Focusing the Military Services’ Arctic Strategies


There is no public Air Force Middle East strategy, no high-profile Latin America strategy from the Army, no Navy Africa strategy. So why are the services now competing to release Arctic ones? As the Biden administration fills out its national security team, new and returning arrivals will face a curious development in Arctic defense policy: the proliferation of Arctic strategies from the service branches. The Navy and Marine Corps released a new strategy in January 2021, only the latest in a series of forthcoming and updated content from the Army, the Department of the Air Force, the Navy (again, in 2019), and (in the Department of Homeland Security) the Coast Guard. Is this plethora of strategies constructive in advancing U.S. Arctic policy? What is driving this unusual phenomenon?

The answer is complex. Service branches are typically responsible for implementing strategy, not serving as the initial source identifying and setting Arctic strategy. That role lies with civilian policymakers and operational commanders. But the service branches shouldn’t be criticized for publishing strategy. They are often filling a gap left by others, and they bring a needed perspective on high-latitude training and acquisition — as long as they are sufficiently coordinated with the primary institutions responsible for producing Arctic strategy. The answer to this mixed blessing of multiple service Arctic documents is for the incoming Biden administration to reenergize White House and diplomatic strategies for the region, impose more coordination in the Defense Department above the service branches and across geographic commands, and refocus the Arctic defense conversation on critical near-term investment needs.



Arctic as the Final Frontier

To understand why the service branches would produce these documents at all, it is first necessary to explore why the Arctic is unique relative to other theaters and who is interested in its development as a growing frontier for the military.

The harsh and forbidding physical terrain of the region demands a specific approach. Arctic operations benefit from specialized training and materiel not immediately applicable in other theaters. A force that is more active in the Arctic needs distinct acquisitions, from icebreakers to high-latitude communications capabilities. A force that is more active in the Arctic also needs specialized training, including in maintaining and operating equipment in extreme cold. And because some acquisitions or trainings are uniquely suited for the Arctic, they impose opportunity costs on alternative platforms and skills with more universal applications. So service spending on the Arctic comes with a need to put the region in a much broader context than might be the case for something like a destroyer, which can operate just as effectively in the conditions of the Mediterranean as it can in the Pacific or south Atlantic.

Another clear driver in the development of Arctic strategies is that they are often a function of congressional interest. This is most obviously the case with the Pentagon’s 2019 Arctic strategy, which says as much right in the name, “Report to Congress: Department of Defense Arctic Strategy,” but may also be evinced by the rise of Arctic strategies as far afield as that of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or the brand-new DHS strategy. Congressional focus on the Arctic produces churn in the services and across the government — sometimes for the better. And while much of this is driven by the Alaska delegation, Arctic interests are increasingly a bipartisan passion on the Hill. It is this demand signal that has helped force the Arctic onto the map for the Pentagon, and the service strategies are a product of this push.

There are plenty of reasons why the Arctic may be an increasingly important space for policymaking, as is intimated by the large deployment of F-35 aircraft to Alaska or the rise in Navy deployments to the Barents Sea. The region, once a final frontier of scientific exploration, may now be the first frontier in a shifting global order stressed by climate change, human migration, and resource competition. Already, Russian activity in the north Pacific Arctic has accelerated, as have Russian submarine deployments (which are historically centered around the Arctic). U.S. Arctic infrastructure, which helps detect inbound aerospace threats from missiles to aircraft, is both aged and falling prey to permafrost thaw.

So, although the Arctic is both operationally distinct and increasingly of interest to policymakers, this understanding alone does not explain how the service branches became so prominent in drafting Arctic policy.

Service Branches Should Come Second

Service branch strategies are not the usual starting point for building Arctic defense policy because the services are not the central actors for setting or implementing that policy. Ideally, they should speak to the how — organize, train, equip — but not the why, as the latter is the purview of those civilians who set national and defense priorities. Civilians may publish these strategies – the service secretaries signed the strategies of both the Department of the Navy and the Department of the Air Force – and thus lend the appearance of civilian oversight. But the services are not the nodal point for setting foreign or defense policy, which is a larger issue of the civil-military divide. The Office of the Secretary of Defense has partially answered the mail on civilian oversight with the 2019 report required by Congress, but with remaining gaps in direction from the White House and State Department.

One reason why we see service branches taking on leading roles in Arctic policy development may stem from the fact that U.S. national Arctic strategy is fragmented among civilian agencies. Extant guidance spans at least three presidents, stretching back to National Security Presidential Directive 66 in the final days of the Bush administration and on into the Obama era’s 2013 national strategy (which has yet to be replaced). There is, moreover, an unusually large interagency footprint for the Arctic as compared to some other regions. When looking at the various institutional executors for the tasks set out in the 2016 implementation framework for the 2013 strategy, it is evident that the Defense Department (let alone the services) is not the only major player. The Coast Guard, the State Department, NOAA, the Department of the Interior, and the Environmental Protection Agency dominated the taskings. The Department of Defense arises sparingly. Service strategies fit into a much more robust national civilian architecture of Arctic equities that are difficult for the services to navigate without more help at higher levels in the Pentagon.

Further, that the various service branches release separate strategies may partially be a function of the military’s own fractured command and control of the Arctic. At the joint level, Northern Command and European Command divide responsibility for the Arctic (with the former the official resource advocate). At the service level, it can be even more fractured, as with the Navy’s split of Arctic responsibilities across elements of the Second, Third, and Sixth fleets. Without a clear leader among the service branches, much less atop them at the civilian policy level, each service branch is adopting aspects of Arctic policymaking under its own aegis, further splintering the region’s responsibilities.

The result of service strategies proliferating in this context is a lot of energy being spent on thinking about what services need for competition in the Arctic (again, an important debate) but a much less robust institutional U.S. government view on what the purpose and nature of that competition should be. The more services rush to answer the how, without better guidance on the why, the harder it becomes to make informed decisions about prioritizing limited resources. And while the Arctic may be rising in prominence, so long as it remains secondary for the Defense Department to Europe and the Indo-Pacific (and even the Persian Gulf, in practice), it will remain critical to assign resources based on a comprehensive sense of strategic guidance and operational requirements. The Arctic thereby risks being a region where strategies can score rhetorical points while deferring costs to other actors, in contrast to areas where geography and commander are more clearly aligned. In such an environment, threats and challenges in the Arctic risk being framed as existing mostly in the not too distant future, which is another way of saying not right now.

Making Sense of the Policy Picture

So, what should be done to redirect the promulgation of service strategies toward the need to promote strategic civilian guidance, operational voices, and near-term investments?

First, the new administration should consolidate top-level White House and defense Arctic policy to better organize and subsume the service products. Updating the 2013 national Arctic strategy and its accompanying implementation framework is low-hanging fruit and would impose an interagency benchmark against which defense policy can align. The Defense Department should mirror the State Department’s move to (re)establish an Arctic coordinator to implement more coordination. This is not a new proposal. The Navy commissioned a study on a Pentagon executive agent for the Arctic back in 2015. And at an interagency level, the Obama administration established the Arctic Executive Steering Committee to introduce more coordination on Arctic policy across the bureaucracy. Emulating those moves inside the Department of Defense, with an eye toward internal harmonization of the department’s Arctic policy, would help streamline and integrate the myriad strategies emanating from across branches and ensure that services aren’t inadvertently setting regional foreign policy in the absence of higher guidance. A coordinator can also help the services integrate into the larger network of civilian agencies with their own robust Arctic equities. The requirement in the Fiscal Year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act to formalize a new bureaucratic home for the Arctic in the Office of the Secretary of Defense could be co-opted to build momentum toward the larger goal of an Arctic coordinator.

Second, the Navy in particular should reconsider its Arctic command lines. Critically, new commands are often easy but ineffectual proposals to fix deeper-seated issues, and thus simply adding an “Arctic Command” may not be the best way to produce consolidated strategic leadership on the region. Still, there is reason to believe that the Navy’s lines are not optimally drawn in light of the growing attention on the Arctic. At a Center for Naval Analyses event this past summer, one expert called for the establishment of an Arctic fleet. In response, the Second Fleet commander proposed exploring revisions at the component level. The Arctic has long been a domain for aerospace defense, as testified by the existence of NORAD. Yet the region’s evolving littoral character, given the opening of the Arctic ocean, makes its emergence as a maritime theater for surface naval operations the greatest stressor on legacy command lines. The debate on how to rectify the maritime Arctic’s status as caught between commands highlights how acutely the Navy will feel these seams as climate change progresses. Larger combatant command revisions are unlikely and potentially unhelpful but at the component level, the Navy faces a real incentive to elevate a clearer operational Arctic voice to set the requirements that feed into its service statements.

Finally, all stakeholders should think of the Arctic in the present tense. Is the region the most important theater in an era of strategic competition? Probably not. But climate change is molding the Arctic, politically and physically, right now. Permafrost thaw and rising sea levels threaten military infrastructure. Runways, ports, support sites, and radar stations are all vulnerable as the Arctic warms at twice the global rate. Aging installations and infrastructure are sitting atop a slipping topography. Simultaneously, and even in the absence of an expansive regional threat from Russia or China, climate change means that the Navy and Air Force will likely operate in the north more than they did in the past. Shifting the debate toward near-term improvements that are needed no matter the region’s geopolitical future is a good way to start focusing on what expenditures are important and who is responsible for executing them.


Service Arctic strategies are part of the toolkit for building a force capable of operating in a uniquely austere environment. Yet they have gained an outsized prominence in the Arctic policymaking process in part because of conditions beyond the services’ control: congressional demands, misaligned command and control lines, and limited development of higher-level strategic guidance. And so, the solution to the prominence of service strategies is not to simply stop their publication but rather to reform the Arctic strategy process they exist  within. This includes reinforcing the obligation for institutions like the White House and the Department of State to set the foreign policy agenda and place service strategies in a context that accounts for the robust footprint of other interagency stakeholders. A Defense Department node for internal coordination and external engagement on Arctic issues would further serve to streamline a process that often seems to lack central guidance. Reforming the strategy process also means putting service strategies in a context that better includes the requirements of combatant commands and their components, some of which (as with the Navy) might benefit from the creation of a clearer operational Arctic voice. Finally, even as Arctic strategies must wrestle with the implications of long-term changes in the region, policymaking would benefit from a renewed focus on nearer-term commitments in order to help prioritize limited resources. Without such reforms, these documents risk generating more heat than light. Through these changes, however, the Biden administration’s new Pentagon arrivals can make the best use of the many policy innovations that service Arctic strategies represent.



Dr. Joshua Tallis is a maritime and polar analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses, where he is a research scientist in the strategy and policy program. In 2018, he deployed with USS Harry S Truman as the civilian analyst on the Navy’s first Arctic carrier deployment since the end of the Cold War. He is the author of the 2019 book The War for Muddy Waters: Pirates, Terrorists, Traffickers, and Maritime Insecurity. The views in this article do not necessarily reflect those of his employer.

Image: NASA/Kathryn Hansen