By Ladeene Freimuth, Special Guest Contributor
As we begin a new decade and move further into the 21st century, increasing U.S. leadership and security in the Arctic are vital, in light of the growing threats America faces there. The U.S. cannot lose sight of important geostrategic changes occurring vis-a-vis the Arctic, due to the “threat multiplier” effects of climate change, which are exacerbating the security challenges for the U.S. there and elsewhere around the globe.
A recent hearing on the “Expanding Opportunities, Challenges, and Threats in the Arctic” in the Security Subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation sought to highlight this need for the U.S. to reassert its leadership in the Arctic by examining climate change and national security challenges and opportunities in the region, with an emphasis on the U.S. Coast Guard’s strategic role. Climate impacts are “reshaping the strategic operating environment for the Coast Guard in the Arctic, and around the world,” as the Honorable Sherri Goodman, Senior Strategist for the Center for Climate and Security, testified before the Subcommittee. In 2018, former Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, stated that the U.S. needs to “up its game” in the Arctic, because the U.S. is inadequately prepared for the changing threat environment there.
Acknowledging the need for increased attention to this issue, Subcommittee Chairman Sullivan (R-AK) kicked off the hearing by announcing the formation of a new, bipartisan Senate Coast Guard Caucus that he will be co-chairing with Senator Markey (D-MA), who also serves as the Security Subcommittee’s Ranking Member. Additional key recommendations from this hearing that would help address the U.S.’ climate-related security challenges in the Arctic are highlighted herein.
The U.S. Coast Guard’s 2019 Arctic Strategic Outlook makes some progress on “upping our game” by reaffirming the Coast Guard’s commitment to unity of effort, innovation, and other factors that will contribute to achieving the U.S. goals in the Region of establishing greater security, stability, and resilience.
On the other hand, Senators and witnesses who participated in the hearing acknowledged that the U.S. only has one heavy and one medium icebreaker. The nearest strategic port is nearly 1,000 miles away or more. In addition to its insufficient infrastructure, America’s strategic planning, funding, and technical capabilities are inadequate to match its “Great Power” competitors in the Arctic: China and Russia. In her testimony, Heather Conley, Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and Director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) underscored that: “this is [the U.S.’] greatest near-term security challenge.”
To elaborate briefly, in January 2018, China declared itself to be a “near Arctic State,” and articulated its intention to build a “Polar Silk Road” from Shanghai to Hamburg. As of 2017, China had three icebreakers, one under construction, and a nuclear icebreaker planned. China’s development of its domestic Arctic shipbuilding capability is significant.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has stated that he sees the Northern Sea Route as “the key to the development of the Russian Arctic and the regions of the Far East.” He is seeking to further monetize the Northern Sea Route by requiring transit vessels to pay a “toll” for military escorts near its coastline. Not only has Russia been increasing its already-significant number of icebreakers (46 total), but, as of May 2019, was on track to have at least 13 Arctic icebreakers by 2035. It also has launched its first weaponized icebreaker, which is expected to be commissioned in the next few years. In addition, Russia has been exerting increasingly aggressive behavior against the U.S.’ High North allies and partners, and tested a hypersonic missile in the Arctic for the first time in November 2019. Thus, as Ms. Goodman noted in her testimony, “what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.”
The pressing need for timely U.S. action, spurred by these drivers, is further reflected in a recent statement by Li Zhenfu, Director of the Dalian Maritime University’s Research Center for Polar Maritime Studies, in which he noted that “[w]hoever has control over the Arctic route will control the new passage of world economics and international strategies.” (Emphasis added)
The increased presence of Russian and Chinese vessels in Arctic waters near the U.S. presents other challenges, too. Ms. Goodman shared that the Council on Strategic Risks, Sandia National Laboratories, and the Wilson Center’s Polar Institute recently held an “Arctic Futures 2050” Conference, in which they conducted a scenario demonstration that involved a collision between “a Chinese-owned LNG tanker” and “its Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker escort in a winter storm” in the year 2050. This effort was geared toward helping the U.S. Coast Guard and partner agencies plan, prevent, prepare for, and respond to a crisis in the Arctic.
Key Developments and Recommendations
Such activity is just one example that demonstrates that some progress is being made to increase U.S. leadership and enhance national security in the Arctic. The U.S. most definitely needs more icebreakers; fortunately, the latest National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) authorizes construction of several more. However, much more needs to be done.
Ms. Conley recommended a comprehensive “Arctic Security Initiative” that would consist of a fully-funded and dedicated, multi-year, strategic, diplomatic, and economic effort. The other witnesses echoed their support. Mr. Sfraga contributed his “Navigating the Arctic’s 7Cs” Framework. “The 7Cs are: 1) Climate, 2) Commodities, 3) Commerce, 4) Connectivity, 5) Communities, 6) Cooperation, and 7) Competition.” He emphasized the need for the U.S. to consider these factors in addressing its Arctic security challenges.
On the legislative front, Subcommittee Chairman Sullivan, and Ranking Member Markey referenced changes they made to the Coast Guard Authorization Act that will help enhance U.S. strategic capabilities in the Arctic and better “climate-proof” military bases and installations.
Chairman Sullivan added that the U.S. needs to: improve operations and infrastructure, and enhance its capabilities to rapidly respond to emergencies in the Arctic. To this end, some of the hearing participants recommended a strategic deep-water port for future U.S. maritime safety and other operations, a multi-use port with connectivity throughout the Region, and Commerce Committee Chairman Wicker further recommended a series of strategic Arctic ports. Ms. Goodman emphasized that the Coast Guard must enhance its “maritime domain awareness (mapping and charting) and communications infrastructure” for broadband and satellite coverage. Such steps are essential in light of existing threats and potential crises.
The witnesses recommended not just a whole-of-government approach in the Arctic, but partnerships with the private sector, local communities, and a broader array of relevant stakeholders, as well. Ms. Goodman urged the Coast Guard and other stakeholders to exercise a Responsibility to Prepare and Prevent approach, given changing Arctic conditions.
Finally, given the high stakes the U.S. faces in the Arctic, this is a “call to action” urging the U.S. to undertake the procurement, policy, partnership, and leadership measures recommended herein. U.S. “leadership on Arctic security is essential to America’s overall security and strategic interests,” and efforts to enhance Arctic resilience, as Ms. Goodman underscored. Time is of the essence.
The author wishes to thank Marisol Maddox, Research Fellow at the Center for Climate and Security, for her assistance with some of the research figures.