By Jacquelyn Ryan
Monday, January 10, 2011; A02
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.
Cold air rushed through the open cargo door as 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 melting quickly because of accelerated climate change. The prospect of newly thawed sea lanes and a freshly accessible, resource-rich seabed has nations jockeying for position. And government and military officials are concerned the United States is not moving quickly enough 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 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."
The Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, has identified the Arctic as an area of key strategic interest. The U.S. military anticipates the Arctic will become "ice-free" for several summer weeks by 2030, possibly as early as 2013.
But the United States does not have the military and civilian resources it says it needs to successfully operate there - and there are few indications that any significant ones will be forthcoming.
In a report last September, the Government Accountability Office said the Coast Guard lacks adequate infrastructure or equipment in the Arctic and that its funding for such programs faces uncertainty.
The Arctic is believed to hold nearly a quarter of the world's untapped natural resources and a new passage could shave as much as 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 under a clause in the treaty that governs the world's waters. Non-Arctic nations like China and South Korea also have been eyeing the economic potential in the far north.
"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 Department of Defense has taken notice. Its 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review says that understanding security and environmental issues in the Arctic is a key challenge.
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.
"I think the one clear outcome is that we need to improve our ability to both observe, detect and then predict ice movement in the region - on a short time scale, that a ship could use, or even longer time scales for planning a deployment or even planning how many operations I'll do in the next decade," said Capt. Tim Gallaudet, a member of the task force.
President George W. Bush named national security as the number one priority in Arctic policy, and President Obama did the same in his first National Security Strategy, released last May.
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.
"Bottom line is we are not accomplishing what the president has directed us to accomplish" in the new Arctic policy, said Colvin.
The only international treaty that applies to the Arctic is the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, ratified by more than 150 nations. But although it helped draft the convention and subsequent revisions, the United States has not ratified the treaty; conservatives say it impinges on U.S. national sovereignty.
Under the treaty, 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 Alaskan Command, Joint Task Force Alaska, Alaskan North American Defense Region and the 11th Air Force.
Like other Arctic countries, the United States is gathering scientific evidence for its claim to an extended continental shelf in the Arctic. Russia has been preparing a territory claim that would absorb nearly half of the Arctic into its possession, according to analysis by the Congressional Research Service.
Thus far, exploration and use of the Arctic have been cordial. America and Canada cooperated on scientific and military operations last summer. A 40-year-old territory dispute between Russia and Norway was resolved last year by dividing an area of the Barents Sea equally between the two countries.
Nevertheless, nations are taking some concrete steps to position themselves.
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. Canada bought fleets of F-35 fighter jets and is building a new base along its Arctic coast. Russia is building new icebreakers and new nuclear-power stations on its north coast.
Unlike other well-equipped Arctic powers, the United States has only one working ship capable of navigating in ice-covered waters and no permanent military installation within the Arctic Circle. Three years ago, the Coast Guard asked for a new icebreaker - which can cost about $800 million - but instead got $60 million to renovate one that had outlived its lifespan.
Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska submitted bills to Congress asking for new icebreakers and to explore creating a deep-water port for the larger ships in the region.
"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,'' Atkins said, "we need to start yesterday."
This article is part of the "Global Warning" series on the national security implications of climate change produced by the National Security Reporting Project at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. It can be found at global-warning.org.