As the Arctic becomes increasingly navigable, the spike in shipping and ecotourism through these Arctic transit corridors will require robust monitoring systems to improve maritime safety and security. The most significant threats involve nonstate actors such as drug smugglers, gunrunners, illegal immigrants or even terrorists who might take advantage of ice-free Arctic waters to move contraband or people between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans or into North America or Europe. -Heather Conley, “A New Security Architecture for the Arctic”
In the next ten to twenty years, as the Arctic Ocean opens up to maritime trade, it will bring with it a host of issues which plague oceans in the rest of the world, including that age old scourge of the sea: piracy. When examining the issue of piracy in the Arctic we will also have to adjust how we conventionally think about this issue. It is highly unlikely that there will be speed boats filled with RPG-wielding bandits in the Arctic anytime in the foreseeable future. Instead, the potential for piracy will come about if Russia is unsuccessful at enforcing the rule of law within Russian territory and waters.
Reportedly, it is common for American businessmen in Alaska to enter into business agreements with Russians and quickly have that business arrangement become very coercive. The Russian mafia does have a presence in the region, despite the Arctic itself being sparsely populated. Around any maritime trade route, especially at choke points, cities develop around maritime activity such as Colombo in Sri Lanka, or Singapore. Small towns and villages exist in Northern Russia and they are likely to grow as maritime activity increases.
These towns will be needed by commercial shipping companies to offload cargo and refuel their ships or make repairs. There have already been concerns regarding the “informal” costs of doing business in this part of the world. Extortion rackets exist, and bribes collected by organized crime can be seen as a form of piracy.
Another form of an irregular cost may come from economic warfare. Vladimir Putin is alleged to believe that the Russian Arctic trade route will one day be a viable alternative to the Suez Canal, ushering in a golden age of commercial maritime trade. If true, this means that Russia would have the potential to stage energy wars against America, the way they have in the past with the Ukraine, by shutting off gas and oil pipelines. Twenty years from now the Arctic route could become a well-developed major hub for commercial shipping, including critical resources like oil. Would Russia then have the power to open and shut this oil tap at will?
Global War on Terror: Season Two
The odds of terrorists striking in the Arctic are fairly small. For one thing, there isn’t a lot up there to attack. It is also a difficult environment for the bad guys to operate in. Many will recall that the Taliban would quiet down some in the winter and then get more active again in the summer months. Like the rest of us, the bad guys don’t like the cold.
The odds of a terror attack may be small, but the results of such an attack could be catastrophic. We do have critical defense infrastructure in and around the Arctic related to our nuclear deterrent, including high-frequency devices used for intelligence gathering, the trans-Alaska pipeline, and radars that can spot ICBMs coming over the Arctic circle. These could make tempting targets for both terrorists as well as enemy Special Operations Forces.
A high-percentage target for terrorists looking to create a spectacular display of the type that Al Qaeda is known for would probably engage in eco-terrorism. As it stands, a Deep Water Horizon oil spill in the Arctic would be absolutely devastating. The Arctic Ocean is surrounded by land, and the oil spill would affect all of the surrounding nations. An industrial disaster or act of terror on this scale would actually be much worse than the BP oil spill because we lack the infrastructure and logistics to respond to it in the Arctic, unlike in the Gulf of Mexico. Currently, the United States can only project itself into the Arctic for a couple of days at a time, so attacks on oil rigs, oil tankers, or oil pipelines could be disastrous and leave America with few options in response.
Another avenue for terrorists, as a well as nations, to exploit is the use of cyber warfare. Much of the same industrial and military infrastructure that could be targeted for physical attacks has some level of susceptibility to cyber attacks coming from hackers. Our cyber infrastructure in Alaska is routinely probed by malicious hackers. The FBI monitors the situation, but there is much more to be done in terms of building up our defenses against electronic warfare.
With the difficult environmental conditions in the Arctic making large-scale military operations somewhere between difficult to impossible to conduct, it seems that Special Operations units are likely to take the lead when it comes to military operations outside of water-borne patrols conducted by the Coast Guard and Navy.
For long range reconnaissance, VBSS, and direct action taken against terrorists or other bad actors, it is the men of Special Forces, SEALs, MARSOC, and others who are likely to get these missions.
Currently, our military and SOF units need to do more to prepare for the Arctic as a potential Area of Responsibility and operational environment which they may have to deploy to in the near future. There are Infantry units and Special Operations units which conduct mountain and winter warfare training, but almost none have actually conducted training exercises in the unique challenges of the Arctic environment. To better prepare for up-and-coming security challenges, SOF and the conventional military should begin building awareness and institutional knowledge of Arctic operations, and begin training rotations to Alaska and other bases in the Arctic, such as in Canada or Greenland.
However, it should be noted that search and rescue operations are the most likely type of missions to be encountered in the Arctic. On this note, the importance of Coast Guard search and rescue units should not be underestimated or ignored.
The Arctic offers a series of frictions for solders operating there, and the sooner our troops learn how to shoot, move, and communicate in this environment, the better.
For America, the future of Arctic security is one of prevention and deterrence. Canada can exert greater sovereignty over the Northwest Passage, and America can do its part by ratifying the UNCLOS Treaty, which establishes limits for territorial waters, for which each country is responsible for maintaining safe travel, and also defines economic exclusive zones in the ocean. NSPD-66 makes clear from a policy standpoint that America will ensure safe passage in our territorial waters, but the ratification of the UNCLOS treaty, which has been endorsed by the Joint Chiefs, DOD, and the State Department, will go a long way to establishing international norms and resolving territory disputes which are already beginning, as Russia attempts to claim larger economic exclusive zones in the Arctic.
Greater cooperation with the Russian government should be sought out by both the Russians and NATO. America and Russia have participated in some joint counter-terrorism exercises in case of another 9/11-type event where civilian aircraft were hijacked over the Arctic circle, but more can be done, especially when it comes to search and rescue operations.
The Coast Guard needs more ice breaker ships in order for America to have an effective and meaningful presence in the Arctic circle. Several more should be commissioned and built as soon as possible.
The Coast Guard, the rest of the military, and the private sector would also benefit from increased communications capability. There is very little satellite coverage over the Arctic circle, and currently the Russians probably have the only effective and useable communications satellites in orbit over the Arctic.
Another area of improvement is weather forecasting. We also need to get better at forecasting ice thickness in the region, as well continued undersea mapping.
To this end, one promising development is the resolution of a jurisdictional dispute over who has the lead in the Arctic, NORTHCOM or EUCOM. Now that NORTHCOM has responsibility for the Arctic, they should continue to conduct national and international training exercises, and encourage increased US military participation and presence in the Arctic. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) should also make an increased push to get SOF units familiar with the Arctic circle in case of a future security emergency in the region. SOF should conduct realistic training scenarios in the Arctic that push the envelope and truly test the logistics lines which would have to be maintained during a real operation.
A new international framework needs to be established for Arctic nations to cooperate on commercial issues, but also security issues, something which the Arctic council does not currently address. Perhaps NATO is the correct vehicle, but Russia should also be included in these discussions. Whatever security posture is decided upon, the European Arctic nations will almost certainly have to take the lead on future security matters, as they have much more infrastructure and capability in the Arctic than America and Canada do, with no year-round permafrost to deal with.
Harry Bader, of the University of Alaska, told SOFREP:
Thus, the most effective approach to Arctic security for search & rescue, disaster response, environmental protection and ensuring border and sovereignty integrity is one that focuses on prevention and deterrence at key choke points before the threat materializes. This can involve a system of remote autonomous persistent surveillance (on shore, air, surface and subsurface water, and ice platforms) that can be surged in time and place to address an exigency but serves dual purposes most of the time such as scientific research, navigation aids, etc.
The Arctic will never be a model for a demilitarized zone, as some would like to think. It has always been militarized, however, it is an opportunity to establish a new international security paradigm in which nations take a pro-active attitude in managing and combining resources. Unlike other regions of the world, Arctic security need not be dominated by threats from terrorist groups or drug cartels. The geo-politics of the Arctic can instead be shaped by international cooperation.
While the threat of non-state actors sabotaging or destroying targets in the Arctic is unlikely at the moment, a little bit of prevention can go a long way, because a deliberate attack or an accidental environmental disaster would find the United States nearly flat-footed in any emergency response at this time.
Special thanks to the Lt. Gov. of Alaska, Mead Treadwell for his help in fleshing out the background issues for this article, Kevin Doherty of Nexus Consulting for enlightening me about the commercial impact that the Arctic has on the maritime industry, and Harry Bader and Cameron Carlson at the University of Alaska for taking the time to explain the defense policy and security issues of the Arctic to me.
If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting our Veteran Editorial by becoming a SOFREP subscriber. Click here to get 3 months of full ad-free access for only $1