On June 9, President Trump released the “Memorandum on Safeguarding U.S. Interests in the Arctic and Antarctic Regions.” The Memorandum flew mostly under the radar, yet it is indicative of increased U.S. interest in the polar regions and a response to the adverse power balance in the Arctic.
The Arctic consists of the Arctic Ocean and its neighboring seas. Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark (through Greenland), Iceland, Russia, Canada, and the U.S. (through Alaska) all possess Arctic territory.
The Arctic region had, until recent years, not been given particular attention in the U.S. This started to change with the melting of the Arctic icecap. The retreating ice has increased — and will further increase — the navigability of the Northwest Passage, the sea route passing along North America through the Arctic Ocean to the Pacific. The Northeast and Central Passages are expected to similarly become more navigable.
Thus, melting ice will make the heretofore unwelcoming Arctic trade routes more viable. It is also making the Arctic’s abundant energy resources, particularly natural gas, more easily accessible: Speaking to the wealth of Arctic’s energy resources, it is estimated that 20 percent of the world’s natural gas reserves are located in the Arctic. Therefore, both as a maritime passageway and resource reservoir, the Arctic’s importance is increasing.
The Arctic is particularly vital for Russia: Either directly or indirectly, close to 20 percent of Russia’s GDP is linked to the region — this is primarily derived from resource extraction and transportation, or maritime fees and levies. Fittingly, Russia has 50 icebreakers; four of them are nuclear. It has also been reactivating its military bases along its Arctic coast (the bases had lain dormant since Soviet times) and started to outfit its icebreakers with missile systems. In stark contrast, the U.S. has only three polar-class icebreakers — and two of them are approaching the end of their effective lifetime.
Complicating the situation further, China has dynamically entered the scene: In 2018, China’s Polar Silk Road initiative was proclaimed; Russia is China’s main partner in the initiative. China has also self-labeled as a near-Arctic state despite its closest point to the Arctic being 900 nautical miles away. Additionally, China built its first inhouse polar icebreaker in 2018; it is currently building its second. To boot, its activities in the region are becoming increasingly more assertive.
In comparison, the U.S.’s presence in the region, despite being an Arctic state, has been minimal. This shortcoming has been identified by policy-makers. As Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-OH) has stated, “The U.S. needs to be able to fully assert its sovereign rights in the Arctic.”
In response to the aforementioned power distribution in and future potential of the region, the U.S. has been stepping up its Arctic game. As Vice-Commandant of the Coast Guard, Charles Ray testified last year in Congress, “We need the ability to project year-long presence in the Arctic.” He further specified, “We need six overall [sic] icebreakers; three of these need to be heavy.”
Resultantly, last year the Coast Guard signed a contract with VT Halter Marine for three heavy polar icebreakers. The first is expected to be delivered in 2024. Furthermore, since 2008, the Coast Guard has been conducting Operation Arctic Shield. Yet, Arctic Shield focuses on search and rescue and — reflecting the branch’s nature — has no offensive element.
President Trump’s Memorandum should be seen in this overarching context: The Memorandum directs the development of an icebreaker fleet acquisition program. Specifically, it states that the fleet should be, “capable of ensuring a persistent United States presence in the Arctic and Antarctic regions in support of national interests and in furtherance of the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy.”
The U.S. is also cooperating with allies to further its interests in the region. In May, a joint U.S.-U.K. anti-submarine mission was conducted in the Arctic’s Norwegian Sea. The mission’s naval element was comprised of two Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, a fast combat support ship, and a submarine; the U.K. contributed with the HMS Kent.
Yet, building an icebreaker fleet and conducting defensive operations with allies should only be part of America’s Arctic strategy. Currently, the U.S. has no viable air station or deep-sea port near the Arctic, and thus its hand can only reach close and feebly. The U.S. should be capable of primarily projecting offensive military force in the Arctic — especially, given the tremendous economic importance of the region for Russia. In the case of a future conflict with Russia disrupting Russia’s grip on the Arctic would significantly undermine her.
Editor’s Note: This article was written by a member of the diplomatic community who wishes to remain anonymous.