The US Navy is mapping out how to expand its presence in the Arctic beginning in about 2020, given signs that the region’s once permanent ice cover is melting faster than expected, which is likely to trigger more traffic, fishing and resource mining.
“The Arctic is all about operating forward and being ready. We don’t think we’re going to have to do war-fighting up there, but we have to be ready,” said Rear Admiral Jonathan White, the navy’s top oceanographer and navigator, and director of the navy’s climate change task force.
“We don’t want to have a demand for the navy to operate up there, and have to say: ‘Sorry, we can’t go,’” he said.
The Navy this week released an “aggressive” update to its 2009 Arctic plan after a detailed analysis of data from a variety of sources showed that seasonal ice is disappearing faster than had been expected even three years ago.
The document said the Bering Strait was expected to see open water conditions for about 160 days a year by 2020, with the deep ocean routes of the Transpolar transit route forecast to be open for up to 45 days annually by 2025.
The document includes dozens of specific tasks and deadlines for navy offices, including calling for better research on rising sea levels and the ability to predict sea ice thickness, assessment of satellite communications and surveillance needs and evaluation of existing ports, airfields and hangars.
It also puts a big focus on cooperation with other Arctic nations and with the US Coast Guard, which is grappling with the need to build a new US$1 billion ice-breaking ship.
The navy is to conduct a submarine exercise in the Arctic next month, and plans to participate in a joint training exercise with the Norwegian and Russian militaries this summer.
White said the navy’s new projection was aimed at answering “the billion dollar question” of how much it would cost to prepare for an increased naval presence in the Arctic, and trying to determine what investments were needed when.
“We’re trying to use this road map to really be able to answer that question,” White said, adding that early smaller-scale investments could help avert bigger bills in the future.
He said efforts were under way now in the navy to identify specific requirements for weather-hardened ships and other equipment, land-based infrastructure, and better bandwidth for satellite and shore-based communications capabilities.
The US Office of Naval Research and the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency are already funding numerous Arctic-focused projects with industry, White said.
He said he realized US military budgets are under pressure, but hoped the plan would help undergird Arctic-related budget requests in coming years.