ASCF Report | 6.3.13
By Alan W. Dowd
In releasing a strategy
statement on the Arctic last
month, the Obama administration not only laid out U.S. interests and objectives
in the region; it also shined a spotlight on the increasing importance of—and
growing security challenges in—the resource-rich Arctic. It may sound
improbable, but in the not-too-distant future, the main source of energy
reserves and geopolitical tensions may shift from the deserts and densely
populated urban areas of the Middle East to the icy waters and desolate tundra
of the Arctic. Here’s why.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the Arctic may hold 1,670 trillion cubic feet of
natural gas and 90 billion barrels of oil. About a third of the oil is in Alaskan territory.
oil and gas deposits were always there, of course, but today the cost of
extracting them is increasingly justifiable due to market realities. Growing
demand, along with decreasing and undependable supplies in the Middle East, are
conspiring to push energy prices upwards, which is encouraging exploration in
important factor in the Arctic energy rush relates to shipping. The fabled Northwest Passage, once frozen
throughout most of the year, is thawing. “Opening up the Northwest Passage cuts
4,000 nautical miles off the trip from Europe to Asia,” NATO Secretary General Anders
Fogh Rasmussen observes. “You can bet a lot of companies have done that math.”
prospect of rising oil prices in the long term, the emergence of sophisticated
drilling technology and the opening of new transit routes provide new
opportunities for exploring—and new incentives for claiming—this vast,
Russia is making its intentions in the Arctic crystal clear.
In 2001, Russia brazenly laid claim to almost half the Arctic Circle and all of the North Pole. During a
2007 expedition, Russia planted its flag under the Arctic
ice—far beyond the internationally recognized 200-mile territorial limit known
as the “exclusive economic zone.” The lead explorer provocatively declared,
“The Arctic is ours.”
In 2008, a Russian general
revealed plans to train “troops that could be engaged in Arctic combat missions,”
ominously adding, “Wars these days are won and lost well before they are
A 2009 Kremlin strategy paper
placed a priority on securing energy resources in “the Barents Sea shelf and
other Arctic regions.” Putting muscle behind its words, that same year, Moscow vowed to build a string of military
bases along Russia’s northern
In 2011, Moscow unveiled a new Arctic commando brigade. In 2012, the Kremlin
announced that key air units would redeploy to Arctic airfields in Novaya
Zemlya (a finger-shaped island off the Russian mainland). That same year, Moscow unveiled plansto stand up “infrastructure hubs” in
the Arctic to be used as way stations for Russian warships. Russia is deploying two army brigades—10,000 troops—to defend its Arctic claims.
In short, Russia is eyeing the resources of the Arctic and is signaling its
seriousness about claiming those resources. “We are open to dialogue,” Russian President
Vladimir Putin has said, “but naturally, the defense of our geopolitical
interests will be hard and consistent.”
outsized Arctic claims rest on a dubious interpretation of an underwater ridge
linking to the Russian landmass. Russia argues that this ridge is an extension
of its own continental shelf. Based on these claims, the Kremlin contends that
1.2 million square km of Arctic territory is Russia’s.
claims are different than that of other Arctic nations both in the way the
claims are being made and in the nature of the claims: Other nations are not
laying claim to half of the region or the entire North Pole. Other nations are
not making territorial claims in a blatant military context.
But Russia is not the only
prospective Arctic troublemaker. China wants a slice of the Arctic. According
to Chinese Adm. Yin Zhuo, the Arctic “belongs to all the people around the
world as no nation has sovereignty over it.” Just last month, China won
observer status on the Arctic Council.
noting that 46 ships made the Arctic sea passage last
year, including China’s brand-new icebreaker.
If the Arctic does become a “zone of
competition, or worse, a zone of conflict,” as
Adm. James Stavridis (USN) has
warned, the good news is that some of America’s closest allies
are Arctic neighbors: Canada, Iceland, Denmark and Norway are all members of
NATO. Although Sweden is
officially non-aligned, it’s a de facto member of NATO, cooperating extensively
with the alliance in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Libya—and working closely
with Norway and Denmark on security in and around the Arctic. But that’s just
the tip of the iceberg when it comes to allied cooperation in the Arctic.
Denmark is standing up an Arctic military
command, beefing up its military presence in Greenland
and deploying a joint-service Arctic Response Force, as SIPRI recently reported.
Norway has moved its military headquartersabove the Arctic Circle. In
addition, Norway has transferred
“a substantial part of its operational forces to the north,” moved its coastguard headquarters north of the
Arctic Circle and recently based its largest active army unit above the
Arctic Circle, according to a SIPRI report.The
Toronto Star adds that Norway is procuring 48 F-35s “partly because
of their suitability for Arctic patrols.” Norway
also has led Arctic maneuvers enfolding as many as 13 nations. One
scenario was based on an attack against oil rigs by the fictional country
“Northland,” a thinly disguised euphemism for Russia.
Canada is building new bases, including an
Arctic Training Center in Resolute (halfway between the Arctic Circle and the
North Pole); conducting annual maneuvers to defend its Arctic territories; turning
a small coastguard base in the “High North” into a full-fledged naval base; and
is in the process of procuring a squadron of drones—some
of them armed—to be Ottawa’s “eyes in the sky in
the Arctic,” according to Canada’s top air force general.
The U.S. Navy and
Coast Guard have joined Denmark and Canada for Arctic maneuvers. In late 2012, the U.S. and Canada agreed to deepen
their military cooperation in the Arctic, with a focus on cold-weather
operations, training, capabilities, domain awareness and communications.
· NATO officialshave pointedly declared the Arctic a region “of strategic interest to the
alliance.” However, Rasmussen recently announced, “At this present time, NATO
has no intention of raising its presence and activities in the High North.”
or without NATO’s unifying role, it’s only prudent for the U.S. and
its allies to develop some sort of security component to the Arctic puzzle. “In
order to ensure a peaceful opening of the Arctic,”
as Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, puts it, “DOD
must anticipate today the Arctic operations that will be expected of it tomorrow.”
If Russia continues down its current path—using
bluster and military deployments literally to
divide and conquer—it will achieve an Arctic fait accompli. To prevent that
unhappy outcome, the U.S., Canada, Iceland, Denmark, Norway and Sweden may need
pool their economic and military resources to protect their shared interests,
as they do in other parts of the world. The Arctic Council is not well suited
for such a role given that it isexpressly forbiddenfrom dealing with
However, there is a framework
already in place to help the allies address Arctic security: Jointly operated
by the U.S. and Canada,
NORAD could serve as the model for an Arctic security partnership. Just as
NORAD provides airspace and maritime surveillance for North America, an allied arrangement
under the NORAD rubric could provide the building blocks for Arctic security.
The challenge is to
remain open to cooperation with Moscow while bracing for worst-case scenarios.
After all, Russia is not the Soviet Union. Even as Putin and his
puppets make mischief, Moscow is open to making deals. Russia and Norway,
for instance, recently resolved a long-running boundary dispute, paving the way
for development in 67,000 square-miles of the Arctic.
dealing with Russia is about power. As Churchill once said
of his Russian counterparts, “There is nothing they admire so much as strength,
and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for weakness.” When
the message is clear—or “hard and consistent,” to use Putin’s language—Russia will take a cooperative posture. When
the message is unclear, Russia will take what it can get.
Speaking of power, the Arctic is perhaps the only theater on earth where Russia
could hold its own militarily and technologically with the United States
(setting aside strategic nuclear forces).
To be sure, the United States “is an Arctic nation with broad and
fundamental interests in the Arctic region,” as the president’s new Arctic
policy states; maintains 20,000 troops in Alaska;
has a key missile-warning base above the Arctic Circle (Thule Air Base in
Greenland is 750 miles north of the Arctic Circle); and has the capacity to
project its military into any region.
However, the United
States has only two operational polar icebreakers—one of which is a medium-duty
vessel tasked largely to scientific missions and the other of which has
exceeded its 30-year lifespan. Russia, by contrast, deploys more than 20 heavy-duty
It wasn’t always this way. Adm. Robert Papp, chief
of the U.S. Coast Guard, notes that the U.S.
deployed eight heavy icebreakers at the height of the Cold War. He warns that
this icebreaker gap could haunt the United States. “While our Navy can
go under the ice with submarines—and, when the Arctic weather permits, which is
not all that often, we can fly over the ice—our nation has very limited Arctic
surface capabilities. But surface capabilities are what we need to conduct
missions like search and rescue, environmental response, and to provide a
consistent and visible sovereign presence,” he explains.
A new heavy-duty
icebreaker would cost $852 million—a huge
expenditure given the cutting and gutting currently underway in Washington.
Policymakers have slashedbillions from the Pentagon’s long-term budget, translating into a smaller
military with slower reflexes, a shorter reach and a diminished role in the
what makes allied cooperation in the Arctic so crucial. If the United States
and its Arctic allies can agree on a common approach to Arctic security, combine
their capabilities, and play niche security roles in the Arctic, they can deal
with Moscow from a posture of strength and deter conflict.
*Dowd is a senior fellow with the American Security Council Foundation, where he writes The Dowd Report, a monthly review of international events and their impact on U.S. national security.