USMC Photo: U.S. Marines taking part in war games in Norway earlier this year.
The environmental changes occurring in the Arctic are as dramatic as they are significant for security cooperation and competition among Arctic nations. With the polar ice cap receding 25 percent since 1978, vast tracts of unexplored ocean rich with natural resources are opening up. In 2009, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that the Arctic contains over 90 billion barrels of oil, 1,669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and some 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids—of which the USGS estimates a whopping 84 percent may wait "offshore."
While there may not be a “great race” north just yet, there is enough movement — politically, militarily and commercially — to make things interesting. Last year, two German ice-strengthened merchant ships sailed from South Korea over the Eurasian coast to the Atlantic Ocean, and that same year, 13 ships traversed the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic, making 2009 a record-setting year for full transits in the austere region in a summer season. Of the 135 full Northwest Passage transits since 1903, almost half — 60 — have come since 2000.
Still, the waters of the Arctic won’t be clogged with shipping any time soon. At an event in Washington, D.C., in April to discuss the emerging strategic significance of the region, Stephen Carmel, senior vice president for maritime services of shipping giant Maersk Line, warned that navigation in the area is still extremely difficult. “Decent charts really don’t exist,” he said, “aids for navigation don’t exist, emergency response capability does not exist, so there’s things that need to be done before you can really support shipping up there.” In general, “there are a lot of things overall that are still far from certain in terms of the practicalities of working” in the Arctic, he concluded.
But where there are economic opportunities, military thinkers start to see potential hot spots. The U.S. has always retained the most robust military presence in the Arctic of all the Arctic Council members — including Canada, Russia, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Finland — and in January 2009 the George W. Bush administration released an Arctic Strategy paper that placed security as the U.S.'s primary concern in its Arctic territory (think Alaska). The U.S. Navy followed suit by issuing an Arctic Road Map that — thanks to Coast Guard help — laid out the direction that the lead naval service wants to pursue to meet the demands of U.S. maritime Arctic security.
But U.S. allies have also been busy. Norway has made massive investments in modernizing its Navy, including building five Aegis-capable frigates, and the country’s ground forces have started conducting the yearly Exercise Cold Response that involves more than 10,000 Norwegian and NATO troops, including U.S. Marines who practice cold-weather warfare.
Meanwhile, in the 2008 Canada First Defense Strategy and then again with its Northern Strategy in 2009, the Stephen Harper government has called for up to eight Arctic Offshore vessels, a $720 million icebreaker, a new satellite to map the region, a new deepwater resupply port, an army training base, and larger local militias in the region.
While the plans Ottawa have outlined look great on paper, Rob Huebert, a PhD Fellow at the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute, says none of the programs have made much, if any, headway. “We’re still in project definition” he tells AVIATION WEEK's Defense Technology International. “The problem is we’re already seeing signs of the government trying to cut back on expenditures,” and some of the projects have been postponed. “Many people on the inside worry that [the Joint Support Ship] has been cancelled,” and “we haven’t seen anything about the Arctic Offshore Patrol Vessels…you get the sense that it hasn’t even moved up to the point where it is going to be put up for bidding and the icebreaker seems to be even further behind that.” The Russians, meanwhile, with their already large icebreaker fleet have announced plans for more nuclear-powered icebreakers, more ice-capable submarines, and as of 2008, had resumed surface naval patrols in Arctic waters. Moscow has also announced plans to land paratroopers on the North Pole some time this year.
While no one sees the outbreak of hostilities in the Arctic as a real possibility, and cooperation among the Arctic Council is becoming more and more common, the military buildup in the North is still something to watch.