As a changing climate melts sea ice and the Arctic Circle opens to ships from all nations, the U.S. Coast Guard and other armed forces will be called to assert American power in the polar region.
The U.S. Senate’s Fiscal Year 2020 defense bill calls for the Pentagon to study the best strategic port locations for the Arctic, but experts warned House lawmakers on Thursday that planners will confront many problems building bases there designed to counter growing Russian and Chinese presence up north.
“Equipment has to be hardened for extreme cold weather. High-frequency radio signals can be degraded due to magnetic and solar phenomena. GPS can be degraded due to poor satellite geometry,” Luke Coffey, a national security and foreign policy analyst with the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation, told the Homeland Security Committee’s Transportation and Maritime Security Subcommittee.
And the Navy and Coast Guard will need better maps to chart their way across some waterways.
“Some of Alaska’s shipping lanes have not been surveyed properly since Capt. James Cook sailed through in 1778,” Coffey said.
“You can’t build a port, you can’t ship oil or gas…unless we have fully charted oceans,” added Michael Sfraga, the director of the Wilson Center think tank’s Polar Institute. “Especially around Alaska…those are lacking.”
Navy Secretary Richard Spencer voiced his support for a strategic U.S. Arctic port last year, noting that Russia had reopened five Arctic Circle bases and stationed 10,000 Spetsnaz special forces in the region.
The aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman entered the Arctic Circle in October, the first U.S. flattop to venture that far north in two decades.
Tensions with the Russians in the Arctic remain low for now, but that could change, Coffey said.
“This is not about preparing for war,” Coffey said. “This is about just preparing for the future.”
Asked how Russia gained an upper hand in the Arctic, Coffey pointed to differences between NATO members about the alliance’s role there and a lack of awareness in much of the United States about America’s northern interests.
“We do not promote ourselves as an Arctic nation,” he said. “We are thousands of miles away from Alaska and those voices aren’t heard.”
As for those Alaskan voices, it remains unclear how well lawmakers and the Pentagon will protect critical fisheries while big Arctic projects are being built, not to mention how local workers might benefit economically from the increased security spending in an era of profound climate change, said Victoria Herrmann, the president of the nonprofit Arctic Institute.
Going forward, she urged “robust partnerships” between U.S. armed forces, Alaska first responders, foreign friends and scientific researchers.
“The impacts of climate change are already forcing the region to undergo an unprecedented transition,” Hermann said. “Arctic air and sea temperatures are warming at more than twice the rate of the global average. The Arctic Ocean has lost 95 percent of its oldest documented sea ice.
"This new, more dangerous normal poses the greatest threat to human safety, to marine ecosystems and to our capacity to respond to maritime emergencies.”