The once-impenetrable Northwest Passage, along the Alaskan and Canadian coast, and the Northeast Passage, along the Russian coast, were both navigable in the summer of 2008.
“If you think strategy relates somehow to means and investment in means then we don’t have a strategy,” said Robert Laird, a security consultant based in Washington and Paris. “You have five stakeholders in the Arctic,” he said. The U.S., Russia, Denmark, Norway and Canada each have Arctic territory. “The only country that’s not strategic in this is us.”
At best, maritime forces will be stretched to cover more coast, patrolling, providing surveillance and rescuing those imperiled at sea over greater territory.
At worst, the U.S. may be drawn into a resource war in which the five Arctic countries hash out territorial claims to seafloor mining of minerals and energy stores, while an even greater number of states advances claims on fishing territory and transportation routes.
“The general rule for oceans is whoever can get there can develop it,” said U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Robert Watts, the Coast Guard service chair at the National War College. “Unless it’s in someone’s (exclusive economic zone), it’s free turf.” Exclusive economic zones are a fixture of international law that entitles countries to develop resources found within 200 miles of their coast.
The U.S. Department of State has an Arctic policy that articulates national security and defense among its principal objectives in the region. And as early as 2001, the Navy was theorizing what its role would be if the Arctic were to become navigable. As “if” became “when,” Navy leaders intensified their studies, in November releasing an “Arctic Roadmap, followed by a “Climate Change Roadmap” in May.
But a report last March from the Congressional Research Service said the Coast Guard’s proposed 2011 budget contains no funding to acquire, build or improve polar icebreakers, the primary vessel for maintaining a U.S. presence in the Arctic.
“We’re not building any assets,” Laird said. “We have a lot of words. We have one functioning ice breaker.”
The Coast Guard, which is a part of the Department of Homeland Security, is responsible for maritime security, search and rescue and law-enforcement functions and owns the three Ice-breaking ships in the U.S. fleet. The Navy, a military branch within the Department of Defense, projects U.S. power abroad. Each have responsibilities for patrolling U.S. coastal waters.
A changing Arctic is likely to influence the future makeup of U.S. Naval forces, said Derek Reveron, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. Submarines will no longer be able to hide under permanent ice and if the U.S. role in the Arctic increases, the dominance of the Navy’s staple aircraft carrier may give way to a different fleet makeup, Reveron said.
“At the end of the day,” Reveron said. “The Navy is what it buys.”