We have focused on the challenge of Arctic operations as part of the 21st century strategic environment.
Although obviously of growing significance, getting the North American states investing in capabilities to do something about is quite a different thing.
There are no gaps in terms of publishing analyses; it is the missing capabilities which matter.
In a recent article by Andreas Kuersten on the Center for International Maritime Security website, the US Navy’s Arctic Roadmap is evaluated from the perspective not just of logic but of relevant capabilities.
The excerpt below highlights the question of relevant capabilities, rather than simply adapting current capabilities to an Arctic mission.
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.
The Roadmap seeks to take each of these failings into account, though it does so to varying degrees of prudence. It presents the need for strong cooperation and partnership with foreign states, the USCG, and other government agencies. Such interactions are aimed at helping to manage shared Arctic spaces, engage in multilateral training and operations, and develop Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) for the region.
The Roadmap puts a heavy emphasis on the advancement of MDA and logistics capabilities in the Arctic, and these foci are well warranted. The principal restrictive variables in Arctic operations are severe and erratic weather, sea ice, poorly developed nautical charts, remoteness, and the absence of support infrastructure. Tackling these issues begins with extensive data gathering and MDA development. In this regard, the Roadmap asserts that partnerships with government agencies responsible for meteorology and geography – such as the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – are crucial for helping “the Navy better predict ice conditions, shifting navigable waterways, and weather patterns to aid in safe navigation and operations at sea.” A force with a robust understanding of a harsh environment has a significant advantage in any undertaking or confrontation therein.
Arctic MDA will, in turn, aid in the maintenance of critical logistical support for naval assets deployed in remote northern theaters and the alleviation of infrastructure failings. The distribution of fuel and other resources, along with the conservation of these assets, are important considerations in Arctic operations and ones the Roadmap shrewdly highlights.
Beyond MDA and logistics, the Roadmap puts an emphasis on Arctic training and exercises. These are often conducted with other countries and military branches and are touted to “improve knowledge of the Region and provide a positive foundation for future missions.” While this is certainly true, training can only go so far when a force lacks the requisite equipment for operating in a region, and this is the Roadmap’s main problem.
The Naval War College’s assessment of the Navy’s Fleet Arctic Operation Game, noted above, serves to illuminate the branch’s deficiency in terms of material capacity when it comes to the Arctic. In addressing its equipment needs for northern operations, the Navy’s Roadmap is lacking. Rather than stating the need to procure necessary equipment, it simply “directs review and identifications of requirements for improvements to platforms, sensors, and weapons systems.”
For years, the needs of the Navy in terms of Arctic acquisitions and refitting have been extensively researched and presented. Many individuals and organizations have laid out the various basic purchases and upgrades necessary for effective Arctic naval action. Moreover, as reported by the website DoD Buzz through interviews with top Navy Officers, the branch is well aware of its needs and has undertaken numerous research and development projects to address them. Ice-strengthened hulls, topside icing prevention and management, surveillance and reconnaissance sensor establishment and maintenance, and network systems adaptation to northern conditions are all clear areas of need with available remedies.
Training and operating within equipment limitations enhances effectiveness, but being properly outfitted allows for substantially more freedom of action and strategy, as well as for the more likely attainment of superiority in any future confrontation.
Even though the Navy is currently experiencing a time of relative budget constraint and massive asset redistribution – namely to the region of East and Southeast Asia – a policy roadmap encompassing the next several decades must make Arctic-directed equipment procurement an expressed priority. These sorts of undertakings require a good deal of lead-time, and continuing to tread water by solely emphasizing need assessment over need fulfillment is a recipe for future shortfalls in necessary capabilities.
In addition to equipment, the Navy is also lacking in terms of Arctic infrastructure. Aside from Thule Air Base in Western Greenland, American deepwater ports are non-existent above the Arctic Circle. The Navy has utilized temporary ice bases in the past for submarine exercises – the most recent being Camp Nautilus north of Prudhoe Bay in 2014 – but to support the necessity of an increasing naval presence in the next several decades a permanent base and deepwater ports will eventually be needed.
These, however, are incredibly costly undertakings, both in terms of money and capital as well as force deployment to occupy such facilities. The absence of any clear intent to look into permanent presence possibilities, or commit to equipment procurements, evinces the Navy’s desire to hedge its commitments to a remote and relatively minor area in the face of important responsibilities elsewhere.