Defense Department, services monitor Arctic melting

  • Published
  • By Lisa Daniel
  • American Forces Press Service
With the number of geopolitical hotspots in the world today, the Arctic is not an area that comes quickly to mind for possible defense operations. But it is a place of great national security and strategic importance that the Defense Department and services are monitoring closely.

In a report sent to Congress earlier this month, DOD officials say the Arctic is a place they and the services are paying attention to because of rapid climate change there that likely will open the area to greater human inhabitation and possible threats to U.S. interests.

The polar icecap and harsh Arctic environment have long enhanced U.S. security by acting as a northern barrier to the United States, the report says. The melting of the icecap already is causing increased human activity, such as with oil and gas exploration and tourism, that could affect U.S. interests there and raise issues about maritime travel, it says.

Navy Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations, explained the level of U.S. interests in the Arctic during a June 16 Arctic seminar here. The region is "extraordinarily important for our Navy, for our military, and for our nation," he said.

"There is a phenomenal event taking place on the planet today," Admiral Roughead said, referring to the opening up of the Arctic Ocean from melting polar ice caps. "We haven't had an ocean open on this planet since the end of the Ice Age. So, if this is not a significant change that requires new, and I would submit, brave thinking on the topic, I don't know what other sort of physical event could produce that."

Admiral Roughead established a task force to consider climate change's impact on the Navy and how it should respond. Some things to consider include how melting ice and warming oceans will cause fish to travel north, opening up a fishing industry in the Arctic, as well as create more maritime traffic, in general. Within 25 years, he said, the Arctic could become a profitable sea route from Asia to Europe.

Besides the occasional battle at sea, the admiral said, "navies exist to grease the intercourse of commerce globally."

Army officials also are taking steps to reassess Arctic capabilities and plan for changing conditions in the region, the report says. The renewed military interest follows years of drawdown in the Arctic that followed the end of the Cold War with Russia.

According to the report, the Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of planet, resulting in increased human activity in the area, and presenting the opportunity for multilateral cooperation in shaping the future there.

The report stops short of advising a renewed military buildup in the Arctic, citing the lack of scientific consensus on long-term environmental changes there, the expectation that growth will be gradual and uneven, and the long lead time needed to develop capabilities there, all of which occur at a time of strict budget constraints.

Despite the warming, the Arctic still is an inhospitable climate, making defense capabilities difficult, the report says. Also, it notes, communications and the performance global positioning systems are limited in the area by magnetic and solar phenomena and poor satellite geometry and ionospheric effects, respectively.

The report notes there is low risk of military hostilities in the Arctic.

The United States is part of the eight-member Arctic Council, along with Russia, Canada, Iceland, Finland, Denmark, Norway and Sweden. All are publically committed to working within a common framework of international laws and diplomacies, and have demonstrated that commitment for 50 years, it says.

Still, DOD officials say the report and the department's careful monitoring of the Arctic is important so the United States can be on the leading edge of protecting its interests there. Because the changes are slow-onset, one DOD official told American Forces Press Service, "We have the ability to shape how that happens and ensure it happens in a cooperative fashion. It gives us the ability to move forward in a measured and strategic way."

As department experts assess the situation, they are mindful of the national interests of partner nations in the Arctic, namely Russia, which has some 4,350 miles of Arctic coastline, and garners 12 percent of its gross domestic product from the region, the report says.