The Landing Zone | 8.4.08

It’s a region rich in resources, especially oil and natural gas. Not coincidentally, old enemies—and even old friends—are intervening throughout the region to probe, explore and stake their respective claims. And again, not coincidentally, all of these factors have gotten the US military’s attention.

Yet we’re not talking about the Middle East. In fact, aside from the region’s vast natural resources, nothing could be more different than the Middle East, with its sweltering temperatures and overlapping population groups, than the frozen, uninhabited Arctic.

When Stephen Harper ran for Canadian prime minister in 2006, he made a big deal about Canada’s inability to defend its sovereign rights and territorial integrity in the Arctic. He even pledged to build an “Arctic National Sensor System,” deploy new naval assets and unmanned surveillance drones to detect and deter incursions into Canadian waters, and stand up an army training center astride the Northwest Passage to exercise control over Canada’s claims in the Arctic region. Now we know why.

After its “Circum-Arctic Resource Appraisal,” the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic may hold 90 billion barrels of oil, 44 billion barrels of propane and butane and 1.6 trillion cubic feet of gas. As Bloomberg News reports, that’s “more than all the known [oil] reserves of Nigeria, Kazakhstan and Mexico combined, and enough to supply US demand for 12 years.”  The good news for Americans is that about a third of the oil is in Alaskan territory.

The bad news for America, Canada and other friendly governments is that Russia has decided to carve out its own “exclusive Arctic zone”—in violation of a UN agreement limiting claims more than 200 miles offshore—to exploit resources that may or may not be in Russian territory. Moscow’s actions “sparked protests from Canada, the U.S., Norway and Denmark,” according to the Bloomberg report.

To underline its claims, Moscow sent a nuclear-powered icebreaker to the Arctic and even planted the Russian flag under the ice. Plus, as Canada’s National Post reports, Russian General Vladimir Shamanov, head of the Russian military’s combat training directorate, recently announced that Russia has begun training “troops that could be engaged in Arctic combat missions,” even as the Russian navy increases the “operational radius” of its northern submarine fleet.

For its part, the US has held routine exercises in and around the area, including a military exercise called Northern Edge (most recently held in May 2008), which featured some 5,000 troops and sent a clear signal that Washington doesn’t accept Russia’s claims. Washington has also quietly slipped submarines under the icecap and through the water passages of the Arctic, not always with Canada’s knowledge.

True to his word, Harper has begun flexing Canadian muscle in the region. As the Toronto Star recently detailed, Canadian Forces patrol the far north as part of “a now-yearly exercise” known as Operation Nunalivut (“this land is ours”) aimed at asserting Canada’s “sovereignty in the High Arctic.” In addition, the Harper government is building six to eight ships to guard the Northwest Passage, “and in August 2007 the Prime Minister announced plans to build two military bases in the region: an army training center for 100 troops in Resolute Bay, and a deep-water port at Nanisivik on Baffin Island.”

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Donald Lee Gautier of the U.S. Geological Survey cautions that the region “will not ratchet up global production like a new Saudi Arabia.” But the nations that border the region—including two nuclear-armed powers with a long history of distrust—are certainly ratcheting up the tension.

The problem could gain in intensity as global energy demands increase and the region becomes more accessible. In fact, the presence of oil and gas reserves will impact—and be impacted by—sea-transit issues. As a recent Congressional Research Service report underscores, scientists and diplomats alike expect a bona fide Northwest Passage to open up by 2030. Canada claims this would be “an inland waterway, and would therefore be sovereign Canadian territory.” But the United States, the European Union and Japan argue that such a passage “would constitute an international strait between two high seas.”

Given the high stakes, perhaps it’s time for the U.S., Canada, Norway and Denmark (all NATO allies) as well as our friends in Japan to take a page from what worked last century, close ranks and present Moscow with a united front in the Arctic.

The Landing Zone is Dowd’s monthly column on national defense and international security featured on the American Legion's website.