The Arctic region — covering more than 30 million square kilometers and stretching around the territorial borders of Canada, Denmark (via Greenland), Norway, Russia and the United States by way of the Alaskan coastline — is transforming before our eyes. And not just because the ice is melting. It’s increasingly the site of military posturing, and the United States isn’t keeping up with the rest of the world.
In 2009, Norway moved its operational command to its northern territories above the Arctic Circle. Russia has plans to establish a brigade that is specially equipped and prepared for military warfare in Arctic conditions. Denmark has made it a strategic priority to form an Arctic Command. Canada is set to revitalize its Arctic fleet, including spending $33 billion to build 28 vessels over the next 30 years. Even China has entered the Arctic race; it constructed the world’s largest non-nuclear icebreaker to conduct scientific research in the Arctic.
September marked the lowest recorded levels of sea ice in the Northern Polar Region. The polar ice cap today is 40 percent smaller than it was in 1979, and in the summer of 2007 alone, 1 million more square miles of ice beyond the average melted, uncovering an area of open water six times the size of California. As quickly as the polar ice cap recedes, commercial opportunities in the resource-rich Arctic advance. The Arctic is governed by the U.N. convention on the Law of the Sea. That framework allows a coastal state to have exclusive economic control 200 miles off its coast — and possibly to extend authority 600 miles beyond, depending on certain scientific claims.
In the 21st-century Arctic, large corporations and countries are racing to reach and capture the abundance of offshore oil and gas as well as iron ore, nickel, cooper, palladium and rare-earth minerals. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that the Arctic contains 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil resources and 30 percent of its gas resources. And as the ice melts, cargo transport could increase from the 111,000 tons in 2010 to more than 1 million tons in 2012, according to some Russian estimates.
It’s not just a natural-resources race. Cruise ships take eco-tourists to see the North Pole, stunning Arctic coastline vistas and endangered species such as beluga whales and polar bears — for $24,000 to $35,000 a head. In addition, international scientists search for climate-change clues in Arctic permafrost conditions, ice dynamics and glaciers. Fishing trawlers hunt for lucrative fish stocks.
The Arctic has always been a grounds for competition, both over and under the ice. In the early 20th century, it was a race of great explorers and visionaries. The Canadian American Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, known as the “prophet of the North,” had the foresight to understand the Arctic’s strategic importance and economic potential despite a disastrous expedition. During World War II, the United States rushed to develop supply routes by air and by sea. The country needed to reach the Soviet front and fight off any possible Japanese invasion of Alaska. The Cold War Arctic meant racing to defend against and deter Soviet ballistic nuclear submarines, stealthily patrolling under the Arctic ice, and Soviet strategic bombers flying over it.
U.S. security interests in the Arctic today are a dim reflection of that bipolar Cold War era. Yet much of the security infrastructure remaining in Alaska, rusted and largely abandoned, was constructed in the 1950s and 1960s. In the Arctic, the United States has had trouble updating its strategy. The most definitive declaration of U.S. policy toward the Arctic is a presidential directive, signed by President George W. Bush in January 2009. Following an extensive interagency effort, the directive outlines some of the most pressing U.S. security interests in the region: missile defense and early-warning systems; strategic deterrence and maritime security operations; maintaining freedom of navigation; and preventing terrorist attacks. It also addresses governance of the internationally controlled region, scientific cooperation, environmental issues and economic developments.
But the U.S. strategies and policy statements about the Arctic are poor substitutes for action in the Arctic. And that’s where the United States falls flat. The Coast Guard has no operating bases or stations above the Arctic Circle in Alaska. That means that any search-and-rescue or maritime deployment in the U.S. Arctic Sea is delayed by at least eight hours by air and days by sea. Today, the United States has only one medium-duty operational icebreaker in commission, the Coast Guard Cutter Healy. The Coast Guard’s entire inventory of such vessels includes two heavy icebreakers, Polar Sea and Polar Star, both of which are not operational. The future of this fleet is in Congress’s hands, where the House and Senate are wrangling over funding decisions.
The security cost of the limited capability of the United States in the Arctic became clear this month. Officials in Nome, Alaska, needed a Russian tanker to deliver an emergency shipment of fuel when the city was blocked by sea ice, shifted by a strong winter storm. To escort the tanker, the Coast Guard ship Healy had to be diverted from a scientific mission. It is scheduled to break an ice channel for the tanker once the Russian vessel is cleared to enter the Alaskan port and will facilitate the tanker’s return to open water.
This past summer, Sweden decided to recall its icebreaker, which was leased to the U.S. government, leaving the United States unable to reach and resupply its scientific station in the other polar region, the Antarctic. Alaskan Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell (R) recently told Congress that “without action, America is putting its national security on the line, and we are going to miss the opportunities of the Arctic while watching other nations advance.”
Treadwell isn’t just being alarmist. Five years ago, Russia fired cruise missiles over the Arctic in a summer military exercise, resumed surface naval patrols in Arctic waters in 2008, reinforced its strategic nuclear forces in the North, and is currently building eight ballistic missile submarines planned to be completed by 2015. Last year, two Russian strategic bombers carried out a routine patrol mission over the Arctic and Atlantic oceans and were shadowed by a large number of NATO jet fighters, the first time in recent memory that such a large NATO response occurred.
The 21st-century Arctic will require strong coordination among the Arctic coastal states, other nations in close proximity to the Arctic such as Sweden, Iceland and Finland, and Arctic indigenous populations. That is why those countries created the Arctic Council in 1996 to support international cooperation on environmental protection and sustainable development. However, the council’s mandate forbids it to discuss military or security matters. Although four out of the five coastal states are members of NATO, that is the last organization that Russia would like to see enhance its presence in the Arctic. Yet the longer there is an ad-hoc approach to Arctic security, the greater the risk of misunderstandings, miscommunications and accidents in this dark, ice-covered and hostile region.
An Inuit proverb suggests that “only when the ice breaks will you truly know who is your friend and who is your enemy.” The United States will find out who its allies and rivals will be in the Arctic sooner rather than later. Fifty years ago, securing and controlling the Arctic was a national imperative. In the 21st-century Arctic, the challenges are just as relevant and real, although quite different from preventing a Japanese invasion or stopping a Soviet missile. And the United States needs to act before the opportunity, like the ice, melts away.
Heather A. Conley is the director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former deputy assistant secretary of state. She is the author of “A New Security Architecture for the Arctic: An American Perspective,” forthcoming from CSIS.