Five Obstacles to U.S. Arctic Strategy
Image Credit: US Navy Flicker, US Coast Guard Flickr and Wikicommons

Five Obstacles to U.S. Arctic Strategy


Between the written commentaries and a couple of radio appearances, my brief for entrusting Arctic strategy primarily to the U.S. Coast Guard and Air Force elicited some recurring questions. Some interlocutors requested specifics about hardware and organizational arrangements. Others wanted to know whence the political support for an ambitious strategy would come. Such questions are well-taken. There's no good answer to many of them this far in advance of the 2030s, when the polar ocean will open to shipping according to U.S. Navy estimates. To reply to these questions, here's one guy's list of Five Obstacles to U.S. Arctic Strategy, in descending order:

El Sid
April 12, 2013 at 00:38

"Cyclical change to the surroundings is something without parallel in warmer climes."

Not quite – I can assure you that the geography of the oceans changes enormously according to season if you are a galleon that cannot sail into the wind. Think of all those seasonal trade fleets that would go outward at one part of the year and then return once the winds had reversed.

It's not just wind – rain can have a huge effect, think of Burnside in the Fredericksburg campaign or doing just about anything during the Asian monsoon.

Thinking more generally – those routes across the top of Russia may face competition from railways, you're already seeing a lot of trade from Asia to the east coast of North America coming in to eg Vancouver and taking a train rather than going through the Panama canal. You can't look at this in isolation.

April 3, 2013 at 05:07

daveinva, exactly what I was going to point out – past long range predictions of atmospheric catastrophes haven't come true; I would like to see Mr. Holmes lay out his reasons why the Arctic WILL be ice free, and what impacts the change in weather and sea level will have on the great powers that he sees vying for Arctic dominance.

For that matter, why would countries vie to control the vast (and deep) Arctic regions? I can see each country claiming an EEZ or something like that relatively near shore, and these EEZ's may create conflict with each other, but I don't see any fixed economic activity happening at the North Pole on a regular basis if it still freezes over each winter since for the foreseeable future underwater operations at long range are not commercially viable. If the technology of the movie The Abyss becomes viable, things will change – but that is likely to be even more than 22 years off!

April 2, 2013 at 15:30

The need for the United States to secure resources previously inaccessible due to Arctic ice is completely understandable and necessary, especially when in competition with rival energy supplying nations like Russia.

However this does raise a few eyebrows; the Arctic is an important area for the environment and this article preempts any environmental pressure groups actually winning over governments and possibly preventing massive ice melt.

Furthermore it almost seems to tacitly approve of the disappearance of ice in the north in order to gain access to these resources. A worrying prospect indeed.

April 2, 2013 at 14:47

Why not North Korea? NK has missiles to reach Alaska. Who gains by any such move? Russia. Except for Alaska, Russia can have its way in the entire Arctic. So if Alaska is under check from the south-west, Russia can claim the entirety of the resource rich north pole.

April 2, 2013 at 13:20

James - 

Arctic strategic anxiety is clear, and whatever choices we make, the metric for success is the ability to respond to natural and man made disasters, security threats (think illicit activity) and defend our sovereign waters and airspace.  The problem compounds as persistent human activity increases every year, from shipping to adventure tourists.  When the current structure becomes overwhelmed, and all indicators show that it will, the loss of life or irreversible damage will be the hallmarks of strategic failure.  Given the lead time and “Arctic Tax” on any response, constructing the infrastructure and materiel required to meet national responsibilities in our sovereign space and our Arctic Council SAR area, we need to begin modest investment now.   

Growing the force is unrealistic given our fiscal constraints and not justified given the low probability of major war in the Arctic, but identifying the bullpen of federal agencies including DoD who will back up our already stretched thin Coast Guard and Civil Law Forces in the Arctic for FEMA/DSCA, then directing their participation in the annual ALASKACOM exercises to build relationships is a prudent start.  From this we will continue to discover C2 and materiel requirements for this support network to deploy and be effective in the Arctic.  The existing structure alternating civil and major war operations is excellent, but participation is ad hoc.  Maritime domain awareness is challenging with the lack of persistent assets – we should look for civilian partnerships so we can best direct responses over vast spaces, and improve our C2 capacity in our own country.  We should look to the north slope and identify a spot for a dual use staging facility – it is come as you are now from fuel to food, and the infrastructure is poor.  No roads mean that if the equipment isn’t pre-staged, it must be flown in.  Erosion may make a central north slope deep water port unfeasible, but it needs to be looked at as resource extraction picks up.  Finally, it won’t be ice free year round, and we should have two ice breakers. 

These are concrete steps that we can work on over five to seven years.  We can’t predict the future timing of persistent activity and don’t have to.  The biggest obstacle is moving beyond the anxiety, what you term building the coalition, because while we enjoy cooperation today, the only way to be a guarantor of a peaceful Arctic opening and prevent conflict and competition is to have an effective Arctic capability. 

Your East China Sea analogy is interesting – the five plus three Arctic nations have made claims, and the Arctic Council was a successful venue to help facilitate a bilateral Russian EEZ dispute.  Aside from our wedge with Canada and a small rock between Greenland and Canada, there is no volatile contested territory in the Arctic.  We will agree to disagree with Canada about inland waterways, but this will not become violent.  As extended sea bed claims are an ongoing process (to which 34 senators have prevented us from becoming a party), and I would imagine extending a convention such as the Conservation of Anadromous Stocks in the North Pacific will allow us to respond to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing activity as the ice melts allow it.  When nations must step in to others’ space to provide security, we risk losing our sense of cooperation, but there is no history of disputed claims like the East or South China seas, and it is not analagous to the situation in the Arctic.  

To applesacue – China's territorial water claim connecting the nine dashed lines is ridiculous by any objective standard from UNCLOS to customary law.  Some marks on a map in 1930 don't make it a valid claim today, and just because it predates the PRC (1947?) it isn't long standing.  I would grant you Chinese fishing in these areas over the last 5,000 years is long standing, but because they fished off the coast of Vietnam does not make its economic exclusion zone Chinese territorial waters.

April 2, 2013 at 05:48

the author seems fond of comparing the artic to the scs, which is fine, but a couple of things…

"How many Asia-watchers writing in 1991, 22 years ago, foresaw that China would build a great navy by 2013, lay claim to most of the South China Sea, and stand some chance of getting its way? "

the chinese claim to the scs has been long standing, unchanging and predates the founding the the prc, so if u knew anything about  china at all, it wouldnt take a prediction about its claims.


"The Arctic will resemble the East China Sea in that great powers brandishing long-range precision weaponry will face off across the sea."

what "great power", except china, has a claim to the scs exactly? the only other great power active in the area is the US and they're not directly involve nor are they backing anyones specific claims much less brandishing long range precision weapon against china over those islands. perhaps the author is thinking of the east china sea.


April 2, 2013 at 00:57

Why hasn't there been any effort to increase the US Coast Guard presence in East Asia to match the Chinese increase and reinforce allies? It would seem this cause is much more immediate than 2035 but would also give us ample assets with which to pivot to the Arctic down the road.

April 2, 2013 at 00:33

Really, Russia should me mentioned in this piece.  Not that the USA and Russia must have a highly adversarial dynamic in regards to the Arctic, but keep in mind that Russia's geographic presence around the Arctic dwarfs the USA's own.

April 2, 2013 at 00:01

To this list I'd add a sixth: what happens if (or more likely, when) the Arctic *isn't* ice free in 2035?

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