Call it the ice gap.
Sensing a once-in-a-century opportunity to open new shipping routes, oil reserves and even cruise line passages, military powers are deploying icebreakers to lead their navies in the Arctic Circle. The Russians have the nuclear 50 Let Pobedy for thick ice, plus nine smaller patrol boats. The Canadians have a fleet, too.
But the United States has just one working icebreaker in the Arctic, the Healy, mostly geared for scientific research.
“She’s large, she’s got powerful engines, she’s capable,” Robert Huebert, an ocean politics expert at the University of Calgary, told The Daily. “But it’s numbers.”
The challenges of operating in the permafrost are coming into sharp focus as Shell Oil tries to start drilling near the coast of Alaska. Some analysts say certain terms of the project may expose the limits of American military infrastructure in the region. And last week, the company itself announced a new delay, due to heavy ice.
For better or worse, global climate change is reshaping the geopolitical world, starting at the top. Few predict any imminent outbreak of Arctic warfare. But experts point to the icebreakers as the most vivid symbol of an American inability — or unwillingness — to keep up in the region. The country’s two larger vessels, the Polar Sea and the Polar Star, have been decommissioned, one permanently and the other for repairs.
Power projection can lead to misunderstandings, experts say, especially in a zone where conditions are harsh, communication is impaired and competing claims are made on territory expected to hold vast natural resources. And nerves have been on edge since 2007, when Russia made the symbolic but no less notorious gesture of planting its flag in the seabed below the North Pole.
At the highest levels of government, officially at least, the U.S. has turned a blind eye. The current global strategic policy statement, “Priorities for the 21st Century Defense,” signed by President Obama on Jan. 3, makes no mention of the Arctic.
“The Navy has always been touted as a dominant strength; it’s not dominant in the Arctic,” said William Rogers, a researcher at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. “We’re getting to a place where we need to start talking about what we want to do in the Arctic, before we start getting backed into having to make decisions from a position of weakness.”
The strategic importance has taken decades to emerge. In the early days of the Cold War, military strategists viewed the region as little more than a flyover zone for intercontinental ballistic missiles. By the 1980s, some advanced nuclear submarines plied the frozen seas.
Since then, global warming — an effect which has raised temperatures at the poles more than other regions — has reduced sea-ice cover in the Arctic dramatically, opening new waters at rates outpacing scientific projections. Suddenly, new shipping routes promise manufacturers a 4,000-mile head start on the global economy. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil may rest under the Arctic seas. And mainstream tourism outfits such as Royal Caribbean have started scheduling regular cruises to the land of the midnight sun.
In their official pronouncements, the governments of the Arctic Rim — Russia, Canada, Norway, Denmark and the U.S. — tend to stress international cooperation on environmental preservation and rescue operations.
But some of their actions speak more forcefully. Russia started flying regular bomber missions over the region in 2007, following up with its first Arctic special forces brigade, based on the Kola Peninsula. Its Northern Fleet includes nuclear submarines, an aircraft carrier and four new helicopter-carrying amphibious assault ships.
Canada, which has 15 warships capable of Arctic operations, is spending $100 million on a five-year effort to upgrade a coast guard base in the region with naval facilities. Denmark is expanding its armed frigate fleet. Norway is shifting forces to the north.
“Canada, Denmark and Russia have recently adopted foreign and defence policies that have put a special emphasis on the Arctic,” wrote Siemon Wezeman, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, in a recent report. “They have strengthened their military presence in the Arctic or increased military capabilities for Arctic use and have presented plans for additional military strengthening.”
Even China, despite its distance from the region, has started jockeying for position by applying for permanent observer status on the Arctic Council. In April, Premier Wen Jiabao visited Iceland, Sweden and Poland for talks reportedly including the energy reserves of unclaimed portions of the Arctic.
American officials have started to discuss the region with a new sense of urgency compared to just three years ago, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in an interview with Newsweek, called the Arctic “an area that we have to pay real attention to.”
But experts say shaping a coherent policy has been hampered by the complex variety of American interests in the region: deterring nuclear threats, containing oil spills, conducting search and rescue operations, facilitating communication beyond the range of geosynchrous satellites, staging air support for conflict in East Asia and more.
Last year, the U.S. Naval War College put its Arctic fleet through a war game, seeking strategies to mend gaps in the region. The results provided a glimpse of what full-scale military operations in the region might look like.
“Our expectation is that the [U.S. Navy] is going to the Arctic to do something other than sit below decks and shoot missiles,” most likely some kind of sea-basing, one participant said in the report. “This means people are going to have to operate small craft and aircraft in extreme cold weather conditions and those connectors present the highest risk and most vulnerable points of failure.”
Walter Berbrick, a professor at the war college, told The Daily that shrinking budgets and competing demands might force the hand of policy makers.
“Perhaps the most compelling reason for U.S. maritime forces to strengthen its relationships with allies and partners in the region,” Berbrick said, “is because U.S. maritime forces are inadequately prepared to conduct sustained maritime operations in the Arctic.”
As Shell’s adventures in the region begin to take shape over the summer, analysts are watching closely for signs of the military’s ability to provide security. The company has spent more than $4 billion planning the operation, including a much-debated spill-containment plan.
“The Coast Guard will be piggybacking on Shell’s infrastructure largely out of necessity because they don’t really have much of their own infrastructure in the Arctic Circle — that’s especially true of shore-based infrastructure, like landing platforms that could support a helicopter for search and rescue missions,” said Rogers.
Curtis Smith, a spokesman for Shell Alaska, did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did Lisa Novak, a spokeswoman for the Coast Guard.
As for broader military operations in the Arctic, some analysts doubt talk will turn to action anytime soon. But others see momentum building toward a new commitment in the Arctic.
“It’ll be subtle, but it’ll be significant,” Huebert said. “At this point, they’re aware of it. The question is, what are they going to do about it?”