The U.S. Navy is preparing to take a page from its South China Sea strategy with plans to eventually carry out “freedom of navigation” missions through the Arctic as the geopolitical scramble for dominance heats up while long iced-in sea passages thaw.
Although the goal will be to send a clear signal to Russia and China that America is a force to be reckoned with in the race to control valuable territory at the top of the world, Pentagon leaders acknowledge that it could take years, and they stress that Washington has a lot of catching up to do.
Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer said this month that the U.S. is in danger of falling behind, specifically against increasingly provocative moves by the Russian navy, in the scramble for control over what may be the globe’s last major unexploited region.
“We need to have a strategic Arctic port up in Alaska. We need to be doing [freedom of navigation operations] in the northern passage. We need to be monitoring it,” Mr. Spencer told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
He noted decades of American submarine activity deep beneath the Arctic surface but lamented a lack of major U.S. Navy ship missions through melting ice passages in recent years.
“Everyone’s up there but us,” he said. “I mean, we’re under the water. … We’ve been under the water since the ‘60s. But peace through presence with a submarine is a little tough.”
The stakes are high on multiple fronts, say analysts, who note that control of critical new commercial shipping lanes is increasingly up for grabs through once-frozen Russian and Canadian trade routes.
At the same time, development economists say as much as $35 trillion in oil and natural gas, gold, silver, diamond, copper, titanium, graphite, uranium and rare earth elements vital to high-tech industries could become accessible if ice sheets continue to retreat. Many scientists say climate change makes that prospect inevitable.
Some national security sources worry that America, without a clearer U.S. military mission focus, could get edged out in the race to influence and benefit from exploitation in the region.
Mr. Spencer told the Senate Armed Services sea power and readiness subcommittee on Dec. 12 that the threat of a sustained Russian buildup in the Arctic has been a high priority for him since his confirmation as Navy secretary last year.
“At that point, our Russian friends were warming up five airstrips, 10,000 Spetsnaz troops [were] up there for ‘search and rescue,’” Mr. Spencer said.
Lawmakers have demanded that the Pentagon draft a strategic plan for U.S. operations in the Arctic and the North Atlantic as part of military spending outlays for 2019.
Tom Callender, a former top Navy official and now a senior defense fellow at The Heritage Foundation, said the situation is urgent.
“The opportunity for conflict is only rising,” he said, adding that the Navy should expand its presence in the region and that the Pentagon should deliver a forceful statement saying newly opened sea passages must be available to all.
Truman to the Arctic
The Navy has already begun increasing its presence near the Arctic Circle.
In October, the USS Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group conducted its first-ever joint naval operations above the circle with the Canadian navy.
The next step could be freedom of navigation operations focusing on the so-called Northern Sea Route.
The route, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans near the Arctic along Russia’s northern coastline, traverses an “exclusive economic zone” claimed by Moscow. But the route also extends across mostly international waters, which Russia is challenging through territorial claims.
“The concern that other Arctic countries have is that Russia has been arguing this sea route is Russian and that shippers should pay the Russian government to use it,” said Bryan Clark, a former special assistant to the chief of naval operations.
“The U.S. and other Arctic nations will eventually need to start conducting [freedom of navigation operations] along the [route] to prevent Russia from establishing de facto control over this waterway,” he told The Washington Times.
But Mr. Clark, now a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, added that it’s unclear whether the U.S. Navy has the capacity to carry out major Arctic missions.
The American fleet is ill-equipped for the region’s harsh conditions, he said, and lacks U.S.-controlled seaports there.
The Navy has no icebreaker ships able to traverse frozen areas. The U.S. Coast Guard has just six such ships: three medium and three heavy polar icebreakers.
By contrast, Mr. Callender said, Russia has a fleet of roughly 50 warships, six specifically outfitted to sail and fight in Arctic waters, and the Chinese navy also has six.
Building new capacity
Mr. Spencer’s call for freedom of navigation operations has been read as a message to private U.S. defense firms that Navy leaders are ready to add icebreakers to the fleet.
“The U.S. needs to make a significant series of investments in the Navy,” said Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain who argues that a particular focus should be on icebreakers to address growing tensions in the North Atlantic and Arctic.
The Coast Guard is pressing for an armed version of its polar icebreakers, and Mr. Hendrix said the Navy should consider icebreaker capabilities for its Next Generation Frigate program, known as the FFG(X).
Frigates with icebreaker capabilities, he said, would clear the way for Arctic freedom of navigation operations that could mirror operations that the Navy is conducting in response to Chinese military expansionism in the much-warmer waters of the South China Sea. “We are definitely looking at a South China Sea [situation] in the Arctic,” Mr. Hendrix said.
The hotly contested South China Sea has been a source of growing military tensions between Washington and Beijing in recent years. U.S. officials say American fighters, bombers and warships will continue to fly and sail missions wherever international law allows in the waters south of China’s mainland and anywhere else in the Pacific.
Although Beijing complains about the missions, some analysts are hopeful that the U.S. can avoid similar friction with Russia in the North Atlantic and Arctic.
“The Russians operate in a more professional manner than the Chinese,” said Mr. Callender.
Russian forces in the Arctic, he said, are likely to be more sensitive to U.S. moves than the Chinese military has been to American activity in the South China Sea.
“[Moscow] knows a little better where the red lines are,” he said. “The Chinese are just learning this game,” whereas Washington and Moscow “have been at this for decades.”
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