A rapidly warming Arctic, accompanied by the record low levels of polar sea ice, is among the most prominent physical effects of climate change. This trend is expected continue, opening new and previously unnavigable waterways to the global community. As a result, lucrative economic opportunities stand poised to drive intense competition for resources and competing territorial claims. Experts believe that the Arctic seabed holds nearly a quarter of the planet’s untapped oil and gas resources and that open channels in the North could significantly reduce transit times for the commercial shipping industry. At the same time, the economic benefit promised by increased activity in this extreme environment carries with it significant risk for accidents, aggression and geopolitical miscalculation.
In A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, the United States Navy commits itself to upholding “the secure environment necessary for an open economic system based on the free flow of goods” and cites forward presence as a critical component of its operating model. However, as the effects of climate change in the Arctic increase the strategic need for US naval leadership, they simultaneously pose serious challenges to the Navy’s ability to operate effectively in this region.
In the near-term, the US Navy will likely find itself strained to deliver meaningful forward presence in the Arctic due to current technological, logistical and financial limitations. Although the United States’ submarine fleet continues its decades-long practice of operating in waters beneath the polar ice, these military missions aren’t appropriate to foster geopolitical stability or enforce international economic norms. Instead, this task requires a robust and visible surface presence. According to retired Admiral David Titley: “Virtual presence is physical absence. It’s all well and good to say you have interests in the Arctic, but if you can only be on the surface where there is little or no danger of ice, then your presence is very restricted.”
Titley highlights a key limiting factor on the Navy’s operating model: sea ice. Whereas the US surface force enjoys nearly unrestricted freedom of navigation around the globe, this capability is somewhat diminished by icy conditions in the newly-opening seaways of the Arctic. No surface ship in the fleet has undergone an expensive hardening process recommended by the Center for Naval Analyses and crews lack comprehensive training in Arctic operations. As a result, ships are limited to open-water operations conducted only during the warmer months – and even these can be constrained by unpredictable weather, shifting ice floes, and complex logistics. Icebreakers, heavy vessels designed to smash routes through sea ice, can potentially alleviate these issues; but with only two of these specialized ships in its inventory, US capacity for icebreaking support to the military is severely limited.
This wouldn’t be as much of an issue if other Arctic nations were also facing similar limitations. Russia, however, maintains a fleet of over 40 icebreakers – including multiple nuclear-powered vessels – with a reported 14 under construction. In the words of Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan: “The highways of the Arctic are icebreakers. Right now the Russians have superhighways and we have dirt roads with potholes.” Russia’s icebreakers afford its Northern Fleet freedom of maneuver in the region and the buildup could be viewed in terms of Russia’s recently updated military doctrine and increasingly provocative foreign policy. Suffice it to say that, to some, Russia appears more interested in claiming territory and resources than upholding international maritime norms. Climate change, then, has pushed the US Navy toward a strategic inflection point in the Arctic: in a place where American naval presence may be most urgent, the organization finds itself at risk of not being able to provide it.
To address challenges in the Arctic, the Navy chartered Task Force Climate Change in 2009 to make recommendations for adapting to and mitigating the risks associated with the changing environment. Its first major output was the U.S. Navy Arctic Roadmap, a time-phased approach to accomplishing strategic end-states through 2030. Additionally, Congress has earmarked nearly $1 billion to build a new icebreaker as a joint-venture between the Navy and Coast Guard, a project that may take 3-10 years. While this is a promising start, I would recommend two additional steps. First, close the icebreaker gap in the near-term by contracting with proven shipbuilders, such as Finland’s Arctia, to both build new vessels and lend expertise to homegrown projects. Second, the United States should ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Of the five Arctic nations, the US is the only country that hasn’t adopted the treaty; Congress claims that it cedes too much authority to international arbitration. The treaty would strengthen America’s ability to credibly enforce territorial sovereignty in expanding Arctic waters and deter other nations from disregarding UNCLOS rulings, similar to last summer’s scenario in the South China Sea (800 words).
Cardin, Ben. “The South China Sea is the Reason the United States Must Ratify UNCLOS,” Foreign Policy. 13 July 2016. www.foreignpolicy.com/2016/07/13/the-south-china-sea-is-the-reason-the-united-states-must-ratify-unclos/
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Harvey, Fiona. “Arctic Sea Ice Fell to Record Low in May,” The Guardian. 08 June 2016. www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/jun/08/arctic-sea-ice-falls-to-record-low.
Judson, Jen. “The Icebreaker Gap,” Politico. 01 September 2015. www.politico.eu/article/russia-france-arctic-icebreaker-defense/
Kuertsen, Andreas. “Icebreakers and US Power: Separating Fact from Fiction,” War on the Rocks. 11 October 2016. www.warontherocks.com/2016/10/icebreakers-and-u-s-power-separating-fact-from-fiction/
Kurek, Laura. “The Race for the Arctic,” The Wilson Quarterly. 20 July 2015. www.wilsonquarterly.com/stories/the-race-for-the-arctic/
Roughhead, Gary. “Getting Serious About the Arctic: US Interests in the North,” Harvard International Review. 14 April 2015. hir.harvard.edu/getting-serious-about-the-arctic-us-interests-in-the-north/
A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower. Department of the Navy. March 2015.
U.S. Navy Arctic Roadmap 2014-2030. Task Force Climate Change, Department of the Navy. February 2014.