Stability in the Arctic: Dancing with Polar Bears

June 18, 2015

Whether you believe the East Coast of the United States will be flooded out in the next 90 years, or that climate change is so unsubstantiated that the term should be banned, there is only one reality up north: The Arctic is becoming more accessible by ship. In 2013, 71 ships carrying 1.35 million tons of cargo transited the Arctic Sea along the Northeast Passage off the coast of Russia, and while 2014 saw a drop off to 53 ships, this could be traced to lower oil prices, and is still significant. This number is expected to grow, exhibiting the importance of the Arctic on the future of world trade. Time is money and the ability to cut two weeks off the transit time from Asia to Europe will drive commercial shipping to rely more and more on the Arctic passage. While the United States recently took over chairmanship of the Arctic Council — an intergovernmental forum focused on cooperation, coordination, and interaction among the Arctic states — the council’s charter focuses on sustainable development and not national or international security. Even with this new leadership position, Washington is still struggling in the debate over the Arctic. In their recent War on the Rocks article, Gen. David Barno and Dr. Nora Bensahel lay out a strong argument for why the Arctic is a growing concern and make recommendations on the way ahead: Build more icebreakers, increase maritime domain awareness, increase exercises in the Arctic and stress NATO’s role. While I agree with their views, there is more that can be done.

The United States certainly needs more icebreakers; however, current proposals to fund them via the Navy are misguided. Leasing icebreakers, increased engagement, increased presence and defining the future of the Arctic security architecture with Arctic players are required now. Russian expansionism is a reality, but most of the focus has been on its land grabs, from Georgia to Ukraine. However, Russian activity in the Arctic is also increasing, from military maneuvers, renewed basing and preparations for increased oil drilling. Russia is opening 10 Arctic search-and-rescue stations, 16 deep-water ports, 13 airfields, and 10 air-defense radar stations across its Arctic periphery. The possibility that Russian claims will expand even further into the Arctic is a strong one, as Russia pursues mineral rights and seeks to dominate shipping routes.

As Russia expands northward, the United States Congress continues to disagree on the reality of climate change and debates how to fund another icebreaker. Our inability to influence polar operations has not gone unnoticed. Beyond Moscow, Beijing has taken note, and is positioning to increase China’s presence in the Antarctic. China is building additional icebreakers, and is scouting locations for the country’s fifth Antarctic outpost, perhaps in anticipation of when current Antarctic treaties expire in 2048.

There is one area where most American policymakers agree, however. If we want to be a player in the Arctic, the United States must be able to get to the Arctic, and that means icebreakers, of which the United States does not have enough (in theory, it currently has three, but in reality only one). Recently lawmakers have proposed adding six icebreakers to the fleet of three, but at a billion dollars per ship, they are way outside the Coast Guard’s budgetary reach. In recent testimony to the Senate Subcommittee on oceans, atmosphere, fisheries and Coast Guard, the current Commandant, Admiral Zukunft, acknowledged precedent exists to fund icebreakers from the Navy budget, and transfer them back to the Coast Guard. That is exactly what the proposed congressional language recommends. While this is certainly a viable option for the Coast Guard, (other people’s money is always preferred for large purchases), a decision to fund icebreakers via the U.S. Navy could have a deleterious effect on national security. There is a potential for misalignment of the strategic priorities in our government. While few would argue the need for icebreakers, funding them with the Navy’s ship building budget is not the right answer. The Navy’s current ship building budget is about $15.7 billion per year, with projected shipbuilding costs of $19.7 billion per year. If the Senate is willing to consider Navy funding of an icebreaker, it will hurt the Navy’s ability to fund the ballistic missile submarine program. While icebreakers are unquestionably a necessity for Arctic access, strategic nuclear deterrence — which is a language Russia understands — is, has been, and will continue to be a necessity for U.S. national security for the foreseeable future. Jeopardizing the stealthiest leg of the nuclear triad is not the answer. The Navy’s current ballistic missile submarine fleet is aging out of service, and the Navy is struggling to find the $4 billion dollar annual shortfall to replace them. Congress must increase the Coast Guard’s limited ship building budget, and stop looking at national security as a zero-sum game.

Until Congress can come up with a funding strategy to purchase icebreakers that is less damaging to long term U.S. security, the U.S. national security apparatus must come up with additional strategies for the Arctic, such as:

  • Lease icebreakers, which, while certainly suboptimal and with a high front-end cost, would provide a temporary solution. While all the legal aspects of leasing are unclear, the Coast Guard has previously acknowledged that leasing for a few years might make sense.
  • Continue increased multilateral military exercises in the Arctic.
  • Expand the current Coast Guard capabilities in the Arctic with permanent basing to stage SAR/environmental protection response resources, and establish a high latitude port facility. As shipping and oil exploration increase, the United States will need more Coast Guard experts in Arctic search and rescue. (Formalizing collective search and rescue by defining each country’s roles should continue to be a priority for the Arctic Council, as well.)

The White House, through the Department of Defense, should also hold an Arctic summit specifically to address the militarization of the Arctic. The summit would include the State Department, NATO nations, and other members of the Arctic Council, but with a focus on national security issues, not tied to the Arctic Council charter.

While it is challenging for many to visualize a crisis in the Arctic, the potential for one is increasing.   As new stretches of the global commons open, U.S. leadership and action are crucial to the stability of one of the last ungoverned stretches of geography. Fund the icebreakers, but not at the expense of the Navy.

 

Captain Robert N. Hein is a career Surface Warfare Officer. He previously commanded the USS Gettysburg (CG-64) and the USS Nitze (DDG-94). He is currently the Navy’s Federal Executive Fellow at The Brookings Institution.  The views and opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect those of the Navy or the Department of Defense. He can be reached at RHein@Brookings.edu.