By William Matthews

In September 2012, as the ice covering the Arctic melted to a record low, Chinese icebreaker Snow Dragon sailed from Shanghai to Reykjavík, Iceland, crossing from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic via the Arctic. The ship carried 60 scientists from the Polar Research Institute of China. “It was quite remarkable,” Icelandic President Olafur Grimsson told a gathering at the Council on Foreign Relations in April.

As the ice covering the Arctic melted to a record low, Chinese icebreaker Snow Dragon sailed from Shanghai to Reykjavík, Iceland, crossing from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic via the Arctic. The ship carried 60 scientists from the Polar Research Institute of China. “It was quite remarkable,” Icelandic President Olafur Grimsson told a gathering at the Council on Foreign Relations in April.

After being frozen solid for as long as 4 million years, an open Arctic Ocean promises to make international shipping faster and cheaper and create new frontiers for tourism, oil drilling, and mining. It also creates new borders to patrol, new national interests to defend, and a new area of responsibility for military forces.

“If China is already so preoccupied,” the five nations whose territory touch the Arctic — Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the U.S. — better become more engaged there, Grimsson said to the council. “This will have a greater impact on the United States than any other single development in the coming decades.”

The Arctic is believed to hold 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 20 percent of its undiscovered natural gas, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Meanwhile, Arctic shipping routes promise to cut 4,500 miles off the distance between Rotterdam, Netherlands, and Yokohama, Japan, saving shippers an estimated $2 million in fuel and fees per voyage.

By the mid 2020s, the Arctic might be essentially ice-free for a month each year, says Oceanographer of the Navy Rear Adm. Jonathan White. Because the Arctic is a maritime environment, the Navy has the lead in developing the U.S. Arctic strategy.

“We are present in every ocean around the world” and will be present in the Arctic when it becomes navigable, White says. But it will be a challenge. “Our area of responsibility is expanding, but none of our budgets are growing.”

Just by being present, the U.S. Navy “is an influence for security, stability, and prosperity” and a deterrence to conflict, White adds.

The Coast Guard, too, will have a growing role in monitoring environmental threats, fishing and other commercial activity, and ship traffic and performing searches and rescues.

At present, the U.S. lags behind other nations in Arctic activities. Russia has announced plans to build a string of new ports along the 3,500-mile Northern Sea Route and is creating two Arctic brigades and new submarines and icebreakers.

Norway and Canada, too, are bolstering their Arctic-capable forces and conducting corresponding training exercises. Denmark is planning an Arctic military command.

Uneven territory
Russia is already well-established in the Arctic. Murmansk, a Russian port
on the Barents Sea with a population of 307,000, is the Arctic’s largest city. Norway, too, has a substantial presence. Its coast above the Arctic Circle is dotted with small cities and fishing villages. The largest, Tromso, a city of 70,000, is a hub for commerce.

It’s quite different in the U.S. portion of the arctic. The largest population centers, both in Alaska, are little more than villages — Barrow has 4,200 inhabitants and Kotzebue has 3,200. The U.S. has no deepwater ports in the Arctic. (The closest is Dutch Harbor in Unalaska, some 1,200 miles south.)

As the ice melts, it redistributes unevenly. Ocean currents and prevailing winds tend to push the remaining sea ice toward Canada and Alaska, White says. So while the Northern Sea Route above Russia is increasingly open, the Northwest Passage might remain impassable for years.

As a result, “you will see Russia and Norway fully seeking to develop their natural resources,” while in the short term, the U.S. probably won’t, says Heather Conley, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Ice isn’t the only factor, she adds. “National policies” play a major role. Russia long has viewed the Arctic as the key to its 21st-century energy requirements as Siberian oil and gas fields diminish. Russia also views the Northern Sea Route as a lucrative new passage for commerce, Conley says.

Resources rush
In the U.S., the shale gas revolution has changed the thinking about developing Arctic resources, Conley says. The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico also dimmed enthusiasm for drilling in Arctic waters. Indeed, after encountering problems during a brief attempt to drill in 2012, Royal Dutch Shell announced this year it would postpone plans. Norway’s Statoil and ConocoPhillips came to similar decisions.

But there are other resources to be recovered with less risk, such as Greenland’s rare earth metals, says Malte Humpert, executive director of The Arctic Institute.

Already, two dozen mines in the Russian Arctic produce nickel, copper, tin, uranium, and phosphate. Alaska’s Red Dog mine, opened in 1989, leads the world in the production of zinc and is a major source of lead. Additionally, plans are under way to mine highly pure iron ore from Canada’s Baffin Island.

The melting ice and the promise of natural resources has sparked new interest by such non-Arctic entities as China, the European Union, India, Japan, and South Korea. Even the U.N. warned this year of a rush to capture Arctic resources. The U.N.’s main concern, for now at least, is environmental damage, not hostility.

In the near term, competition does not seem likely to spark conflict. About 90 percent of the Arctic’s resources are believed to reside within the exclusive economic zones that extend 200 miles from the shores of the five Arctic nations, White says. Still, the Navy watches development — and its potential to create “considerable shipping” — with a wary eye, White says. “The likelihood of having conflict is low, but it’s not zero.” For the Navy, “being there and projecting power” is important as needs pick up for search and rescue missions, freedom of navigation exercises, disaster response, and humanitarian assistance.

Evaluating equipment
Even for peaceful operations, the Navy today is ill-equipped to operate in the Arctic.

In 2011, the War Gaming Department of the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island conducted the Fleet Arctic Operations Game and concluded “the U.S. Navy is inadequately prepared to conduct sustained maritime operations in the Arctic region.”

The Navy lacks “appropriate ship types to operate in or near Arctic ice” and lacks support facilities and logistics capabilities for Arctic operations, the War College stated in a post-game report. Because it lacks icebreakers and other ice-capable ships, the Navy must depend on the Coast Guard and international partners.

The Coast Guard’s inventory isn’t great. Heavy icebreaker USCGC Polar Star (WAGB-10) is 36 years old and recently completed a four-year, $57 million overhaul to extend its life for another seven to 10 years. Medium icebreaker USCGC Healy (WAGB-20) is 13 years old. USCGC Polar Sea (WAGB-11) is laid up awaiting a decision on whether it should be repaired or scrapped. The Coast Guard also operates some buoy tenders and tugs capable of light icebreaking. By comparison, Russia boasts 10 working icebreakers and has announced plans to build nine more.

White maintains the Navy doesn’t need its own icebreakers, and at a cost of nearly $1 billion each, it couldn’t afford to build them. However, he cautions, the Coast Guard “needs to plan for recapitalizing its icebreakers.”

Infrastructure gaps
As for bases, the Arctic gamers recommend building a permanent refueling port along the Northwest Passage; building airfields and aircraft facilities at Barrow and Prudhoe Bay; and positioning other ship supply stations throughout the Arctic.
Communication in the Arctic is difficult. “Satellite connectivity is rare, GPS coverage is marginal, and long-haul high-frequency communications are unreliable,” Cmdr. John Patch, a retired Navy intelligence officer, wrote in the U.S. Naval Institute’s magazine Proceedings.

“Satellite communication is our biggest gap,” White agrees, as a result of a gap in satellite coverage and communications outages caused by energy funneling around Earth’s magnetic flux lines and scrambling signals.

An affordable alternative to satellites, White says, might be high-flying, long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles. They also could gather intelligence about where ships are, where the ice is, and what activities are under way, White says. “If you have a cruise ship or a fishing boat or a tanker, it’s nice to know where it is up there. If you don’t hear from it for a couple of days, maybe you’ve got a bunch of folks in lifeboats.”

Multinational cooperation
Increased military presence would improve domain awareness, and so would sharing information. “We need to work with our partners to create a common picture of where all the ships are,” White says.

Partnership and cooperation among nations are heavily stressed by Arctic planners.
Conley calls for an “Arctic security strategy based on international cooperation, public-private partnership, and U.S. leadership.”

The Coast Guard lists “broadening partnerships” as one of three objectives in an Arctic strategy it published in May. And the National Strategy for the Arctic Region, also published in May, lists “strengthening international cooperation” as one of three strategic “lines of effort.”

Cooperation is occurring. The Arctic nations plus Iceland, Finland, and Sweden created in 1996 the Arctic Council to oversee Arctic issues. In 2011, 10 nations signed the first legally binding Arctic agreement, dividing the Arctic into sectors, where member nations are responsible for search and rescue operations. In May, the council nations approved an agreement on preventing and responding to oil spills there. The council also has conducted studies on climate change, oil and gas, and shipping. The U.S. will chair the council in 2015.

Even as they cooperate, most Arctic nations continue to bolster their military capabilities. “It’s a very natural reaction to having to protect borders that they did not have to protect before,” Conley says. Meanwhile, the U.S. remains “not as heavily focused” on the Arctic. Geography is an obvious factor, White says. “We’re an Arctic nation, but we have only one Arctic state.” Convincing the other 49 states to support substantial development in Alaska could be a struggle, he adds.

The newly released national Arctic strategy is notably short on military specifics. It pledges to develop and maintain “sea, undersea, and air assets and necessary infrastructure,” including “ice-capable platforms as needed” to protect U.S. interests in the Arctic, but it offers no details.

That’s because the details haven’t been decided yet, White says. “We need to figure out what infrastructure we will need to support our national interests.”

Whatever the answers, “it’s going to be expensive,” White says. That’s going to be another challenge.

— William Matthews is a Virginia-based freelance writer. His last feature for Military Officer was “No Longer in Reserve,” August 2007.