March 26, 2012

This Weekend’s News: Renewed Attention on the Arctic

U.S. policymakers and military officials are giving the Arctic some more attention.

On Saturday, The Navy Times reported on the Coast Guard’s request to Congress to purchase a new heavy-icebreaker to bolster the U.S. presence in the Arctic. “Rising global temperatures and melting sea ice are opening the Arctic as a new frontier for research, travel and oil drilling — and creating more area for the Coast Guard to patrol,” the report said. “To keep up, the Coast Guard is asking for $8 million in the fiscal 2013 budget to begin procurement of a new large icebreaker.” The total cost of the icebreaker is projected around $860 million. The initial $8 million is to, as the report notes, get the procurement process started.

The U.S. Coast Guard currently lacks the icebreaking capability it needs to secure U.S. interests in the Arctic. “Neither of the U.S.’s two heavy-duty Polar-class icebreakers is in service. The Polar Star is awaiting a $57 million upgrade set to be finished in December. Its sister ship, Polar Sea, has been docked in Seattle since 2010 with engine issues,” The Navy Times said. “The medium-duty polar icebreaker Healy is designed for research and cannot cut through the thickest ice.”

Support for new icebreaking capability appears to be growing on Capitol Hill as U.S. policymakers focus greater attention on the Arctic. According to the report, “While the purchase of a new icebreaker has been supported by both Alaska senators, senators including Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., say the acquisition of a new icebreaker is a national priority.”

Also on Saturday, The Marine Corps Times discussed a recent international exercise in the Article Circle. “The Arctic exercise, which started March 5 and ends Monday, has brought together 16,300 troops from 15 allied nations for simulated combat, terror threats and mass demonstrations in the snow, ice and biting wind,” according to the report. The international exercise – Cold Response 2012 – is conducted annually to prepare partner forces to operate in the harsh Arctic conditions. “Headquarters Marine Corps has expressed a desire for ‘greater participation’ in Norway,” the report said, in part intended to help the Marine Corps “prepare for the unexpected.”  

Conflict in the Arctic is very unlikely. The greatest challenges in the near future are more likely to stem from diplomatic rows over access to resources on states’ extended continental shelves, which could generate friction due to overlapping claims.  Nevertheless, preparing forces to operate in the Arctic is a strong demonstration of U.S. capabilities – in particular that the United States is militarily capable to protect its interest in the Arctic should it ever need to. “I realize you can quantify what it costs to put Marines on a plane and fly them over here and take them back,” Colonel Mark Smith told The Marine Corps Times. “What I don’t think you can put a mathematic figure on is what you get out of that as a fighting force.”