Sherri Goodman and retired U.S. Navy Rear Adm. David Titley, Defense News
18 May 2015
Last week, the U.S. became chair of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum for the eight Arctic nations and observer nations as distant from the Arctic as India and Singapore. Most Americans think of Alaska when they think about the Arctic but do not fully appreciate how important the Arctic is to our nation's future.
For many decades, the Arctic was primarily a frozen haven for indigenous peoples, polar bears, seals and submarines. But as the Arctic warms at a rate twice that of the rest of the planet, it is becoming more and more accessible to human activity – and that will affect the world's geopolitics and its climate. A region where most assets had been frozen is rapidly become a dash for resources, access and influence.
Why should Americans care about what's happening in the Arctic? Three important forces are changing today's Arctic into a region we have not experienced: sovereignty, access and security.
First, though the U.S. is an Arctic nation, we have not acted to protect our sovereignty in this region in the way we do elsewhere in the world. In the words of U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft, "We're not even in the game." With only one aging heavy icebreaker, we have neither the military nor Coast Guard assets to mount a realistic presence in an area where Russia has recently created a new Arctic military command and is investing massively in building capacity. Norway and Canada have much more icebreaking capability than the U.S. Polar icebreaking is a Coast Guard mission, but despite concerted efforts of multiple Coast Guard commandants, the U.S. has not been able to make it a national priority.
Second, the U.S. will need assured access to key capabilities and assets. For example, Svalbard, Norway, is home to a unique suite of satellites from which Norway, the U.S. and other allies obtain 24/7 full global coverage. Because Svalbard is so close to the North Pole, antennas on the island can capture and relay all the information from every low-Earth orbiting satellite about every 100 minutes – far more frequently than receiving stations located farther from Earth's poles. This provides an unparalleled ability to monitor everything from shipping to transport.
Third, our own security is at stake in this region. While Russian President Vladimir Putin's precise intentions in the Arctic are unclear, he has made it clear that he sees the Arctic as part of Russia's sphere of interest and will take steps to defend those interests and assert its sovereignty.
In addition, the Arctic is an accident waiting to happen. As more people operate there for everything from energy development to tourism, accidents involving stranded ships or oil spills in remote, frigid waters are all but inevitable. The U.S. will need more port and basing infrastructure for vessels and people, but has no deep-water port or readily available ice breaking capability, and virtually no search-and-
rescue or oil-spill recovery capacity stationed permanently north of the Bering Strait.
Meanwhile, China became an observer to the Arctic Council in recent years and has been buying up valuable property in Iceland and Greenland, so it can mine in and operate in the Arctic.
How can the U.S. best prepare for the challenges and opportunities of this changing region? Beyond advancing the laudable goals on stewardship of the Arctic Ocean, climate change impacts, and economic and living conditions of the region, the U.S. needs to prioritize investments in:
• Arctic science, to create an indication and early warning system that will allow us to better track the rate of change in this region. So much hinges on the rate at which the ice recedes. We need integrated observing systems of autonomous undersea and under-ice vehicles, buoys, satellite data and systems to integrate and make sense of this information.
• Our own fleet of icebreaking vessels to ensure a continued ability to operate in the Arctic.
• Plans for a future that may not be as peaceable as the past. With Russia increasing its overflights of Norway, building new nuclear submarines and investing in Arctic infrastructure, the U.S. and its NATO allies must plan for an era of increasing activity.
The Senate recently established an Arctic Caucus, co-chaired by Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Angus King, I-Maine, who can help provide leadership on these critical matters. If the U.S. is serious about committing to the Arctic, we will move beyond strategies, roadmaps and implementation plans and start to invest in and prepare for a future where the U.S. exercises its sovereignty, maintains security and stability, and ensures access for our allies and ourselves.