Since 2009, the United States has released numerous strategic documents outlining the U.S. interests and national objectives in the Arctic. Although these documents recognize increasing interests of the United States in the region, they do not adequately address all the strategic risks at stake in the Arctic and do not provide clear guidance to the Department of Defense for defensive lines of effort. The strategic approach of the United States to the Arctic is one that accepts the current stable and conflict-free Arctic region and assumes that these conditions will remain the same in the future. This outlook ignores important trends that may create challenges for the United States far sooner than national policy makers expect. Without adequate defensive posturing, competition over Arctic resources could present the first direct existential threat to U.S. sovereignty. The four issues at stake that will likely require a combatant commander to use military capabilities to protect U.S. national interests in the Arctic include mineral and resource protection, freedom of navigation, sea lines of communication, and militarization of the Arctic.
Potential Bonanza, Potential Competition
In 2008, the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Geological Survey estimated approximately 90 billion barrels of undiscovered and technically recoverable oil exist in the Arctic Circle. In addition, they estimated approximately 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 44 billion barrels of natural-gas liquids are located in there. This accounts for approximately 22 percent of the undiscovered and recoverable oil and natural-gas resources in the world.1 As the demand for energy resources increases globally, this amount of untapped oil and gas has significant strategic implications. There is great potential that Arctic resources will affect global energy markets; history has shown that competition for unrestricted access to energy sources can be a catalyst for conflict.
In 2001 the Russian Federation submitted a claim to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf asserting its continental shelf extended all the way to the North Pole. The commission has yet to approve this claim. If it does, however, it would result in approximately 460,000 square miles of Arctic territory and natural resources being annexed to Russia. In March 2009, Russia released The Foundations of the Russian Federation’s State Policy in the Arctic Until 2020 and Beyond. This policy asserts a move to bolster its military presence in the region with “an armed forces contingent and other general-purpose military units.”2 In May 2009, then-President Dmitry Medvedev signed the National Security of the Russian Federation Through 2020, which presents a strong stance on using military means to protect its claim to energy resources. The document’s words are clear: “In case of a competitive struggle for resources it is not impossible to discount that it might be resolved by a decision to use military might.” It further proclaims, “within a decade nations could be at war over resources in the Arctic Ocean.”3
In 2013 ten Russian warships and icebreakers transited along Russia’s Arctic coastline, led by Russia’s flagship Peter the Great, a nuclear-powered guided-missile cruiser. Russian officials described this patrol as “the start of a new, permanent naval presence in the thawing region.” In December 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin said, “The U.S. Navy’s capability in the Arctic is a key reason for Russia to beef up its presence in the region.” Sergey Shoigu, Russia’s defense minister, followed up President Putin’s decree, stating, “There are plans to create a group of troops and forces to ensure military security and protection of the Russian Federation’s national interests in the Arctic in 2014.”4 Russia most recently demonstrated its resolve to protect its national interests by using military force in the Ukraine and, as laid out in its national-security and Arctic policies, Russia also appears willing to use military options to protect its claim to Arctic resources.
China also has solid reasons for interest in opening the Arctic. The Chinese are highly dependent on sea lines of communication. More than 80 percent of China’s oil imports move by sea, and 77 percent of that oil is transported through the Strait of Malacca.5 This creates a situation in which China is perilously dependent on a single sea line for its energy resources. The director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at the Polar Research Institute of China presented a strategic rationale for a strong presence in the Arctic: “Based on International Law, the Arctic does not belong to any particular country . . . . China must . . . show its capacity and determination to defend its interests in the area of natural resource extraction and the development of trade routes in the Arctic.” Senior Chinese military leaders are also expressing the need to prepare for possible conflict in the Arctic. Senior Colonel Han Xudong stated that the “possibility of use of force cannot be ruled out in the Arctic due to complex sovereignty disputes.” Furthermore, Rear Admiral Zhang Huachen stated, “With the expansion of the country’s economic interests, the navy wants to better protect the country’s transportation routes and the safety of our major sea lanes.”6 The level of commitment the Chinese government will make to the Arctic remains unclear.
Sharpening the Strategic Focus
Analyzing the current U.S. Arctic strategies, and how they address the geostrategic issues at stake in the region, provides some insights into the dilemmas facing U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). Current national strategies do not address the geostrategic issues of mineral and resource protection, sea lines of communication, or militarization of the Arctic. Furthermore, almost all linkages between the U.S. national-security strategy and national Arctic strategy point only to responsible stewardship, not defense of national interests.7 In contrast to Russia and China, U.S. national interests in the Arctic are left ambiguous.
The DOD’s Arctic-strategy statement “reflects the relatively low level of military threat in a region bounded by nation-states that have not only publicly committed to working within a common framework of international law . . . but have also demonstrated the ability and commitment to do so.” DOD guidelines provide some linkages to the National Arctic Strategy that are relevant to defensive lines of effort. Specific to sovereignty and protecting the homeland, the nation must “remain prepared to detect, deter, prevent, and defeat threats” and “continue to support the exercise of U.S. sovereignty.”8 But the DOD does not identify the threats, or clearly articulate the means by which the military is to achieve these ways.
It can be derived from the national and DOD Arctic strategies that the United States has not identified any immediate threats to national security in the Arctic requiring defensive lines of effort. This approach to the Arctic resonates in USNORTHCOM’s strategic direction as best described by its deputy director for strategy, policy, and plans, Canadian Brigadier General Alexander Meinzinger: “We don’t consider that [defense of the Arctic] to be a priority in the sense that that’s a real concern. We’re very much fixed on the safety and security aspects.”9
USNORTHCOM’s Arctic strategy was developed with three lines of effort: safety, security, and defense. Along the line of safety, USNORTHCOM provides DOD resources in support of other government agencies such as the U.S. Coast Guard for search and rescue or to the state of Alaska for natural-disaster assistance. Similarly, the security line focuses on assistance to civil authorities on issues such as illegal fishing, oil spills, or violating international regulations. For the defense line USNORTHCOM is prepared to defend national interests in the Arctic region; however, the means to address the threats and challenges have not been fully developed.10
What Can and Should Be Done
Recognizing that neither the DOD nor USNORTHCOM view defense of the Arctic as a strategic priority, the challenge for USNORTHCOM is to develop lines of effort, under the current strategic-approach and budget limitations, that will position the command in the next 10–15 years to adjust rapidly to changing strategic conditions in the Arctic. This will involve identifying and exploiting the primary and supporting connections between the National Arctic Strategy, the DOD Arctic Strategy, and the current USNORTHCOM’s lines that most contribute to a defensive posture for the Arctic. Some recommendations follow for USNORTHCOM in preparing defensive lines of effort that align with the DOD Arctic Strategy.
Designate Alaska a USNORTHCOM sub-unified command. The current command structure between U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM), USNORTHCOM, U.S. Alaska Command (ALCOM), and Joint Task Force Alaska (JTF-AK) is far from unified. Under the current construct, two commands have responsibility for Alaska and the Arctic. ALCOM is a sub-unified command under USPACOM and has responsibilities for the land and maritime defense of the state. In addition, ALCOM is responsible for all air missions not under the Alaska North American Aerospace Defense Command Region (ANR). USNORTHCOM created JTF-AK in February 2003 with the mission “to deter, detect, prevent and defeat threats within the Alaska Joint Operations Area.” A Command Authorities Agreement between USNORTHCOM and USPACOM was established, whereby ALCOM was given responsibility to man and execute the JTF-AK mission. This arragement essentially creates a multi-hatted commander for ALCOM, JTF-AK, and ANR who is responsible to two combatant commanders for separate missions.11
Commander USNORTHCOM should recommend to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) that ALCOM be transferred from USPACOM and reinstated as a sub-unified command under USNORTHCOM. JTF-AK should be disestablished and all its responsibilities absorbed by ALCOM, which would continue supporting USPACOM, but would report directly to USNORTHCOM. This new command structure consolidates all responsibilities for Alaska and the Arctic under one commander and would significantly enhance unity of effort between USNORTHCOM and ALCOM.
Designate the Coast Guard District Commander as Joint Force Maritime Component Commander ALCOM. Commander USNORTHCOM should advocate to the CJCS to designate the U.S. Coast Guard 17th District Commander as the Joint Force Maritime Component Commander (JFMCC) for ALCOM. Already designated Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Alaska, the 17th District Commander is responsible for executing naval responses to contingencies within ALCOM’s area of responsibility. Current U.S. national interest in the Arctic consists almost exclusively of domestic peacetime activities under the purview of the Coast Guard, which already has strong operational ties coordinating peacetime maritime operations with the Russian Federal Border Guard Service and the China Coast Guard.12 Establishing the U.S. Coast Guard as JFMCC ALCOM will broaden these already established strong partnerships to include ALCOM. This will also portray U.S. Arctic interests in a less confrontational manner under Coast Guard leadership, as opposed to DOD (Navy) leadership. To ensure strong continuity for possible defensive lines of effort in the future, designating a Navy captain as Deputy Commander JFMCC ALCOM would provide naval combat expertise for defense contingencies.
Have the U.S. Navy conduct Arctic patrols during the Coast Guard’s Operation Arctic Shield. Operation Arctic Shield is a seasonal operation off the North Slope of Alaska, where Coast Guard cutters, helicopters, planes, and small boats operate or conduct patrols in Arctic waters. The purpose of Arctic Shield is to conduct outreach to remote Alaskan villages, provide operational-response platforms for increased Arctic activity, and conduct Arctic-capabilities assessments.13
USNORTHCOM should request the allocation of Navy ships to participate in the Coast Guard’s Operation Arctic Shield. Coast Guard cutters have operated in the Arctic during summer months for several years without ice-strengthened hulls and without incident. The cutters are, however, significantly limited in their capabilities, and their operations are strictly limited to ice-free waters. Although the U.S. Navy has no ice-strengthened ships, it should leverage these summer operations to test and evaluate its capabilities and assess future requirements, similar to the Coast Guard. Obtaining firsthand operational Arctic experience through Navy commanders will significantly enhance the Navy’s ability to improve Arctic domain awareness for USNORTHCOM and exercise U.S. sovereignty in the Arctic. Furthermore, this peacetime Department of Homeland Security operation, under Coast Guard command, will facilitate the DOD’s entry to the Arctic while minimizing the appearance of U.S. militarization of the region to other nations, especially Russia and China.
Conduct freedom-of-navigation operations. The next recommendation is for the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard to conduct freedom-of-navigation (FON) operations through the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage. The United States upholds freedom of navigation as a top national priority and actively protects this right through its FON program.14 Enacted through Presidential Decision Directives, the U.S. FON program directs military ships and aircraft to “routinely assert U.S. rights against territorial sea claims and other claims . . . not in conformance with the [Law of the Sea] Convention.” Through the FON program, the U.S. exercises its rights to “ensure that customary adherence to excessive sea claims do not, by default, become international law.”15
In 1986 Canada declared its Arctic territories as internal waters by establishing baselines around its Arctic archipelagic islands. Due to the strategic implications and limitations on freedom of navigation through the Northwest Passage that this action infers, the United States and other states protested Canada’s claim. Similarly, Russia claimed sovereignty over the Northern Sea Route, but the United States and the European Union both claim it as an international strait.16 In both situations, should Canada and Russia’s claims become solidified through international mechanisms or de facto acquiescence, freedom of navigation through the Arctic will be severely limited by Canadian and Russian control over these strategic sea lines of communication.
Conducting FON operations against Canada and Russia does pose a high level of political and diplomatic risk. To ease any potential for such risk, Commander USNORTHCOM should first recommend to the Commandant of the Coast Guard, through the CJCS, for Coast Guard polar icebreakers to conduct FON operations. The peaceful scientific mission of icebreakers provides ample justification for them to transit the emerging Arctic sea lanes. Beginning in 2017, after the United States establishes a firm presence transiting these straits with Coast Guard icebreakers, USNORTHCOM should make a request for an allocation of ice-strengthened U.S. Navy ships to conduct FON operations in company with the icebreakers. It is only through sheer presence of U.S. naval ships in the Arctic that the United States will secure its freedom of navigation through the Arctic international straits.
Have USNORTHCOM advocate for Navy and Coast Guard Arctic requirements. The importance of securing ice-capable ships and Arctic infrastructure is critical to the U.S. Arctic Strategy. In a 2011 DOD report to Congress on Arctic Operations and the Northwest Passage (DOD Arctic report), two significant needs for future Arctic maritime operations were identified: icebreaking capabilities and port infrastructure. The U.S. commercial fleet has no heavy icebreakers and the U.S. Coast Guard only has two operational ocean-capable icebreakers. Despite this, the DOD contends its icebreaking needs are “currently met by foreign-flagged commercial contract vessels or through cooperation with Canada.”17 Relying on foreign-flagged vessels, however, does not enhance our ability to exert U.S. sovereignty in the Arctic.
The second significant gap identified in the DOD Arctic Report is port infrastructure. It identifies only two locations in Alaska: the commercial port of Dutch Harbor, located approximately 800 nautical miles from the Arctic, and Adak, approximately 1,000 nautical miles from the Arctic. However, both ports have significant limitations. Despite identifying no other viable alternatives to support Arctic operations, the DOD report concludes, “with the low potential for armed conflict in the region in the foreseeable future, the existing defense infrastructure (e.g., bases, ports, and airfields) is adequate to meet near- to mid-term U.S. national security needs.”18
USNORTHCOM should submit an integrated priority list to the Joint Staff requesting ice-strengthened Navy ships by 2017 and a maritime port on the north coast of Alaska by 2020. When compared to the cost and acquisition time line for building new ice-capable ships, ice-strengthening the hulls of a complement of current Navy combatants is a relatively low-cost approach. To ease the cost burden of an Arctic port, a joint venture with the state of Alaska and the Coast Guard would provide a dual-use civilian/military port capable of providing maritime services for both categories of vessels.
USNORTHCOM should also support the Coast Guard’s effort to procure new heavy icebreaking cutters. In addition, the Coast Guard is in the process of replacing its aging medium-endurance cutters with an offshore-patrol cutter (OPC).19 Traditionally, the Coast Guard has two major cutters homeported in Alaska, which are the primary cutters patrolling the Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean. To ensure these cutters are adequately prepared for future Arctic requirements, Commander USNORTHCOM should advocate for, and the Coast Guard should identify during the acquisition process, a requirement to ice-strengthen the hulls of two future OPCs for homeporting in Alaska.
Go international with Arctic Shield. The Coast Guard’s Operation Arctic Shield should be expanded to include not just U.S. Navy ships, but to conduct joint combined U.S.-Canadian-Russian naval exercises that work real-world scenarios and contingencies, i.e. search and rescue, oil pollution, counterterrorism, and securing Arctic sea lines of communication. The advantage of leveraging the Coast Guard operation to include U.S. Navy ships and combined multilateral exercises is that Arctic Shield is a peacetime operation and portrays no military-escalation intentions on behalf of the United States.
Recent events involving Russia in Ukraine and China in the South China Sea provide historical context to the willingness of nations to use military means to defend their national interests over resources. Without adequate defensive posturing, competition over Arctic resources could become the first direct existential threat to U.S. sovereignty. The current national Arctic strategies do not adequately address all the strategic risks at stake in the Arctic and do not provide clear guidance to the DOD for defensive lines of effort. These recommendations enable USNORTHCOM to position its defensive lines for success in the future, while meeting the current national objectives for the Arctic.
1. U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey, “90 Billion Barrels of Oil and 1,670 Trillion Cubic Feet of Natural Gas Assessed in the Arctic” (Reston, VA: U.S. Department of Interior, 23 July 2008).
2. Ariel Cohen, “From Russian Competition to Natural Resources Access: Recasting U.S. Arctic Policy,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder, no. 2421 (June 2010), 6. Konstantin Voronov, “The Arctic Horizons of Russia’s Strategy,” Russian Politics and Law, vol. 50, no. 2 (March–April 2012), 59.
3. Cohen, “From Russian Competition to Natural Resources Access,” 8. James Kraska, “Northern Exposure: The widening competition for Arctic resources and access begs U.S. policy coherence,” The American Interest, 1 May 2010, www.the-american-interest.com/articles/2010/05/01/northern-exposures/.
4. Fred Weir, “Russian navy returns to the Arctic. Permanently,” The Christian Science Monitor, 16 September 2013. Vladimir Isachenkov, “Putin Says Russia Needs to Beef Up Arctic Presence,” Military.com, 3 December 2013, http://m.military.com/daily-news/2013/12/03/putin-says-russia-needs-to-beef-up-arctic-presence.html. RT.com, “Putin Orders Arctic Military Build-up in 2014,” 10 December 2013, http://on.rt.com/kpqz0a.
5. Andrew S. Erickson and Gabriel B. Collins, “China’s Oil Security Pipe Dream,” Naval War College Review, vol. 63, no. 2 (2010), 89–112. Zhong Xiang Zhang, “China’s energy security, the Malacca dilemma and responses,” Energy Policy, vol. 39, no. 12 (December 2011), 7613.
6. Olga Alexeeva and Lasserre Frederic, “The Snow Dragon: China’s Strategies in the Arctic,” China Perspectives, no. 3 (2012), 65. Linda Jakobson, “China Prepares for an Ice-Free Arctic,” SIPRI Insights on Peace and Security, no. 2 (March 2010), 7. Edward Wong, “Chinese Military Seeks to Extend Its Naval Power,” The New York Times, 23 April 2010. Al and Avery Goldstein, Rising to the Challenge: China’s Grand Strategy and International Security (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005).
7. Barack Obama, National Strategy for the Arctic Region (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, May 2013), 7.
8. Chuck Hagel, U.S. Department of Defense Arctic Strategy (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, November 2013).
9. Defence IQ, U.S. Northern Command, 2 May 2013, www.northcom.mil/Newsroom/Speeches/tabid/4237/Article/2967/interview-with-brig-gen-alexander-meinzinger-norad-and-usnorthcom-deputy-direct.aspx.
11. U.S. Alaskan Command, Alaskan Command, 26 September 2013, http://www.jber.af.mil/library/factsheets/factsheet.asp?id=5286. U.S. Northern Command, “About NORTHCOM,” 16 December 2013, www.northcom.mil/aboutUSNORTHCOM.aspx. Peter Ohotnicky, Braden Hisey, and Jessica Todd, “Improving U.S. Posture in the Arctic,” Joint Forces Quarterly, 4th Quarter, no. 67 (2012).
12. Kevin W. Riddle, “Illegal, Unregulated, and Unreported Fishing: Is International Cooperation Contagious?” Ocean Development & International Law, vol. 37 (2006): 265–297. U.S. Coast Guard 17th District, “Deck Watch Covers the Russian Northeast border Directorate Visit,” 9 April 2012, http://alaska.coastguard.dodlive.mil/2012/04/deck-watch-covers-the-russian-northeast-border-directorate-visit/. U.S. Coast Guard, “China, U.S., Japan Cooperate Against High-Seas Drift Nets,” 7 September 2007, www.uscgalaska.com/go/doc/780/171373/.
13. U.S. Coast Guard 17th District, “Arctic Shield 2013,” 25 July 2013, www.uscg.mil/d17/Arctic%20Shield%202013.asp.
14. Daniel W. Gray, “Changing Arctic: A Strategic Analysis of United States Arctic Policy and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea,” thesis, Joint Advanced Warfighting School, Joint Forces Staff College (Norfolk, VA: National Defense University, 2013). United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, 10 December 1982.
15. George H. W. Bush, National Security Directive 49: Freedom of Navigation Program (Washington, DC: the White House, 12 October 1990), 5. James K. Greene, “Freedom of Navigation: New Strategy for the Navy’s FON Program,” thesis, U.S. Naval War College (Newport, RI: U.S. Naval War College, 1992), ii.
16. Arctic Council, Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment 2009 Report, (Arctic Council, April 2009), 51. Margaret Blunden, “Geopolitics and the Northern Sea Route,” International Affairs, vol. 88, no. 1 (2012), 116.
17. U.S. Department of Defense, Report to Congress on Arctic Operations and the Northwest Passage, Congressional Report, OUSD (Policy) (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2011).
19. U.S. Coast Guard, “Offshore Patrol Cutter,” 3 December 2013, www.uscg.mil/acquisition/opc/default.asp.