How Ready is the US Navy for Arctic Operations? Not Very


The recent interview with the NORTHCOM/NORAD Commander has highlighted the importance of evolving capabilities for Arctic Operations.  He has signed recent agreements as well with the Canadians to this effect as well.

But how capable is the US Navy today to contribute to this effort?

Not very according to a 2011 Naval War College War Game.

The main conclusions and findings of the War game are as follows:

Theme 1: The U.S. Navy is inadequately prepared to conduct sustained maritime operations in the Arctic region.  This assertion is due to the poor reliability of current capabilities as well as the need to develop new partnerships, ice capable platforms, infrastructure , satellite communications and training. Efforts to strengthen relationships and access to specialized capabilities and information should be prioritized. Currently, U.S. Forces are characterized by an inability to reliably perform and maintain operations in the austere Arctic environment.

Reliability is improved by the acquisition and development of information and capabilities made available through strong relationships in order to complete the mission and reduce the likelihood of risk. The U.S. Navy currently must seek these from external stakeholders.

Theme 2: As weather and climate conditions intensify (particularly the presence of ice, strong winds and fog) and as the total time and distance traveled during an operation increases, the greater the risk of both mission failure and loss of or harm to friendly forces becomes.

Players placed significant importance on the idea that harsh environmental conditions and large distances will likely create uncertainty in planning and the timeliness of response, which in turn could create conditions which exceed current operational capabilities. Understanding the austere Arctic environment and its impact on the design limitations of aircraft and surface warships is critical to planning operations in the Arctic region.

Theme 3: In order to reduce risk, players increasingly relied on additional information and capabilities through partnerships with the USCG, JTF Alaska, tribal leaders, industry, and multinational partners. As risk increased due to extreme climatic conditions and increased operating and support distances, there was a corresponding increase in the need for specialized information and capabilities. As this trend increased, the required information and capabilities became less available in the U.S. Navy and planners were forced to look elsewhere for the capabilities needed to execute their mission tasking.

At the low end of the scale, these could be found inside DoD, but eventually planners needed to rely on industry, international partners, or the whole of U.S. Government. This further reiterates that sustainability in Arctic operations is significantly dependent on strong relationships with international, regional and local partners in government and industry. Mechanisms that strengthen these ties should be prioritized in future planning.

Theme 4: The future application of solutions developed during the game was influenced by the frequency of operations and desired reliability of U.S. Naval forces in the Arctic. Specifically, the more frequent or consistently expected operations or missions would be conducted, the more suitable long term proposed solutions were found to be.

Conversely, when less frequent or consistent operations or missions were anticipated, mitigating strategies or short-term solutions were found to be acceptable.  Long term solutions tended to be more formalized and structured in nature while the majority of mitigating strategies were more informal, temporary and less structured.

Subsidiary Findings

Major DOTMLPF-P Gaps, Mitigating Strategies and Proposed Solutions

The overall assessment produced by the game was that the U.S. Navy does not have the means needed to support sustained operations in the Arctic. This was due primarily to the lack of appropriate ship types to operate in or near Arctic ice, the lack of support facilities in the Arctic, and finally the lack of sufficient or capable logistics connectors to account for the long logistics distances and lack of facilities.

As noted in Theme 1, these gaps were mitigated or closed through the use of domestic and international relationships with military, coast guard and industry partners which made information or capabilities available to support scenario missions. However, the game identified that many of these relationships and the information and capability requirements that they enable do not exist or are poorly defined, further exacerbating the materiel issues listed above.

Major CONOPS Changes

Overall, the players identified the Arctic Maritime Response Force CONOPS as a valuable tool to support sustained maritime operations in the Arctic.  There were three primary changes identified to the CONOPS.

First, the focus of the CONOPS should be shifted from warfighting to include the missions identified by Task Force Climate Change as more likely to be a requirement. These include HA/DR, regional security cooperation, maritime security and Maritime Domain Awareness missions.

Second, the CONOPS needs to address the likelihood that mission requirements will include short notice crisis response actions. Currently, all planning guidance in the CONOPS allows for extended planning and deployment timelines.

Third, the CONOPS should be expanded from an Atlantic Fleet perspective to address access to the Arctic from the Pacific and operations in multiple Combatant Commander and fleet areas or responsibility (AORs).


The recommendations generated by this game are characterized by their potential for immediate impact at the operational level and the feasibility of near-term implementation.

These actions are: establish USFF Arctic Working Group or Arctic Center of Excellence; update CONOPS and applicable doctrine to reflect game insights; deploy to the Arctic; build domestic and international relationships; develop and manage lessons learned database; and pursue identified areas for further research.

For the full report go to the following: