As we approach the height of summer, the time of year many associate with hot and humid weather, backyard barbecues, and family vacations, we at Proceedings decided to turn our gaze north, to considerably cooler climes, and take an in-depth look at the Arctic. That might seem odd at first glance, but make no mistake, there is a lot going on in the region, and we’d do well to pay close attention. Arctic ice reached its lowest recorded level in 2012, and the warmer temperatures have led to an increase in maritime activity there as more nations explore the possibility of alternate shipping routes. When the United States announced its pivot to Asia last year, one of the immediate questions was whether the Pacific would become an arena for conflict or a hub of cooperation. The same can be asked about the Arctic, and that theme runs through much of our coverage this month.
The diminishing ice, warming seas, and uptick in maritime traffic all spell big, transformational changes for the High North. Now more than ever, say Ambassador David Balton and U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Cari Thomas, the eight nations that make up the Arctic Council need to stress international solutions to challenges shared by all that have territory within the bounds of the Arctic Circle. They believe cooperation is essential at the top of the world.
The new National Strategy for the Arctic Region signed by President Barack Obama in May lays out several ambitious goals. But Navy Commander Paul Campagna, Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Dave McNulty, and Army Colonel Heath Roscoe, all National Security Fellows at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, worry that we lack the resources to achieve these aims. They caution us to beware of what they term “operational saturation.” The picture they paint is rather bleak, but to avoid cataclysmic events, the authors say real tangible action must be taken—and soon—in the form of increased investment in domain awareness, exercises, search-and-rescue facilities, and new icebreakers.
What about the other Arctic nations and their intentions in the region? They often appear to be sending mixed messages. Russia, Canada, Denmark, and Norway are pursuing modernized, Arctic-capable assets at the same time as they tout the importance of partnerships. To Christian Le Mière, a fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, this contradiction in rhetoric, diplomacy, and arms procurement is at the heart of the question of whether the Arctic is being secured or militarized.
The prospect of a shrinking ice pack in the Arctic has prompted numerous predictions of increased military and commercial maritime activity there. Shipping executive Stephen Carmel says such speculation is overly optimistic when it comes to international trade. True, the two most-mentioned northern pathways are shorter than current routes, he says, but enthusiasts err by not considering a number of variables—and by failing to remember that the Arctic is but one piece in a very large global puzzle.
With defense spending cuts all but assured, the Navy is facing a serious shipbuilding shortfall. Critics have said its newest 30-year plan won’t pass muster and won’t provide the 300-ship force structure that policymakers want. In our June issue, Rear Admiral Robert Wray tackled this quandry when he presented a thought-provoking plan for more ships and increased capability. Now Steven Paschal, a former surface warfare officer, weighs in with a series of proposals for trimming construction costs of high-end ships such as aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines and turning to corvette-size, single-purpose vessels such as missile craft and conventional subs to meet the nation’s strategic needs. To reach the necessary Fleet size quickly, he even advocates adopting foreign designs already used by our allies but modified to meet U.S. construction requirements. Numbers count, he says, reminding us that “no ship, no matter how good it is, can be in two—or three or four—places at once.”
Paul Merzlak, Editor-in-Chief