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At DOD, Busy Arctic Future Takes Shape

Monday, December 2, 2013

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As the ice-locked Arctic is transformed to ocean, unleashing unprecedented shipping traffic and human activity, what will that mean for U.S. ships and infrastructure?

The federal government isn't waiting to find out.

Climate changes in the region have prompted the Department of Defense to release its "Arctic Strategy," a long-term plan to keep the military's infrastructure in line with the rapidly changing Arctic environment.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced the plan Friday (Nov. 22) at the Halifax International Security Forum in Nova Scotia, Canada.

'An Evolving Navigable Ocean'

Rising temperatures are changing the Arctic from a frozen desert to "an evolving navigable ocean, giving rise to an unprecedented level of human activity," Hagel said.

Traffic in the Northern Sea Route is expected to increase tenfold in the next year, he said.

Chuck Hagel
DOD / Glenn Fawcett

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced the DOD's Arctic Strategy last week at the Halifax International Security Forum in Nova Scotia, Canada.

"We are beginning to think about, and plan for, how our Naval fleet and other capabilities and assets will need to adapt to the evolving shifts and requirements in the region," Hagel said.

Tourism, Shipping, Fish and Energy

The DOD wants to maintain the Arctic as "a secure and stable region where U.S. national interests are safeguarded, the U.S. homeland is protected, and nations work cooperatively to address challenges."

As ocean overtakes ice, the eight nations of the Arctic Council—Canada, Denmark, Findland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the U.S.—will face expanded tourism, commercial shipping, migrating fish stocks and energy exploration, Hagel said.

Although short-term budget crises and uncertainty are preoccupying Washington, "this kind of long-range thinking is vital for our future," Hagel said.

"...As shifts occur in the strategic landscape, the United States and its allies must be prepared to adjust their defense institutions and capabilities to meet these new challenges."

'Last Great Frontier'

DOD's Arctic Strategy complements President Obama's May 2013 "National Strategy on the Arctic Region," which lays out a government-wide approach to advancing U.S. security interests, pursuing responsible stewardship, and strengthening international cooperation in the region.

"The Arctic is one of our planet’s last great frontiers," Obama's report said. The national strategy outlines "strategic priorities" that position the U.S. "to meet the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead."

The DOD's new strategy outlines its role in the federal effort, with two key objectives:

  • Ensuring security, supporting safety, and promoting defense cooperation; and
  • Preparing for a wide range of contingencies and challenges. 
DOD Arctic Strategy
U.S. Navy / Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Tiffini M. Jones

"We are beginning to think about and plan for how our Naval fleet and other capabilities and assets will need to adapt to the evolving shifts and requirements in the region," Hagel said.

To that end, the DOD has outlined eight avenues of action in the Arctic, including:

  • Evolving infrastructure and capabilities that keep up with changing conditions;
  • Detecting and defeating threats to the U.S.;
  • Engaging public- and private-sector partners, including Alaska and the Coast Guard, to improve domain awareness;
  • Preparing to help respond to manmade and natural disasters in the region;
  • Partnering with other agencies and nations to support human and environmental safety; and
  • Supporting the development of the Arctic Council and other international institutions that promote regional cooperation and the rule of law.

Throughout history, Hagel said, "mankind has raced to discover the next frontier. And time after time, discovery was swiftly followed by conflict."

"We cannot erase this history," Hagel said. "But we can assure that history does not repeat itself in the Arctic."

Support ...

The Arctic plans have drawn bipartisan support in Alaska.

"All components of the U.S. government need to be involved to make the Arctic a national priority, and our Armed Forces play a vital role toward that end," Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) said in a statement.

"While the Arctic is currently considered a low threat level, we want to keep the threat level low as the potential for conflict rises with increased activity and resource development."

Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK) also applauded the DOD's interest and called again for greater icebreaking capacity in the region, Alaska Business Monthly reported.

Begich is sponsoring an amendment to the National Defense Authorization bill to authorize up to four additional icebreakers for the Arctic, calling them "necessary because of increased shipping traffic and development."

DOD infrastructure
U.S. Navy

The DOD says it will seek to work with Arctic nations and other parties on opportunities, while also protecting national security interests.

Rep. Don Young (R-AK) greeted Obama's strategy with: "Finally! It's about time the Administration acknowledged the importance of a strong presence in the Arctic."

...And Questions

At the Arctic Institute, a think tank, Senior Fellow Kevin Casey said approvingly that the DOD's strategy "seeks to avoid premature investments" despite "rapid evolution" of both the Arctic's climate and human activities.

The strategy's focus on domain awareness and climate monitoring "can inform long-term decisions on big-ticket investment such as facilities upgrades or ice-strengthened ships," Casey said.

The Institute’s Seth Myers said the DOD strategy "formally re-establishes the military importance of the Arctic as a region of operations," while "outlining deeply seated U.S. interests in the region.”

Institute fellow Mihaela David, however, says the strategy raises "significant questions" about the DOD's and Coast Guard's future roles in the region.

David notes "similar and possibly overlapping objectives" between the two and urged the DOD to "clarify the nature of its involvement in the Arctic."

She asked: "What role will the Navy have in search-and-rescue or oil-spill response operations, which are typically handled by the Coast Guard?

"Will the Department of Defense share the costs of building a new heavy icebreaker? The chronically underfunded Coast Guard could benefit from an injection of funding from the DOD, but takes pride in being the main safety and security provider in the U.S. Arctic region.

"With both naval and Coast Guard presence in the Arctic, will cooperation trump rivalry, or will the two services end up stepping on each other’s toes?"


Tagged categories: Climate Control; Department of Defense (DOD); Exposure conditions; Government; Immersion service; Infrastructure; Military; U.S. Navy

Comment from Jeffrey Stewart, (12/2/2013, 5:08 PM)

Based on the fact that there is more Arctic Ice now than there was at this time in 2012, what is the plan if, as so many believe, there is no such thing as global warming and Arctic Ice increases, as is predictable with decreased sun activity?

Comment from S Wolfe, (12/3/2013, 11:28 AM)

I'm no scientist, but I do know enough about statistical analysis to understand that any attempt to demonstrate a trend in Arctic ice loss/gain by limiting the sampling data to that collected over the course of a single year is completely meaningless.

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