Department, Services Monitor Arctic Melting

WASHINGTON, June 27, 2011 — 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,” 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.”

Roug­head estab­lished a task force to con­sid­er cli­mate change’s impact on the Navy and how it should respond. Some things to con­sid­er is 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.”

The Army also is tak­ing steps to reassess its 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 the depart­ment assess­es the sit­u­a­tion, offi­cials are mind­ful of the nation­al inter­ests of its 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.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)