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How Can the Maritime Services Support Arctic Strategy?

Introduction

The United States is highly dependent on the seas for its security and prosperity. As such, the United States Naval Services “remains America’s most persistent and versatile instrument of military influence.” With ice in the Arctic receding in recent years, it is opening the region to growing activity and competition. As such, maritime services must work to support strategic endeavors in the Arctic.


Strategic Value

The Arctic region is exceptionally strategic for a variety of reasons. First, it reduces travel time in the north. Commercial shipping can use three main routes connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean, including the Northeast Passage, the Northwest Passage, and the Transpolar Sea Routes. The Transpolar Route is about 2,100 nautical miles long, saving substantial time for routes between Europe and Asia. Ships that need to get to the Western United States and Northern Asia can travel up and through Arctic waters rather than through the Panama Canal or around the tip of Africa.


Additionally, the Arctic region is full of natural resources. Over the last ten years, commercial fishing has resulted in 8 million metric tons harvested for commercial, subsistence, and more uses. The market for minerals, including iron ore, copper, nickel, and diamonds, are strong revenue streams. There are also estimates of some 90 billion barrels of oil and natural gas reserves available for production, and rock, stone, sand, and gravel available for on and offshore construction. There is plenty of competition for these resources among other nations.


Lastly, it is strategic for defense. Russia, China, North Korea, and more all look to engaging in the Arctic and utilizing its resources, meaning the United States must continue to operate at the forefront of the region.


Strategies to Support

There are a few ways that Maritime Services can support securing the Arctic region involving manning, training, and equipping. The first of which is funding fleet modernization. In particular, the Coast Guard needs to pursue the acquisition of the Offshore Patrol Cutter, Polar Security Cutter, Arctic Security Cutter, and Waterways Commerce Cutter. According to their website, they only have two operational icebreakers in their fleet at this time, with six new ones authorized. They will help provide the capabilities necessary to secure safe passage through travel routes in the region throughout the year and get personnel to strategic locations.

U.S. Coast Gard Cutter Polar Star (WAGB 10)
U.S. Coast Gard Cutter Polar Star (WAGB 10), Jan. 17, 2022 – U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Diolanda Caballero

Next, it is essential to train personnel in the Arctic terrain and in the icy challenges of the North. One such exercise is Ice Exercise (ICEX). ICEX is a biennial exercise conducted in the Beaufort Sea to hone Arctic-specific skills, knowledge, and procedures for submarines to operate in the Arctic environment. Having additional, regular training that encompasses additional ships and icebreakers, combined with coalition partners, will help prepare the fleet for the challenges associated with the Arctic.


The final strategy is perhaps the most important and multifaceted. And that is supporting the development of technologies that can facilitate safe and productive work in the region. Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, and Reconnaissance (C4IR) technologies provide vast amounts of data to make decisions. Polar satellites can monitor the weather and keep track of ground movements. SATCOM can support clear communications in areas of minimum infrastructure. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) can be used in surveying, search and rescues, searching for strategic resources, and delivering supplies. These combined would help Maritime services support the Navy’s Arctic Strategy.


Alfred Thayer Mahan’s quote about the importance of naval power remains true today, "a nation's sea power determined its economic wealth and international prominence.”


Sources:

1. Advantage at Sea: Prevailing with Integrated All-Domain Naval Power – December 2020

2. U.S. Needs More Icebreakers for Arctic, US Department of Defense – February 9, 2022

3. Tri-Service Maritime Strategy, Department of the Navy: A Strategic Blueprint for the Arctic

4. Arctic Security Considerations and the U.S. Navy’s Roadmap for the Arctic, U.S. Naval War College Review – 2010

5. Coast Guard Polar Security Cutter (Polar Icebreaker) Program: Background and Issues for Congress – December 30, 2021

6. https://www.nepa.navy.mil/icex/

7. https://www.oceaneconomics.org/arctic/NaturalResources/

8. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transpolar_Sea_Route

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