August 24, 2011

In the Arctic, Difficult Choices Loom about U.S. Military Capability

Military activity is on the rise in the Arctic. The Canadian
military, for example, is bolstering its presence in the region, in part to
offset Russian influence and to prepare for the opening of the Arctic Circle to
resource exploitation and commercial travel. 
In fact, this week, the Canadian military is conducting the largest
military exercise to-date – Operation NANOOK – with some 1,000 troops, air and
naval assets and unmanned drones. “All
of this is very much about enlarging the footprint and the permanent and
seasonal presence we have in the North
," Canadian Defense Minister
Peter McKay said last month in Afghanistan. “Members
of the Canadian Forces say military capabilities are growing and becoming more
complex in the North – a key component of reasserting claim to the region
The Toronto Sun reported last week. “The
Canadian military is not looking at what the issues are today but what are the
threats and hazards that Canadians could see, governments could see, not only
today, but in the future, to see what capabilities we could need to address
those threats and hazards
,” said Canadian Lt.-Gen. Walter Semianiw, commander
of Operation NANOOK. 

Russia has also taken steps to bolster its military presence
in the Arctic. In July, Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov announced
that Russia
would protect its territorial claims in the High North with an Arctic military
. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin made a similar pronouncement in July:
are open for a dialogue with our foreign partners and with all our neighbors in
the Arctic region, but of course we will defend our own geopolitical interests
firmly and consistently
." According to published reports, “Moscow
plans to build at least six more icebreakers and spend $33 billion to construct
a year-round port on the Arctic shores

As Canada and Russia move to develop a more permanent
military presence in the Arctic, U.S. policymakers and military planners must
make hard choices about our force structure to determine what assets we need to
compete in the Arctic –or at best preserve our national interests there. The
U.S. Navy and Coast Guard already train for missions in the Arctic
, but
military planners have increasingly expressed concern about whether the U.S.
military has the capability to support a variety of missions in the Arctic. In
our 2010 Broadening Horizons report,
we noted that “Coast
Guard officials and other experts voice concern that they are not yet equipped
to deal with a significant increase in their Arctic activities, should that
requirement arise, citing a lack of sufficient communication equipment that can
function reliably in the Arctic region and only a small number of icebreakers
.” The problem persists today. Two of the U.S. Coast Guard's large polar icebreakers, the Polar Star and Polar Sea, are both home ported in Seattle. The third, the HEALY, is primarily a research vessel that supports the National Science Foundation's Arctic missions, though it has capabilities that enable the U.S. Coast Guard to execute non-scientific missions. One U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker is wholly insufficient to support U.S. Coast Guard missions in the Arctic.

The United States has not made adequate investments
in Arctic military assets, in part I suspect because the Arctic has not received
the level of attention it deserves in Washington. But as the fall approaches,
and Congress – specifically the Congressional debt super committee – prepares to
make difficult choices about defense spending, U.S. policymakers must consider
the force structure we need to secure our interest in the Arctic Circle.
Large icebreakers – the naval assets that would enable the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard
to have a more sustained presence and patrol larger areas of the Arctic Circle – take eight to ten years to build. Given that
the Russian ice breaker fleet already significantly outnumbers the U.S. fleet –
and their plans to build six more – we are already falling behind.

Photo: The U.S. Coast Guard polar icebreaker HEALY. The HEALY is currently conducting research operations in the Arctic Circle.

This post was updated to reflect the following correction: The USCG HEALY is not owned by the National Science Foundation, but does support NSF scientific missions in the Arctic. The NSF's PALMER is the U.S. fleet's only other icebreaking vessel besides the Coast Guard's exisitng ships.