When you hear the phrase “anti-access,” what region of the world do you think of? Most likely it’s the Asia-Pacific. Maybe the Persian Gulf, or if you think a lot about land forces, even Europe. You almost certainly don’t think about the Arctic. But in today’s world, you unquestionably should.
Protecting the global commons and ensuring freedom of navigation around the world has long been a prime U.S. strategic goal. Much of this enduring interest has been driven by the vital role of the commons – air, sea, space, and cyber space – to the global economy and its interconnected web of global trade. For many years, the United States has been emphasizing growing anti-access and area denial threats in Asia, the Gulf, and beyond that may threaten this crucial U.S. interest. Access to the Arctic, which has historically been largely ice-bound and mostly inaccessible, has not traditionally presented major cause for concern. Yet that is now rapidly changing.
For the United States and its allies, the Arctic – often also called the High North by some European countries – today represents a new frontier of both economic opportunity and possible conflict. Two significant trends are converging to make this region a looming anti-access problem as well as an increasingly important U.S. national security issue.
First, climate change is melting the Arctic at an unprecedented rate. Since the 1970s, the Arctic sea ice has decreased by more than 13 percent each decade. Many scientists project that the Arctic will be seasonally ice-free by as soon as 2030. The United States, which started its two-year term as the chair of the Arctic Council on April 24, plans to make addressing the effects of climate change one of its top leadership priorities.
Climate change is creating an entirely new ocean in the north, as previously frozen passageways become navigable for some or all of the year. Voyages along the Northern Sea Route above Russia between the Kara Sea and the Pacific Ocean have been increasing – including the first transit by a supertanker in 2011. Voyages through the Northwest Passage and the Bering Strait have also multiplied in recent years, and these numbers will only continue to accelerate as the ice continues to melt. Commercial interests alone reaffirm the critical need to maintain freedom of navigation through all of the world’s waterways.
Second, Russia is rapidly improving its ability to threaten access to the High North. Since Russia symbolically planted a flag under the North Pole in 2007, it has been heavily investing in a wide range of military capabilities in this area. These include building new bases and airfields, establishing a unified Northern Joint Strategic Command to improve command and control of all Russian military forces in the Arctic, and planning to deploy new radar sites and surface-to-air missile systems.
These military investments would be cause enough for concern, but are even more disturbing given Russian aggression in Ukraine and its increasingly assertive behavior in the Arctic. To take just a few examples, Norway intercepted 74 Russian warplanes conducting air patrols on its coast in 2014 – 27 percent more than in 2013 and up from a total of 11 intercepts 10 years ago. In March, Russia responded to a long-planned Norwegian military exercise of 5,000 personnel with a snap exercise (one that had not been previously announced) of 45,000 personnel and some forward deployed nuclear forces. Russian submarines have also been suspected of operating off the coast of Sweden, and last week, Finland dropped depth charges against a suspected foreign submarine within its territorial waters.
Taken together, these two trends pose a substantial and to date largely unnoticed anti-access challenge for the United States and its allies. As the number of navigable waterways is increasing, so too is Russia’s ability to control access to the strategically important region to its north and west.
The United States and its allies are strikingly unprepared to address this growing anti-access challenge. The U.S. government has issued a flurry of Arctic strategies in recent years – including the 2013 National Strategy for the Arctic Region, the 2013 Department of Defense Arctic Strategy, and a January 2015 executive order on coordinating U.S. efforts in the Arctic. But these strategies are not resourced, and they do not go far enough. They assert the importance of access in the Arctic, but they do not address what the United States needs to do in order to maintain and ensure that access. Four specific actions are needed.
First, the U.S. must rapidly develop a credible ice-breaking capability. The United States owns three polar icebreakers, but only two are heavy enough to break through winter ice, and one of those is inoperable. The service life of the remaining heavy icebreaker will end in the 2020s, and no funds have been allocated for a replacement. Russia, by comparison, owns more than three dozen icebreakers, including four heavy ones. And despite the continued melting of Arctic ice, deploying capable icebreakers remains essential in order to assure year-round access.
The U.S. Coast Guard, which maintains the U.S. icebreaker fleet, has estimated that it needs three medium and three heavy icebreakers in order to meet its requirements – but those requirements could increase as geopolitical tensions increase and the Arctic continues to open. The cost of building a new heavy icebreaker is somewhere around $1 billion. That means for a fraction of the cost of a single new destroyer, the United States could ensure year-round access to all parts of the frozen north. Yet President Obama’s FY16 budget requests only $4 million for this purpose, and Congress remains unlikely to allocate any additional funds. This effectively denies the United States access for its surface vessels to vast portions of the Arctic during much of the year, a major operational vulnerability – and one that effectively cedes much of the region to Russia.
Second, the United States needs to work with its allies to improve maritime domain awareness in the Arctic. Expanded satellite surveillance, increased submarine and aircraft patrols, and freedom of navigation surface and air sorties can serve to provide critical information on emerging military activities as well as vital meteorological data needed to understand the polar icecap and surrounding waters.
Third, the United States and its NATO allies must embark on a transparent yet substantive peacetime presence and military exercise program to reestablish a regular presence in the Arctic. The United States and its allies should demonstrate their ability to operate in the forbidding climate of the Arctic, just as the Russian military is doing, in order to reinforce standards of international access and freedom of the seas. Such an exercise program would not only help deter Russian adventurism, but would also help maintain a wider international presence while building better working relationships among Western stakeholders.
Fourth, the United States should continue pushing NATO to take on a greater role in Arctic security issues, particularly in the European High North. As we’ve argued elsewhere, the Arctic is NATO’s newest front. Many of the previous steps include working with U.S. allies on a bilateral or multilateral basis, but the alliance as an institution needs to become more involved in the Arctic as well. NATO should increase its regional maritime security efforts, and the member states should consider making NATO the lead organization for Arctic security. Canada has long opposed such a NATO role, due to its concerns about sovereignty and precedents that could affect the Northwest Passage. Yet NATO must find a way to assuage Canadian concerns while also addressing the growing threats to the alliance’s northern and eastern members.
Some U.S. allies are concerned that steps like those identified above will militarize the region or unnecessarily provoke Russia into even more aggressive actions. But Russia has already done so in many ways – and the reality of growing Russian military capabilities combined with Russia’s assertive behavior means that the United States and its allies need to hedge against this potential threat. Russian aggression in Eastern Europe is unlikely to remain isolated to that Russian border, and the Arctic provides a highly tempting and largely unprotected frontier for further Russian adventurism. The United States and its allies should not intentionally provoke Russia in the Arctic but must do what is required – in a fully open manner – to protect open access to this key region.
The Arctic poses a significant anti-access challenge to the United States that deserves serious attention. A new and more comprehensive approach is needed, as are the resources needed to maintain continuous and open access to the Arctic. Military capabilities need improvement, and military presence increased by expanding regular patrols and exercises. These activities can hedge against the potential for greater Russian adventurism, while remaining below the threshold of overt provocation. Absent these steps, the High North is at risk of falling largely under Russian influence, if not absolute control. Without action now, the United States and its friends risk losing access to this strategically important region for the 21st century.