The Arctic environment is changing. These changes can have a major impact on the national security of the nations that border it. New regions of the globe that have never been easily accessible to mankind are now presenting the opportunity to greatly increase economic, political, and military interactions within the Arctic region. Natural resources that have never before been tapped are beginning to be accessible, and shorter and faster routes for shipping of goods and resources are opening.
Uncertainty remains as to the rate and extent of the changing Arctic climate as well as how fast human activity will increase in the area, but what is clear is that both are happening and will continue to happen. History shows that when new global economic opportunities present themselves, the competition for resources and territory can result in conflict. The United States must recognize this and work collaboratively with other nations to develop agreements and understandings within the region. This potential shift in the global geographic and economic picture shows a need for a strategy to meet these security challenges that the United States is currently unprepared and ill-equipped to address.
Assigning U.S. Northern Command as the single advocate for Arctic capabilities within the DoD in 2011 was a first step in addressing this lack of an Arctic strategy. This is a new region that presents unique problems and opportunities; therefore a tailored approach is necessary for addressing national security concerns while promoting and preserving international stability.
As the United States moves forward as an international partner within the Arctic it is important to continuously remain mindful that there are two sides to this new accessibility to resources. On one side are greater opportunities for international cooperation and strengthening of relationships with current and new partner nations. On the other side there is now an increased potential for dispute and conflict centered on claims to resources and territory. Disagreements among Arctic nations can have a destabilizing effect on the region, so promoting stability in accordance with international laws and norms is within the strategic interests of the United States.
The free navigation through international seas and straits for all peaceful nations continues to be a core aspect of U.S. maritime strategy. This policy should be no different within the changing environment of the Arctic. New sea-lanes are emerging that have the potential to greatly reduce shipping distances and help promote economic growth for all nations. These new sea-lanes are international straits within global commons and the United States must remain within a position to protect these sea-lines as they continue to evolve.
The Arctic will continue to take on greater economic importance and as a result requires a comprehensive strategy that includes enhancements in our strategic capabilities. Current capabilities in the region – both in terms of technology and force structure – were developed without the Arctic playing much of a role in global matters. The United States is currently facing a great challenge, which if approached and managed properly can in fact be a great opportunity.
The United States is one of a very few nations that directly borders the Arctic. This means that the security of the Arctic is a strategic area directly related to the security of the United States. With the impression of more significant and immediate threats driving greater levels of attention to other areas of responsibility, such as the Middle-East or the Asia-Pacific region, it is only natural overlook, even unintentionally, other areas impacting national security like the Arctic. At the national level, the United States must determine the appropriate security framework to effectively evaluate all emerging security concerns within the region. This framework should utilize the unmatched capabilities and capacities of the military to ensure the United States is in a position to support cooperation among other friendly nations in the region.
Even with a strategy emphasizing the importance of the Arctic region on the global stage, the United States currently lacks the capabilities necessary to ensure it continues to play a leadership role in international affairs in the region. The most directly applicable capabilities would be maritime domain awareness (MDA), search and rescue (SAR), maritime interdiction, humanitarian assistance / disaster relief (HA/DR), and air and missile defense (AMD). These capabilities must fuse with key cooperative partnerships with inter-agency as well as other friendly Arctic nations. This primary goal should be to ensure safety, security, and stability within the region. The right capabilities coupled with support from partners and fused together with effective communications will continue to convey that the United States plays an active and positive role within the Arctic and will continue to for the foreseeable future.
Acquisition decisions will be made to address the core mission areas within the Arctic. Vital to enabling any of these capabilities is the acquisition and proper maintenance of icebreakers to enable operations within the region today. Current capability levels do not even begin to adequately ensure safe and continued operations within the Arctic. A more robust icebreaker capacity and capability is essential to maintaining national presence within the region, enabling military operations, and thus preserving national and economic interests. The United States is significantly behind the icebreaking capabilities of other Arctic nations and this is a gap which must be filled to remain competitive in the region.
Part of the responsibility inherent with assuming a leadership role on the international stage is not only having the capability to respond to conflict if the need arises, but to also have the capability to extend a helping hand if necessary. Even with the changing climate, the Arctic is still an inhospitable place which can be more prone to accidents at sea, which can be more dangerous than in other areas of the world. These simple facts necessitate the United States’ possession of a capable SAR capability in the Arctic.
Current SAR capabilities are based on significantly lower levels of human activity in the region. As shipping, fishing, and drilling activities increase, available SAR capabilities will continue to fall further behind the needs. In more hospitable climates, response times of hours or even days may be acceptable. In the Arctic this is not the case. It is vital to credibility within the region that the United States enhances SAR capabilities through evaluating operating base locations and procurement of specialized equipment to include the navigation and communication infrastructure to make them a credible capability.
As the Arctic climate evolves faster than other more environmentally stable regions, it is even more important to continuously reevaluate posture and capabilities to prevent being caught off guard. Every effort is necessary to be ready in the Arctic at any time.
LT Jason H. Chuma is a U.S. Navy submarine officer who has deployed to the U.S. 4th Fleet and U.S. 6th Fleet areas of responsibility. He is a graduate of the Citadel, holds a master’s degree from Old Dominion University, and has completed the Intermediate Command and Staff Course from the U.S. Naval War College. His current assignment is to the Navy Warfare Development Command where he serves as a member of the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell. He can be followed on Twitter @Jason_Chuma
The 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 or the U.S. Navy.
With a cold chill blowing through DC, it seems fitting to note several recent Arctic developments.
Canada on Friday submitted a claim to the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf that argues for an increased maritime share beyond its Exclusive Economic Zone of the (mostly) North Atlantic and Arctic, which would grant it rights to the resources contained therein on the seabed and is based on the nation’s view of the proper demarcation of the undersea continental shelves. Russia and Denmark are both expected to file overlapping claims with the commission.
While Friday was the “official” deadline for Canada, as it was 10 years after the nation signed the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), officials have said it will submit additional claims. Any such claims could extend to the North Pole once on-going scientific surveys have been completed to back the nation’s position (by treaty no country can claim sovereignty over the North Pole itself). Russia filed in 2001, although it was subsequently been told it needs further scientific backing and officials have stated they face “no real deadline” to finalize their claims, which included the undersea Lomonosov Ridge, running from the East Siberian coast along the North Pole to Canada’s Ellesmere Island, thus creating the potential for conflict if the next set of Canadian claims includes the Lomonosov Ridge. Denmark’s claims, based on its possession of Greenland, are due in 2014, and could likewise overlap with Canada’s. Norway has already had its non-contentious filings validated. The United States, meanwhile as a non-signatory to UNCLOS, is ineligible to submit claims to the Commission but has sought to bilaterally negotiate its claims according to UNCLOS principles, notably with Canada.
For those countries that have submitted, the Commission is expected to take as long as 5 years to process and scientifically validate the filings (actual arbitration is still up to the countries involved), and the the further north the claims, the less they have to do with resource exploitation. As reported by the AP, Michael Byers, “an expert on Arctic and international law at the University of British Columbia” said,
“We’re talking about the center of a large, inhospitable ocean that is in total darkness for three months each year, thousands of miles from any port,” he said. “The water in the North Pole is 12,000 feet (3,650 meters) deep and will always be covered by sea ice in the winter. It’s not a place where anyone is going to be drilling for oil and gas…So it’s not about economic stakes, it’s about domestic politics.”
As anticipated, Russia, which has spent the year signaling its intent to bolster its Arctic naval forces, responded to Canada’s filings with more of the same. Our comrade at RussianNavyBlog noted on Monday the announcement of the formal incorporation of the Russian Navy’s Arctic Group of Forces in 2014 and basing arrangements and refurbishments:
Russia announces formation of Arctic Group of Forces in 2014 with bases in Novosibirskiy Isl. and Franz Josef Isl.
— russian navy blog (@russiannavyblog) December 10, 2013
Arctic Group of Forces will also renovate bases in Tiksi, Naryan Mar, Alykel, Amderma, Anadyr, Rogachevo, and Nagurskaya
— russian navy blog (@russiannavyblog) December 10, 2013
The BBC says that on Tuesday during a high-level meeting of Russian military leadership Putin commended the reopening of a previously closed high-Arctic airfield and reiterated the need to prioritize the Arctic, with a correspondent emphasizing that “this was one of his most direct orders yet.” The practical implications of the Arctic Group remains to be seen, and armed conflict is unlikely with announcements on both sides, as noted above mostly playing to domestic audiences. On the other hand, projections of increased shipping traffic and commercial activity in the north got a boost from the U.S. Department of Energy and U.S. Navy this week when findings of a joint research project predicted ice-free summers by 2016, decades earlier than most (but not all) conventional models have estimated (see here for the official U.S. Navy timeline to ice-free transit). If true, the rush to solidify coast guard and national security functions near Santa’s Workshop may prove warranted. The Arctic remains a region to keep an eye on.
LT Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. He is the founding director of the Center for International Maritime Security and holds a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.
So the trappings of life under the thumb of your home country have finally forced you to the seas. Why not strike out to the pristine, untouched mineral-rich reaches of the Arctic? Climate change in the far north may soon open the long-sought Northwest Passage which will allow ships summer time passage from Europe to Asia a fraction of the travel time. Oil exploration is booming with all the big oil companies vying for their slice of the pie. Increased shipping capacity could mean a black gold mine for your tiny floating kingdom, if you can find a place to put it.
This map shows just how complicated the Arctic seascape really is. Russia has already planted their flag at the North Pole sealed in a titanium capsule. They are still working out the particulars on the definition of their continental shelf, which may validate their claim of the pole and a huge swath of the frozen north. But don’t forget, once clear of Russian claims you still have to contend with Danish, Norwegian, Canadian, U.S. and Icelandic territory. A sea-based nation could benefit from partnership with any of these nations for security and export potential, assuming any of them would be interested in having a little neighbor to the north.
An Arctic sea-base would mean a harsh existence for its inhabitants. Long periods of cold and darkness would require advanced climate control. Keeping the whole thing afloat on or amid constantly shifting polar ice and occasional liquid water would require clever flotation systems. Yet all the expense of setting up this sea-base will be worth it. Others have made significant investment with seemingly impractical logistical hurdles but still continue to make the far north work, there is such a huge economic incentive to do so.
Creating a sea based nation in the Arctic could provide a tiny floating country with vast mineral wealth and, if the climate models pan out, an easy way of getting it to market. And as of this writing, the Somali pirate threat to the Arctic is pretty much non-existent, good news for security.