April 30, 2012

This Weekend’s News: Arctic War Game Highlights Challenges for U.S. Navy

The U.S. Navy does not have the assets it needs to conduct long-term Arctic maritime operations and will have to increasingly rely on the U.S. Coast Guard or international partners in order to accomplish its missions, according to a Sunday report in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

According to the report, the U.S. Navy asked the U.S. Naval War College to conduct a war game in September 2011 to explore what the U.S. Navy would need to execute long-term missions in the High North. “We looked at search and rescue, oil spill response, maritime domain and maritime safety and security issues," Walter Berbrick, assistant research professor in the War Gaming Department at the Center for Naval Warfare Studies, told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. “They were all fictional scenarios.

The war game’s conclusions, according to the report, may suggest looming challenges for America’s ability to project power and protect its interests in the Arctic. According to the report:

[T]he Navy is not adequately prepared to conduct long-term maritime Arctic operations; Arctic weather conditions increase the risk of failure; and most critically, to operate in the Arctic, the Navy will need to lean on the U.S. Coast Guard, countries like Russia or Canada, or tribal and industrial partners.


To sustain operations in the Arctic, the Navy needs ice-capable equipment, accurate and timely environmental data, personnel trained to operate in extreme weather, and better communications systems. Much of the environmental data will come from other Arctic nations.

The report particularly notes the U.S. Navy’s lack of ice-capable ships. “We have limited capability to sustain long-term operations in the Arctic due to inadequate icebreaking capability," Berbrick told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. "The Navy finds itself entering a new realm as it relates to having to rely on other nations." Interestingly, the report also notes that the Navy (in large part because of its lack of ice-capable ships) will increasingly work with the U.S. Coast Guard, which has had a greater presence in the region as of late. Yet the U.S. Coast Guard’s missions in the Arctic are also undermined by its inadequate icebreaking capability – although there is renewed interest in expanding the U.S. Coast Guard’s icebreaking fleet, which now consists of one active and two inactive vessels.


Expanding the U.S. Navy’s or U.S. Coast Guard’s icebreaking fleets requires money – a resource that is increasingly scarce at the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security. "It's all about the money," U.S. Navy Commander Blake McBride, Arctic Affairs officer for the U.S. Navy’s Task Force Climate Change, told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. "If you don't have the budget or funds to invest in manpower and equipment then you don't have anything."

While the war game's conclusions are worrying, they may help jump start a conversation in Washington about the Arctic that has been lacking, specifically about what it is the United States wants to do in the Arctic and what resources it needs to achieve those goals. It is most certainly a conversation worth having - sooner rather than later.