By Alan W. Dowd, ASCF Senior Fellow
November 2017 — Late last month, the Navy and Coast Guard (USCG) released a joint RFP for as many as three new heavy-duty polar icebreakers. The nation’s seafaring services want to take delivery of the first icebreaker by 2023. Given Russia’s actions and claims in the Arctic, the Navy-USCG focus on polar operations is long-overdue.
Before we get into Russia’s push to dominate the resource-rich Arctic, let’s look at America’s interests in the Arctic—and its capabilities to protect and defend those interests.
In its Arctic Region Policy, the administration of President George W. Bush argued that “The United States has broad and fundamental national security interests in the Arctic region”—including missile defense, early warning, strategic sealift, strategic deterrence, maritime security, freedom of navigation and over-flight—and should be “prepared to operate either independently or in conjunction with other states to safeguard these interests.”
Likewise, the Obama administration emphasized that “The United States has an inherent national interest in knowing, and declaring to others with specificity, the extent of our sovereign rights” in the Arctic and “establishing the necessary stability for development, conservation and protection of these areas, likely rich in resources.”
“The Arctic region has strategic and economic importance,” President Donald Trump added in August.
Indeed, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimates the Arctic holds 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 90 billion barrels of oil, equaling 30 percent of technically recoverable global reserves of oil and 13 percent of gas. As Bloomberg News reports, that’s “more than all the known [oil] reserves of Nigeria, Kazakhstan and Mexico combined, and enough to supply U.S. demand for 12 years.” About a third of the oil is in Alaskan territory.
These resources will be increasingly recoverable and transportable because the fabled Northwest Passage, once frozen throughout most of the year and navigable only by heavy-duty icebreakers, is thawing. The Congressional Research Service notes that an ice-free Northwest Passage could “cut shipping routes between Europe and Asia by 3,000 to 4,000 miles.”
Good, Bad, Worse
The good news is that Congress allocated USCG more resources in 2016 for acquisition and construction, including money for new cutters and new icebreakers.
The bad news is that U.S. has only two operational polar icebreakers—one of which is a medium-duty vessel tasked largely to scientific missions and the other of which has exceeded its 30-year lifespan.
The worse news is that Russia has 40 icebreakers, with another 11 in production. The disparity prompted USCG Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft to conclude, “We’re not even in the same league as Russia right now.”
It wasn’t always this way. The U.S. deployed eight heavy-duty icebreakers at the height of the Cold War. Adm. Robert Papp, former USCG chief, warns this icebreaker gap could haunt the United States. “While our Navy can go under the ice with submarines…our nation has very limited Arctic surface capabilities. But surface capabilities are what we need to conduct missions like search and rescue, environmental response, and to provide a consistent and visible sovereign presence,” he explains.
Papp and Zukunft know that words are not enough to protect America’s Arctic interests, especially in the face of Russia’s aggressive moves in the Arctic.
Russia lays claim to half the Arctic Circle and the entire North Pole—some 463,000 square miles of Artic sea shelf, as the Telegraph reports—disregarding the claims and borders of other Arctic nations such as the U.S., Canada, Denmark, Norway and Iceland. Worse, Moscow has underlined its claims in a brazen military context:
- In 2008, a Russian general revealed plans to train “troops that could be engaged in Arctic combat,” ominously adding, “Wars these days are won and lost well before they are launched.”
- In early 2015, Russia conducted a huge military exercise in the Arctic involving 80,000 troops, 220 aircraft, 41 ships and 15 submarines. By the end of 2015, Russia had stood up six new basesnorth of the Arctic Circle, opened/reopened 16 ports and 13 airfields in the region, and deployed sophisticated S-400 surface-to-air missile batteries in the Arctic.
- Earlier this year, Russian strongman Vladimir Putin toured Franz Josef Land, home to Russia’s newest and northernmost military base. New construction includes an airstrip capable of deploying fighter-bombers and refueling aircraft.
- By the end of 2018, Moscow plans to have nine airfields operational in the Arctic.
Why is Russia committing so many military assets to the Arctic? A report by the Wilson Center argues that Russia needs new Arctic oilfields “to offset declines in production at its conventional, legacy fields and to maintain production at a level of at least 10 million bpd beyond 2020.” Oil and gas account for more than 40 percent of Russia’s federal budget revenue, and as Putin explains, “Natural resources, which are of paramount importance for the Russian economy, are concentrated in this region.” So, to extend its petro-boom, as an AEI study points out, “Russia must make huge investments in exploring and recovering oil from…the east Siberian region and the Arctic shelf.”
Add it all up, and Russia appears to be employing a strategy by which claims will justify possession, and possession will justify claims.
“As I look at what is playing out in the Arctic, it looks eerily familiar to what we’re seeing in the East and South China Sea,” Zukunft warns.
Too many Americans forget that the United States is “an Arctic nation with broad and fundamental interests in the Arctic,” as Obama’s Arctic policy explained. A large swath of our 49th state lies inside the Arctic Circle; some 27,000 troops are based in Alaska; U.S. troops man a key military base above the Arctic Circle (Thule Air Base in Greenland); and close allies Canada, Denmark, Iceland and Norway are Arctic nations.
Those nations share an important common denominator: NATO membership, and that points the way toward a response to Russia’s Arctic landgrab. If the United States and its Arctic allies can agree on a common approach to Arctic security, combine their capabilities and play niche security roles in the Arctic, they can deal with Moscow from a posture of strength and deter aggression. If not, as former NATO Commander Adm. James Stavridis has warned, the Arctic could become a “a zone of conflict.”
The groundwork for an NATO Arctic partnership is in place:
- Norway has moved its military headquarters above the Arctic Circle, transferred “a substantial part of its operational forces to the north” and based its largest active army unit above the Arctic Circle, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Norway routinely hosts multinational Arctic maneuvers, including a 15-nation exercise on the edge of the Arctic Circle in 2016 enfolding 16,000 troops (1,900 of them U.S. Marines).
- Denmark is standing up an Arctic military command, beefing up its military presence in Greenland and deploying an Arctic Response Force.
- Canada’s new government has shown a renewed interest in the Arctic. Canada is building an Arctic Training Center halfway between the Arctic Circle and the North Pole and procuring drones to monitor its Arctic possessions.
- Another Arctic nation, Sweden, is a de facto member of the alliance, collaborating extensively with NATO in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Libya and air-defense operations in Eastern Europe. Sweden has held large-scale Arctic war games featuring as many as 12,000 troops.
- The Pentagon unveiled its first-ever Arctic strategy in 2013. In 2015, for only the second time in 52 years, Marines deployed to the Army’s Northern Warfare Training Center in Alaska. Marines are also training alongside Norwegian troops and British commandos inside the Arctic Circle. Last year, two Los Angeles-class submarines spearheaded U.S. Arctic military exercises designed to “evaluate operational capabilities in the region.” F-22s have been deployed to Alaska, some of the first operational F-35s will be based in Alaska, and U.S. anti-submarine planes may deploy to Iceland. U.S. Navy and Coast Guard units have joined Norway, Denmark and Canada for Arctic maneuvers.
For years, there was little support within NATO for a coordinated approach to the Arctic. That is changing. At meetings this month, NATO defense ministers will begin the process of standing up a military command focused on protecting sea lanes in the Arctic, perhaps a first step toward a more comprehensive NATO-wide approach to Arctic security and defense.
With or without NATO, the United States and its allies should develop a collaborative security component for the Arctic.
As he has shown in Georgia and Ukraine, Putin has no problem using force to defend his claims and expand Russia’s borders. Russia’s claims are different than that of other Arctic nations both in the way the claims are being made and in the nature of the claims: Other nations are not laying claim to half of the region or the entire North Pole. And other nations are not making territorial claims in a military context. If Russia continues down this path—using bluster and military deployments to justify its claims—it will achieve a fait accompli in the Arctic.
To prevent that outcome, America, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden need to collaborate to defend their Arctic interests and promote a rules-based order in the Arctic. This makes sense for at least three reasons.
First, it would underscore the allies’ seriousness about development and allocation of Arctic resources, thus preventing the sort of miscalculation that could lead to conflict. What Churchill said of his Russian counterparts is true of Putin and his generals: “There is nothing they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for weakness.”
Second, it would enable the pooling of assets, allow for a division of labor and free each ally to play to its territorial and military strengths.
Third, it would posture the United States and its closest allies to deal with Moscow on a more equal footing in the Arctic. Putin has far fewer economic, military and diplomatic chess pieces at his disposal than the combined resources of the United States and its NATO allies. The operative word here is combined.