Year after year, Arctic sea ice continues to melt faster and freeze slower. The Arctic ice has been receding for years—opening new trade routes and access to energy resources. Since the end of the Cold War, the Arctic has largely been an afterthought for the Department of Defense (DoD). Post–Cold War thinking is encapsulated in the phrase “Arctic exceptionalism,” which understands the Arctic as “a unique region detached from global political dynamics and thus characterized primarily as an apolitical space of regional governance, functional cooperation, and peaceful coexistence.” But this is less and less the case.
Even as U.S. competitors seek increased access and control the Arctic, the U.S. Navy has had little presence in the region over the past two decades aside from submarines. This is a worrisome trend, not only because of the trade routes and resources at stake, but also because, in the words of General Terrence O’Shaughnessy, commander of U.S. Northern Command, the Arctic is a “key avenue of approach” to the United States. However, in a time of constrained budgets and tension in the Middle East and western Pacific, DoD needs to husband its assets, which are not well suited to Arctic competition in general. Outside DoD, the U.S. Coast Guard is well-equipped to counter aggression and adversary activity in the Arctic, where the service is already quite active. The Coast Guard’s mix of capabilities and authorities make it an essential partner and enabler—if not a leader—for presence operations in the Arctic.
In 2017, a Russian ship was the first to complete the Northern Sea Route between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans without the aid of icebreakers, cutting 30 percent off the normal transit time through the Suez Canal. In 2019, 37 ships made the passage and only six needed icebreaker support. The total cargo volume was more than 30 million tons, up from roughly 20 million in 2018 and 10 million in 2017. It is projected to continue increasing. Greater accessibility to the Northern Sea Route could upend global trade routes and become the preferred way to move goods from Asia to Europe.
In 2008, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that 22 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas reserves were north of the Arctic Circle, including more than 90 billion barrels of oil, and 16 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Of these as yet untapped energy resources, it is believed that more than 80 percent would be offshore. At a minimum, proven oil and gas reserves in the Arctic top 40 billion barrels and 1,100 cubic feet, respectively. Together, these could add up to more than a third of the world’s total fossil fuel reserves. This bonanza of energy resources means that the Arctic will continue to be a strategic region—and not only for states bordering the Arctic, but any state that is a major fossil fuel consumer.
The Bear and the Dragon in the Arctic
Russia has unleashed an ambitious military modernization and infrastructure campaign in the Arctic—dozens of new buildings and military facilities have been built. At the same time, 50 previously closed, Soviet-era facilities are being reopened, including more than a dozen air bases and ten radar stations. According to the Russian defense minister, soon nearly 60 percent of Russia’s modern military equipment will be stationed in the Arctic.
Part of Russia’s Arctic capabilities are its icebreakers—40 some vessels that can ram through varying amounts of ice to clear shipping channels. Normally they are not armed, but as early as this year a new generation of armed Russian icebreakers may become operational.
Last year, Russia announced new restrictions on any foreign warships that intended to transit the North Sea Route. Foreign warships now must give the Russian government 45 days advance notice, carry a Russian pilot on board, and provide a detailed list of information including the name and rank of every crew member present. The Chinese government is also maneuvering to cash in on the Arctic bonanza. In 2018, China unveiled a new Arctic policy and declared itself to be a “Near-Arctic State.” China has also called for the creation of an “Arctic Silk Road.” It has maintained a “vast, well- funded Arctic research apparatus since the mid-1990s and has invested heavily in Arctic- resource projects in recent years,” according to China experts.2 Among the international shipping companies taking advantage of the Northern Sea Route was China’s state-owned shipping giant COSCO, accounting for a fifth of the voyages and more than half of the cargo moved by non-Russian-flag ships on the Northern Sea Route. It is also possible that China’s interest in leasing land in Greenland is related to their desire to lay claim to the Arctic.
Big Navy, Bigger World
In a 2018, a Russia expert informed a Senate subcommittee hearing on Arctic security that, “Neither the Navy nor the Coast Guard could do a freedom of navigation operation in the Arctic today.” This is a damning indictment of a Navy that prides itself as the best in the world. The United States is unable to ensure free navigation and transit of what could become the most important sea-trade route in the world. That reality is in part because of the Russian military buildup, but also because the U.S. Navy is spread thin. The Navy has global commitments and rightly prioritizes competition in the Pacific. The Russian Northern Fleet is the pride of the Russian Navy and does not have the same global obligations.
Recently, U.S. Navy exercises have restored a measure of temporary presence. In 2018, the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) sailed north of the Arctic Circle to participate in the multinational exercise Trident Juncture. Both last year and this, the Navy sent a small group of ships on a patrol to the Barents Sea, traditionally a bastion of the Russian submarine force and part of the Northern Sea Route.
Enter the Coast Guard
The U.S. Coast Guard is no stranger to Arctic operations. While the Navy surface force is returning to operating above the Arctic Circle after decades of absence, the Coast Guard maintains three air facilities and more than a dozen cutters homeported in Alaska. The Coast Guard also maintains the only two U.S. icebreakers—an essential Arctic capability. As Actic experts note, “presence equals influence up there.” The Coast Guard is chronically underresourced but continues to receive funding for new cutters. Three new icebreakers, the Polar Security Cutters, are on the way. The first new icebreakers is scheduled to be delivered in 2023.
The Coast Guard’s blend of law enforcement authorities, nonthreatening branding, and Arctic capability make it an idea force to patrol U.S. Arctic territory. Recent commentary has pointed out that other NATO allies, such as Norway and Canada, have heavy-ice-capable coast guard ships, and Denmark (an Arctic state because of Greenland) has ice-capable ships in its navy.
Though the Air Force continues to intercept Russian bombers breaching the Alaskan Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), the threat of a kinetic conflict in the High North is remote. It would likely not end well for the United States, nor would it make much sense. Over half of the Arctic coastline is Russian and the Arctic is the longest border in Russia. It is a legitimate security concern for Russia, and the United States would do well to avoid escalating tensions in the Arctic by deploying more forces for deterrence. However, the United States has an obligation to maintain a presence in the Arctic to ensure international law and freedom of navigation are respected.
The Coast Guard should take the lead on patrolling the Arctic. It would send a softer message than more carriers and cruisers. Coast Guard vessels are more closely associated with rescue operations than warfare and gunboat diplomacy. The Coast Guard is also on more equal footing to work with other regional coast guards. Together, they can be present, enforce the law, and safeguard U.S. and NATO interests without escalating tensions in a region where the Navy can ill-afford to dedicate more surface assets. When asked about the role of the Coast Guard in great power competition, the Commandant of the Coast Guard responded, “Why wouldn’t we want to be part of the conversation?” And he made it clear that the Coast Guard continues to help support Department of Defense objectives with its unique capabilities in another interview where he added “I see us growing back in [the Arctic].”
The Coast Guard should be the primary force responsible for patrolling the Arctic. Using the Coast Guard in the Arctic frees grey-hull ships for duty in areas where they are needed more, such as the Persian Gulf and South China Sea. Manning the U.S. government’s only icebreakers, the Coast Guard has been operating in the Arctic for years. It should continue to do so.