Navy to Take Larger Role In Arctic Region

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

As ice melts in the Arctic, the Navy anticipates that it will have to increase its presence in the harsh northern region, but not until after 2020, according to a new roadmap released by the service Feb. 24.

There will be low demand for additional naval involvement in the Arctic through the end of this decade, stated the "U.S. Navy Arctic Roadmap: 2014-2030." After then, increased periods of ice-free conditions in the region could expand the Navy's involvement in the region, the report said.

The move would be a shift from the current status quo, where Navy engagement is limited to submarine missions, while the Coast Guard maintains responsibility for Arctic security.

Since the first roadmap was issued in 2009, melting in the Arctic has rapidly increased, said Rear Adm. Jonathan White, oceanographer of the Navy.

"Ice in the Arctic has been receding faster than we previously thought back in 2009. It was a new record for ice melt back in 2012, and it offers an increase in activity," he said during a media roundtable.

The Arctic region holds a plethora of undiscovered fossil fuels and natural resources, including an estimated 90 billion barrels of oil, 1,669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids, the roadmap said.

Commerce and tourism throughout the area will increase as ice melts, creating new waterways for ships to move through. When that happens, the Navy's presence will likely be needed, the roadmap said.

The Navy, as it increases its presence, will have to overcome operational gaps ranging from unreliable weather data to degraded communication capabilities and sparse infrastructure, the roadmap said.

"Environmental information, safety at sea and in the air, communication and data challenges, infrastructure and regional expertise are some, but not all, of the current gaps and seams that must be overcome to operate in the Arctic region," it said.

The Navy will also face logistical challenges. The service will need to examine ways to distribute fuel in the region to air and surface platforms. Deployed personnel will need to be trained in energy conservation and environmentally sustainable practices, the roadmap said.

Overcoming unpredictable weather forecasts is one of the most urgent needs, said White.

"One of the big gaps is being able to predict weather [and] wind … in the Arctic to the extent we do everywhere else in the world today," White said.

Weather conditions can be so erratic in the region that 72-hour forecasts in the United States can have the same reliability as 24-hour or less forecasts in the Arctic, he said.

Even when ice is scarce and vessels can pass through waterways, conditions can still be hazardous, said Rear Adm. William McQuilkin, director of the Navy's strategy and policy division.

While the Navy anticipates a larger presence in the Arctic, White said it was too early to speculate on potential operating bases. Naval Air Facility Adak in Alaska, the last base the Navy operated in the state, was shuttered in 1997. The Navy could possibly look into reopening the base if requirements necessitated it, White said.

"If we determine a structure is needed to do our missions up there, we will take a look at it, see what it costs and then ask" the president and Congress if funds could be made available for it, White said. "But right now I think it is little premature to start looking at specific infrastructure."

The Navy will also work closely with the Coast Guard in the Arctic. The Coast Guard, which operates the nation's fleet of icebreakers, conducts various missions in the region, ranging from patrolling the seas to search and rescue.

The Coast Guard is currently grappling with procuring a new heavy-duty icebreaker.The service only has two operational icebreakers, the Healy — a medium icebreaker commissioned primarily for scientific research — and the Polar Star, a heavy-duty icebreaker that recently emerged from a multi-million dollar refurbishment. The Star's sister vessel, the Polar Sea, was mothballed after breaking down.

Coast Guard officials have said that the service cannot afford to bear the full cost of a new heavy-duty icebreaker, which could total $1 billion.

While icebreaking capabilities may be hard to come by in the future, there is a long history of partnerships among nations in the Arctic, which include Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia and the United States. 

"There are a lot of icebreaking capabilities with our partner nations around the Arctic," White said. "As icebreaking capabilities are needed … we look to partnerships as a way to answer some of those requirements, especially in the near- and mid-term."

The United States already leases the services of Russian icebreakers to gain access to McMurdo Station, a research facility in Antarctica.

Building partnerships with other Arctic nations was emphasized in the roadmap.

"To build the ties of trust and confidence that underpin strong alliances and partnerships, it is essential to operate and train together," the roadmap said.

Multinational operations in the Arctic Ocean such as Canada's search-and-rescue exercise known as Nanook, and Northern Eagle — a biennial joint naval drill, which includes the United States, Russia and Norway — will improve knowledge of the region and provide a positive foundation for future missions, the roadmap said.

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, DOD Policy, Energy, Climate Change, Homeland Security, MaritimePort Security

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