Arctic military posturing heats up

By Jacquelyn Ryan
Medill National Security Reporting Project

Earlier versions of this story gave an incorrect size for the Arctic Ocean. It covers 5.4 million square miles. This version has been corrected.

KODIAK, Alaska — Flying over the Arctic Circle, the Coast Guard C130 rumbled as it alternated between 500 and 2,500 feet, its high-tech equipment quietly observing the thickness and stretch of ice along Alaska’s northern border.

A blast of sharp, cold air rushed through the open cargo door as sheets of freshly forming ice, some musk oxen and the occasional walrus passed below.

Like the rest of the 5.4 million square-mile area at the top of the world this chunk of the U.S. Arctic is

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melting quickly due to accelerated climate change. And the Coast Guard—and the U.S. military—have recently acknowledged that they need to find ways to adapt quickly to protect American interests in this vulnerable and fast-changing region.

“We’re not doing OK,” said Lt. Cmdr. Nahshon Almandmoss as he flew the massive plane on the nine-hour “Arctic Domain Awareness” flight from Kodiak to the northern border then down along the coast through the Bering Strait. “We definitely don’t have the infrastructure available to operate for an extended period of time in the Arctic in the summer, much less in the winter when it’s more critical for logistical purposes.”

While attention has been focused on a pending fight over Arctic resources military and homeland security officials say the real struggle lies in trying to get the resources they need to operate in an arena that, until now, has sat vacant as a frozen ocean.

Despite the Arctic being identified as an area of key strategic interest by the White House and Department of Defense, the United States still sits in the far north without the military and civilian resources it says it needs—and few indications that any significant ones will be forthcoming.

Summer 2007 marked a record low of Arctic sea ice, and more open water brings with it increased human activity through newly thawed sea lanes and a freshly accessible, resource-rich seabed. Whether the activity is commercial, leisure, or foreign militaries, such activity requires a U.S. presence and capability that officials say simply isn’t there.

“While an ice-diminished Arctic will increase the scope of naval and maritime operations, the U.S. has little capacity to expand and little ability to operate in the Arctic environment,” reads a summary from a 2007 report from National Ice Center and U.S. Arctic Research Council.

In a report last September, the Government Accountability Office agreed, saying the Coast Guard lacks adequate infrastructure or equipment in the Arctic and that its funding for such programs faces uncertainty.

The region’s multi-year ice was reduced by approximately the size of California and Texas combined between 2005 and 2007, according to NASA. The U.S. military anticipates the Arctic will become “ice-free” for several summer weeks by 2030, possibly as early as 2013.


The Arctic is believed to hold nearly a quarter of the world’s untapped natural resources and a new passage could shave up to 40 percent of the time it takes for commercial shippers to travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

The Arctic nations—Russia, Canada, Denmark, Norway and the United States—have been preparing to claim larger chunks of territory of the newly accessible seabed under a clause in the treaty that governs the world’s waters. Non-Arctic nations, like China and South Korea, have been equally eyeing the economic potential in the far north, with China recently sending a ship across the top of the world.

“With 20 percent of the yet-to-be-discovered oil, gas and minerals remaining in the world in the Arctic, the U.S. can’t risk losing it,” said Rear Adm. Christopher C. Colvin, commander of Alaska’s 17th Coast Guard District, from Anchorage.

The U.S. military has taken notice. In the last three years, the emphasis on the changing landscape and the possibility of conflict has rocketed the Arctic from being a low priority to becoming a key point of interest for national security officials concerned about Washington’s ability to project power globally, especially the Navy. The Department of Defense’s 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review names the Arctic as a key challenge in addressing so-called capability gaps, specifically domain awareness.

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In late 2009, the Navy’s Task Force Climate Change released a five-year planning document titled Arctic Roadmap, outlining 35 action items about requirements for operating in the harsh region. Shortly thereafter, it released a separate Climate Change Roadmap dealing with global climate change.

“There is increasing access today and we’re seeing signs of that through the increasing activity,” said Capt.Tim Gallaudet of the Navy Task Force Climate Change. “And that’s certainly why we’re addressing the Arctic first in our climate change plans.”

The past two administrations also have taken notice. President George W. Bush in 2009 made the first update to Arctic policy since 1994, naming national security as the number one priority. Alaska holds key missile defense posts as well as a vast swath of territory nearly the size of the contiguous United States. President Barack Obama adopted Bush’s policy, and has stood up an Arctic interagency group to carry out the new policy. Obama also identified the region as a priority in his first National Security Strategy

But these efforts have yet to result in much increased capability. Top U.S. military officials in the Arctic have been asking for more resources but say their requests have been delayed or rebuffed, forcing the Navy—and the Department of Homeland Security’s Coast Guard–to improvise.

The Navy and Coast Guard have been conducting trial operations in the region, testing their capabilities and preparing for anticipated operations and crises in the defrosting north.

“Bottom line is we are not accomplishing what the president has directed us to accomplish” in the new Arctic policy, said Colvin.

Whose Arctic is it?

As a long-frozen frontier, the Arctic has not been divided among nations and there is no explicit law to govern it. The only international treaty that applies is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, but the U.S. has not ratified it. Because it governs all the world’s waterways, the treaty has been ratified by more than 150 countries —including the four other Arctic nations. Without being a party to it, the U.S. has no official say in how the far north is divided up or utilized.

Under the Law of the Sea convention, a nation that can prove its continental shelf extends past the current boundary of 200 miles off its coastline can be granted up to 150 additional miles of seabed.

“An extra 150 miles of shelf can be billions [or] trillions of dollars in resources,” said Lt. Gen. Dana Atkins, commander of Alaska Command, Joint Task Force Alaska, NORAD Regional and the 11th Air Force. “So there’s competition between the … Arctic nations on who owns what part of the Arctic.”

Congress & UNCLOS

A short history of the Law of the Sea

1973—The U.N. Conference on the Law of the Sea convenes in New York

1982—U.N. adopts the treaty, which took nine years to draft

1983—U.S. begins abiding by the treaty

1984—President Ronald Reagan takes office and rejects the treaty for many reasons including its restrictions on marine pollution, saying it stunts industry

1983—U.S. begins observing the treaty, but does not ratify

1994—Convention goes into effect, with substantial changes addressing Reagan’s concerns made to the treaty

1994—President Bill Clinton submits the bill to Congress

1998-U.S. receives treaty observer status

2007—President George W. Bush urges the Senate to approve U.S. accession

2007— Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 17-4 to submit the treaty to full Congress. The 110th Congress never considered it.

2008— State Department legal adviser says signing the treaty is increasingly important given the Arctic changes

2009-Bush’s Arctic policy urges ratification of the treaty

2009- President Obama endorses ratification

2010- The Pentagon endorses ratifying it in its Quadrennial Defense Review

The Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations all have supported ratifying the Law of the Sea treaty, as do top military officials and some Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill. Despite being approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee several times, the U.S. Congress has failed to make time on the floor to ratify it.

Like other Arctic countries, the U.S. spent last summer gathering scientific evidence for its claim to an extended continental shelf in the Arctic. Russia has been preparing a territory claim and if it is successful, it will absorb nearly half of the Arctic into its possession, according to analysis by the Congressional Research Service last October.

The U.S. may be eligible for extra territory the size of California, but it can’t claim it because it hasn’t signed -the treaty, according to 2009 Congressional testimony of U.S. Arctic Research Commission chair and Alaska Lt. Gov.elect Mead Treadwell.

Military posturing

Thus far, exploration and use of the Arctic waterways and resources has been cordial. America and Canada cooperated on scientific and military operations last summer. Territory disputes, such as a 40-year-old tiff between Russia and Norway in the Bering Sea, have been solved diplomatically.

“So-called resource wars among countries are often predicted, but rarely materialize,” said Derek Reveron, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and author of books about military and environmental security. “Given this, it’s hard to take the resource war in the Arctic seriously.”

Nevertheless, jockeying for position in the region has been overt.

In 2007, Russia planted a flag in the waters below the North Pole. Canada planted one nearby soon after. Denmark placed a flag on the north’s contested Han Island, which Canada promptly removed and delivered back to Danish officials, nearly setting off a diplomatic row. Canada provided a military demonstration of intercepting a stray vessel as it transited through the Northwest Passage. Norway too has held large-scale military demonstrations with NATO troops since 2006.

And Arctic powers continue to gear up. Canada purchased fleets of F-35 fighter jets and is building a new base along its Arctic coast and Russia is building new icebreakers and new nuclear-power stations on its north coast.

“The U.S. is lagging behind in the Arctic,” said Colvin, who said one of his fears is that China will start drilling in the region, leaving Washington with no legal or military recourse.

Unlike other well-equipped Arctic powers, the U.S. has only one working ship capable of navigating in ice-covered waters and no permanent military installation within the Arctic Circle. When asked, officials provide long wish lists of infrastructure and resources they call vital to their ability to successfully operate, including ice-capable ships, a northern deep-water port, heated hangars and a permanent northern installation among other things. They acknowledge that those are also prohibitively expensive, and a low priority given the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.


Meanwhile, the northern border is so unmonitored that a German cruise ship was able to dock off the coast of Barrow and bring 200 tourists onto American soil in 2008. The Coast Guard only learned of it after the city’s mayor called to complain about it.

Two years ago, the Coast Guard asked for a new icebreaker—which can cost around $800 million–but instead got $60 million to renovate one that had outlived its lifespan. It’s expected to be back in action 2013.

Alaska’s Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski submitted bills to Congress asking for new icebreakers and to explore creating a deep-water port for the larger ships in the region.

Both the Coast Guard and the Navy recently underwent tests to assess their preparedness in the north and south poles. The results are expected to identify the need for new equipment and resources, according to GAO reports and interviews with officials.

That leaves some frustrated with the current pace of adaptation.

Atkins, commander of Joint Task Force Alaska, said building infrastructure in the Arctic takes, on average, about five times longer than it would take in the lower 48 states due to the hostile environment.

“If we believe that we need to have some sort of presence, whether that’s maritime presence, air presence or even space presence over the Arctic domain itself, we need to start yesterday,” said Atkins.

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1 Comment

  1. Jonathan says:

    So we can successfully melt it, but we just cannot milk it…oh the irony.

    This piece as part of this site is fine, but when places like The Washington Post run this as a stand alone, it fails to put how we got into this mess in the first place.