SPECIAL REPORT: Great Power Competition Extends to Arctic
This is part 1 of a 2-part special report on the Pentagon's Arctic strategy.
For years the Arctic’s harsh environment has prevented countries from mining its rich natural resources and accessing prime shipping routes. But as the climate warms and thick barriers of ice continue to melt, the region is now becoming a hot spot for economic activity.
“The region has become an arena for power and for competition, and the eight Arctic states must adapt to this new future,” Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said during remarks at the 11th Ministerial Meeting of the Arctic Council in May. “We’re entering a new age of strategic engagement in the Arctic, complete with new threats to the Arctic and its real estate, and to all of our interests in that region.” The council is an intergovernmental forum and its members include the United States, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Sweden.
The Defense Department’s new Arctic Strategy, released in June, zeroes in on these threats, noting that Russia views itself as a “polar great power.” Since the creation of Russia’s Northern Fleet Joint Strategic Command in 2014, Moscow has ramped up its presence in the region with refurbished airfields, new military bases and a network of air-defense systems, according to the document.
“Russia’s commercial investments in the Arctic region have been matched by continued defense investments and activities that strengthen both its territorial defense and its ability to control the” Northern Sea Route, the document said.
Although China has no territorial claims in the Arctic, it is looking to increase its presence in the region as well by declaring itself a “near Arctic state.” The United States does not recognize this status, according to the strategy. By increasing its economic outreach, investments in strategic sectors and scientific activities, China hopes to gain access to natural resources and new sea routes.
“China and Russia pose discrete and different challenges in their respective theaters, but both are also pursuing activities and capabilities in the Arctic that may present risks to the homeland,” the report said.
The Defense Department’s strategy provides a broad idea of how it should bolster its military presence in the region. The strategic approach is based on building situational awareness, enhancing operations and strengthening the rules-based order.
“Within the context of [national defense strategy] implementation more broadly, DoD will continue to prepare and posture the joint force to ensure that the Arctic is a secure and stable region where U.S. national interests are safeguarded, the U.S. homeland is defended and nations work cooperatively to address shared challenges,” the strategy said.
Although the strategy “does not have anything in it that we didn’t already know,” it laid the foundation for Congress to begin making decisions on how to provide resources toward the region, said Victoria Herrmann, president and managing director of the Arctic Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
“It is almost a summary of what we have been talking about informally in D.C. and in the military community for a few years,” she noted. It is a piece of paper that Congress can point to and say, “‘This is a critically important region and this is why we need to fund an additional icebreaker. This is why we need to allocate funding for a deep water port,’” she added.
Conditions in the Arctic are changing fast, and the next decade or two will have strategic implications, Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, said in an interview. According to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Arctic sea ice in September is declining at a rate of 12.8 percent per decade.
Things are “heating up in the Arctic and I would say more than just heating up and losing the ice,” Serreze said. “The geopolitical stakes are getting higher and higher.” Over the next decade or two, “that’s really where things are going to play out” among rival nations, he said.
The ice is also melting in areas that provide Russia with a strategic advantage, he noted. Much of it is disappearing along the Northern Sea Route, a passageway that connects the Bering Strait with the Kola Peninsula, he said. Many of the continental shelves rich with oil and natural gas deposits are in Russian waters, providing it with easier access to such assets.
“All along the Northern Sea Route along the Russian coast, you’ve been seeing significant retreat of the ice in summer,” he said. The section from Murmansk to the Bering Strait has been losing ice, he noted.
Now, the United States is “catching up” to competitors by building new icebreakers and establishing a vision for its role in the region, Herrmann said.
“The United States is often nicknamed the ‘reluctant Arctic power,’ unlike … Canada or Russia,” she said. “It has not invested in the Arctic. It is not invested both strategically and operationally.”
The Coast Guard has a statutory responsibility to maintain and operate the nation’s fleet of icebreakers and is expected to take on a stronger presence in the region. Plans include acquiring six new icebreakers, known as polar security cutters. The service currently has one heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, and one medium, the Healy, which is primarily used for research.
In contrast, Russia has about 40 icebreakers and is continuing to expand its fleet. Russian news agency TASS reported in May that the country is preparing to sail nuclear-powered icebreakers for year-round use.
The Coast Guard’s first three heavy polar security cutters are slated to be fielded by around 2027, Adm. Karl Schultz, the service’s commandant, told reporters in May during an industry conference at National Harbor, Maryland. In April, VT Halter Marine Inc. — which is based in Pascagoula, Mississippi — was awarded a $745.9 million contract to build the first ship, with options included to build two more.
Elements of VT Halter’s design are “right near the money where we want to be,” Schultz noted. The icebreaker will have the ability to crack up to 21 feet of ridged ice, hold 135 crew members and add detached crews, he said.
“This ship is going to be a modern capability that’s going to allow us to do the full spectrum of Coast Guard missions up there,” he said during a keynote speech. “Where there’s more activity, there’s higher risk of a major search-and-rescue case.”
The service also released a new Arctic strategic outlook in April, written to acknowledge operational changes the Coast Guard must make to adjust to the changing conditions.
“As the region continues to open and strategic competition drives more actors to look to the Arctic for economic and geopolitical advantages, the demand for Coast Guard leadership and presence will continue to grow,” the document said.
Besides icebreakers, the service hopes to invest in aviation assets, unmanned and autonomous systems and additional personnel, the strategy said. Equipment must be interoperable and upgradeable so they can be used for a variety of activities.
The service’s new offshore patrol cutters will be able to carry the Coast Guard’s full range of helicopters and potentially drones. This will help the service “put some more capable ships closer to the problem set,” Schultz said.
Part of the Coast Guard’s new strategy also involves improving communications in the region, which can be difficult because satellites in geostationary orbit don’t cover the Arctic and links are often disrupted by ice on platform antennas and violent seas.
The Coast Guard partnered with the Department of Homeland Security’s science and technology directorate to launch small cubesats in the region late last year, but establishing secure communication channels will likely require a stronger approach, Schultz noted.
“There’s not a roadmap or a specific Coast Guard plan to solve communications in the Arctic yet, but … as we lean in about how important that space is geostrategically, that is a conversation we’ve got to start working on,” he said.
The Coast Guard strategy also includes a line of effort geared toward promoting a rules-based order in the region by strengthening institutions such as the Arctic Council, Arctic Coast Guard Forum and the International Maritime Organization.
Although the Coast Guard is expected to take the lead on Arctic operations, the Navy is also looking at ways to participate in the region. Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer said in December that he has a “wish list” of needs that includes opening a strategic port in Alaska and conducting freedom of navigation operations in the Northwest Passage.
Doing so will also help the Navy mitigate risks such as attacks on commercial ships, he noted.
“Can you imagine the Carnival line cruise ship having a problem and the Russians … do the extraction?” he said during remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We need to focus on this. But it’s [also about] resource management.”
Although the Navy recognizes the threats presented by great power competition, it believes that there is unlikely to be a large-scale conflict in the region, according to its Arctic strategic outlook that was released January 2019 and obtained by National Defense. Nations are, so far, abiding by international law, the document said. Because of this, the service is more concentrated on deterring conflict and protecting U.S. interests, it noted.
“While there are recognized threats, opportunities and risks in our return to an era of great power competition, the Arctic is assessed to be low risk for conflict because nations have demonstrated the ability to resolve differences peacefully,” the strategy said.
Although the Coast Guard fulfills most maritime missions in the Arctic, the Navy is slated to continue working with international partners through initiatives such as the Arctic Coast Guard Forum, the document said. The service will also work with the Royal Canadian Navy “to ensure common Arctic region interests are addressed in a complementary manner.”
“Through these partnerships, the Navy and Coast Guard are committed to ensuring safe, secure and environmentally responsible maritime activity in Arctic Ocean waters and to promoting U.S. interests in the Arctic,” the document said.
Challenges of operating in the Arctic seas include constant changes in environmental factors such as ocean currents, wind, water and air temperature, sea spray and daylight duration, the document noted. There is also a lack of accurate navigational charts for many areas.
The Navy’s biennial submarine Arctic Ice Exercise, or ICEx, is also used to validate tactics, techniques and procedures with regional partners. In 2018, multiple submarines conducted Arctic transits for the exercise, according to the service.