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What the ‘Blue Arctic’ Means for the US Pacific Military Presence

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What the ‘Blue Arctic’ Means for the US Pacific Military Presence

Melting sea ice in the Arctic increases accessibility between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans and mitigates a geographic disadvantage for the U.S. Navy.

What the ‘Blue Arctic’ Means for the US Pacific Military Presence

The guided-missile cruiser USS Mobile Bay (CG 53) is underway in the Atlantic Ocean, May 9, 2019.

Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Jarrod A. Schad

The Blue Arctic, the concept that melting ice in the Arctic will eventually result in navigable waters, has created a new arena for great power competition. Once considered a peaceful domain like space, the Arctic has become a critical front of homeland defense. Since 2020, the U.S. Navy, Army, and Air Forces have announced new Arctic strategies one after another. This is a strategic challenge for the United States, but at the same time a chance to address U.S. strategic vulnerabilities in collaboration with allies and like-minded countries, especially Japan and the United Kingdom.

The United States released its new maritime strategy, “Advantage At Sea,” in 2020, identifying China as the most comprehensive and long-term threat. It emphasizes that prioritization is important to mitigate the risk effectively; however, geographic and budgetary restrictions make it difficult to focus on China.

Unlike the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), which can focus on its Pacific front, the U.S. Navy has two geographic fronts and much of its fleet is located on the Atlantic Coast or in other locations far from Asia. Considering its multiple operations around the world, only part of the U.S. fleet, mainly the Pacific Fleet, might be available in crisis or conflict to counter the Chinese navy, numerically the largest navy in the world. Alfred Thayer Mahan once theorized that a two-ocean navy would weaken each fleet more than a hypothetical enemy. Just as the Russian Navy was defeated by the inferior Japanese Combined Fleet in the Battle of Tsushima (1905), even the world’s largest navy could be vulnerable when its dispersed fleet counters adversaries with mass forces close to their home.

The psychological split in the U.S. strategic mind is also a problem. The U.S. Navy announced the reactivation of the Atlantic Fleet to focus on the again-assertive Russian Navy, while declaring China a priority in that same period. Now the United States realizes that it cannot operate everywhere, anytime, with equal effectiveness, and it needs prioritization, integrated forces, and interchangeability with allies and partners. However, setting separate strategic goals, to counter China or Russia, will hamper integration of U.S. forces and interoperability with foreign navies as a combined force.

To mitigate these vulnerabilities, the Blue Arctic is the key. Melting sea ice in the Arctic increases accessibility between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. It opens shorter maritime trade routes by reducing travel time and mitigates a geographic disadvantage for the U.S. Navy, enabling rapid deployment to combine fleets in case of crisis or conflicts.

The Blue Arctic can also help align the strategic attitude of a two-ocean navy. The opening of the Arctic will cause a spillover of great power competition in the region and create a potential threat to U.S. interests and prosperity. For example, Russia has expressed clear ambitions to control the Arctic by increasing its military presence with an icebreaker fleet, subsurface assets, an early warning system, and military bases. China calls itself a “near-Arctic state,” despite its location about 1,000 miles from the Arctic, and regards the Arctic region as a “Polar Silk Road” that is a critical link in its Belt and Road Initiative. This fact indicates the interests of two-ocean fleets that focus on China or Russia will merge in the Arctic region. This region requires the close combination of both fleets. As the chief of naval operations, Adm. Mike Gilday, says, the Atlantic Fleet “has responsibilities as a component [command] for [U.S.] Northern Command and the Eastern Pacific that extend up to the Arctic.” The Blue Arctic and coordination of the two-ocean fleets might also enable effective budget allocation as well as force deployment.

For further development of this line of effort, the crucial factor is cooperation with Japan and the United Kingdom. The U.S. Arctic Strategy (2021) concludes that presence, partnership, and a capable Arctic naval force are objectives for the security of national interests in the Arctic region. The coordination of two-ocean fleets in the Arctic can connect and promote partnership among countries in Europe and the West Pacific. Given that Japan and the U.K. are near entrances to the Arctic, they provide the U.S. Navy with a big advantage. The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) as well as the Royal Navy have the highest interoperability with the U.S. Navy and can cooperate like they once did in the Russo-Japanese war. For example, the U.S. and Japan are playing leading roles in the free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy, and both promote more practical cooperation in the name of FOIP, including defense partnerships with the U.K. and other European countries. The strategic objectives of FOIP, such as promotion and establishment of the rule of law, freedom of navigation, free trade, and pursuit of economic prosperity, can be extended to the Arctic, and close cooperation including joint exercises in that region can enhance presence and partnership for peace.

As for Japan, Tokyo released its plan to build a new icebreaker in April 2021. It aims to research the Arctic region for scientific purposes and will also contribute to presence and partnership in this region. Cohosting Third Arctic Science Ministerial with Iceland, Japan also plays a key role in enhancing multilateral cooperation in the Arctic. Furthermore, the JMSDF could contribute to a capable Arctic naval force including sustainability of U.S. forces, based on six decades of Japan-U.S. alliance and the contribution of its anti-submarine warfare capability during the Cold War. Navigation by JMSDF ships such as training squadrons and joint exercises in the region should also strengthen U.S. objectives.

Melting ice in the Arctic will accelerate the geographic importance of these three maritime nations. Close coordination between both sides of Eurasia will contribute to achieving objectives of the U.S. in the Arctic region as well as mitigate the U.S. Navy’s geographical vulnerability.