Vladimir Tikhonov Sovcomflot suezmax northern sea route tanker

On Thin Ice: U.S. Capability Lacking in the Race for the Arctic

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August 8, 2012

Vladimir Tikhonov, via: Sovcomflot

By Ensign Joseph P. Walter, US Navy

For years now there has been talk about how the Arctic is heating up—both in the physical sense and in terms of human interest. The northern latitudes are warming twice as fast as the rest of the world and the polar ice cap is 25% smaller today than it was in 1978.

The summer of 2007 saw record low sea ice coverage, with the summer of 2011 deemed a statistical tie. For the first time in recorded history, both the Northwest Passage (NWP) and Northern Sea Route (NSR) were simultaneously ice-free in the summer of 2007.

Sending ships over the top of the Asian or North American continents reduces the transit time between European and East Asian markets by about half; and while this route is only accessible during the warmest months of the year, scientists expect that will change in the not-too-distant future. According to some climate models, if the current rate of warming continues the Arctic may be completely ice-free year-round as early as 2030—meaning that ships might one day be able to pass directly over the North Pole.

The U.S. Navy has been a big part of the discourse on the future of American involvement in the Arctic, and its meteorological agencies contribute the lion’s share of climate data for the Department of Defense (DoD). After the Coast Guard, the Navy will be the service called on first to protect U.S interests in the northernmost latitudes. And so it should be: U.S. Arctic interests are predominately maritime missions, ranging from strategic deterrence, to “showing the flag,” to ensuring freedom of navigation and protecting trade routes, to rendering humanitarian assistance. As humanity’s footprint above the Arctic Circle grows, so must the Navy’s. With limited assets and resources in comparison to the Navy, the Coast Guard will increasingly find itself calling on the Navy for support and one day may be forced to transfer some of its responsibilities to the Navy. It’s high time to move beyond circulating rhetoric and lay the foundation for a U.S. presence in the Arctic characterized by capability, presence, and cooperation with other Arctic nations.

Climate Change, New Shipping Routes, and Natural Resources

Climate change is real. Scientific data indicates that the earth’s temperature is rising, and particularly fast in the Arctic. The causes of such warming—whether anthropogenic or part of the planet’s natural cycle—are beyond the scope of this paper. The short-term consequences of global warming are already apparent in the Arctic: higher average temperatures and a greater amount of sea ice and permafrost melting. Average temperature year-round is 1.8°F warmer now than it was from 1961 – 1990. Winter temperatures are about 9°F higher today than during that same period.

The ocean is storing most of the heat and sea ice continues to melt in ever-greater amounts. The ice is melting in both coverage and thickness, with a greater proportion of the ice freezing every winter being first-year ice.

arctic northern sea route northwest passage map
via US News

Shipping traffic is rising in response to receding Arctic sea ice, which in recent years has pulled back to open up the NSR and NWP for an entire four months before freezing over.

In August 2011, the Suezmax tanker Vladimir Tikhonov broke the record for the largest vessel to transit the NSR. At over 160,000 dwt, Vladimir Tikhonov is over one and a half times as large as a Nimitz-class carrier in terms of tonnage. The transit from Murmansk through the Bering Strait shaved seven days off the port-to-port time via the normal route through the Suez Canal and US$400,000 in fuel costs.

Given the drastic rise in shipping traffic between 2007 and 2011—with an especially large spike from 2010 to 2011—maritime activity in the region will continue to increase well into the 21st Century. Shipping companies, like Russia’s SovComFlot (SCF), are already making greater use of the shorter northern sea lanes. They are even developing new classes of ice-capable merchant vessels that can make the passage at any time of year, without the need for icebreaker escort.

There are sizeable concentrations of both organic and inorganic natural resources in the largely unexploited north. A 2008 U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) report estimated that some 1,550 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 90 billion barrels of crude oil lie trapped underneath the Arctic seabed and permafrost.

These quantities represent approximately 30 and 13 percent of the world’s untapped natural gas and oil reserves, respectively. The USGS expects that 84 percent of these reserves are located offshore and in less than 500 meters of water, meaning that they fall squarely within the jurisdiction of one of the five coastal Arctic nations (A5).

In a world dependent on hydrocarbon fuels for the continuation of day-to-day affairs, demand for oil and natural gas is expected to remain high for at least the next quarter century.

The 30 million square kilometers of territory above the Arctic Circle—one sixth of the Earth’s total land mass—is known to contain significant quantities of mineral deposits, including rare metals and precious gems.

These vast deposits are increasingly accessible due to climate change, and mining companies will surely move in to secure the rights to these resources as soon as it is feasible to do so.

Arctic fisheries are among the most well-stocked in the world—a consequence of their general inaccessibility for much of human history. One third of the total Russian and U.S. annual catch comes from the Bering Sea, and the fishing industry is Norway’s largest source of national income after offshore oil and natural gas.

Before extraction of any resources can begin, property rights must first be obtained by whichever government(s) lays claim to the area. Extended continental shelf (ECS) claims and territorial disputes fall under the guidance established in the UN Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which the U.S. has signed but not ratified. Since it is not a member of the treaty, the U.S. cannot submit an ECS claim under Article 76 of the convention, as other Arctic states are doing.

Russia has already filed a meticulous ECS claim to the Lomonosov Ridge to the International Court of Justice for consideration. Without a doubt, Russia’s economic interest in securing access to Arctic oil and gas fields is their primary motivation for jumping out in front of the pack to lay claim to hydrocarbon deposits which they consider strategic and vital to their national security.

Geopolitical Considerations Implications of Climate Change in the Arctic

The Arctic remains a subject of great importance in international relations and will continue to command more attention from governments as the century progresses. Rear Admiral David Titley, director of the U.S. Navy’s Task Force Climate Change, suggested the geopolitical implications of a warming Arctic when he observed that “we are confronted by a new ocean for the first time in 500 years.”

Access to energy and trade are the underlying factors drawing the international community’s attention northward, and as corporations pay greater and greater attention to the Arctic, governments will likewise sharpen their focus on the happenings in one of the most remote parts of the planet. Diminished sea ice coverage makes the exploration and exploitation of natural resources now possible in thawing Arctic regions, creating a new imperative for governments to assert claims to the continental shelf extending underneath the polar ice cap. Each of the A5 nations is granted an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) that extends 200 nautical miles from the coastline. But according to international law, if a country can prove that the seabed is a natural extension of the continental shelf, it may exercise exclusive economic rights over the seafloor extending well beyond 200 miles. Russia and Canada both claim the Lomonosov Ridge—widely believed to harbor large amounts of hydrocarbon deposits—is a natural extension of the Asian and North American continents, respectively. The Russian claim would extend its EEZ for an additional 600 nautical miles—nearly reaching the North Pole. Likewise, the Canadian claim on the ridge extends almost to the North Pole, albeit not as far as the Russian claim by virtue of the extension of the Canadian northern archipelago. While the four remaining A5 states have generally balked at the Russian claim, there is no guarantee that factions will arise for the purpose of stymieing particular nations’ claims. On the contrary, Arctic states will likely partner with anyone with shared goals of maximizing their territory to be acquired in ECS claims. Canada, for instance, has an interest in seeing Russia’s claim to the Lomonosov Ridge approved because it would provide a precedent to justify Canada’s own claims to that ridge.

Navigation regimes through strategic waterways in the Arctic are another area where A5 nations occasionally butt heads. Canada claims the NWP as internal waters, granting it special jurisdiction over the strait, while the U.S. asserts that the passageway is an international strait through which maritime traffic may pass at any time. Disputes over Hans Island, situated in the middle of the Nares Strait between Greenland and the Canadian northern archipelago, have resulted in both nations engaging in “flag-planting” missions in greater frequency. The vast wealth in natural resources locked away in the Arctic raises the stakes of otherwise mundane assertions of national sovereignty.

Fortunately, competition in the Arctic has encouraged cooperation among Arctic nations and conflict between the A5 nations is unlikely. Canada, Denmark, Norway, and the United States are NATO allies, and Russia no longer expects to fight a war against NATO. This is a marked change from how the Arctic was viewed through strategic lenses during the Cold War. All of the Arctic nations are committed to the peaceful resolution of disputes and the Arctic Council and UNCLOS provide the mechanisms by which differences can be settled through diplomacy.

Since its inauguration, the Arctic Council has hosted meetings of the eight Arctic nations—Canada, Denmark (and Greenland) Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russian Federation, and the United States—every two years for the purpose of working toward agreements on common issues.

There are no international treaties or conventions declaring the Arctic to be a demilitarized zone, unlike Antarctica, and there is little reason to think that Arctic nations would agree to such a pact in the future. Both Russia and the U.S. have an extensive history of operating in the Arctic Ocean going back to the end of World War II, and the region still plays an essential role in the nuclear deterrence strategies of both countries. The vigor with which the A5 have pursued their economic interests in the Arctic suggests that it is plausible these countries would be willing to use military force to defend their economic and military interests if threatened by neighboring states or outside actors.

Some commentators note state’s growing interest in the Arctic and are apprehensive of a “militarization” of the Arctic. This concern is premised on a flawed understanding of the past and present military capabilities of Arctic nations. The navies of all the five coastal Arctic nations operate frequently above the Arctic Circle, carrying out missions ranging from ballistic missile submarine patrols to freedom of navigation and sovereignty assertion. The entire Russian North Fleet is home-based within the Arctic Circle, in Murmansk, and the United States currently operates the most northerly military base of any nation in Thule, Greenland. Instead of focusing on re- or de-militarizing the Arctic, policy-makers should direct their efforts toward avoiding the creation of a security dynamic which has a net-destabilizing effect, thereby contributing to military insecurity on a greater level. This task should not be difficult to accomplish, given the high degree of cooperation among Arctic nations and the low likelihood of any tensions between them escalating into war.

Geopolitics will demand that the U.S. Navy operate more heavily in the Arctic in coming years. There is credibility to the assumption that interstate conflict is extremely unlikely among Arctic nations due to their stated intentions to peacefully resolve disputes and their history of acting accordingly.

Therefore, a reasonable prediction is that an increasing U.S. naval presence in the Arctic will be predominantly comprised of “showing the flag” (power projection), search-and-rescue (SAR), ensuring freedom of navigation and protecting trade routes (maritime security), and providing humanitarian assistance to local indigenous populations.

Threat Outlook for the Arctic

The U.S. Navy predicts that the Arctic will remain a low-threat environment through 2040.

The likelihood of any conventional threats arising to jeopardize U.S. interests is accurately assessed to be low, especially given the strong relations between the A5. But Arctic nations aren’t the only countries thinking about the future of the region. Several nations—notably South Korea, Japan, and China—recognize the value of the region to their economic interests in terms of faster commercial shipping routes to Europe and energy and mineral deposits to feed their growing economies. A Chinese shipping company has already paired with Russia-based Yamal Shipbuilders to produce a class of ice-capable cargo vessels to carry mineral ores and liquefied natural gas (LNG) from facilities in Siberia to Chinese ports.

Deals like this raise eyebrows among Arctic states, who, as much as they value cooperation amongst themselves, see the Arctic as a domain for their exclusive patronage. Any attempt by Non-arctic States, such as China, to wedge themselves into Arctic affairs will likely be ill-received and Arctic states may respond with measures that consolidate their authority in regional matters.

The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review identified climate change as an “accelerant of instability or conflict.”

While conventional security threats are low in the Arctic, there are myriad non-conventional security concerns in the region that will be affected by climate change. Non-conventional security issues that Arctic nations may have to face in the future include violent political demonstrations, environmental terrorism, humanitarian assistance, and mass rescue/casualties.

The primary law enforcement concern with regard to security is dealing with political demonstrations on public and private property. Not everyone is excited by the prospect of increased development and infrastructure in the northernmost portion of Alaska. The indigenous population is particularly incensed about the growing footprint of major oil corporations operating both off and onshore the northern coastline of the state. Additionally, environmental activists have protested past construction projects in the Arctic. Local law enforcement lacks the manpower and resources to respond to a large demonstration in the remote areas that are host to oil exploitation. The Coast Guard conducted a major training exercise in 2011 titled “Operation Arctic Shield” that was specifically intended to identify ways to best tailor a USCG response to increased maritime traffic resulting from oil exploration operations and the influx of environmental activists expected to travel to Alaska to protest Royal Dutch Shell’s endeavors. In anticipation of Royal Dutch Shell’s plan to drill exploratory wells in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas this summer, the Coast Guard is gearing up for another “Arctic Shield” exercise.

There is also the concern that environmental activism may escalate from peaceful demonstration to acts of terrorism and sabotage. As human activity increases in the Arctic, the risk of acts of eco-terrorism directed at major development projects also rises.

Environmental activism groups, such as Earth Liberation Front (ELF), are likely to step up their activity in the Arctic to match stride with energy and mineral corporations searching for natural resources in the far north. These groups are known to venture far into some of the world’s sparsest territory to disrupt development projects and infrastructure which they consider to be damaging the pristine wilderness.

Adventure tourism to the Arctic has exploded in popularity in the last five years, with over 50,000 tourists traveling on some 2,000 cruise ships visiting Greenland in 2008 alone.

An instance of a cruise ship sinking or becoming stranded in the Arctic would place hundreds of tourists at risk in an inhospitable environment and could potentially result in the deaths of a very large number of passengers. The lack of infrastructure combined with the tendency of these cruise liners to take their passengers to remote, exotic locations both raises the probability of such an accident and the danger that their rescue not take place in a timely manner.

Consequently, the U.S. Navy lists its primary security concerns in the Arctic as: maritime domain awareness (MDA), search and rescue (SAR), and humanitarian assistance/disaster response (HA/DR).This is a reflection of the high probability of non-conventional security threats arising in the region versus conventional security issues. Unlike the Coast Guard, the Navy does not have the proper jurisdiction to engage in law enforcement. Many of the non-conventional threats expected in the Arctic will fall under the scope and ability of the Coast Guard. The Navy will assume a support role for the time being, but eventually the level of human activity in the Arctic may exceed the Coast Guard’s capabilities. As an organization with greater resources and manpower, the Navy may one day be called upon to have a more direct role in managing non-conventional threats in this region.

Current U.S. Arctic Policy

“The overarching strategic national objective is a stable and secure region where U.S. national interests are safeguarded and the U.S. homeland is protected.”

In early 2009, President George W. Bush issued National Security Presidential Directive 66 (NSPD-66), formally establishing U.S. Arctic policy. NSPD-66 identified U.S. interests in the Arctic and the document has been the source of U.S. Arctic policy to this day. NSPD-66 enumerated six general policies of the U.S. with regard to the region: “(1) Meet national security and homeland security needs relevant to the Arctic region; (2) Protect the Arctic environment and conserve its biological resources; (3) Ensure that natural resource management and economic development in the region are environmentally sustainable; (4) Strengthen institutions for cooperation among the eight Arctic nations; (5) Involve the Arctic’s indigenous communities in decisions that affect them; and (6) Enhance scientific monitoring and research into local, regional, and global environmental issues.

One interesting feature of NSPD-66 is the attempt it makes to frame U.S. policy under international law:

“This directive shall be implemented in a manner consistent with the Constitution of the United States, with the obligations of the United States under the treaties and other international agreements to which the United States is a party, and with customary international law as recognized by the United States, including with respect to the law of the sea.”

In the absence of UNCLOS ratification, this was a judicious step that sought to add legitimacy to policy and improve transparency with regard to U.S. intentions.

Operational Challenges in the Arctic for the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard

The Arctic, by virtue of its austere climate, vast size, and the remoteness of human infrastructure, poses several difficult challenges to any maritime force seeking to conduct operations at the top of the globe. From the navy’s perspective, sustained operations above the Arctic Circle are profoundly difficult, with experience carrying as much weight as technical capability. Maps can be misleading, and the vastness of the Arctic is often forgotten when thinking about mankind’s ability to access the region. Nearly 900 miles lie between Seattle and Juneau, with another 550 miles until the Arctic Circle, and almost 2000 more miles to the North Pole. To put this into perspective, the entire continental United States could easily fit inside the Arctic Ocean, with room to spare.

In terms of the technical limitations of Arctic maritime operations for the U.S. Navy, logistics is number one. The presence of sea ice restricts shipping traffic and necessitates the need for icebreakers to escort vessels through the ice. A 1965 agreement between the Navy and Coast Guard transferred all responsibilities for icebreaking to the Coast Guard. Consequently, the Navy does not own or operate icebreakers. The Coast Guard owns three, of which one has been mothballed, one is undergoing repairs (to be back in service in the summer of 2012), and one is presently operational (USCGC HEALY).

Lack of support infrastructure further precludes naval operations in the Arctic. The bases that DoD currently operates in the far north are not built to support large-scale maritime presence. Naval assets venturing to the Arctic are restricted by the amount of provisions that they can take with them. The closest deepwater port at Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands is nearly 1000 miles from Barrow, Alaska, by sea. Airlifting supplies is made more difficult because airfields constructed atop permafrost are not usable when the permafrost softens in the summer months. Furthermore, the lack of port facilities above the Arctic Circle makes it nearly impossible to transport supplies overland to the coast adjacent to the operational area. A ship suffering an equipment casualty would be required to leave station and make the arduous journey south to make repairs. Training philosophy in the Navy today emphasizes the training personnel are trained as “operators” and not “maintainers,” meaning that at-sea repairs are no longer feasible for most modern systems.

Maintaining effective communications is more difficult using conventional methods in high latitudes. Cosmic radiation creates more communication problems when operating in the Arctic because the Earth’s magnetic field is weaker near the poles. Some of the problems are the result of poor satellite telemetry near the poles, meaning that the VHF (Very High Frequency communication devices normally used by the Navy will not work. The HF (High Frequency) back-up units have a much more limited range than higher frequency devices and are less secure.

The harsh, volatile Arctic climate is a constant threat to man and material and is the single greatest limiting factor for operational planning. During the summer months, temperatures in the Arctic Circle rarely go above 40°F, and winters can see temperatures well below -50°F. The entire region is plunged into 24-hour darkness for six months of the year due to the extreme northerly latitude, posing yet another operational hurdle. The Arctic sees more hurricane-force storms than any other region on Earth, and the fishermen that brave the frigid Arctic seas have a true respect for the power of nature.

A decreasing amount of ice does not necessarily make it easier to operate in the Arctic. In many ways, it is harder. Greater sea area exposed to the wind generally results in heavier seas—all in an area that is poorly charted.

Superstructure icing due to sea state and ice fog pose the greatest risk to surface vessels. Ice accumulating on the outer skin of a ship must be removed because the added weight high above the vessel’s center of gravity can cause it to capsize in heavy seas. Typically, the only means of removing the ice is by having the crew use hammers to knock it off, a process that is all but impossible in the middle of a storm.

Assessment of U.S. Naval Capabilities in Arctic

On the whole, DoD activity in the Arctic has diminished since the end of the Cold War. With the exception of submarine operations and certain types of aviation operations, U.S. forces do not have the experience necessary to safely and effectively conduct regular missions in the Arctic. Over two decades have passed since the end of the Cold War and some of the newer warfare systems and platforms in use by the different services remain untested in the Arctic environment.

Acting under federal mandate, in 2011 the U.S. Naval War College ran a series of war game scenarios for the purpose of identifying gaps in U.S. capability in the Arctic. The results were far from uplifting:

“The overall assessment produced by the game was that the U.S. Navy does not have the means needed to support sustained operations in the Arctic. This was due primarily to the lack of appropriate ship types to operate in or near Arctic ice, the lack of support facilities in the Arctic, and finally the lack of sufficient or capable logistics connectors to account for the long logistics distances and lack of facilities.”

The current U.S. lapse in capabilities with regard to the Arctic is troubling. The U.S. needs to invest in more ice-capable platforms and the hardware required to grant existing assets the ability to operate in the polar north. Access to energy and expanding ship-borne commercial traffic in the Arctic will necessitate a moderate geopolitical shift northward. Other Arctic nation’s actions in the polar region should motivate policy-makers to allocate more resources to respond to growing state activity in the Arctic.

U.S. maritime capabilities are weakest where they matter most: in command and control, communication, and logistics.

Many of the variables are outside of the Navy’s control, and rather than engaging in finger-pointing policy makers need to invest appropriately now so that these operational hurdles can be cleared in the future.

Of course, this ought to raise some concerns over U.S. ability to respond to threats in the region in a timely manner. Most of these particular shortcomings can be resolved simply by periodically sending naval assets to the polar regions in order to build up operational experience. Over time, the know-how to conduct basic Arctic missions and operations will be distributed across the fleet as personnel rotate between duty stations. There is merit to testing systems in a polar environment with the intention of identifying gaps in functionality at higher latitudes, even if funding does not exist at present to redesign or modify current systems. Only by physically operating near the poles can we learn how to work around equipment shortfalls to accomplish the mission.

The 2012 Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC) laid out the requirement that U.S. forces in the future must “maintain freedom of action to accomplish any assigned mission.”

Though largely directed at military operations in other parts of the globe, JOAC also applies to the Arctic. As it stands today, U.S. forces are unable to gain access to a—for all intent and purposes—new ocean. This is not a function of a hostile nation acquiring anti-access or area-denial military hardware; it is due to a deteriorated U.S. capability and a lack of investment in platforms suitable for cold-weather conditions. The assumption that current funding can appropriately meet U.S. security needs in the Arctic for the next 30 years is a misguided one which will increasingly place U.S. national interests at risk. Budgetary restrictions are probably the culprit behind the “stalling tactics” employed by policy makers today. However, the foundation for investment tomorrow must be set today. In order for this to take place, a “Whole of Government” approach toward the Arctic is required.

Without an Arctic strategy to take the place of the current conglomeration of policy directives, long-term investment cannot occur. Fortunately, DoD recognizes this problem and has directed the Navy to take the lead in drafting a formal Arctic strategy.

30 years is not a long time from a maritime perspective. Consider that the U.S. Navy consistently maintains a 30-year outlook in the form of the 30-Year Shipbuilding Plan. An effective shipbuilding plan will push for the hulls that will be the most relevant to security and strategy for the foreseeable future. Unless the U.S. Navy wishes to be excluded from an emerging ocean in the northern latitudes, an investment strategy is needed that matches procurement with the anticipated magnitude of U.S. commitment in the Arctic. Without a doubt, the Navy will need to acquire several ice-capable warships and platforms designed for optimum performance in a polar environment.

Looking Ahead: What the U.S. Navy Can Do Today

A good plan of action for U.S. policy makers is laid out in the 2011 Fleet Arctic Operations War Game Report by the U.S. Naval War College. The addendum to the report gives a comprehensive list of suggestions for DoD that would improve U.S. Arctic maritime capability and encourage cooperation and closer ties with America’s partners in the far north.

The roles and responsibilities of the different USN agencies and departments that currently operate or have an interest in the Arctic must be clarified. At present, operational level organization is poor, with overlapping and sometimes conflicting duties shared by various offices within DoD.

DoD should build and institutionalize military-to-military relationships with fellow Arctic nations by establishing a standing “Arctic Joint Task Force.” JIATF-South provides an excellent mode of how a joint interagency organization can better handle transnational security issues by serving as a command and control and information hub that streamlines coordination between the different national security forces.

The Navy should also create additional exchange officer billets with our A5 partners aboard vessels operating in the Arctic.

This kind of liaison opportunity forges enduring personal relationships where it really counts: among those that will one day work side by side in the formidable polar environment.

The Navy can fix its deficiency in operational know-how by seeking out industry partners, particularly regional shipping companies that frequently operate above the Arctic Circle, in order to learn the best practices for operating in the Arctic. The establishment of an “Arctic Center for Excellence” is another important step for honing the technical expertise required for sustained operations in the Arctic environment.

An “Arctic Center for Excellence” would be responsible for promulgating an Arctic “lessons learned” to fleet units to reduce repeat incidents and developing new techniques for getting around equipment limitations in extreme latitudes.

As it stands today, there are no ice-capable warships in the Navy’s fleet and current icebreaker capability in the Coast Guard will not be able to handle an increase in operational tempo in the Arctic. Icebreaking presents an opportunity to seek out partnership agreements with the A5 nations (chiefly, Canada and Russia) who possess larger fleets of icebreakers and ice-capable vessels. International cooperation with regard to icebreakers will help to mitigate the lack of U.S. icebreaker capability, but policy makers should set up a long term procurement effort for icebreakers and ice-capable warships. Big-deck amphibious ships must be included in any procurement effort because they have been identified as a maritime platform with great potential utility for the types of missions expected in an Arctic characterized by a low threat environment for the next quarter century.

A greater number of vertical lift aircraft will be required to support DoD missions in the Arctic; and these aircraft must first be modified so that they can tolerate the stresses placed on the airframe in a harsh polar environment. In this case, it is sensible to include a plan to integrate existing DoD-owned airframes already operating in the Arctic.

Doing so would decrease the number of air assets that would have to be purchased or redistributed from other regions while not detracting from the assets permanently stationed in the Arctic.

The Navy and Marine Corps operate a large number of hovercraft (Landing Craft Air Cushion, abbreviated: LCAC) as part of their amphibious warfare doctrine which are highly suitable for Arctic operations. LCACs are uniquely able to ferry personnel and equipment over land, sea, and ice, with the ability to glide seamlessly over different mediums without the need for icebreakers or major shore-side installations. Therefore, the Navy should retrofit some of its LCACs for service in the Arctic.

Essential to improving U.S. Arctic maritime capability will be upgrading logistics centers and base infrastructure. Many of the DoD-operated facilities in the Arctic have only limited provisions and can only support small-scale and temporary operations with the resources they have. Having fuel and provisions located in close proximity to U.S. assets operating in the Arctic greatly increases the amount of on-station time that platforms can handle. Shortening the length of logistics lines makes Arctic operations safer and easier, as vessels would not need to leave station and travel thousands of miles to refit or repair. Leveraging international ports will help to reduce logistics lines and will foster cooperation between regional partners.

The U.S. Navy should continue to pressure Congress to ratify UNCLOS, as all of the other Arctic nations have done. UNCLOS provides effective governance for several of the Navy’s core interests in the Arctic: freedom of navigation, treaty vs. customary law, environmental laws, and extended continental shelf claims.

Joining the UNCLOS regime would add legitimacy to US negotiations by allowing us to frame our positions in the context of treaty law instead of merely customary law. Those that worry about ceding sovereignty to UNCLOS are of the same ilk that complains about how UN membership impinges on U.S. sovereignty. The reality is that UNCLOS, like all international institutions, lacks an enforcement mechanism that prevent parties from cheating. No other nation can project power around the globe to the degree that the U.S. can. As the only nation capable of filling the role of an international arbiter, U.S. accession to UNCLOS will serve only to strengthen our positions with regard to Law of the Sea which are presently covered by the aegis of customary law. Moreover, formal accession to UNCLOS would facilitate dialogue between the U.S. and the other Arctic nations by way of an established mechanism for handling legal disputes.


The next quarter century will bear witness to massive geopolitical changes due to climate change and a thawing Arctic region. Rising demand for oil and natural gas will combine with increasing resource scarcity that will be the driving factors behind a growth in human activity above the Arctic Circle. As other nations pivot towards the north, so too must the U.S., and the Navy and Coast Guard must be prepared to operate in an exceedingly rugged environment. If U.S. forces are to be properly equipped and trained to operate in the Arctic when the time comes, investment in the right platforms and infrastructure must occur now. National effort must be directed behind a coherent strategy for the Arctic that protects U.S. interests in the region and promotes a stable security environment. Accession to UNCLOS is part of securing American economic, energy, and sovereignty interests, and should be undertaken without delay. The Arctic is warming faster than ever before, but there is still time for the U.S. to act in a way that affirms its status as an Arctic nation and ensures that it will not be left out on the great rush to the north.

About the author

Ensign Joseph P. Walter is a 2012 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and a current student in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University.  The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone, and do not reflect the views of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government in general.



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