Iceberg Dead Ahead! Deconstructing the Pentagon’s Arctic Strategies


The Arctic is burning. Over the summer, Greenland experienced record temperatures and a “giant heat dome” descended on Alaska. Stunning satellite imagery of the record number of fires in the Arctic highlights the impact of climate change on this important region. The confluence of severe climate events and daunting predictions for ice melt in the Arctic is drawing international attention. Likewise, the American defense establishment has begun to appreciate the significance of the region for the first time since the Cold War.

Noticing a problem, however, is not the same as solving it. Although the Pentagon has produced two Arctic strategies since 2016, both focus more on describing the regional security environment than on advocating for specific policies. The warming of the Arctic — which has implications for important U.S. interests — demands a new strategy that is unafraid to take positions and make difficult tradeoffs.

The Arctic Context

Despite its sparse population, the Arctic is a region with its own unique political environment. Russia is the dominant actor, as it controls 50 percent of Arctic coastline, fields the greatest military capabilities in the region, and dominates the Arctic economy. Meanwhile, most seasoned politicians in the Nordic countries and Canada still hope that “Arctic exceptionalism” (the belief that diplomacy can be conducted irrespective of broader global geopolitics) will continue to reign. Though the United States is an Arctic nation, it has been noticeably absent from the region as a leader (for the past few decades, at least). This American absenteeism stands in stark contrast to the United States’ involvement in other regions, even where it does not hold territory. Meanwhile, China is the main source of foreign direct investment in the Arctic — far outpacing the United States — giving it growing clout as it makes the case for regional leadership.



Regional geopolitics are starting to reflect the competing interests of the great powers. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attended the Arctic Council Ministerial meeting this year and blew it up (figuratively) when he issued “stern warnings” to Russia and China, and called Canadian claims “illegitimate.” The key disagreement between the American delegation and others at the meeting related to views on climate change. This was the first time in history that this ministerial did not result in a joint declaration. Regardless of whether one agrees with the American position on climate change, the United States’ heavy-handedness is new for the Arctic.

The Pentagon’s Arctic Strategy

The Defense Department has released two Arctic defense strategies in recent years, one in 2016 and the other in early 2019. The December 2016 strategy was notable for what it did not say: it promised no additional resources nor high prioritization for Arctic issues. Instead, the strategy discussed working with partners and allies to mitigate gaps where Washington is not prioritizing Arctic issues.

In 2019, the Department of Defense published a new Arctic strategy after Congress required an update to the 2016 version. While early sections of the strategy do a good job of contextualizing the region and providing a threat assessment, the “ways” and “means” portions of the document avoid committing the Defense Department to any specific actions. The end of the document includes service-level updates that articulate the status quo, but do not reposition any of the services to treat the Arctic differently.

The 2019 strategy places a stronger emphasis on deterrence and great power competition, but still lacks any commitment to resourcing, except that it specifically commits to not trying to keep pace with Russia’s military build-up in the Arctic. The strategy does commit to enhanced surveillance and monitoring efforts, however, which are much needed. The strategy also cites cold weather training — an improvement to tactical readiness and proficiency, but hardly a strategic objective — as a potential benefit of participation in Arctic exercises.

The Defense Department strategy and service leadership speaking on Arctic issues all emphasize roughly similar points:

  • The warming Arctic is bringing more commercial activity;
  • Russia is building up forces but, so far, they are behaving defensively;
  • China’s investment presence and growing interest in the Arctic is concerning; and
  • The United States relies on allies and partners in the region to help address all three of the above issues.

These points are all valid. However, the United States has never satisfied itself with relying completely upon partners and allies in great power competition. The United States will usually articulate its leadership in counterbalancing other powers, even when relying on the help of partners and allies. Meanwhile, U.S. partners and allies look to the United States in hopes that it can help supplement their resource limitations as well.

Some of these resource deficits are more important than others. The Department of Defense is rightly focused on surveillance and monitoring. The dirty little secret of the Arctic is that we do not really know what is happening up there. Canada only recently launched satellites and expanded the Canadian Air Defence Identification Zone to enable the possibility of surveilling of the entire country. Even so, Canada’s new Arctic Policy Framework does not commit to funding full surveillance of the North American Arctic. In other words, before now, we could not see all of the Canadian Arctic. The U.S. Coast Guard also readily admits that it has limited ability to cover the entire Alaskan Coast.

As with most strategies, the Pentagon’s Arctic strategy leaves implementation to the services and the combatant commands. Thus far, there has been little-to-no realignment at a strategic level. U.S. Northern Command and U.S. European Command (and arguably U.S. Indo-Pacific Command) each have responsibility for part of the Arctic. Despite being required by the 2016 strategy to resolve potential gaps, to date it does not appear that a specific realignment or gap assessment has occurred. The services instead have been taking the lead.

Marine Corps

The most well-known U.S. military investment in the Arctic is the rotational presence of two Marine Corps companies in Norway, which began in 2017. Though they are technically stationed below the Arctic, their proximity to the Norwegian-Russian border makes their presence strategically notable.

Russia is displeased with the Marine Corps’ presence, calling it an “attack” and a Norwegian betrayal of a longstanding promise not to permanently station foreign troops on their soil. The ability to pique Russian ire demonstrates the outsized geopolitical impact these 700 Marines have been able to garner, merely through their presence.

General Robert Neller, the recently-retired commandant of the Marine Corps, made sparse comments about the rotational presence, but his few remarks focused on the value of cold-weather training. If cold-weather training were the ultimate goal, the Marine Corps could remain within the United States and not trigger the geopolitical ramifications and logistical headache of rotating marines through a foreign country. Two major results of this rotational presence — reassuring NATO and the Norwegians that the Marine Corps is investing in their security and disrupting Russia’s sense of security in the region — are the noteworthy strategic benefits of the rotational presence.

Navy & Coast Guard

The Navy and the Coast Guard are the only two services that currently have their own written Arctic strategies. The Navy’s strategy is simultaneously unambitious (aspiring to a “flexible, periodic presence” in the Arctic) and potentially aggressive due to its citing of the potential for freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) in the region. Asked whether the Navy had the resources to execute the Pentagon’s Arctic strategy, the Government Accountability Office reached the underwhelming conclusion that since the strategy identifies the region as “low risk” for conflict, the maritime resources committed to the region are adequate to meet the strategy.

Rather than take a deliberate approach to expanding capability, the secretary of the Navy announced in January that he wanted to send surface ships into the Arctic to improve their ability to navigate in cold environments, an ostensibly tactical justification for Arctic exercises. Then he added they might pursue freedom of navigation operations in the Arctic this summer.

With limited sea lanes due to ice cover, freedom of navigation operations could only mean one of two things: challenging Russia’s or Canada’s claims to territorial seas in the Arctic. The last time the United States attempted freedom of navigation operations near Russia, shots were nearly fired. After Washington attempted freedom of navigation operations near Canada, Ottawa required resolution at the level of the president and the prime minister. Both countries make claims that the United States considers illegal under international law by the United States. Challenging Canada seems silly; challenging Russia seems dangerous. Challenging neither may now seem weak. What started as a potential tactical exercise in improving proficiency has now become a strategic question of “will-they-won’t-they” for the U.S. Navy.

The most strategic investments for the Navy are new icebreakers, coming online in about five years. These ships are sorely needed and will be operated by the U.S. Coast Guard despite being funded through the Navy (the Polar Security Cutter program is a joint project of the Navy and Coast Guard). Russia’s military presence in the Arctic outpaces the United States in nearly every dimension, but the most often cited example is icebreakers. The U.S. arguably has two right now while Russia has over 40, with more coming on line each year. This joint procurement for the Navy and Coast Guard is essential to enable the Coast Guard to perform its mission domestically, and it will also enable credible future statements about things like FONOPS, which now seem fanciful.

Submarines are the key to strategic Arctic dominance. Russia’s Northern Fleet, headquartered on the Kola Peninsula near the Norwegian border, is the strategic threat in the region. The Navy’s Second Fleet is charged with countering this threat in the North Atlantic, but curiously Second Fleet gets no mention in the Navy’s strategy (nor do submarines, except for a mention of ICEX, a biannual exercise involving some ice-capable submarines).

The Coast Guard’s own Arctic Strategy is a rewrite of a 2013 strategy (the only of its kind at the time among the U.S. services). Vice Admiral Daniel Abel recently commented that the new strategy was necessary because Arctic conditions have changed so substantially in the past few years. The Coast Guard is the U.S. service with the most sustained Arctic operational expertise, and is severely under-resourced. The Coast Guard, perhaps more than any other service, relies on international cooperation and institutions, which is reflected in its strategy. Above all else, the Coast Guard’s newest strategy focuses more on making a case for the federal government to prioritize much-needed resourcing of the Coast Guard than it does on the Coast Guard’s own strategic vision.

Air Force

NORAD is starting to address, for the first time, the Arctic as a potential target in itself, rather than as merely the airspace through which Russian planes and missiles might travel toward the lower 48 states. Though one wonders about possible scenarios for targeting the Arctic, as greater commercial activity and populations increase in the region, the need for defense and security will as well. Nevertheless, the Arctic’s relevance and importance for the Air Force (and for the United States writ large) has long been as airspace through which Russia would approach — either with aircraft or missiles.

Since the Cold War, the Air Force has taken the lead on protecting the United States from Russian threats, and aside from the Coast Guard, it has the most consistent interaction with Russia, in the form of intercepts of Russian planes. And, like the other services, there are gaps in the Air Force’s cold weather capability. An op-ed in January by the outgoing secretary of the Air Force and the Air Force chief of staff highlighted the need to think strategically about the Arctic — a point that the Pentagon appears to be behind on. Air defense, missile defense, and air power projection will all be essential components of a robust Arctic strategy. Despite these facts, the Air Force does not yet have an Arctic strategy, though it is clearly paying attention to the region (and may have a strategy in the works).


The Army’s Arctic focus has, perhaps rightly, been on operational requirements of the Alaska National Guard and cold weather training. Cold weather training is most useful for increasing readiness to fight in places other than the Arctic (land battles in/near Russia, China, or Korea) than it is a strategic tool for the Arctic. Recent scholarship from the Army War College cites the potential uses of increasing Army presence in the Arctic for human security reasons, but so-called “human security” issues are likely better addressed by non-uniformed actors. Moving bodies to Alaska by itself likely takes them away from potential fights or deployments, which are most likely to occur near the European Arctic/North Atlantic. Focusing on these operational concerns may actually undermine strategic objectives, depending on how they are defined.

Looking for Strategic Vision, not Strategic Description

A lot of thought is coming out of the services and the Defense Department on the Arctic. For now, the strategies coming out of the military are descriptive rather than normative. The Pentagon has defined the problem, but that’s all. They depict the emerging complexities in the region, but there are notable gaps on how to address them or in providing a vision of the region for the future.

The Pentagon should be “showing” not “telling” the world that it is thinking strategically about the Arctic. Rather than insist that it is thinking strategically, and then merely reciting the list of strategic considerations in the Arctic, the Defense Department could do more to showcase seriousness about the Arctic. Funding icebreakers and rotating marines through Norway, as stated above, are two key signals. However, that’s just a start. One wonders whether these are the only two exceptions that perhaps prove the notion that the Arctic is still mostly being overlooked strategically.

Instead, a strategy for the Arctic should answer the core strategic issues affecting U.S. interests. First, the strategy should address the role of submarines, as undersea warfare will play a prominent role in any Arctic conflict with Russia. Currently, the Navy’s strategy does not address submarines, nor does it mention the recent reorganization that resulted in reactivation of the 2nd Fleet, which renews the Navy’s coverage of the North Atlantic. The strategy should also provide an important point of clarification, especially for U.S. allies, around where Arctic security interacts with North Atlantic security.

Likewise, much could be said about missile defense in the Arctic — this is the legacy mission that the Pentagon has performed for decades. America’s major ballistic missile defense assets are located in Alaska, with indications and warning capabilities located in Canada and Greenland as well. This is almost completely overlooked in the existing strategy documents.

These are just a couple of the many overlooked strategic considerations in the Defense Department’s Arctic strategic thinking. The Pentagon is nearly there: problem definition is often the toughest part of strategy development. Nevertheless, more work is required to produce a coherent strategy and approach to the Arctic that will adequately address its many emerging challenges. The Defense Department’s written documents should commit to action and investment in Arctic capability and capacity, and its actions should be consistent with those promises.



Lindsay L. Rodman is a fellow at NYU School of Law’s Reiss Center on Law and Security and an officer in the Marine Corps Reserves. She was the inaugural Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow (Canada), where she studied Arctic Security. She is also executive vice president, communications and legal strategy at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).

The opinions presented in this article are the author’s own, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Marine Corps, CFR or IAVA.

Image: U.S. Coast Guard (Photo by Chief Petty Officer David Mosley)


CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that, “The Trump administration has released two Arctic defense strategies, one in 2016 and the second earlier this year.” This wasn’t correct, since the administration didn’t assume office until January 2017. The first Arctic strategy of the Trump administration was released in February 2017 and the second in June 2019. For further context, the former document was drafted during the Obama administration and is dated December 2016. Nevertheless, it was published and publicly released by the Trump administration in February 2017.