July 15, 2010

What to Do About the Arctic

We’ve spent the week highlighting issues related to the Arctic by discussing a recent book on the subject. I want to end it by looking back to the recommendations geared toward improving Arctic governance that Will, Herb and I made in our April 2010 report on climate change and DOD. These things alone will not guarantee the United States can protect its interests in the Arctic, but nor can it get far without taking these three steps first.

First and foremost, we recommend ratifying UNCLOS. This is certainly nothing new, but it is important enough for anyone in support of it to add their voice. We wrote as follows:

Reductions in Arctic summer sea ice have created new opportunities for access to maritime trade routes and sea lines of communication, and potential access to vast supplies of zinc, nickel, palladium, precious stones and other various minerals, as well as oil and natural gas under the ocean with an estimated value of 1.2 trillion dollars. Many of these resources lie in the extended continental shelf up to 600 nautical miles of the Alaska coast. As access to the Arctic and industry technologies continues to improve, heightened energy needs could spur private corporations to increase exploration and exploitation of these reserves. UNCLOS establishes the process for mining firms to obtain access and exclusive rights to these resources and title to the minerals once recovered. A failure to ratify UNCLOS prevents the United States from submitting a claim for rights in the extended continental shelf and prevents firms from securing these rights. This will hinder growth in the emerging seabed mining industry and related industries in the United States – as well as the jobs supporting those industries – because corporations will wisely seek the protection and legal certainty afforded only to member nations of UNCLOS before investing in these opportunities.

Ratification of UNCLOS therefore protects and adds certainty to U.S. economic interests. Furthermore, the signed 1994 UNCLOS agreement gives the United States the only permanent seat on the Council of the International Seabed Authority, its main decision-making body. The United States would be afforded this opportunity by virtue of having the largest economy in terms of gross domestic product on the date of agreement. Failure to ratify the treaty as currently agreed would effectively abdicate a uniquely influential role in seabed mining. If a subsequent UNCLOS treaty agreement is reached before Senate ratification, there is no guarantee that the United States will still have the opportunity for this permanent seat, and if the treaty is not ratified, it will have no legitimate international voice on these issues.

Despite a long history of overwhelming bipartisan support for UNCLOS, the political hurdles to its Senate ratification persist. The most frequently and vocally cited objection is the contention that ratifying UNCLOS will reduce U.S. sovereignty by forcing it to provide economic and technical information and to participate in consensus decision making internationally. Three U.S. representatives formed a “Sovereignty Caucus” in early 2009 to support the narrative that U.S. treaty participation negatively affects the U.S. ability to protect its interests. This argument has been a pervasive part of the UNCLOS dialogue since its first ratification attempt in 1982. We contend that U.S. leadership in international forums, and coordination with other countries is vital to protecting U.S. maritime interests worldwide. The security interests at stake with this treaty are becoming increasingly clear with the effects of climate change on the Arctic, and the U.S. Congress has a responsibility to promote these interests.

Though ratifying UNCLOS is important to America’s ability to protect its security interests, history shows the difficulty in obtaining advice and consent ahead of an election cycle. A failed attempt at ratification could be more damaging to the overall ability to ratify it, particularly because this treaty is so critical to the economic future of the United States. Timing is important, but so is ratification.

Second, we recommended a single supported commander for the Arctic:

In the current Unified Command Plan, UCP 2008, three separate unified combatant commanders have responsibilities for portions of the Arctic. Until now, this has not presented a problem, but the effects of climate change in the Arctic have given rise to and may ignite new security challenges and expanded military missions. As other Arctic nations build capabilities to increase their presence in the Arctic, the United States currently lacks unity of command and unity of effort in the Arctic. Without unity of effort, the U.S. hampers its ability to protect its own interests, project a credible U.S. presence and coordinate diplomatic, military and interagency efforts in the region. A single supported unified combatant commander is needed in order to deal with the challenges ahead in the Arctic.

U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) should assume the role as the supported commander on issues related to the Arctic. NORTHCOM’s area of responsibility (AOR) includes Alaska and adjacent waters, meaning that the U.S. EEZ is within the AOR of NORTHCOM. NORTHCOM already has functional relationships with the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies that have interests or operate in the Arctic. Furthermore, NORTHCOM collaborates with Canadian forces in much of its activities related to security. While U.S. European Command’s AOR includes the Arctic nations of Denmark, Norway and Russia and a correspondingly large portion of the Arctic coast, the commander’s dual role as the military commander of NATO could place EUCOM in a difficult position. Therefore, we feel that NORTHCOM is best positioned to take the lead.

If NORTHCOM is designated as the supported commander for the Arctic, direct senior civilian involvement in such an arrangement would be critically important from the start. A potential solution is suggested by our colleagues Patrick Cronin and Kristin Lord in an April 2010 [Defense News] op-ed: “We need to create civilian-led equivalents of military combatant commands that can unify our diplomatic, development, public engagement and defense efforts”…This kind of regional hub for the Arctic could be designed as a test case for the concept of creating these “civilian COCOMs.” The military challenges in the Arctic resulting from changing climatic conditions generally stem from nonmilitary U.S. interests. Even more important, ensuring U.S. security interests in the Arctic will be impossible without strong and dedicated diplomacy and international coordination. Joint DOD and State Department leadership of this region offers the ideal way of promoting U.S. interests in the Arctic.

I’m going to throw one more onto the list, which we discussed in the report but did not make a strong recommendation on: fund more icebreakers. For the love of all that is holy, fund more icebreakers. I understand the extremely tight budget environment (and agree that the national debt itself could in the long term reduce this country’s fundamental stability if we don’t rope it in) but the United States should be able to have, at all times, at least one operable icebreaker beyond research vessels, and possibly up to three. As we noted in the report:

The National Research Council concluded in 2007 that the United States needed to maintain a fleet of three ships with icebreaking capabilities—in addition to the one existing research-only ship operated by the National Science Foundation—just for the Coast Guard to meet its existing responsibilities in the Arctic. Given the disrepair of two of the current three icebreakers, the report recommended the construction of replacements, which would take eight to ten years to complete, rather than financing repairs.

However, other estimates based on the most current climate change projections indicate that a fleet of three icebreakers would be either barely sufficient or fully inadequate if missions expand along with increased Arctic activity. Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thad Allen testified in July 2009, “What we have right now, in my view, is the minimum capability we need to be able to respond if all three of them are operating, and they are not.”

And with that, I close on Arctic week…for now, anyways.