The United States Coast Guard maintains the nation’s only operational ice-breaking vessels, and to date, neither are considered powerful or reliable enough to sustain any sort of extensive Arctic operations. Russia, on the other hand, maintains more than 40, including the world’s only nuclear-powered ice-breaking vessels. In recent years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made his Arctic aspirations no secret, calling the receding ice-shelves and rapidly expanding shipping lanes the future of Russia’s economy.
And like any good investment, Putin intends to defend Russia’s stake in the Arctic by fielding a fleet of militarized ice breakers, establishing new Arctic military bases and revamping old ones, and flying hundreds of patrol and reconnaissance flights from Arctic military air strips, just as the Russians did in 2018 alone. The U.S. military may be the biggest and the baddest in most parts of the globe, but in the Arctic, Russia’s influence is expanding unchecked because the United States simply has no way to check it.
Even plans for a new ice breaker that could grant the U.S. Navy access to the frosty region are now hanging in the balance, as lawmakers consider stripping its funding in favor of building a southern border wall that has become the pivot point of what is now the longest government shutdown in American history.
America’s ability to counter Russia’s expanding claims of sovereignty over the Arctic, or to mitigate the strategic and tactical advantages allotted to Russian forces stationed north of the United States, is predicated on its ability to project military strength in the same region. Posturing of this sort may come coupled with complex and nuanced diplomatic maneuvering, but in the physical sense it couldn’t be simpler: Russia has amassed a large military presence in the Arctic, and America…briefly sent an aircraft carrier to the region for the first time since the Cold War last month. You can’t really call it a competition: America doesn’t even have the tools to compete.
But now, the U.S. Navy has announced tentative plans to send more vessels into the Arctic and even establish a port that could support further operations this coming summer. Why the summer? Well, likely because that’s the only time America’s ships can get there. Although some have touted this as a positive move toward matching Russian expansion in the region, the rhetoric that accompanied this announcement suggests that the Navy may still be a long way away from being able to manage a legitimately defensive posture in the north.
“As an example, this summer, the [chief of naval operations] and I have talked about having some ships make the transit in the Arctic. It’s going to be a multi-service task—I think you’ll see the Coast Guard involved. We’re just fleshing it out right now. But what is the purpose of that? We have to learn what it’s like to operate in that environment,” Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer said at a Center for a New American Security event last week.
He went on to point out that the last time U.S. Navy ships were equipped with steam systems to help them mitigate sub-zero temperatures was when the last Ticonderoga-class cruiser sailed off the assembly line in 1994. No ships since then have been built with “ice-hardened” systems on board. That means even with an ice breaker to clear the way, most Navy ships may not be able to operate in the region anyway.
It would seem then that the Arctic Circle will likely see a continued expansion of Russian military forces and the establishment of new Russian-managed shipping lanes that promise to have reverberating effects on global commerce—and the United States will get around to showing up sometime thereafter.
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