By Eric James Szandzik
The changing Arctic landscape will have enormous consequences within the realm of international affairs over the next century. The United States is unequipped and unprepared for such changes, and currently lacks the urgency needed to address this strategic vulnerability.
The world's northern Arctic waterways are more navigable than ever before. Surveys during the Arctic's warm season show that total ice coverage has decreased from an average of 3million square miles thirty years ago to around 1.9 million square miles today.[i] This changing scenario, along with the preparation of other sovereign states that lay claim to Arctic regions, requires that the US heavily invest in Arctic research, resource development, the US Coast Guard, and the US Navy. Given recent budget proposals and current trends, the funds allocated to such segments within the US government fails to initiate such growth and scarcely maintain levels of sustainability.
Over the next decade, Arctic waterways are projected to become even more accessible than current levels: The open water season of the Bering Strait (the 51 mile gap between Alaska and Russia) will grow from 23 weeks to 27 weeks), the Northern Sea route's open water season (following the northern border of Russia and Norway) will grow from four weeks to nine weeks, and the Northwest Passage (which guides along Canada and west of Greenland) will be a new open water region and will remain open for five weeks during the year.[ii]
Such an opening of the Arctic's waters has unveiled one of the earth's largest reserves of valuable resources. It is estimated to have around 13% of the world's oil reserves and 30 percent of its natural gas reserves.[iii] To compare with a well-known source of oil already established, Saudi Arabia has 21 percent of the world’s proven oil.ix These initial surveys have only been able to capture "conventional" energy resource extraction, not the new innovative extraction methods involving shale rock.[iv]
Alaska's continental shelf, which reaches approximately 600 miles into the Arctic Ocean, contains an estimated one third of the oil and around 18% of all natural gas within the Arctic.[v]'[vi] The only comparable region in terms of oil and natural gas probability is Russia's Western Siberian Basin.[vii]It is of significant importance that 84% of all oil and natural gas potential in the Arctic remains offshore.[viii] While the Arctic waterways are becoming more accessible during a couple warm months out of the year, most of the time, it is a frozen ocean with a labyrinth of ice.
In addition to the oil and natural gas resources within its domain, the Arctic also holds massive deposits of rare earth minerals estimated at $1 trillion.iii Most electronic components are made with some element of rare earth minerals. Northwest Alaska houses the largest known zinc mine; Russia's Western Siberia region is home to vast quantities of nickel, palladium, and copper; and Canada's Baffin Island sits on one of the largest deposits of iron-ore.[ix]
Beyond the vast array of resources within the Arctic, it is also of strategic importance in terms of maritime traffic. Using the Arctic waterways to transport from Northern Europe to the US West Coast could reduce transportation costs by 20%.ix The Arctic's Northern Sea Route, which connects Europe and Asia, would reduce travel time by 27%. With more accessible summer sea lanes, traffic is already increasing. From 2010 to 2013, vessels through the Northern Sea Route went from 4 to 71,[x] and from 2005 to 2012, the Bering Strait saw an increase of 50% in transports.viii
The key which unlocks access to all of the Arctic's resources and transport lanes is a massive specialized ship: The Icebreaker. Medium icebreakers can break ice as thick as 8 feet and can also crush 4.5 feet of ice while maintaining a constant speed of three knots (3.5mph). Heavy icebreakers can break up to 21 feet of ice and can also break 6 feet of ice while cruising at three knots.[xi] Arctic highways are continually being opened, but after some time, freeze closed once again. Maintaining any sustainable operations within such waters requires the all-important icebreaker vessel.
Some Arctic powers have long understood the importance of the region. Around one fifth of Russia's current economy is connected to those areas within the Arctic Circle.iii They have already begun oil and natural gas production within the Western Siberia region and have also begun shipping oil from new offshore terminals.ix Gazprom, Russia's largest natural gas organization, has already commenced resource development within the Arctic's Barents Sea.ix
Such recognition of the Arctic's resource potential has provoked Russian expansionism into its northern waters. In 2001, Russia petitioned an international body to have their national sovereignty recognized as far as the North Pole, an issue which remains pending.[xii]Six years later, a Russian Arctic scientist mounted a Russian flag just beneath the North Pole.[xiii] His response to international criticism was not tailored to the politically sensitive ear, "I don't give a damn what all these foreign politicians there are saying about this...If someone doesn't like this, let them go down themselves...and then try to put something there. Russia must win. Russia has what it takes to win. The Arctic has always been Russian."xiii
While the US is concerned with maintaining open economic transportation throughout the world's waterways, Russian official policy declares that the Arctic's Northern Sea Route is a "unified transportation link of the Russian Federation." In 2009, they went one step further to announce that they are planning to extract a "fair price" toll to pass through the route. In the following year, official legislation was developed to begin establishing the details of regulation and collection of such tolls.xii
To enforce such ambitious claims, Russia is well-positioned in terms of Arctic capabilities and logistics. They own eight heavy icebreakers, seven of which are nuclear powered, and twenty-three medium icebreakers.[xiv] Of the eleven additional icebreakers in development, Russia has two scheduled to be released within the next couple years.[xv]'xvi Such a fleet of icebreakers is unmatched by any other nation.
To supplement their ability to access Arctic waterways, Russia has also been increasing its military capabilities for the region. Over the last two years, Russia established fourteen new airfields and sixteen new deep water ports; and has activated some of the most advanced surface-to-air missiles in the region. Of the six most recent combat brigades Russia has established, four of them are dedicated to the Arctic.[xvi]More recently, Russia opened their second military base in the region.[xvii] Its official purpose is to maintain control of vessels passing through the Northern Sea Route, protect oil and natural gas resources, and defend against possible attacks by a foreign military.[xviii] Also in production by the Russians are two ice-capable naval vessels which are armed with cruise missiles.[xix] These developments have fulfilled Russian intentions that were announced in 2014, "We will be almost fully prepared to meet unwelcome guests from east and north."[xx]Such extensive capabilities position Russia as the preeminent Arctic power.
Activity within the region has already been heating up. In 2007, Russian bombers entered the 12-mile air defense zone of Alaska at least 18 times.xii In 2014, more than 100 Russian reconnaissance flights were recorded within the Arctic, up from around 33 from the prior year. On the other side of the world, the Colonel General of the Russian Airforce claimed that, "In 2014, more than 140 [US and UK reconnaissance] flights have taken place, compared to 22 flights in 2013."xx Not all reconnaissance flights are hostile, but the increased frequency of occurrences is a clear indication of perceived importance.
Russian activity within the region has reached beyond just research, reconnaissance flights, and transportation. Military exercises have commenced at an advanced level. In January 2015, around 3,000 intelligence officials were sent to a Russian air base within the Arctic to listen in on Western communication channels.xx Two months later, around 45,000 troops, 3,300 vehicles, 41 ships, 15 subs, and 110 aircraft arrived to conduct extensive military exercises.xvi
It is clear that the most powerful Arctic force is flaunting its capabilities. Russia has the best fleet to maneuver across icy Arctic waters. They've established resource development, declared sovereignty over one of the most widely used international Arctic waterways, and has demonstrated its military might. The US Secretary of Defense succinctly described the situation: "The Arctic is key strategic terrain. Russia is taking aggressive steps to increase its presence there."[xxi]
If the United States became eager to establish its own dominance within the Arctic region, it would be unable to do so. Compared to Russia's 8 active heavy icebreakers, the US has 1; while there are 23 active Russian medium icebreakers, the US has none.[xxii] We're currently building no icebreakers and there are no options to lease or borrow any icebreakers from "legitimate" partners.xv As the Arctic opens its vast strategic waterways and abundant resources, the US can't even produce a series of navigable routes.
The McMurdo Antarctic Research Center magnifies the need for more US icebreakers. To initiate the resupply process at McMurdo, a heavy icebreaker is required to break the 15 feet of ice that surrounds the research center for 70 miles.xv This only active US heavy icebreaker, at 41 years old, is aging and quite deficient. Compared to the seven Russian nuclear powered icebreakers, the one non-nuclear US icebreaker can spend only four to six days on station before it must return.xii Such a desperate situation has caused some to declare that current scientific observations are not sustainable given the projected funding levels.[xxiii]
The US Coast Guard has asked for a minimum of six icebreakers that they say are needed for current operations (at least three per pole: one deployed, one within training, and one in long term maintenance).xvi'[xxiv] Despite this, the current funding proposal aims to reduce the Coast Guard’s budget around the same amount that is required to build one new icebreaker.[xxv]'[xxvi]
The situation is equally as dire when considering the current condition of the US Navy. From a high of 594 ships in the 1980s, the current deployable fleet of the US Navy is only 272 ships.[xxvii]'[xxviii] The official Naval Force Structure Assessment released in 2016 recommended a minimum fleet of 355 ships to cover modern strategic points of interest.[xxix] A 350 ship navy only provides 70 continuously deployed vessels, given that training, transition, and maintenance schedules usually occupy 4/5 of any current fleet. By comparison, the Chinese Navy is estimated to reach 415 naval vessels by 2030.[xxx]
The current production schedules are set to have a total of 308 ships by the end of 2021. Despite the fact that this shipbuilding plan fails to reach the stated needs of the US Navy, current budget proposals fall $4.5 billion short of reaching the lackluster goal.xxvii Not only is the US Navy unprepared to maintain coverage of their identified strategic points of interest, there are no current plans to rectify the situation.
There are extensive proposals to refit and refurbish decommissioned naval vessels to help reach the 350 ship goal. Jerry Hendrix and Robert C. O'Brien's refurbish plan leaves only 22 new ships that would need to hit the production line.[xxxi] Such an extensive refit and refurbish plan would mirror methods used in the 1980s which brought the US Navy to a total of 594 ships. However, there are doubts as to whether this move would be prudent. Technology on decommissioned ships in the 1980s was not far off from the new requirements that were needed to be protected on the open seas. The situation is quite different in 2017. Current decommissioned ships are two, and sometimes three generations, removed from current technology.xxxiv Even if the money was spent to refit and refurbish these ancient vessels, the cost-benefit of such a rebuild program could be seen as unsatisfactory, given that the extended shelf life would be significantly shorter than producing a new vessel.
Other observers would like to fill the ship requirement gap with a multitude of small, simple, less expensive vessels.[xxxii] While there are openwater situations where fleets of small, fast moving vessels are strategically beneficial, this different perspective does not address the lack of traditional ships that the US Navy needs for their strategic priorities. If production commenced for a new, small and fast fleet, it should be in addition to the Navy's current stated needs, not as a replacement.
Reaching such goals will be a challenge given the current financial situation. Due to sequestration imposed upon military spending, the US Navy needs an additional 23% of its current budget to return to normal levels.[xxxiii]Expenses amount to around $10 billion for a carrier, $3 billion each for submarines, $2 billion for a destroyer, and $500 million for the smaller Littoral Combat Ships.[xxxiv]'[xxxv] Estimates average around $138 billion to achieve the 350 ship goal.[xxxvi]'[xxxvii]
Recent budget proposals released by the current administration are not encouraging. Despite the fact that presidential campaign promises included a Pentagon budget of $640 billion, the current proposal for the Pentagon is around $575 billion, only 3% above the prior administration's projected baseline.[xxxviii]'[xxxix] While the US Navy warns of a lack of ships, only 8 were earmarked for funding in the current budget proposal, the same as the prior administration's proposal.[xl] By comparison, China commissioned 18 naval vessels last year. There are rumors of a couple other ships being added to the funding lineup, but nothing yet has been confirmed.xxxv
Beyond fulfilling requirements for current needs, the US Navy is especially unprepared for the opening Arctic waters. There are no active ice-hardened combat ships.[xli] Without ice hardening, some Navy vessels could withstand Arctic conditions in the summer, but only for a few weeks, and only on the outside edges of ice barriers. No vessels without ice hardening reinforcement can trail an icebreaker through a newly carved path. When standard vessels are reinforced with Arctic capable material, their deployable length can be extended from a few weeks up to two months, but many problems and potential damage would remain a concern.xli Refitting ice-hardened protective shells onto existing vessels can cost an additional 33% of what it took to build the ship itself.[xlii]
Building ice-capable ships during production is much easier and cost efficient. Using production methods from Canada, Norway, and Denmark (which maintains sovereignty over Greenland), it has been estimated that an ice-capable Destroyer could be built with only 84% of current production expenses.[xliii] Preparing our Navy for Arctic conditions isn't a matter of ability; it is a matter of clearly and persuasively communicating national priorities.
It is not enough to remain hopeful that dwindling ice during the Arctic's summer season will allow scientific research, economic transport, and military might to flow freely through the Arctic's northern waters. Free movement of vessels cannot be regulated to small seasonal windows. Winter will come. Should an international conflict arise in the Arctic, it will not be a chivalric standoff which occurs a few weeks out of the year. It will be a year round conflict; one which favors those who are prepared to maneuver and operate throughout the thick and unrelenting ice.
The Constitutional blueprint for the US Federal Government reveals within its first few lines that the national priorities are to "provide for the common defense”, but only to "promote the general welfare”.[xliv] With the multitude of requests for federal funding, that founding document should be a continual reminder that national defense preparedness is a unique imperative of the federal government.
Investing in at least six new nuclear powered icebreakers, allocating funding and production schedules for a 350 ship Navy, and announcing intentions to maintain clear passages for international commercial waterways within the Arctic should be of paramount importance for the United States. Such efforts would not be an unnecessary escalation of tensions within the Arctic. It would only be rectifying the years of neglect and foolish policy that has prevented the US from protecting the vital resources and economic activity within its sphere. The changing Arctic waters reveal strategic vulnerabilities that had once been below the radar, but now, cannot be ignored.
Eric James Szandzik earned his Bachelor of Science in Business Management from the Western Governors University. He is the Owner and CEO of The EJS Consulting Group and currently resides in Richmond Virginia.
[i]"Current Northern Hemisphere Sea Ice Area."The Cryophere Today. Accessed May 5, 2017. http://arctic.atmos.uiuc.edu/cryosphere/IMAGES/seaice.recent.arctic.png
[ii]U.S. Navy Arctic Roadmap, 2014-2030. U.S. Navy. 2014. www.navy.mil/navydata/documents/USN_artic_roadmap.pdf
[iii]Gramer, Robbie. "U.S. Coast Guard Chieft Warns of Russians 'Checkmate' in Arctic."Foreign Policy. May 3rd 2017. Accessed May 17, 2017. http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/05/03/u-s-coast-guard-chief-warns-of-russian-checkmate-in-arctic-military-high-north/
[iv] Hargreaves, Steve. "Oil: Only part of the Arctic's massive resources."CNN Money. July 19, 2012. Accessed May 17, 2017 http://money.cnn.com/2012/07/17/news/economy/Arctic-oil/
[v]Bellinger III, John B. "Arctic Treasure."Foreign Policy. May 19, 2011. Accessed May 17, 2017. http://foreignpolicy.com/2011/05/19/arctic-treasure/
[vi]"The Arctic - America’s Last Energy Frontier."American Security Project. Accessed May 17, 2017. http://www.americansecurityproject.org/energy-security/the-arctic-americas-last-energy-frontier/
[vii]Circum-Arctic Resource Appraisal: Estimates of Undiscovered Oil and Gas North of the Arctic Circle. U.S. Geological Survey Fact Sheet 2008-3049. Accessed May 17, 2017. https://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2008/3049/
[viii] Arctic Resources: The fight for the coldest place on Earth heats up. RT. April 15, 2014. Access May 17, 2017. https://www.rt.com/news/arctic-reclamation-resources-race-524/
[ix] Brigham, Lawson W. "Think Again: The Arctic: Everyone wants a piece of the thawing far north. But that doesn't mean anarchy will reign at the top of the world."Foreign Policy. August 6, 2010. Accessed May 17, 2017. http://foreignpolicy.com/2010/08/06/think-again-the-arctic/
[x] Bender, Jeremy and Kelley, Michael B. "Militaries Know That The Arctic Is Melting - Here's How They're Taking Advantage."Business Insider. June 3, 2014. Accessed May 17, 2017. http://www.businessinsider.com/the-competition-for-arctic-resources-2014-6
[xi]LaGrone, Sam. "U.S. Naval Institute: Coast Guard Analysis Says U.S. Needs 3 Heavy and 3 Medium Icebreakers, Path to Ships Unclear."USNI News. February 25, 2015. May 17, 2017. https://news.usni.org/2015/02/25/coast-guard-analysis-says-u-s-needs-3-heavy-and-3-medium-icebreakers-path-to-ships-unclear
[xii] Cohen, Ariel. "From Russian Competition to Natural Resources Access: Recasting U.S. Arctic Policy." The Heritage Foundation. June 15, 2010. Accessed May 17, 2017. http://www.heritage.org/europe/report/russian-competition-natural-resources-access-recasting-us-arctic-policy
[xiii] Parfitt, Tom. "Russia plants flag on North Pole seabed."The Guardian. August 2, 2007. Accessed May 17, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/aug/02/russia.arctic
[xiv]"U.S. Coast Guard’s 2013 Review of Major Icebreakers of the World."U.S. Naval Institute. July 23, 2013. Accessed May 17, 2017. https://news.usni.org/2013/07/23/u-s-coast-guards-2013-reivew-of-major-ice-breakers-of-the-world
[xv] Admiral - Zukunft, Paul. "A Conversation with Admiral Paul F. Zukunft, Commandant, U.S. Coast."Center for Strategic & International Studies. May 3, 2017. Accessed May 17, 2017. https://www.csis.org/events/americas-arctic-frontline-conversation-admiral-paul-f-zukunft-commandant-us-coast-guard
[xvi]US Senator - Sullivan, Dan. "Center for Strategic & International Studies: In defense of the arctic - Assessing US Security Concerns."Center for Strategic and International Studies. January 24, 2017. Accessed May 17, 2017. https://www.csis.org/events/defense-arctic-assessing-us-security-concerns
[xvii] Ames, Paul. "Russia's military is muscling into the Arctic, where melting ice is freeing up resources." PRI.org. October 18, 2015. Accessed May 17, 2017. https://www.pri.org/stories/2015-10-18/russias-military-muscling-arctic-where-melting-ice-freeing-resources
[xviii]"Russia's new Arctic Trefoil military base unveiled with virtual tour."BBC Europe News. April 18, 2017. Accessed May 17, 2017 http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-39629819
[xix] Robinson, Julian. "Russia unveils its new Arctic military base housing nuclear-ready warplanes."Daily Mail UK. April 18, 2017. Accessed May 17, 2017 http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4421072/Russia-unveils-new-Arctic-military-base.html
[xx] Bamford, James. "Frozen Assets - The newest front in global espionage is one of the least habitable locales on Earth—the Arctic." Foreign Policy. Accessed May 17, 2017 http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/05/11/frozen-assets-arctic-espionage-spying-new-cold-war-russia-canada/
[xxi]Gramer, Robbie. "Here’s What Russia’s Military Build-Up in the Arctic Looks Like."Foreign Policy. January 25, 2017. Accessed May 17, 2017. http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/01/25/heres-what-russias-military-build-up-in-the-arctic-looks-like-trump-oil-military-high-north-infographic-map/
[xxii]LaGrone, Sam. "Icebreaker Polar Sea Now a ‘Parts Donor;’ Refurbishment Deemed Too Expensive."U.S. Naval Institute: Coast Guard. February 17, 2017. Accessed May 17, 2017. https://news.usni.org/2017/02/17/coast-guard-refurbishing-icebreaker-polar-sea-costly-focus-polar-star-new-build
[xxiii]Gabrielsen, Kjersti Lie (panel contributor, at 1hr 11min). "Understanding a New Ocean: The Policy Implications of a Transforming Arctic."Center for Strategic & International Studies. September 13, 2016. Access May 17, 2017. https://www.csis.org/events/understanding-new-ocean-policy-implications-transforming-arctic
[xxiv] Admiral - Allen, Thad W. "Arctic Imperatives - Reinforcing U.S. Strategy on America's Fourth Coast." Council on Foreign Relations. March 22, 2017. Accessed May 17, 2017. http://www.cfr.org/arctic/arctic-imperatives-reinforcing-us-strategy-americas-fourth-coast/p38944
[xxv]Gramer, Robbie. "Trump's Military Buildup Threatens to Gut U.S. Coast Guard."Foreign Policy. March 2, 2017. Accessed May 17, 2017. http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/03/02/trump-military-build-up-threatens-to-cut-u-s-coast-guard-budget-cuts-department-of-homeland-security/
[xxvi] Johnson, Keith and DeLuce, Dan. "U.S. Falls Behind in Arctic Great Game."Foreign Policy. May 24th 2016. Accessed May 17, 2017. http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/05/24/u-s-falls-behind-in-arctic-great-game/
[xxvii]"US Ship Force Levels."History.Navy.ml: Naval History and Heritage Command. December 6, 2016. Accessed May 17, 2017. https://www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/ship-histories/us-ship-force-levels.html
[xxviii]Slavin, Erik. "Trump wants 350-ship Navy, but how and why?"Stars and Stripes. November 16, 2016. Accessed May 17, 2017. https://www.stripes.com/news/trump-wants-350-ship-navy-but-how-and-why-1.439619
[xxix] The Office of the Secretary of the Navy. "Secretary of the Navy Announces Need for 355-ship Navy."Navy.mil. December 16, 2016. May 17, 2017. http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=98160
[xxx]Stashwick, Steven. "Road to 350: Can the US Build a 350-Ship Fleet the Navy Actually Wants?"The Diplomat. November 28, 2017. Accessed May 17, 2017. http://thediplomat.com/2016/11/road-to-350-can-the-us-build-a-350-ship-fleet-the-navy-actually-wants/
[xxxi] Hendrix, Jerry and O'Brien, Robert C. "How Trump Can Build a 350-ship Navy."Politico Magazine. April 13, 2017. Accessed May 17, 2017. http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/04/how-trump-can-build-a-350-ship-navy-215019
[xxxii]Klimas, Jacqueline. "Trump's Navy Buildup."Washington Examiner. April 3, 2017. Accessed May 17, 2017. http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/trumps-navy-buildup/article/2618775
[xxxiii] Hendrix, Jerry. "12 Carriers and 350 Ships: A Strategic Path Forward from President Elect Donald Trump."National Interest. November 14, 2016. Access May 17, 2017. http://nationalinterest.org/feature/12-carriers-350-ships-strategic-path-forward-president-elect-18395
[xxxiv]Larter, David B. "Donald Trump wants to start the biggest Navy build-up in decades."Navy Times. November 15, 2016. Accessed May 17, 2017 https://www.navytimes.com/articles/donald-trumps-navy-bigger-fleet-more-sailors-350-ships
[xxxv]Freedberg Jr., Sydney J. "No 350-Ship Navy from This Trump Budget."BreakingDefense.com. May 19, 2017.