The Arctic Mission

06/15/2011 by Robbin Laird

Earlier we published a series on the Arctic built around the work of our German correspondent.  As an energy analyst, our correspondent considers the Arctic a key region and has demonstrated the keen interest, which 4 of the powers with stakes in the Arctic have demonstrated.  Notably, the Russians are building ships for operations in the arctic and for populating their territory in pursuit of resource and other core strategic interests.

As our Caroline Mükusch noted:

The United States – although it had been an important Arctic nation since it purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867 – is now a “reluctant Arctic power.”  After the Cold War the United States became too passive in the Arctic, preferring mainly re-active policy measures than a comprehensive Arctic strategy.

With the end of the Cold War the United States steadily closed some northern military bases, including the naval base on Adak and Fort Greely.  These developments reflect the United States’ perception that a significant military presence is – since Soviet Union submarine force collapsed – no longer needed in the Arctic. Although the collapse of the Soviet Union seemed to make the challenges easier to resolve, the challenges in the Arctic facing now U.S. policy-makers are much more complicated than expected in 1991.  Threats are much more nebulous, long term, and complex.

(For an additional look by Richard Weitz’s at Russian policy see

And in our interview with one of America’s leading experts on the Arctic, this retired USCG Admiral underscored the need for new resources to deal with the opportunities and challenges.

According to Rear Admiral Garrett:

In an icebreaker, you are not up in the Arctic to break ice per se; you are there to permit mobility to accomplish missions of national importance.  You are an enabler for transit and related operations.  It’s really about mobility and being able to get to point A to point B or to wherever you want to go to do; whatever it is you’re out there to do. So what you need, is a ship with a lot of power, a very strong hull, and which has been designed to get through ice efficiently. In addition, people often overlook that you need significant endurance; there are no gas stations in the polar regions.

When you look ahead to what the Coast Guard needs to do its missions in evolving Arctic conditions, you see that there’s more open water, there’s more human activity, and there’s more maritime traffic.  But the ice is still there, and its movements are becoming more unpredictable.  You really need a ship that can operate in dynamic ice conditions to allow mobility and has the long legs to be there unreplenished for a reasonable length of time.

You might think that the new emphasis on the economy as a national security issue would highlight the importance of a strategic economic region like the Arctic in American policy.  Or you might think the President’s new emphasis on energy independence and emphasizing offshore drilling might highlight the Arctic as a priority region.

But two recent articles in the most recent Inside the Pentagon reveal that this is not so in terms of resources but is so in terms of declaratory policy.

First we learn that the US is now a signatory to a new search and rescue policy with the USCG as the lead agency.  This article is entitle intriguingly Search-And-Rescue Pact Underscores Growing Focus on Arctic.

And here we learn that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton signed the agreement, along with representatives from Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Sweden. This was the first Arctic Council meeting where the United States was represented by the secretary of state. The agreement lists the Coast Guard as the competent U.S. authority for Arctic search-and-rescue operations and one of two American search-and-rescue agencies, the other being DOD. The agreement says each participating country will bear its own implementation costs.

Of course, what we learned from our USCG expert is that this will indeed be difficult to do without new icebreakers, which of course we are not going to fund.

Without batting an eyelash, the next article is entitled DOD Finds Arctic Capability Gaps, Holds Off On Investment Decisions. One could parenthetically note that this may well be the core assessment of current strategic policy — finding gaps but not funding them.

Here we learn that a new Pentagon study has looked at the problem and has decided not to make investment recommendations.  One easily could ask why one would do such a study, but let us leave that aside and look at the insightful conclusion.

“What we did do was look across the mission sets and identify where we think there are gaps,” a defense official said, noting the gaps have to do with “not-very-glamorous” but “really foundational” capabilities like “awareness and communication” that can be “quite costly to invest in, in a really robust kind of way.”

DOD will “need to make investments” in these areas “in the coming decade,” the official said. But the study’s executive summary avoids making investment recommendations to fix DOD’s capability gaps and the Coast Guard’s shortfall in icebreaking capability.

So let us get this right.  The Arctic is a key strategic area, and fundamental to the energy and resource foundation for 21st century growth.  And the US is lacking core capabilities to operate in the region, but we will hold off investing in core capabilities.

What seems to be missing is the Pentagon study which indicates US planning for what happens when we are out of the picture and the Arctic is dominated by powers like Russia who are investing significantly NOW in the future.