America's AirSea Battle, Arctic Style
Image Credit: Flickr (U.S. Department of Defense)

America's AirSea Battle, Arctic Style


Call them American strategy's Odd Couple. Working together, the U.S. Coast Guard and Air Force could be the best defenders of U.S. policy in the Arctic Ocean, a theater that will expand and contract each year and where threats will — cross your fingers — remain modest in scope. Light combat forces patrolling the sea under the protective umbrella of land-based fighter cover may well be enough to manage events in northern waters. Ergo, it's worth thinking ahead about the material and human adaptations necessary to help such an Odd Couple fight together.

Think about it. One partner is an aviation force, the other a sea service. One operates under Pentagon jurisdiction, the other under the Department of Homeland Security. One is a combat arm designed to break things and kill people, the other a constabulary agency meant primarily to execute U.S. law in offshore waters and skies and render aid and comfort following natural disasters.

Getting unlike institutions to work together smoothly is invariably an arduous chore involving not just hardware fixes but cultural transformation. The officers who would superintend such an unconventional joint force are now entering the service. Acquainting them with the brave new world they may face seems only prudent — and will help instill the right habits of mind. Gradual generational change will equip the services to manage unfamiliar challenges.

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You guessed it: ever faithless, the Naval Diplomat has been stepping out again. This time, I hold forth on maritime strategy for a fully navigable Arctic. This isn't a strategic question that demands an answer today, but it is an important one. A former U.S. Navy chief oceanographer, Rear Admiral David Titley, projects that the polar sea could be ice-free for a month each year by 2035. That's a mere tick of the clock in historical time.

If events bear out Titley's timetable, the Arctic promises to be a peculiar theater. Within its outer boundaries — traced by the coastlines of the five nations that front on polar waters, along with nautical entryways such as the Bering Strait — the ocean's size and shape will presumably fluctuate along with global temperatures. The ice will advance and retreat unevenly, and at varying rates, as the icecap thaws and refreezes. Thus the sea lines of communication may shift from year to year, if not within each summer. A combat theater that morphs from one thing into another and back again as time passes is a strange beast indeed. The Western Pacific may be a difficult zone of operations, but at least you know where geographic features are. The Arctic map may need to be continuously amended for shipping to safely transit the region.

Such quirks matter. The prospect of an ice-free polar ocean raises the possibility of geopolitical competition or conflict. Undersea resources such as oil and natural gas beckon. Russia leapt at the opportunity, for instance, by symbolically planting its flag on the ocean floor underneath the North Pole. Canada has been mulling over its own posture now that Russia will be a much closer maritime neighbor than before. The United States is belatedly getting into the act, along with Denmark and Norway. Staking claims to this new, old frontier under the law of the sea constitutes an obvious step. Economic development is Job One for any government worth its salt. In northern waters, as in warmer climates like the South China Sea, the chance to extract natural resources — and accelerate economic development — could propel nations into diplomatic feuds or even armed strife.

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