“[W]hoever holds the Arctic, holds the world. I think it is the most important strategic place in the world.” – Maj Gen Billy Mitchell, 1935
America’s major competitors – Russia and China – are restarting Cold War-like encroachments, and what better place than the Arctic? A recent Congressional Research Service (CRS) paper describes in detail the geopolitical environment in the Arctic. Running through this report is one, significant theme: Russian and Chinese encroachment in the Arctic is not a question of if or when, but what to do now. Can U.S. armed forces provide a counter to any Russian or Chinese adventurism in the region?
Russia is increasing its presence and has as many as 24 deep-water Arctic ports, according to a recent Center for Strategic and International Studies report. The authors of the report, Heather Conley and Joseph Bermudez Jr. describe an alarming, robust Russian buildup of capability in the Arctic:
“Russia’s Northern Fleet, home to Russia’s sea-based nuclear deterrent, conducted 4,700 exercises in 2017. The Zapad-2017 exercise featured missile strikes from its new base on Kotelny Island in the East Siberian Sea, where new facilities were completed along with now modernized bases in Novaya Zemlya and Franz-Josef Land, in the Barents Sea.”
China’s goals may be different, but Beijing’s interest and presence in the Arctic should be of concern. Again from the CRS report, Dr. James Anderson, performing the duties of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy testified before the Readiness and Management Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee: “China is seeking a role in Arctic governance, despite the fact that it does not have territorial claims in the region.” Anderson continues, “There is a distinct risk that China may repeat the predatory economic behavior in the Arctic that it has exhibited in other regions to further its strategic ambitions.”
Americans don’t always think of the United States as an Arctic nation, but Alaska puts us in the club with Canada, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, and Iceland. China, it should be noted, at its closest point is 900 miles from the Arctic circle. Although there is international cooperation “on Arctic issues,” the renewal of “great power” competition has created a situation where “the Arctic is increasingly viewed as an arena for geopolitical competition among the United States, Russia, and China.”
Emphatically, the U.S. continues to declare America’s national security interest in the Arctic. Secretary of State Pompeo in an address before the Arctic Council ministerial meeting warned of China’s intentions in the Arctic. He said that the Pentagon had warned, “China could use its civilian research presence in the Arctic to strengthen its military presence.” In the same address, Pompeo emphasized that the Arctic has become an arena of power and competition, and the eight Arctic states must adapt to this new future.” However, for the U.S. to successfully compete, it needs an Arctic strategy and the military capability to implement that strategy. The Defense Department, U.S. Navy, and the Coast Guard have all developed Arctic strategies.
Dermot Cole, in an article for Arctic Today, wrote: “The US writes, but does not implement Arctic Strategies,” pointing out that the U.S. government has written extensively about the Arctic strategy but has failed to show any “concrete commitment.” Could it be that the military services are not sufficiently resourced to implement a strategy? Without means, strategies are interesting but not useful.
According to US Naval Institute News, the services are testing whether the U.S. military can effectively increase its Arctic operations. The Navy, along with the Army and Air Force, has stepped up training exercises in the Arctic. As the Chief of Naval Operations put it before the Senate Armed Services Committee, recently: “We see an increasing drumbeat of operations in the high north. We need to continue that. I think that the Bering Strait is strategically as important as the Strait of Malacca or the Strait of Hormuz.” Though military interest in the Arctic may be increasing, at the same hearing, Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK), who chairs the readiness subcommittee, questioned whether U.S. capabilities in the Arctic weren’t lagging behind what the Russians have already established.
To further his point, Sullivan pointed out: “I don’t think we have the capability right now. We have two ice breakers; one is broken. The Russians have 54.” The CNO did raise an issue of concern to the Navy, and that is the lack of a deep-water Arctic port for the U.S. Naval fleet. Sullivan agreed, saying, “Without any kind of strategic port, we don’t have anything near the Arctic. The closest thing is Anchorage, and that’s 1,500 nautical miles away. We can’t project power, and we need to defend our strategic interest.” Furthermore, according to Sullivan, the U.S. lacks other capabilities such as ice-hardened hulls and repair and refueling facilities for Navy and Coast Guard vessels.
Is history repeating itself, and are we seeing Cold War-like behavior from major-power competitors? It sure looks like it, and the U.S. may be playing catch up.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.
Read more from Dave Patterson.
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