather and ice forecasting suitable for navigation. Once these requirements are identified, the Navy could lead efforts to construct a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the U.S. Coast Guard, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management in order to develop definitions of roles and responsibilities as well as set the framework for burden sharing agreements.
2. Develop multilateral opportunities to enhance disaster response.
At the international level, the Navy could lead the effort to build an increasingly complex set of Search and Rescue and Emergency Response training exercises that include multiple U.S. agencies as well as those from other Arctic Nations.
The aforementioned efforts would ultimately lead to the development of an International Arctic Management Center. This center, with operational nodes near the Bering Strait and Iceland-UK Gap, would be multinational and interagency in nature. The primary roles of this center would be to manage safe shipping transit throughout the Arctic and coordinate multinational emergency response efforts. Management of shipping would include organization of convoys as well as activation and dynamic adjustment of approved shipping corridors based on traffic density, weather, and ice.
Proactive international management of commercial activities in the Arctic will greatly reduce the risk of catastrophic events and improve response to those that occur. Additionally, coordination efforts stand to strengthen cooperation and relations across all Arctic and participant nations, including Russia.
Ryan Leary is a U.S. naval officer and Federal Executive Fellow at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. His opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or any command.
By Andrew Chisholm
Canada’s recent assumption of the Chairmanship of the Arctic Council prompted much discussion of Arctic issues, including security, an important element of which is the ongoing tug-and-pull over whether NATO should play a role in the region. Russia is, unsurprisingly, opposed. But there is division within NATO itself: Canada against, Norway and other Nordic states for, and the United States seemingly unsure. These divisions are rooted in the varied nature of the Arctic security challenges that each state or group faces. Therefore Arctic security solutions must be equally tailored.
According to Rob Huebert of the University of Calgary, both Russia and the U.S. are viewing the Arctic in military-strategic terms. Russia aims to maintain its nuclear deterrent, including in the Arctic, through submarine-based missiles to be deployed in its Northern Fleet. Meanwhile the U.S. has bolstered its ballistic missile defence forces in Alaska, and maintains fighter and airlift squadrons as well as a naval submarine presence. Both see their own moves as crucial to national security, but likely view the other with concern, a mindset also prevalent among the Nordic states.
Norway has prioritized Northern defence, moving its operational headquarters to the High North in 2009 and working closely with other circumpolar states, including Russia. But Norway has also been pushing for a NATO presence there because of the importance of the Arctic and increasing interest around the world. It has likewise made clear that as Russia continues its military modernization, Norway sees an Arctic presence of NATO as crucial to continued Norway-Russia cooperation.
Norway’s concerns are similarly felt by Sweden and Finland, which have hosted U.S. and NATO training exercises and deepened ties with the Alliance, as well as by the Baltic states (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia). This has lead to talk of a Nordic-Baltic alliance or perhaps even of British involvement. Regardless, it is clear that real deterrence of the interested countries’ more powerful neighbour depends on the wider NATO organization.
These actions have caused concern in Russia where NATO, not to mention its expansion, has historically been viewed with suspicion. It is important that after a recent visit to Norway, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that NATO would not increase its presence in the region. He also noted, though, the legitimacy of Norway’s expectation that NATO principles apply to all NATO territory, including its northern reaches. So it seems that while no increase in activity is imminent, neither is a reduction, and the Nordic states will almost certainly continue to seek greater NATO involvement. But while Norway and others have good reason to look to NATO, Canada has good reason to not want an Alliance presence.
With boundary disputes set to be resolved through the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea and all Arctic states saying that military activities are mainly to support of commercial and other civilian priorities, Canada’s desire, especially under the current government, is to see Arctic states focus primarily on economic development. Furthermore, despite sometimes harsh public rhetoric, Canada has a good economic working relationship with Russia it wishes to maintain, as the two countries have much to offer one another. Burgeoning NATO-Russia competition in the Arctic would undermine both those goals. But Canada cannot block U.S., Russian, or Nordic strategic aims, and so it must simply do what it can to defuse Arctic tensions: work to influence the means by which security is organized in the Arctic.
Whether or not the Nordic states achieve their goal of a greater northern NATO presence will depend on the keystone of the Alliance, the United States. In some ways NATO is an attractive option for the Americans, as five of the eight circumpolar states (Canada, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, the U.S.) are member states and the Nordic-Baltic states seem fully willing to contribute to the extent of their (relatively limited) capabilities. But, as its National Strategy for the Arctic Region indicates, the United States is no more interested in de-stabilizing the region than is Canada. Therefore a tension-creating NATO presence is neither ideal nor a foregone conclusion.
This presents Canada with an opportunity to promote an alternative to NATO: NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defence Command. The NORAD option is attractive for several reasons. In concrete terms, NORAD boasts a North America-specific defence architecture (NATO does not), a connection to ballistic missile defence, and an emerging focus on the maritime domain. Through these capacities, it can support both military-strategic and economic activities. In terms of perceptions, NORAD, while closely linked to NATO, is a separate organization. Whereas a NATO presence would stretch solidly from Alaska to the Nordic region, a degree of separation between northern North American and northern European security may present a less anti-Russian and less threatening posture. In the same vein, although it was established during the Cold War NORAD lacks some of the legacy of NATO, which for decades stood at the symbolic heart of East-West competition.
It is important to remember that warfare among the Arctic states is highly unlikely. And, while there will always be disagreements and competition among all states, much of the current Arctic tension is the result of uncertainty about the shape of the Arctic security structure going forward. The task for now is to ensure that the final shape settled on is the best one to calm existing tensions and manage future disputes.
Andrew Chisholm is a Junior Research Fellow at the Atlantic Council of Canada. He recently graduated from the University of King’s College with a B.A., Combined Honours, in Political Science and History, and studied Conflict Resolution at the Rothberg International School at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Andrew focuses his writing on contemporary Canadian foreign, defence, and security policy. His wider interests include sovereignty and governance, international diplomacy, and emerging security threats. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was cross-posted by permission from and appeared in its original form at the Atlantic Council of Canada. Any views or opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and the news agencies and do not necessarily represent those of the Atlantic Council of Canada.