Noting that the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe, the US Navy in 2009 announced a beefed-up “Arctic Roadmap” drawn by its own task force on climate change that called for a three-stage strategy to increase readiness, build cooperative relations with Arctic nations and identify areas of potential conflict.
“We want to maintain our edge up there,” said Commander Ian Johnson, captain of the USS Connecticut, which is one of the US Navy’s most Arctic-capable nuclear submarines and was deployed to the North Pole last year.
“Our interest in the Arctic has never really waned. It remains very important,” Johnson said.
However, the US remains ill-equipped for large-scale Arctic missions, according to a simulation conducted by the US Naval War College. A summary released last month found that the navy is “inadequately prepared to conduct sustained maritime operations in the Arctic” because it lacks ships able to operate in or near Arctic ice, support facilities and adequate communications.
“The findings indicate the navy is entering a new realm in the Arctic,” said Walter Berbrick, a War College professor, who participated in the simulation.
“Instead of other nations relying on the US Navy for capabilities and resources, sustained operations in the Arctic region will require the navy to rely on other nations for capabilities and resources,” Berbrick said.
He added that although the US nuclear submarine fleet is a major asset, the navy has severe gaps elsewhere — it does not have any icebreakers, for example. The only one in operation belongs to the coast guard. The US is currently mulling whether to add more icebreakers.
Acknowledging the need to keep pace in the Arctic, the US is pouring funds into figuring out what climate change will bring and it has been working closely with the scientific community to calibrate its response.
“The navy seems to be very on board regarding the reality of climate change and the especially large changes we are seeing in the Arctic,” said Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado.
“There is already considerable collaboration between the navy and civilian scientists, and I see this collaboration growing in the future,” he said.
The most immediate challenge may not be war — both military and commercial assets are sparse enough to give all countries elbow room for a while — but whether militaries can respond to a disaster.
Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the London-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said militaries probably will have to rescue their own citizens in the Arctic before any confrontations arise there.
“Catastrophic events, like a cruise ship suddenly sinking or an environmental accident related to the region’s oil and gas exploration, would have a profound impact in the Arctic,” Conley said.
“The risk is not militarization — it is the lack of capabilities, while economic development and human activity dramatically increases, that is the real risk,” she said.