A thawing and increasingly competitive Arctic Ocean has led military leaders in recent years to assess the feasibility of basing troops in the frigid region.
Early next year, Pentagon officials say, an assessment of such bases, referred to as “Strategic Arctic Ports” will be released.
The study for such basing, tucked into the 2020 defense bill, called for the Pentagon to coordinate with the U.S. Coast Guard and Maritime Administration to find “potential sites for one or more strategic ports in the Arctic.” Such anchorages would oversee increasingly busy and congested waterways in a region that’s becoming an “emerging strategic choke point of future great power competition.”
The legislation mandated that the northern ports be able to host “at least one of each type of Navy or Coast Guard vessel,” including a guided-missile destroyer and a Legend-class national security cutter, along with a heavy polar ice breaker.
The sites would also have to have the capacity for equipment, fuel storage and defense systems and be linked by roads to airports that can support military aircraft.
While the Pentagon study could come early in 2021, some longtime Arctic hands expressed skepticism about the feasibility of such strategic ports when news of the study broke in 2019.
“It reads like, ‘Where are we going to put Naval Base Norfolk in the Arctic?’ That’s a bit of a stretch,” said retired Coast Guard Capt. Lawson Brigham, the former commander of the icebreaker Polar Sea during expeditions through the Arctic and Antarctic.
Brigham told Navy Times last year that multiple challenges confront anyone trying to build an Arctic port from scratch, starting with finding deep water along western Alaska’s shallow coastline.
“You’ve got to have draft. You’ve got to have depth of water,” Brigham added. “You’ve got to have a proper place to moor ships, not necessarily in the ice. An Aegis-class cruiser or destroyer can’t go anywhere near the ice.”
And then there’s the price tag.
“The question that makes everyone nervous is, ‘Who pays for this?’” he said. “What agency is going to have to pony up?”
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.