America’s AirSea Battle, Arctic Style

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America’s AirSea Battle, Arctic Style

James Holmes on why the Coast Guard and Air Force might become the military’s “odd couple” in defending America’s Arctic front.

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.

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.

The Arctic could also become an arena for more traditional power politics. Geopolitical thinkers such as Halford Mackinder, Alfred Thayer Mahan, and Nicholas Spykman long debated the relative merits of land and sea power. They argued ceaselessly about whether a continental power whose seat was the Central Asian "Heartland," or sea powers operating around the East Asian, South Asian, and Western European "rimlands," held the upper hand in struggles for geopolitical supremacy. A navigable Arctic would open the northern rimland predictably for the first time, letting sea power impinge on Eurasia from northern points of the compass while enabling the Heartland power — Russia, roughly speaking — to radiate power and influence outward. Furthermore, seemingly inescapable dilemmas confronting Moscow — such as how to swiftly unify a fleet fragmented between coasts thousands of miles apart — would become soluble, at least intermittently, by exploiting northern routes.

The rhythmic character of a navigable Arctic Ocean makes it doubtful that Washington would deploy the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps as its primary weapon along the northern rampart. Surface forces could campaign for only a short time each year. The warfighting sea services, moreover, have bigger fish to fry in the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean, where the 2007 U.S. Maritime Strategy envisions staging preponderant combat power for the foreseeable future. Both services appear certain to shrink amid congressional budget-cutting, leaving them little to spare to mount a standing northern presence. They will have to concentrate where the demand is greatest rather than scattering across the globe.

The polar expanse is also unusual from Washington's standpoint because Arctic waters lap against North American shores. Territorial defense is something with which U.S. leaders seldom have to concern themselves. The U.S. military has played no home-court games since World War II, when land-based bombers hunted U-boats in the Atlantic in concert with U.S. Navy jeep carriers and convoy escorts. During U-boat skippers' "happy time" in 1942, German boats rampaged up and down the American eastern seaboard and into Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico waters. Navy units also dueled U-boats during the United States' brief but massive foray into World War I. The German High Seas Fleet posed at least a hypothetical threat to the Western Hemisphere around the turn of the century, but the Kaiser's and Admiral Tirpitz's imperial vision never really took shape. Though dire, these were fleeting menaces.

To find the last true threat to U.S. territory, in fact, you have to look all the way back to the War of 1812, when seaborne British expeditionary forces burned the White House and the Royal Navy throttled American commerce. Should the Arctic indeed open, U.S. leaders thus may find themselves compelled to relearn habits of strategic thought that have lain dormant for two centuries. Washington can turn the logic of anti-access and area denial to its advantage, harnessing land-based engines of war — combat aircraft, anti-ship cruise missiles, and so forth — as implements of sea power. But that's different from projecting power onto faraway coasts, and demands a different mindset.

Which could leave the U.S. Coast Guard — the chief steward of offshore maritime security, and the service with the most experience plying northern waters — occupying the forefront of U.S. Arctic strategy. Suitably augmented for combat missions, Coast Guard cutters could represent the vanguard of America's Arctic strategy. My recent article raises and ventures preliminary answers to such questions as: why are the Coast Guard and Navy different despite operating in the same, aquatic, medium? Why is strategy different for navies and coast guards? Who's the "enemy" for a coast guard, and why does that matter in practical terms? And how well equipped is the Coast Guard to hold the line during a hot war, until the Navy and Marines can rush heavy firepower to its rescue?

One nagging question lingers. The Coast Guard might have to rediscover its roots as an auxiliary combat force, commanding offshore waters for a time. But where would its air arm come from? The Coast Guard's modest inventory includes no combat aircraft. Nothing would keep enemy warplanes from walloping Coast Guard flotillas unless the Pentagon supplied tactical air power. And if you want air cover over waters adjoining American seacoasts, the U.S. Air Force would be an obvious partner to enlist. The Air Force has reinvented itself as an expeditionary service since the Cold War. Why not plan to configure an expeditionary air wing for polar operations; temporarily stage that force in, say, Alaska during the warm months each year; and develop skills and doctrine that allow Air Force airmen to back up their brethren of the sea? Such a joint force could deter conflict or, failing that, supply some interim combat power until the heavy cavalry arrived on scene.

Coast Guard and Air Force capabilities might look like a strange alloy for a weapon of sea power. But it's worth experimenting with such mix-and-match force packages as American commanders contemplate a radically different maritime future. Call it AirSea Battle, Arctic style!

James Holmes is professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific. He writes The Naval Diplomat blog. The views voiced here are his alone.