Defined by their remoteness and extreme climate, the polar regions present an array of tactical and operational challenges to US forces as sea icing, repeated thawing and freezing cycles, permafrost, and frequent storms can complicate otherwise simple operations. However, often overlooked are the challenges to communications, which are critical to Navy and Coast Guard vessels operating in the polar regions. Perhaps once possible to ignore, these challenges are becoming more pressing as the Marines, Navy and Coast Guard increase their operations at higher latitudes and place more emphasis on the arctic and more arguments are made for sending Marines and soldiers to the arctic for training and presence. In order for US naval forces to compete in the polar regions and fight if needed, the military needs to invest in persistent and reliable communications capabilities. One solution is high-altitude balloons.
Arctic experts have long understood the difficulty of communicating in the arctic, noting that “While communicating today might be easier than it was for Commodore Perry 111 years ago, it’s not that much better.” Arctic communications are especially difficult for a number of reasons. Satellite-based options are limited or nonexistent because the vast majority of satellites maintain equatorial orbits, which means the polar region’s extreme latitudes fall outside satellite range. Though a few satellites follow non-equatorial orbits, there are simply not enough to provide continuous connectivity at the bandwidth needed for modern operations.
There are also natural barriers to communications in the arctic. The ionosphere covering the polar regions has a high-level of electron precipitation, which is the same characteristic that produces the Northern Lights. However, this interferes with and degrades the high-frequency (HF) radios that the military normally uses for long-range communications in the absence of satellites. Additionally, the extreme climate and cold weather in the arctic presents another challenge to communications infrastructure such as antennas and ground stations. Arctic conditions make it harder to access and maintain ground arrays, batteries expire faster in colder temperatures, and equipment can easily be buried by falling snow and lost.
Finally, the near complete lack of civilian infrastructure complicates arctic communications. The polar regions comprise about eight percent of the earth’s surface, accounting for over 10 million square miles of land on which only about 4 million people live. Most are clustered in small communities, resulting in sparse commercial communications infrastructure across the region. However, persistent and reliable communications are absolutely essential for the successful employment of maritime forces in the arctic.
One solution is for naval forces to use high-altitude balloons that provide temporary communications capabilities. Balloons are far cheaper than satellites and much more responsive. They can be quickly deployed where coverage is needed and fitted with communications payloads specific to the mission. They are also low-cost and effective enough that they can be used not only in operations but also in training at austere locations.
Balloons offer a degree of flexibility critical for operations in remote environments like the arctic. Differently sized balloons can be fitted with specific capacities for mission-tailored requirements and priorities. The size of payload, loiter time, and capabilities are primarily a function of balloon size. Large balloons and stratospheric airships can stay aloft for months, while smaller “zero pressure” balloons might last hours or a few days. Given their diverse uses and capabilities, high-altitude balloons have already been used to provide communications in hard-to-access environments by organizations such as NASA, the US Air Force, and Google. For example, researchers at the Southwest Research Institute and NASA have supported atmospheric balloon flights over the poles that lasted up to a month – more than enough time to meet operational needs.
Though there are various ways to launch and lift high-altitude balloons, recent advances show that hydrogen gas is the best candidate. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory recently discovered a new way to generate hydrogen with aluminum and water. With this new ‘MIT process,’ researchers have already demonstrated the ability to fill atmospheric balloons with hydrogen in just minutes – a fraction of the time it takes using other methods. The MIT process promises to be not just faster, but also cheaper and safer than other methods of hydrogen generation. It also means that units can generate hydrogen at the point of use – obviating the need to store or transport the volatile gas or other compressed gasses. The researchers have demonstrated effective hydrogen generation with scrap and recycled aluminum and with non-purified water including coffee, urine, and seawater.
The deployment of balloons utilizing this new hydrogen generation process would be extremely simple. A balloon system could conceivably be developed where the system is simply dropped into the ocean from a ship, airplane, or helicopter with a mechanism that causes it to self-deploy when it comes into contact with seawater. This single system – one that does not require stores of compressed gas or an electrolyzer to generate hydrogen – would also take up far less space than other balloons and the associated equipment required to get them aloft. Balloons full of hydrogen gas could also act as giant batteries as the hydrogen can also be used to power communications equipment or sensors.
So far, the US Coast Guard has been leading the way with arctic communications. The service has highlighted improving communications in the arctic as part of their first line of effort in the 2019 Arctic Strategic Outlook and as a key initiative in their 2015 Arctic Strategy Implementation Plan. Along with the Marine Corps, the service has also been experimenting with Lockheed’s Mobile User Objective System (MUOS), a next-generation satellite communication constellation intended to replace the constellation that the Pentagon relies on today. But even the systems’ creators are clear that in extreme polar regions, MOUS may only offer eight hours of coverage per day. Constellations of small and cheap cube satellites might also be a partial fix for the communications dead zones, but hundreds or thousands would be required to cover a region as large as the arctic. The Army and the Air Force are also interested and intend to invest $50 millioneach toward arctic communications. The Army has previously experimented with using high-altitude balloons to support multi-domain operations and might be a key partner in developing an arctic communications capability, and the Air Force is looking at using commercial broadband satellites to meet service and joint communications needs in the arctic.
Communications issues are a consequence of the polar operating environment and an obstacle for the military services operating there. But just because the environment is difficult does not mean that US forces have to go without persistent and reliable communications. High-altitude balloons could plug the communications gap not just for maritime forces but also for the Army and special operations units operating in these extreme latitudes. Developing and deploying high-altitude communications balloons, lifted by hydrogen gas generated by the MIT process, offers near-term capability for US forces operating in polar regions with underdeveloped communications infrastructure.
Walker D. Mills is a U.S. Marine Corps officer serving as an exchange officer in Cartagena, Colombia, the 2021 Military Fellow with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, a non-resident WSD-Handa Fellow at Pacific Forum, and a Non-Resident Fellow with the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Future War.
The views expressed are his alone and do not represent the United States government, the Colombian government, the United States military, or the United States Marine Corps.
Feature Image: A NASA long duration balloon is prepared for launch on Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf near McMurdo Station in 2004. (NASA photo)
Since the Cold War, the U.S. has maintained a steady presence in the Arctic—specifically the European Arctic, or High North—primarily through nuclear submarine deployments while relying on NATO allies in the region for logistical support. However, melting ice caps, an increase in commercial maritime activity, and ongoing territorial disputes necessitate stronger NATO cooperation in the region to achieve a deterrence posture against Russia and safeguard maritime security. Deterring Russian aggression is important in all European bodies of water, and the Arctic will increasingly face the same maritime security issues as other parts of the world, including illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing by China and the movement of migrants and refugees by sea.
Checking a Growing Russian Sphere of Influence
The Arctic has reemerged as a front for NATO in recent years, as Russia has ignored European policiesnot to militarize the region. Since at least 2010, Russia has been reopening and rearming much of the Arctic infrastructure used at the height of the Soviet Union. In 2012, Russia resumed its patrol of the Northern Sea Route (NSR), a commercial shipping lane running along Russia’s northern coastline from the Kara Sea to the Bering Strait. In 2014, Russia established a new joint strategic command in Severomorsk to oversee its Northern Fleet with renewed focus on the Arctic. And in 2019, following the first successful navigation of the NSR without icebreakers two years prior, Russia implementedmandatory pilotage for foreign vessels and demonstratedits maritime interdiction capabilities.
Similar to Russia, NATO needs to improve its capability and capacity to operate on the Arctic front. In order to deter the Russian threat and safeguard maritime security, sustained presence in the region is needed. To this end, NATO should create a new standing maritime group dedicated to the Arctic and separate from the maritime groups focused elsewhere. While likely to be hotly debated, a new standing maritime group should gain traction among many of the Arctic states, especially Iceland, Norway, and Denmark, who have long recognized the growing Russian threat in the region. With sustained presence, so too will come sustained situational awareness, which is fundamental for conducting successful operations.
Currently, NATO’s maritime component commander, HQ Allied Maritime Command (MARCOM), maintains operational control of NATO’s four standing maritime groups: two destroyer/frigate groups and two mine countermeasures groups. These groups are already overtasked, posturing against a resurgent Russian Navy across the North Atlantic, Baltic, and Black Seas, and lending support to NATO’s maritime security operation in the Mediterranean, Operation Sea Guardian, as well as the EU refugee and migrant crisis. Regardless of these ongoing tasks, these groups are not tailored for Arctic naval operations. For this reason, a new group needs to be formed.
Instead of relying exclusively on frigates and destroyers from NATO navies to form the new group, NATO should look to its coast guards as well, recognizing that many of these forces field ships that are optimized for Arctic operations. The U.S., Canada, Denmark (via Greenland), Iceland, and Norway all have Arctic maritime borders, and most have ice-class ships. Denmark has Thetis-class and Knud Rasmussen-class patrol vessels, the latter of which double as icebreakers. Norway has the patrol vessel Svalbard, which also doubles as an icebreaker and recently completed the first Norwegian voyage to the North Pole. Three new patrol vessels will soon join her. Iceland, too, can lend support with their aging but capable Ægir-class or newer Thor-class patrol vessels. Thor is not capable of icebreaking, but it can still operate in the Arctic.
Of course, these examples are just from the smaller NATO navies and coast guards of the Arctic; the U.S. and Canada would have a responsibility to support the group as well. U.S. Arleigh Burke-class destroyers can operate in the Arctic, as recently demonstrated, and where capabilities are lacking, the NATO Defense Planning Processshould abide. NATO partners Sweden and Finland have land borders in the Arctic region and would likely contribute to the group, if not with tangible patrol and surveillance assets, then with information exchange. Beyond historical cooperation with NATO states through agreements such as NORDEFCO, Sweden and Finland have increased cooperation with NATO in recent years, joining the UK’s Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF), improving on existing agreements with the U.S., and participating in NATO exercises in the Baltic Sea.
One potential, but not required, outcome of establishing a standing maritime group for the Arctic is the feasibility for NATO to conduct freedom of navigation operations, or FONOPS, against Russia’s excessive maritime claims in the region. For years, the world has read stories of FONOPS in the South China Sea to challenge China’s excessive claims. According to the Department of Defense (DoD), FONOPS are conducted to “consistently challenge excessive maritime claims made by a variety of coastal States, including allies, partners, and competitors.” However, despite excessive maritime claims made the world over, high-profile FONOPS are rarely conducted outside of the South China Sea, including against Russia.
Concernsover whether or not FONOPS in the Arctic would do more harm than good are valid, but these concerns are mostly due to the U.S. Navy’s current lack of capability and capacity in the region, which the new standing maritime group would help address. Nevertheless, objections to FONOPS in the Arctic, especially NATO-led, are still likely to be made for fear of escalation with Russia. However, even if Russia were to cite a NATO FONOP, it does not require one to justify its continued aggression, nor did it require one in Georgia in 2009 or in Ukraine in 2014 and 2018. Russia justifies its aggression because of NATO’s continued expansion into once Soviet territory, something which George Kennan, the architect of the Cold War containment strategy, predicted. Russia is going to act regardless of NATO conducting FONOPS.
With this tension between NATO and Russia in mind, some believe a military “code of conduct” is needed for the Arctic. While the recommendation for the deployment of a standing maritime group to the region may appear hardline in contrast, such a group would operate professionally alongside Russian units, as is already done by the other maritime groups. Moreover, such a group would be part of NATO’s increasing role in Arctic maritime security. From assisting with search and rescue operations to helping deter illegal/illicit activity ranging from IUU fishing to trafficking in persons or goods, NATO’s role in the region would be two-fold: deter Russia while safeguarding maritime security. Neither role precludes a code of conduct for the region, and the latter presents an opportunity for de-escalation and possibly even a measure of cooperation with Russia.
The China Angle
Another potential outcome of NATO’s sustained presence and situational awareness in the Arctic is a better deterrence posture against China. China, declaring itself a “near-Arctic” state and achieving observer status on the Arctic Council, is increasingly becoming a player in the region. While for now most of the play has been economic, investinglarge sums in Arctic states—including NATO allies—and adding the Arctic to its Belt and Road Initiative (Polar Silk Road), it can be assumed that its economic investment in the region will eventually be followed by militarization.
How China might move to militarize the Arctic is anyone’s guess, but its 2018 white paper on the Arctic, as summarizedby Lieutenant Commander Rachel Gosnell, USN, clearly states China’s interests in the region, and it has plans to protect them. While much of the paper touts adherence to international law, the world has very little reason to believe China will do so. One example of how China could move to militarize the Arctic is on the back of its seemingly benign fishing fleet. China has stated it has inherent rights to the fish migrating to the Arctic because of its large population. And where China’s fishing fleet goes, militarization will soon follow, as has been demonstrated already by Chinese fishing “militias.”
NATO’s sustained presence and situational awareness are needed to achieve deterrence against both Russia and China while safeguarding maritime security in the Arctic. The first step toward achieving this goal is to increase NATO capability and capacity to operate in the region, centered on a new standing maritime group that is dedicated to the Arctic and separate from NATO’s maritime groups operating elsewhere. This group should be formed by NATO states with Arctic maritime borders and ice-class ships. As NATO becomes the recognized authority for maritime security in the region, de-escalation and even cooperation with Russia could be possible. It is time for NATO to invest in this future, starting with a standing maritime group for the Arctic.
Lieutenant Barnard is serving as a staff operations and plans officer at NATO Maritime Command in Northwood, U.K. He was previously gunnery officer onboard USS Arleigh Burke (DDG-51) and weapons officer onboard USS Firebolt (PC-10), and was recently selected to be a foreign area officer in Europe. He graduated from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland with a master’s in terrorism studies and holds a bachelor’s in political science from Abilene Christian University in Texas. His views are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Department of Defense, or NATO.
Featured Image: NoCGV Svalbard (W303), an icebreaker and offshore patrol vessel of the Norwegian Coast Guard (Kystvakten).
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.1 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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
 Stavridis, pp. 344-345.
 Ibid., pp. 345-347.
 Ibid., 345-346.
 Ibid., p. 351.
 Ibid., pp. 351-352.
 Roberts, pp. 958, 968.
 Stavridis, pp. 349-350.
 Ibid., pp. 350-351.
 Zysk, p. 109.
 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.
 Stavridis, p. 353.
 Ibid., pp. 353-356.
 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.
 Roberts, p. 958.
 David B. Hill, “Force Projection, Strategic Agility, and the Big Meltdown,” Naval War College, May 18, 2001, pp. 4-5.
 Stavridis, p. 338
 Ibid., p. 357. Some estimate Russian icebreaker capability is higher, as much as 44 in fact (source: Eckstein article)
 Stavridis, p. 357.
 “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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
 Hampton Sides, In the Kingdom of Ice The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette, (New York: Anchor Books, 2014), p. 21.
 James Stavridis, Sea Power The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans, (New York: Random House, 2017), pp. 332-333.
 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.
 Stavridis, pp. 329, 332.
 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.
 Stavridis, p. 332.
 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.
 Ibid, pp. 62-65.
 Stavridis, pp. 333-334.
 Ibid., pp.336-337.
 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.
 Stavridis, pp. 341-342.
 Kari Roberts, “Jets, Flags, and a new Cold War? Demystifying Russia’s Arctic Intentions,” International Journal, 65, no. 4 (2010): p. 966.
 Stavridis, pp. 342-343, 354.
 Ibid., p. 342.
 Katarzyna Zysk, “Russia’s Arctic Strategy: AMBITIONS AND CONSTRAINTS,” Joint Force Quarterly, 57 (2010): p. 105.
 Roberts, pp. 963-964.
 Zysk, p. 107.
 Kristina Spohr, “The Scramble for the Arctic,” New Statesman, 147 (March 9-March 15, 2018): pp. 22-27.
 Michael Kofman, “Russia’s Fifth Generation Sub Looms,” U.S. Naval Institute,Proceedings Magazine 143, no. 10 (October 2017).
 Ibid. The Yasen class is commonly referred to as “Severodvinsk” in NATO circles.
 Zysk, p. 109.
 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)