In releasing a strategy statement on the Arctic last month, the Obama administration not only laid out U.S. interests and objectives in the region; it also shined a spotlight on the increasing importance of—and growing security challenges in—the resource-rich Arctic. It may sound improbable, but in the not-too-distant future, the main source of energy reserves and geopolitical tensions may shift from the deserts and densely populated urban areas of the Middle East to the icy waters and desolate tundra of the Arctic. Here’s why.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the Arctic may hold 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 90 billion barrels of oil. About a third of the oil is in Alaskan territory.
These oil and gas deposits were always there, of course, but today the cost of extracting them is increasingly justifiable due to market realities. Growing demand, along with decreasing and undependable supplies in the Middle East, are conspiring to push energy prices upwards, which is encouraging exploration in the Arctic.
Another important factor in the Arctic energy rush relates to shipping. The fabled Northwest Passage, once frozen throughout most of the year, is thawing. “Opening up the Northwest Passage cuts 4,000 nautical miles off the trip from Europe to Asia,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen observes. “You can bet a lot of companies have done that math.”
The prospect of rising oil prices in the long term, the emergence of sophisticated drilling technology and the opening of new transit routes provide new opportunities for exploring—and new incentives for claiming—this vast, resource-rich frontier.
Russia is making its intentions in the Arctic crystal clear.
In 2001, Russia brazenly laid claim to almost half the Arctic Circle and all of the North Pole. During a 2007 expedition, Russia planted its flag under the Arctic ice—far beyond the internationally recognized 200-mile territorial limit known as the “exclusive economic zone.” The lead explorer provocatively declared, “The Arctic is ours.”
In 2008, a Russian general revealed plans to train “troops that could be engaged in Arctic combat missions,” ominously adding, “Wars these days are won and lost well before they are launched.”
A 2009 Kremlin strategy paper placed a priority on securing energy resources in “the Barents Sea shelf and other Arctic regions.” Putting muscle behind its words, that same year, Moscow vowed to build a string of military bases along Russia’s northern tier.
In 2011, Moscow unveiled a new Arctic commando brigade. In 2012, the Kremlin announced that key air units would redeploy to Arctic airfields in Novaya Zemlya (a finger-shaped island off the Russian mainland). That same year, Moscow unveiled plans to stand up “infrastructure hubs” in the Arctic to be used as way stations for Russian warships. Russia is deploying two army brigades—10,000 troops—to defend its Arctic claims.
In short, Russia is eyeing the resources of the Arctic and is signaling its seriousness about claiming those resources. “We are open to dialogue,” Russian President Vladimir Putin has said, “but naturally, the defense of our geopolitical interests will be hard and consistent.”
Russia’s outsized Arctic claims rest on a dubious interpretation of an underwater ridge linking to the Russian landmass. Russia argues that this ridge is an extension of its own continental shelf. Based on these claims, the Kremlin contends that 1.2 million square km of Arctic territory is Russia’s.
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. Other nations are not making territorial claims in a blatant military context.
But Russia is not the only prospective Arctic troublemaker. China wants a slice of the Arctic. According to Chinese Adm. Yin Zhuo, the Arctic “belongs to all the people around the world as no nation has sovereignty over it.” Just last month, China won observer status on the Arctic Council.
It’s worth noting that 46 ships made the Arctic sea passage last year, including China’s brand-new icebreaker.
If the Arctic does become a “zone of competition, or worse, a zone of conflict,” as Adm. James Stavridis (USN) has warned, the good news is that some of America’s closest allies are Arctic neighbors: Canada, Iceland, Denmark and Norway are all members of NATO. Although Sweden is officially non-aligned, it’s a de facto member of NATO, cooperating extensively with the alliance in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Libya—and working closely with Norway and Denmark on security in and around the Arctic. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to allied cooperation in the Arctic.
• Denmark is standing up an Arctic military command, beefing up its military presence in Greenland and deploying ajoint-service Arctic Response Force, as SIPRI recently reported.
• Norway has moved its military headquarters above the Arctic Circle. In addition, Norway has transferred “a substantial part of its operational forces to the north,” moved its coastguard headquarters north of the Arctic Circle and recently based its largest active army unit above the Arctic Circle, according to a SIPRI report. The Toronto Star adds that Norway is procuring 48 F-35s “partly because of their suitability for Arctic patrols.” Norway also has led Arctic maneuvers enfolding as many as 13 nations. One scenario was based on an attack against oil rigs by the fictional country “Northland,” a thinly disguised euphemism for Russia.
• Canada is building new bases, including an Arctic Training Center in Resolute (halfway between the Arctic Circle and the North Pole); conducting annual maneuvers to defend its Arctic territories; turning a small coastguard base in the “High North” into a full-fledged naval base; and is in the process of procuring a squadron of drones—some of them armed—to be Ottawa’s “eyes in the sky in the Arctic,” according to Canada’s top air force general.
• The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard have joined Denmark and Canada for Arctic maneuvers. In late 2012, the U.S. and Canada agreed to deepen their military cooperation in the Arctic, with a focus on cold-weather operations, training, capabilities, domain awareness and communications.
• NATO officials have pointedly declared the Arctic a region “of strategic interest to the alliance.” However, Rasmussen recently announced, “At this present time, NATO has no intention of raising its presence and activities in the High North.”
With or without NATO’s unifying role, it’s only prudent for the U.S. and its allies to develop some sort of security component to the Arctic puzzle. “In order to ensure a peaceful opening of the Arctic,” as Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, puts it, “DOD must anticipate today the Arctic operations that will be expected of it tomorrow.”
If Russia continues down its current path—using bluster and military deployments literally to divide and conquer—it will achieve an Arctic fait accompli. To prevent that unhappy outcome, the U.S., Canada, Iceland, Denmark, Norway and Sweden may need pool their economic and military resources to protect their shared interests, as they do in other parts of the world. The Arctic Council is not well suited for such a role given that it is expressly forbidden from dealing with military-security issues.
However, there is a framework already in place to help the allies address Arctic security: Jointly operated by the U.S. and Canada, NORAD could serve as the model for an Arctic security partnership. Just as NORAD provides airspace and maritime surveillance for North America, an allied arrangement under the NORAD rubric could provide the building blocks for Arctic security.
The challenge is to remain open to cooperation with Moscow while bracing for worst-case scenarios. After all, Russia is not the Soviet Union. Even as Putin and his puppets make mischief, Moscow is open to making deals. Russia and Norway, for instance, recently resolved a long-running boundary dispute, paving the way for development in 67,000 square-miles of the Arctic.
Still, dealing with Russia is about power. As Churchill once said of his Russian counterparts, “There is nothing they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for weakness.” When the message is clear—or “hard and consistent,” to use Putin’s language—Russia will take a cooperative posture. When the message is unclear, Russia will take what it can get.
Speaking of power, the Arctic is perhaps the only theater on earth where Russia could hold its own militarily and technologically with the United States (setting aside strategic nuclear forces).
To be sure, the United States “is an Arctic nation with broad and fundamental interests in the Arctic region,” as the president’s new Arctic policy states; maintains 20,000 troops in Alaska; has a key missile-warning base above the Arctic Circle (Thule Air Base in Greenland is 750 miles north of the Arctic Circle); and has the capacity to project its military into any region.
However, the United States 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. Russia, by contrast, deploys more than 20 heavy-duty icebreakers.
It wasn’t always this way. Adm. Robert Papp, chief of the U.S. Coast Guard, notes that the U.S. deployed eight heavy icebreakers at the height of the Cold War. He warns that this icebreaker gap could haunt the United States. “While our Navy can go under the ice with submarines—and, when the Arctic weather permits, which is not all that often, we can fly over the ice—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.
A new heavy-duty icebreaker would cost $852 million—a huge expenditure given the cutting and gutting currently underway in Washington. Policymakers have slashed billions from the Pentagon’s long-term budget, translating into a smaller military with slower reflexes, a shorter reach and a diminished role in the world.
That’s what makes allied cooperation in the Arctic so crucial. 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 conflict.