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A Geographical Breakdown of What’s Going on in the World

Why the US is Losing The Race for the Arctic and What to Do About It

By Josh Caldon

Almost weekly there is another story insinuating that the US is losing the “race for the Arctic.” Those who support the claim that the US is losing this race often highlight that the Arctic ice is melting and that this environmental change is opening up potential trade routes and making natural resources more ripe for exploitation. Others then point out that Russia has increasingly re-militarized the Arctic and that China has also made inroads to establish itself in the region. 

One key point these articles often make is the United States’ relative lack of icebreakers compared to its competitors. What is missing from this conversation, however, is an explanation of why the US has fallen behind its competitors in the Arctic. This article fills in that gap by attempting to explain why the US is behaving as it does. It then argues that paradoxically falling behind in this regional competition may actually improve America’s overall security and international influence when compared to Russia and China.


The US is relatively fortunate in its geography. It has large coastlines with natural harbors on both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Its rivers largely flow southward to southern ports. It also shares borders with Mexico and Canada, two countries that do not threaten the US in a conventional sense. This geography serves to protect the US from foreign invasion and allows it to readily deploy military forces to foreign locales, without use of the Arctic.

With the advent of intercontinental missiles and strategic bombers, the Arctic became more important to the US militarily during the Cold War. This pushed the US to erect now largely defunct early warning stations across northern Alaska, Greenland, and Canada. More recently, it established incipient missile defense systems in the Arctic to deal with increased threats emanating from Russia, China, and North Korea and improved its ability to monitor the region. However, these systems have never been designed to control the Arctic, but instead to protect America, and its NATO allies, from foreign military threats coming from, or through, the Arctic. This is an important distinction.

Russia does not share America’s fortunate geographic position. Instead, its geographic positioning and acrimonious international relationships have pushed it to “conquer the Arctic.” It has few “warm-water” ports and shares large land borders with many adversarial states. Russia’s only ports that are free from year-round ice are located in Sevastopol (Crimea), Tartus (Syria), and in the Baltic and Barents Seas. Significantly, Russia has recently fought to maintain control over Sevastopol and Tartus, but still faces possible blockades by adversarial forces in the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea, and Baltic Sea. Ukraine’s attempt to join NATO, Finland’s recent accession to the alliance and Sweden’s standing bid to join, along with the West’s attempts to overthrow Russia’s surrogate in Syria, Bashar Assad, have heightened Russia’s longstanding fear in this regard.

As a result, since the disastrous Russo-Japanese War of 1905, and especially during WW I and WW II,* and the Cold War, Russia has militarized the Arctic. This is something that it has taken up with renewed vigor under Vladimir Putin’s regime. Russia’s militarization of the Arctic has especially occurred in two spots. The first one is the ice-free Barents Sea, which Russia has relied on to access the world’s oceans so that it can better protect its territory and international interests from foreign threats, and the second one is under the Arctic ice cap where its nuclear submarines have an icy bastion that protects them from NATO forces.


The US largely has a free-market economy with strong interest groups that challenge its willingness to expand its commercial footprint in the Arctic. This has overwhelmingly kept it from attempting to control the Arctic like Russia has done and China is increasingly attempting to do. It is important to look at the times when American commercial interests have focused on the Arctic to understand America’s overall lack of interest in this region. The three times the US has been economically drawn to the Arctic were to exploit temporarily scarce resources. This occurred with whale oil and seal skins during the 18th and 19th century, gold at the end of the 19th century, and oil during the mid-twentieth century. These intense periods of economic interest in the Arctic resulted in America’s purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 and the development of Alaska in the decades afterwards. Notably, however, it is expensive and difficult to operate in the Arctic. As Canadian Arctic expert, Michael Byers highlights, even as the Arctic ice slowly melts, the region remains in complete darkness for half of the year and melting ice is dangerously unpredictable. The Arctic is also austere and quite far from the largest population centers of the world. As such, the intermittent economic demands for the region’s natural resources have relatively quickly resulted in substitutes being found for these goods in less austere places.

Subsequently, the only portions of Alaska that are significantly developed are in the sub-Arctic portion of the state, with the exception of the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay – which also appear to be winding down with the advent of fracking and renewable energy. Increasing environmental concerns (most of Alaska is situated in nationally owned wilderness preserves) and native groups’ claims prohibitively increase the price of resource extraction from most of Arctic Alaska even further. Many Americans believe the region should be left to nature and to indigenous groups. The US also does not have a great need to develop the sea routes in the Arctic to improve its international trade. It has a transnational road and railway system and easy access to maritime trade routes which are connected through the recently enlarged Suez Canal. These circumstances mean that the US has very little motivation to establish sea routes through the largely uninhabited, relatively shallow, and dangerously unpredictable Arctic Ocean. Finally, Russia’s aggression over the last two decades, and increasing pressure from environmentally-based NGOs, have pushed American-based companies even further away from Russia’s Arctic.

All told, since the US has only marginal economic incentives to pursue the Arctic, it has not felt the need to develop harbors, settlements, transport infrastructure, or icebreakers to increase its footprint in the region. As such, it has relatively little capability to “conquer the region,” but also relatively little to defend in the region.

This is not the case for Russia or China. Russia suffers from what Hill and Gaddy call the Siberian Curse. Its geography is not as economically favorable as America’s, which has forced it to turn towards the Arctic to improve its economic circumstances. However, it has also traditionally operated a state-controlled economy that uses slave labor and nationally owned corporations to mask the economic, environmental and demographic costs of operating in the Arctic. Beginning with the czars, and accelerating under Russia’s Soviet dictators, Russia forcibly sent millions of people to develop and “conquer the Arctic.”

This legacy continues today as Putin pushes and subsidizes Russia’s economic ministries and state-controlled corporations to extract more resources from the Arctic and to expand the infrastructure of the Northern Sea Route (with the numerous powerful icebreakers needed to navigate this waterway) to transport these resources to distant markets. Unlike American corporations, Russia’s economic pursuits in the Arctic are not concerned with environmental or indigenous considerations either. Furthermore, Russia’s extreme sacrifices in the Arctic have made developing and controlling it symbolic for its people and leadership. As such, Russia has much more to defend materially and ideationally in the Arctic than the US does. Even with these factors pushing Russia to conquer the Arctic, Russia’s regional ambitions have been challenged by fiscal, demographic, and environmental hurdles. Most recently, the war in Ukraine has forced it to curtail its ambitious Arctic railway and icebreaker projects and to mobilize and sacrifice a significant proportion of its Arctic troops for combat in Ukraine. Additionally, many of its Arctic cities have rapidly de-populated, and the Arctic melt has paradoxically threatened its existing Arctic infrastructure.

Like Russia, China’s companies are largely nationalized and it also does not have the environmental or indigenous concerns in the Arctic that the US does. It has spent the last two decades increasing its manufacturing sector and its international trade ties. This has increased its needs for natural resources and trade routes, resulting in its plans to establish a “Polar Silk Road,” under its greater Belt and Road Initiative, in order to link the Arctic to China’s greater network of international trading posts and manufacturing centers. As Russia has lost access to Western markets and technology over the last two decades, it has increasingly turned towards an eager China to help it build out its Arctic economic footprint. As such, China also has more economic interests to defend in the Arctic than the US does.

What Does This Mean for the US?

The United States is not truly interested in competing for the Arctic. It has relatively less military, economic, or ideational interest in the region when compared to Russia or China. Its strategic plans for the region have become increasingly assertive in reaction to Russia’s and China’s efforts, but lack funding or prioritization. However, this lack of genuine interest carries some benefits for the US when considering the larger geopolitical context of the international system.

America’s lack of interest in the region has paradoxically pushed the other Arctic states to increase their security ties with the US and to take on more security responsibilities for the region. Similar to World War II, when Iceland and Denmark invited the US to help protect their territory from foreign adversaries, Russia’s aggression pushed Sweden and Finland to formally petition to join the US-dominated NATO. The inclusion of these states into the organization means that half of the Arctic will soon be administered by NATO member states.

Specifically, the Nordic states of Norway, Sweden and Finland have significant capabilities and economic stakes in the region that will make up for America’s relative lack of willingness and ability to contain Russia’s and China’s ambitions in the region. These countries’ capabilities will be further complemented by Denmark and Canada, and the other non-Arctic NATO states that have recently increased their defense spending to deal with Russian aggression. This collective defense in the Arctic will allow the US to better focus on domains like space, cyberspace, the Americas, and the Indo-Pacific, which are more important than the Arctic to America’s most critical national interests.

Economically speaking, the Arctic will likely remain a backwater for market-driven economies for the foreseeable future. The relatively high costs of extracting resources and transporting goods from the Arctic means the region is unlikely to become much more attractive for Western companies, even if the ice continues to retreat (which has slowed in recent years) and icebreakers improve, except in times when specific resources are in sharp demand or when there are long-term bottlenecks in other trade routes. 

The resources that Russia and China extract from the Arctic will contribute to the overall global supply of these resources and decrease their overall price for American consumers. As such, Americans will gain many of the benefits of Russia’s and China’s efforts in the Arctic while Russia and China absorb the costs. In the case of scarce rare-earth minerals that have spiked in demand and are monopolized by China, it appears Sweden may fill this void for the US with its own Arctic resources, even as companies search for substitutes for these critical resources.

Overall, the US should not ignore the Arctic, and it should put to rest the notion that this region is a unique zone of peace in an otherwise quite turbulent world. That being said, Americans should also not deem that losing the “race for the Arctic” will critically threaten America’s larger national interests. By not attempting to compete head-to-head with Russia or China to “conquer” the region, the US has incurred some advantages against these competitors.

As the US has been reminded again in Iraq and Afghanistan, and through its observation of Russia’s disastrous invasion of Ukraine, conquering territory comes with significant costs that can weaken the material strength and ideational attractiveness of a country. This, in turn, weakens a country’s ability to secure its most significant national interests. The US should continue to diplomatically, militarily, and economically challenge Russia’s and China’s actions in the Arctic on humanitarian and environmental grounds, but it also should identify that China’s and Russia’s actions in the Arctic come with high economic and soft power costs that may relatively benefit the US. Doing so will allow the US to increase its ability to collectively defend its interests in the Arctic with its allies and to prioritize its attention and resources on domains that are more important to it than the Arctic.

Josh Caldon is an adjunct professor at the Air University where he instructs courses in national security. He received his PhD in Political Science from the University of Albany and is a veteran of the USAF. The views in this article are his alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the US Government, or its subsidiary agencies.

* Interestingly, the US was responsible for a significant portion of Russia’s militarization of the Arctic during World War II and went from supplying friendly Russian forces through the Arctic during WW I to fighting them in the Russian Arctic after the Bolshevik Revolution.

Featured Image: A U.S. Coast Guard ship breaks ice near Nome, Alaska. (Credit: Charly Hengen/USCG)

The Case for U.S. Coast Guard Cutters in American Samoa

By Ridge Alkonis

Regardless of prognostications of future conflict it is clear that the history of the 21st century will be written in the Indo-Pacific. Accordingly, as the United States steams into in an increasingly turbulent maritime security environment, it should not discount harvesting “easy wins” in the region. Compared to the marquee U.S. military installations at Diego Garcia, Yokosuka, or Guam, American Samoa is a U.S. territory that evokes images of idyllic island life rather than strategic competition. However, by considering American Samoa through the lens of strategic competition, a military installation manned by the U.S. Coast Guard is an easy step to demonstrate commitment in the region that makes imminent sense for several reasons. Due to the sheer distances involved in the Pacific — the closest Coast Guard installations are from Hawaii (2,260 nautical miles) and Guam (3,120 nautical miles) — current sustained operations in region are necessarily expeditionary.

Establishing a Coast Guard installation in American Samoa would lengthen the reach of the Coast Guard’s highly capable Sentinel class cutters, galvanizing partnerships throughout the Southern Pacific. With increasing concerns surrounding illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing (IUUF), the law enforcement presence and know-how of the U.S. Coast Guard will be a boon to safeguarding erosion of geographic and economic sovereignty of island nations in the Southern Pacific. This approach dovetails with the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy, which calls for “Build[ing] Connections Within and Beyond the Region.” Notably, the U.S. Coast Guard is one of the few government agencies called out by name in the strategy. One of the  great contributions and strengths of the Coast Guard are the multitude of unique service and agency relationships and bi-lateral agreements it shares with international partners. . Expanding Coast Guard presence in the Southern Pacific has the potential to enhance dozens of bilateral and multi-lateral relationships for the United States while bolstering maritime security in the region.

Regional Consequences

The state of play in the region which necessitates U.S. Coast Guard presence in the South Pacific is best viewed through the prism of climate change and IUU fishing. U.S. stakeholders and defense watchers may express significant and well-founded concern with Chinese expansion in the region, as evidenced by the recent Solomon Islands security agreement, while regional leaders find themselves more concerned with immediate threats like climate change and IUU fishing.

IUU fishing is among the greatest threats to ocean health and is a significant cause of global overfishing. This contributes to the collapse or decline of fisheries that are critical to the economic growth, food systems, and ecosystems of numerous countries around the world. The deleterious effects of IUU fishing manifest around the world due to the reach of largely Chinese owned and operated, distance water fishing fleets (DWF). They engage in industrial scale commercial fishing operations, many times illegally, in the waters of other states. Wholesale, it is not an exaggeration to say that IUU fishing is a singular threat to both the economic and geographic sovereignty of nations around the world. Relatedly, the downstream effects of IUU fishing exacerbate the environmental and socioeconomic effects of climate change. These specific problems are aggravated in a remote region such as the South Pacific where maritime domain awareness — broadly defined as the knowledge and awareness of the maritime activities within a given states’ jurisdiction — is generally lower and enforcement mechanisms are weaker.

President Biden is considering expanding the Pacific Remote Islands Marine Monument (PRIMNM). A major concern of the initiative (besides that it harshly impedes indigenous fishers), is it may allow foreign illegal fishing to take stronger hold inside U.S. Exclusive Economic Zones. Western Pacific Fishery Management Council member McGrew Rice warns, “We need to consider that the Pacific Remote Islands monument is surrounded by more than 3,000 foreign vessels that fish in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean.”* If President Biden expands the PRIMNM, the region would require a significant increase in maritime security forces to ensure illegal fishing does not imperil U.S. resources and render the PRIMNM impotent.

Added pressure from illegal foreign fishing fleets would have devastating consequences to the local American Samoa economy. A capable patrol force to oversee the surrounding fisheries is necessary to protect against (largely Chinese) distance water fishing fleets, whose blue water fishing fleet numbers some 12,490 vessels, a number that dwarfs the number of fishing vessels flagged or charted by South Pacific nations. The South Pacific’s tuna fishery is already under significant pressure from unregulated fishing, with 1 in 5 fish being caught illegally. Chinese fishing vessels also provide auxiliary support to People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM) forces in the South China Sea. An increase in Chinese distance water fleets and influence in the South Pacific creates the opportunity for similar tactics in and around the islands of the South Pacific. The specter of an Indo-Pacific conflict could see a proliferation of Chinese distance water fishing fleets throughout the South Pacific pose an asymmetric threat to U.S. forces.

Climate change poses a serious threat the South Pacific, with several countries in the region ranking in the most vulnerable in the world. In fact, the leaders of many Pacific nations cite climate change as their number one existential threat, vice a host of security-related, Sino-centric concerns Western audiences often project onto the region. In conjunction with rising sea levels, an increased number of extreme weather events threaten critical infrastructure and highlight the need for a quick response humanitarian and disaster relief capability in the region. For example, recent calamities caused significant damage to Vanuatu, Tonga and Samoa, with estimates of the damage amounting to over 60 percent of GDP in some cases. A dedicated “quick reaction” disaster relief force would act as a safety net for the region, able to respond to both large scale calamities and smaller scale but critically urgent situations. For example, recently Kiribati’s Kiritimati atoll ran out of freshwater. The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Oliver Berry was the first on scene, using its reverse osmosis machine to create fresh water and pump it into tanks waiting on shore for the 5500 residents of Kiritimati atoll.

Given this state of play, it is clear that the U.S. Coast Guard is an ideal fit to address U.S. specific security and economic concerns that align with those of the region more broadly. Critically, permanently stationing Coast Guard cutters in American Samoa would skirt well-founded concerns of militarizing the Indo-Pacific. Compared to a U.S. Naval installation, a Coast Guard outpost would be perceived as more genuine and less bellicose given the unique contributions the service can make to the region.

Location of American Somoa in the Pacific (Graphic via Wikimedia Commons)

The Sentinel Class Cutter

A significant body of work exists that extols the virtues of the Coast Guard’s Sentinel class cutters, praising the cutter’s multi-mission utility. The Sentinel class is a highly capable platform already operating in OCONUS locations like U.S. 5th fleet in Manama, Bahrain, Honolulu, HI, and the newly minted Coast Guard Patrol Forces Micronesia in Guam. Despite the acclaim for the platform, feedback from recent expeditionary patrols has been measured, with one operational commander noting, “We’ve been lucky because we’ve done really good operational planning, and we put a lot of attention on the success of this mission. But we’re exceeding the design and operational intent of what this asset was created to do.”

Sentinel-class cutter characteristics. Click to expand. (USCG graphic)

Operating in a surface action group (SAG) with larger seagoing buoy tenders, the Sentinel class cutter Joseph Gerczak recently completed “proof of concept” transits from Hawaii to Tahiti and American Samoa respectively, operating well outside its five-day, 2,500 nautical mile endurance limits. Ever “Semper Paratus,” the cutter reported utilizing after-market freezers and coolers on the ship’s weather decks to house enough provisions for the voyage. The cutter also had to meticulously monitor their fuel load to have enough fuel to complete missions in Tahitian and Samoan waters — made complicated by the fact that the turbo-charged marine diesel engines are meant to be run at high speeds which are not conducive to fuel conservation. This plucky resourcefulness underscores the risks that would be eliminated by placing cutters in American Samoa. Operating out of a central location would intensify the positive impact of having several capable assets able to saturate a given area.


Despite their lack of a flight deck, Sentinel class cutters are the top-choice for an expeditionary squadron, due to their shallow draft. Despite the range of larger Coast Guard cutters, their deeper draft makes some remote South Pacific locations inaccessible. Accessibility raises important questions about the practicality and logistics associated with several Sentinel class cutters operating out of Pago Pago Harbor. If the state of American Samoan critical infrastructure is any indication, then plans for a Coast Guard presence will require significant funds and creative planning. In 2019 the Army Corps of Engineers found the Lyndon B. Johnson tropical medical center to be in a state of failure, “due to age, environmental exposure, and lack of preventative maintenance. Extensive repair and/or replacement of facility sections is required to ensure compliance with hospital accreditation standards and to ensure the life, health, and safety of staff, patients, and visitors.”

 Given this state of affairs and the limited budget of the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is unlikely to spearhead the service’s expansion into the region. The Coast Guard presence in Guam enjoys use of U.S. Navy built and owned facilities. Despite protestations about militarizing the region, a practical way forward could be utilizing U.S. Navy funds to stand up a small naval installation for primary use by the Coast Guard. Naval personnel, like a detachment of Seabees, as the Secretary of the Navy has suggested to assist with climate resilient infrastructure in the region, could use facilities on American Samoa as a central operating location.

The permutations of such a base are large, but in principle should include pier, maintenance, and shoreside facilities. Such a facility could pave the way for a long-heralded U.S. Coast Guard Forces Indo-Pacific, with cutters synchronizing operations out of Guam and American Samoa. Further, if the Navy adopts the Sentinel class cutter as a small surface combatant, an installation in American Samoa would increase interoperability between the sea services while carrying out missions on the low end of the competition spectrum. This model is attractive because it frees up larger capital U.S. Navy and Coast Guard assets for equally critical, but more technically demanding missions, such as freedom of navigation exercises, counter-narcotics, or responding to emergent crises such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Critically, following the results of a Trump administration era feasibility study, local government leaders support the stationing of U.S. Coast Guard assets in American Samoa given the need to both strengthen and diversify the economy while combating Chinese influence in the region. The U.S. Congresswoman from Samoa, Uifa’atali Amata affirmed, “We in American Samoa welcome talk in Washington of home porting a squadron of U.S. Coast Guard cutters in Pago Pago Harbor.”

The American Samoa economy relies heavily on tuna fishing. Fourteen percent of the American Samoa workforce comes from the tuna canning industry, an amount large enough to affect many facets of life on the island. Affordable energy, transportation, and retail all benefit from the presence of the lone tuna processing plant on American Samoa. A U.S. military presence of any form would not only transform maritime governance in the region, but galvanize and diversify economic growth on American Samoa.


It is clear there are manifold benefits of a U.S. Coast Guard presence in American Samoa, and the Sentinel class cutter is well suited for the role. The Coast Guard’s contributions to maritime governance, through both training and enforcement, should help stabilize a region lacking maritime domain awareness and enforcement mechanisms. The soft power of the U.S. Coast Guard presence in American Samoa will assuage fears about over-militarizing the Indo-Pacific region, yet, if a large-scale conflict were to materialize, ready-made infrastructure in American Samoa could prove crucial for maintaining U.S. and allied sea lines of communication. One thing is for certain, with the eyes of the world on the Indo-Pacific, solutions for keeping strategic competition within reasonable parameters should not be overlooked.

Sentinel class cutters operating out of Pago Pago harbor represent a powerful, permanent deterrent to IUU fishing in the vast stretches of the Southern Pacific Ocean and would be optimally postured for acting as a timely humanitarian and disaster relief force. Despite some practical details surrounding the base itself, such a presence would represent a transformational shift in maritime governance in the region, expanded bilateral relations with Pacific nations, and an economic boon for American Samoa.

LT Ridge H. Alkonis is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer currently serving as the Weapons Officer in USS Benfold (DDG 65) stationed in Yokosuka, Japan. Originally from Claremont, California, he is a 2012 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, with a B.S. in Oceanography and the Naval Postgraduate School where he earned a M.S. in Acoustics Engineering.

*This quote has been updated following a clarification from the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council.



Featured Image: The Coast Guard Cutter Forrest Rednour arrives in San Pedro, California, Aug. 11, 2018. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class DaVonte’ Marrow.)

Beyond the Gulf: U.S. Maritime Security Operations in the MENA Region

By Jeffrey Payne

Despite rumors to the contrary, the United States is not interested in disengaging from the Middle East. The Indo-Pacific is the new focal point of U.S. foreign policy, but the Middle East remains essential for U.S. interests. However, current patterns of interaction between the United States and its Middle Eastern partners are tied to routines that were hardened during the Global War on Terror. While these routines have proven difficult to escape and a source of political divergence at times, the reality today is that U.S. priorities are more disparate globally—and U.S. presence in the region should not remain locked within previous formulas.

The perception of a U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East is partially due to the absence of refined U.S. priorities in the region. Among the myriad of elements defining U.S. engagement in the Middle East, U.S. naval presence in the Gulf remains essential not only for U.S. interests but also the interests of its regional partners. However, the Red and Arabian Seas are becoming more challenging security environments, and the larger Indian Ocean region provides the logic for why these waters should become the focus of U.S. maritime operations and security cooperation in the broader Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

From the Hormuz to the Bab-al-Mandeb

Middle Eastern waters feature two of the world’s critical maritime chokepoints: the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab-al-Mandeb. One-third of the world’s oil and other resources are transported through the Strait of Hormuz and continue on through the Bab-al-Mandeb if bound for Europe or beyond. Security of both chokepoints is critical for global commerce, of which the U.S. is a key provider. Yet, among U.S. policymakers, the Strait of Hormuz has taken priority. As a result, much of U.S. naval presence and forward basing is focused there.

U.S. presence in the Gulf developed primarily for economic reasons. A reliance on the Middle East’s natural resources for domestic consumption encouraged the United States to ensure regional stability to the greatest extent possible. This led to closer relationships with Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other Gulf States, in addition to strong ties with other regional powers, such as Egypt and Israel. The asymmetric elements of Iran’s foreign policy, intent on spreading its influence and destabilizing the larger region, reinforced the need for U.S. presence in the Gulf.

Today, different variables are present. U.S. reliance on the region’s natural resources is diminished, regional partners have enjoyed decades of security assistance and technical training assistance in shaping their militaries, and, most importantly, the security challenges in the Red and Arabian Seas are expanding. The increased number and sophistication of non-state illicit actors in the waters surrounding the Bab al-Mandeb, and the increased involvement of prominent competitors in the region, means that the United States should no longer prioritize the Gulf above other regional concerns.

To be clear, Gulf security remains a priority of U.S. foreign policy, and the continuation of lines of communication out of the Strait of Hormuz still matter a great deal. However, the concentration of U.S. naval attention should shift further southwest to the Red and Arabian Seas. The Bab-al-Mandeb in particular requires greater attention as the connecting waterway between these two seas.

A Focus on the Bab-al-Mandeb Region

Due to the sheer scale of our oceans and maritime spaces, and the rules, norms, and international laws that govern the activities of both commercial and military vessels, there is no actor with enough influence, power, or vision to provide maritime security alone. Maritime security is a cooperative endeavor, premised on the legacy of responding to another vessel in distress when at sea. The more actors with eyes glancing toward the horizon and sharing what they see with each other, the more likely that threats can be recognized and confronted.

An increasing number of competitors are operating in the Bab-al-Mandeb region. China’s economic interests in Africa, which have exploded in scale and depth over the past fifteen years, precipitated the deployment of People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessels to the Arabian Sea. For 14 years, PLAN vessels have protected Chinese-flagged vessels sailing through the Indian Ocean, gaining operational familiarity with the region’s waters and bypassing existing international cooperative efforts. The completion of China’s first overseas base, a dual-use facility located in Djibouti, signals China’s interests in these waters.

In addition to China, Russia, despite its warmongering in Ukraine, is intent on maintaining, if not increasing, its naval presence in the Red Sea. Moscow does not have the naval depth to match U.S. or even Chinese presence, but it still desires the capacity to reach these waters if for no other reason than to serve as a spoiler for efforts deemed divergent from Moscow’s interests. Smaller regional powers are also keenly invested in deepening their familiarity with, and deploying their own forces to, the Red and Arabian Seas. These regional players include obvious actors, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, but also the UAE, Iran, and Turkey.

Piracy ushered in a period where regional waters facilitated the expansion of transnational crime. The Bab-al-Mandeb is now increasingly congested, and bad actors sail amidst the crowd routinely. The Red and Arabian Seas feature some of the most complex smuggling and illicit operations in the world. Instability on both shores of the Red Sea has enabled these operators. From illicitly-traded legal commodities to narcotics, arms, and human beings, these waters shroud substantial criminality. When illegal fishing and violent extremist organizations are added to this criminal patchwork, the scale of the problem becomes enormous.

The above points highlight why U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) should direct greater attention towards the Red and Arabian Seas, as should regionally-stationed U.S. Coast Guard assets. The trends point to these waters becoming far more critical in the years to come. U.S. Fifth Fleet has immense local knowledge, learned in partnership with regional navies and coast guards, which it can bring to the forefront. The U.S. Navy’s technical expertise and hands-on experience building naval partnerships can assist littoral states in building the connective tissue necessary to respond to everything from hostile state actors to criminal cartels.

A focus away from the Gulf itself would inflict political hurdles, but diplomatic outreach would assist in leaping them. NAVCENT would have to further coordinate with United States Naval Forces Europe-Africa, but that would prove advantageous in the long run despite any initial bureaucratic friction. The U.S. Navy would also have to redefine operational routines away from a traditional/non-traditional binary, as the set of challenges in these waters do not conform to such thinking. In doing so, the United States would start a new chapter of engagement and security cooperation in the region.


The perception that the United States is moving away from the Middle East is false, but part of the reason for this perception is that U.S. engagement in the region has not yet visibly evolved beyond the Global War on Terror and its emphasis on Gulf security. The United States should refine its priorities in the broader MENA region, diversifying its maritime operations and security cooperation beyond the Gulf to the Red and Arabian Seas. While NAVCENT is already enhancing its presence in these waters, more remains to be done. The waters near the Bab-al-Mandeb in particular feature some of the most complex maritime challenges, and the U.S. Navy must face them head on.

Jeffrey Payne is an Assistant Professor at the Near East South Asia (NESA) Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, DC. The views expressed in this article are his alone and do not represent the official policy or position of the NESA Center, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Featured Image: The amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge sails in front of the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier on May 17, 2019, in the Arabian Sea (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Brian M. Wilbur)

Germany in the Arctic-North Atlantic: Reassessing “Forgotten Waters,” Part 2

Read Part One here.

By Michael Paul and Göran Swistek

Germany is heavily involved in­ issues related to the­ Arctic, from the consequences of climate change to maritime security and the preservation of the Arctic as an area of cooperation. However, the Arctic has lost its exceptional character as a place of­ peaceful cooperation and stability. In addition to Russia’s militarization, persistent territorial and resource disputes are now emerging in the Arctic and sub-Arctic region, most recently around the Svalbard archipelago administered by Norway.1

Geo-strategically, Germany lies at the interface between the High North, the Atlantic, the Baltic Sea, and the European mainland. Important maritime and land­ connections in terms of foreign trade and security policy run either through Germany or along its territory. As a member of the EU and the Council of the Baltic Sea States as well as an observer on the Arctic Council and the Barents Euro-Arctic Council, Berlin has numerous issues on its agenda relating to the Arctic. It has summarized these in the guidelines­ for German Arctic policy.2

From a security policy perspective, Germany’s interest in the region must be seen above all in the context of NATO. For this reason, the main area of operation for the German Navy and the focus for its future capability development will be related to NATO’s northern flank—the maritime space between the Arctic region, the GIUK gap, the North-Atlantic and the North Sea as well as the Baltic Sea region.3 The aim is to defend Europe against possible threats while keeping the main trans­port and connecting lines open. Part of the NATO context is also Germany’s function as a hub for Allied logistics. As the host country for Allied troop and materiel movements, the German armed forces have additional tasks in the areas of support, logistics, and security. German military airfields can also serve as bases for Allied aircraft, from helicopters to maritime patrol aircraft and jets. From Germany, they can reach most areas of operation, including the Arctic-North Atlantic region.

Germany depends on secure sea lines of communication and freedom of navigation. However, these are being called into question by the growing­ rivalry between the United States, China, and Russia, which is also taking effect in the High North. As potential peer competitors of NATO, China and Russia view their security ­policy and economic interests ­not in a regionally limited but in a broader geo-strategic ­context.

It is in Germany’s interest to counteract existing geopolitical tensions in the region and prevent conflicts of interest and potential crises in the Arctic in accordance with the guidelines of German Arctic policy. Ensuring freedom of navigation, Germany feels compelled to react to Russian activities and contain the potential for further destabilization.

The German Navy in the Arctic-North Atlantic Region

Against the backdrop of a possible arms race and escalation spiral, Germany must also fulfil its NATO obligations in the Arctic-North Atlantic region. The participation of the German Armed Forces in drills and exercises in the Arctic or sub-Arctic region should be understood as an expression of reliability to the Alliance, reassurance, and a signal of deterrence. On the land side, these exercises included the participation of the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) in the major NATO exercise Trident Juncture 2018 in northern Norway4 and the participation of the naval sea battalion in Arctic training with Dutch marines in 2019. The latter served to prepare a joint German-Dutch amphibious task group.

On the naval side, the sub-Arctic area in the North Atlantic and the northern Baltic Sea is one of the standard maritime areas in which the German Navy operates. It does so in standing NATO maritime task groups and in bilateral cooperation, especially with Norway. Within the framework of NATO’s Baltic Maritime Coordination Function (BMCF), the German Navy intends to assume responsibility for the entire Baltic Sea in the ­future. In the conceptual capstone paper of May 2021 for the German Armed Forces of the future,­ the Baltic Maritime Coordination Function was even listed as a priority in the reform project.5 The assumption of a geographical responsibility and coordination function for NATO by the armed forces of a member country outside of the NATO command and force structure is a security policy novelty in the Alliance. Poland and Germany have separately applied to take on the BMCF. After the inauguration of a new government in Germany in December 2021, Minister of Defense, Christine Lambrecht, has put all reform projects related to the capstone paper currently on hold. But the German application for the BCMF has already been passed to NATO for approval in autumn 2020.6 The decision about the function has been postponed several times, due to frictions about the content and details with Poland.

Against the background of the increased confrontation between NATO and Russia in the region, a closer coordination appears not just to be necessary in peace time, even more in times of crisis and conflict. Therefore, a permanent adaptation of NATO’s structural footprint in the region with more regional ownership would generate more flexibility and contribute to an enhanced deterrence posture as well as a required pre-condition if deterrence fails.

In the Baltic and the North Sea, Germany’s responsibility for the protection of its coastal waters, adjacent sea ­areas, and sea lanes is obvious. However, NATO’s northern flank consists not only of the sea area between Denmark and the Baltic, but also extends across the European North ­Sea to the North ­Pole. Due to Russia’s increased military activities, the security ­and resilience of the countries in this area must be increased. One of the simplest ways to increase both deterrence and ­defense capability ­is to have as complete a picture of the situation as possible. The aim is not only to identify aggressive behavior, but also to be able to prove it. By doing so, NATO could send a clear signal to Russia where the limits of destabilizing­ ­military activity­ in the region lie.

Germany’s Reconnaissance Problem

Knowledge about the activities, interrelationships,­ and developments in a security-relevant area makes it­ possible to move from a reactive to an active security policy. For this reason, it is essential to have an encompassing as possible picture of the situation­ in the area, preferably in real time. This requires certain key capabilities. It is precisely with these key ­capabilities for the High North, such as maritime reconnaissance, submarine hunting capabilities, and submarines, that Germany has repeatedly experienced difficulties. Of the German Navy’s former eight P-3 C Orion maritime ­­reconnaissance aircraft, only four are still in operation.7 The overall availability of this aircraft type for operational purposes is assessed by around fifty percent.

Originally, this type of aircraft was not to be replaced until 2035 by the Franco-German­ Maritime Airborne Weapon System (MAWS) project. The regular use, wear, and the escalating costs of maintaining the P-3C Orion have led to the decision to withdraw the weapon system completely from service as early as 2025.8 Even now, the operational availability of this aircraft is often uncertain, so that the German Armed Forces may ­no longer be able to meet its operational obligations with this model. For this reason, Berlin has agreed on an interim solution (of an already available model in small numbers) to fulfil the tasks already ­stated in the context of Allied operations and permanent contributions in the medium term and to bridge the period until the MAWS is available.

In its last session before the summer break in 2021, the Budget Committee of the German Bundestag approved the acquisition of five P-8A Poseidon aircraft for 1.43 billion euros.9 This aircraft meets all the high technical and operational requirements currently ­placed on a maritime patrol aircraft. Norway has also opted for this model for reconnaissance in the High North.10

As an interim solution, the P-8A could remain in service with the German Armed Forces well beyond 2035 should the MAWS project be delayed or encounter problems. ­However, there are press reports that France is annoyed about Germany’s ­decision in favor of the P-8A interim solution and may therefore want to cancel the MAWS project.11

Operationally, the P-8A Poseidon can be deployed across the entire­ geographic spectrum of NATO territory or beyond. Technically, it is designed for both modern anti-submarine warfare and surface ­reconnaissance, and it should be compatible with most Allied systems ­without ­problems. In a more long term perspective, the F126 frigate with modern sensor technology for underwater distance­ detection will complement the German Navy’s anti-submarine capabilities.12 These, in turn, could­ make a significant contribution to the existing Standing NATO Maritime Groups (SNMGs) or a possible NATO ­Expanded Task Force (NETF) ­, which was tested during Trident Juncture ­2018. The assumed area of operation of the NETF would be the Arctic-North­ Atlantic region. It would be flanked­ by NATO’s SNMGs in the Mediterranean and the Baltic and North Seas.

Given the availability, maintenance cycles, and concurrent mission loads of current German MPAs, the acquisition of five P8 aircraft appears only makeshift to meet requirements. A timely addition of another five models would provide the flexibility needed to augment contributions within the alliance.

Submarines and Cooperation with Norway

The best submarine hunter is still the submarine itself. With its sensor technology, it operates in the same medium as the unit to be searched for and can quickly penetrate the most diverse water layers, which influence sound transmission through temperature and salinity. At the same time, a searching submarine faces the same challenges as the submarine for which it is searching. It does not want to be discovered. Accordingly, it must incorporate the same tactical considerations, geography, and environmental influences as well as the limits of technical possibilities into its planning. The boundaries between hunter and hunted blur seamlessly. However, given the Alliance’s large geographical area of responsibility or the maritime space alone, from the Arctic to the North Atlantic, the North Sea and the Baltic, NATO has only a few operational submarines. The German ­Navy currently has six Type 212 submarines, which are ideally suited for deployment in the maritime regions of the High North due to their small size and quiet, hydrogen fuel cell propulsion. Most of the time, however, only half of the boats are ready for deployment.13 This is due to­ staffing problems­ in the German Armed Forces and technical difficulties, to include failures and planned maintenance.

It is foreseeable that the German Navy will receive new units of the type U212 CD (Common Design). This acquisition was also approved by the Budget Committee before the summer break.14 The U212 CD was developed jointly by Germany and Norway. The requirements of the German and Norwegian navies for their missions were taken into account.15 On the basis of a common list of requirements, the two countries have ordered six largely equal ­submarines from the Kiel shipyard ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS). Four of them are to be delivered to Norway, two to Germany. The former type U212A’s high signature requirements are combined with greater range, speed and sea endurance. The boat can also defend itself with missiles against flying opponents. Thanks to the identical boats, interoperability ­between the navies of the two countries is to be improved. However, it is already becoming ­apparent that both the German and Norwegian special requests for equipment, armament and systems will in fact result in two different submarine types. In the period 2029-2035, they are expected to provide the Norwegian­ a smooth transformation from the former Ula-Class submarine to the new Type 212CD. The first boat is to be delivered to Norway in 2029. This is at least the first step in the effort to close or at least reduce ­military capability gaps.

European vs. Indo-Pacific Priorities

Against the backdrop of China’s power politics in the Indo-Pacific region, however, the United States is increasingly challenged outside Europe and its ­periphery, although the U.S. Navy has strengthened its presence in the North Atlantic, reactivating U.S. Second Fleet in July 2018 to do so. However, many of the U.S. Navy’s specialized capabilities will be ­deployed in areas where a confrontation with China can no longer be ruled out. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark A. Milley, has stated that the Arctic may well have a significant geo-strategic role for the United States in the future. At present, however, he said, there are other priorities in terms of capabilities and their funding. The escalation dynamics in the Indo-Pacific are assessed as more pressing.16 No reduction or shift of American capabilities in the North Atlantic has yet been observed. Nevertheless, this remains an option for action by U.S. forces in the event that the situation in the Indo-Pacific intensifies.

It is in Germany’s interest for the United States to face up to the challenges in the Indo-Pacific. However, Washington has a legitimate expectation that European countries will address the immediate challenges­ to Europe’s security, including in the High North, more independently and credibly. Beyond command and control or coordination tasks, this requires strengthening military capabilities­, increasing readiness, closing specific capability gaps, and making more appropriate deployments available. All of this feeds directly into any defense planning and deterrence maintenance by NATO. Germany still has considerable deficits here. While Germany is often highlighted as a likeminded security ally, in a recent study, none of the four Nordic states—Danish, Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish—identified Germany as the key European security and defense partner.17

Germany will therefore have to make a far more substantial contribution to the effectiveness of European­ diplomacy and the Alliance’s defense capabilities in the Arctic-North Atlantic region. To this end, the capabilities of the German Armed Forces and the German Navy must be further improved. Berlin must be made fit for a cold response.

Dr. Michael Paul is a Senior Fellow in the International Security Division of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin and Project Director of SWP´s Armed Forces Dialogue (in cooperation with the German Ministry of Defence) and SWPs Maritime Security Dialogue. He has published extensively about the Arctic region, Asia-Pacific, China, Russia, arms control, international security, maritime security, and nuclear strategy; i.a. with Göran Swistek, Russia in the Arctic. Development Plans, Military Capability, and Crises Prevention (Berlin: SWP, 2021) and most recently a book about the Arctic, Climate Change and Geopolitics (Der Kampf um den Nordpol. Die Arktis, der Klimawandel und die Geopolitik der Großmächte, Freiburg: Verlag Herder, 2022). Recent publications:

Commander Goeran Swistek, German Navy, is a Visiting Fellow in the International Security Division of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). He was previously advisor to the Chief and Deputy Chief of the German Navy and Assistant Chief of Staff N3 (Current Operations) on the German Maritime Forces Staff (DEU MARFOR). He holds a master’s degree in International Security Studies. His areas of expertise include the German Armed Forces, International Security and Defense Policy, Maritime Forces and Navies, Maritime Security, NATO and Defense Planning, and Security Policy in the Baltic Sea Region. Recent publications:


[1] Nilsen, Thomas, “Russia complains of Norwegian navy’s visit to Svalbard,” Arctic Today, 2021,

[2] Federal German Government, Policy Guidelines for the Arctic,

[3] See also: Kaack, Jan Christian, Chief of German Navy, Absicht 2022 (Intent 2022),

[4] Wiegold, Thomas, Trident Juncture: Es geht nicht nur um den Kampf um die Brücke von Telneset – Augen geradeaus!,

[5] German Ministry of Defence, BMVg, Eckpunkte für die Bundeswehr der Zukunft, Berlin: BMVg, 18 May 2021, S. 12,

[6] Swistek, Goeran, Abschreckung und Verteidigung im Ostseeraum, Berlin: SWP, 15 December 2020 (SWP-Aktuell 2020/A 100),

[7] Deutscher Bundestag, Drucksache 19/28697,­286/­1928697.pdf.

[8] Wiegold, Thomas, “Chancen der Marine auf P-8 Poseidon als neuer Seefernaufklärer steigen,” 2021,

[9] Wiegold, Thomas, “Bundestag gibt fast 20 Mrd Euro für Rüstungsprojekte frei – Auflagen unter anderem für FCAS und Puma-Schützenpanzer,” Augen geradeaus!, 23 June 2021,

[10] Nilsen, Thomas, “Norway’s new ‘eyes and ears’ in the north performs maiden flight,” The Barents Observer,

[11] Otto, Adelbert, La Tribune sagt, Paris wird das deutsch-französische MAWS-Verteidigungsprogramm aufgeben (‚Paris will abandon the MAWS project), Technik-Smartphone-News, 11 July 2021,

[12] Publication of the German Parliament, Deutscher Bundestag, Drucksache 19/28697,

[13] Wiegold, Thomas, Kein einziges deutsches U-Boot fährt mehr, 2017,

[14] Wiegold, Thomas, Bundestag gibt fast 20 Mrd Euro für Rüstungsprojekte frei – Auflagen unter anderem für FCAS und Puma-Schützenpanzer, Augen geradeaus!, 23 June 2021,

[15] Bredick, Marcus, Startschuss für U 212 CD, Marineforum, 23 March 2021,

[16] Everstine, Bryan W., “DOD Leaders Want More Arctic Funding, But Not Right Now,” Air Force Magazine, 2021,

[17] Kristin Haugevik et al, Nordic partnership choices in a fierier security environment: Towards more alignment, 2012,

Featured image: NORTH ATLANTIC OCEAN (April 14, 2022) The German Sachsen-class air-defense frigate FGS Sachsen (F 219) transits the North Atlantic Ocean in support of exercise Northern Viking 22. (Courtesy photo by German Navy)