WASHINGTON — The White House on Friday released a 10-year Arctic strategy that emphasizes deterring increased Russian and Chinese activity in the region as global warming rapidly melts the polar ice caps, drastically transforming the environment.
The new strategy identifies four pillars including an enhanced U.S. military presence, increased exercises with partner countries to “deter aggression in the Arctic, especially from Russia,” NORAD air defense modernization and additional Coast Guard icebreakers, as well as better mapping and charting of the region’s waters and weather.
“The United States will enhance and exercise both our military and civilian capabilities in the Arctic as required to deter threats and to anticipate, prevent, and respond to both natural and human-made incidents,” the security section of the strategy states. “We will deepen cooperation with Arctic Allies and partners in support of these objectives and to manage risks of further militarization or unintended conflict, including those resulting from geopolitical tensions with Russia.”
Russia has reopened and modernized hundreds of Soviet-era military bases in the region since the U.S. released its last 10-year Arctic strategy in 2013. The new strategy notes that Moscow is “deploying new coastal and air defense missile systems and upgraded submarines; and increasing military exercises and raining operations with a new combatant command equivalent for the Arctic.”
It also notes that Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine has exacerbated tensions in the region, rendering “government-to-government cooperation with Russia in the Arctic virtually impossible.” The strategy leave the door open for such cooperation to “resume cooperation under certain conditions” but predicts that this is “unlikely for the foreseeable future, it said.
China has declared itself a “near-Arctic” state and announced its intentions to build a “Polar Silk Road” in the region. The White House strategy notes that China “seeks to increase its influence in the Arctic through an expanded slate of economic, diplomatic, scientific and military activities.”
“Over the last decade, the [People’s Republic of China] has doubled its investments, with a focus on critical mineral extraction; expanded its scientific activities; and used these scientific engagements to conduct dual-use research with intelligence or military applications in the Arctic,” the strategy states.
The document vows that the U.S. will also “refine and advance military presence in the Arctic in support of our homeland defense, global military and power projection and deterrence goals.”
The U.S. maintains more than 22,000 active-duty troops in Alaska and also has a base in Greenland.
The Pentagon last month established an Arctic Strategy and Global Resilience Office led by Iris Ferguson as deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Arctic — a new position. She will oversee several elements of the White House’s Arctic strategy, such as coordinating with U.S. security partners and force modernization.
NATO exercises and force modernization
The strategy calls for an increased focus on joint exercise with NATO allies and Arctic partners ‘to improve operational familiarity with the Arctic region, including cold weather operations and interoperability.” It also calls for collaborating with Canada on NORAD air defense modernization.
Additionally, the document states that the U.S. will procure additional icebreakers for the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard currently operates two icebreakers, the heavy Polar Star and medium Healy.
The Fiscal 2023 Coast Guard Authorization Act, which the Senate Commerce Committee advanced last month, allocates $841 million for a third Polar Security Cutter and another $20 million to set up an Arctic Security Cutter program office.
The White House strategy notes that China has “expanded its icebreaker fleet and sent vessels into the Arctic for the first time.”
China operates two icebreakers, one it manufactured itself and another it purchased from Ukraine in 1994 and refurbished. Beijing has started to develop a third heavy-duty icebreaker for use in the Arctic. Russia has six operational icebreakers.
The other three non-security pillars of the Arctic strategy are climate change and environmental protection, sustainable economic development and international cooperation and governance.
An April Pentagon inspector general report found that the U.S. military has failed to prepare its Arctic and sub-Arctic bases for the long-term impacts of climate change on the region as melting ice sinks runways and damages facilities.
The Arctic strategy notes that the U.S. will “improve Arctic observing, mapping and charting; weather, water and sea ice forecasting; sub-seasonal and seasonal prediction; emergency preparedness posture; and satellite coverage to enable efficient commerce and to ensure maritime and air safety” amid the rapidly changing environment.
The Arctic strategy aside, the White House has not yet released the long-overdue, legally mandated National Security Strategy. As a result, the Pentagon has not yet released the unclassified version of its National Defense Strategy. The Biden administration has attributed the months-long delay in releasing these documents to the need to recalibrate after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The 2018 National Security Strategy pivoted away from ongoing wars in the Middle East and Central Asia to great power competition with Russia and China.
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.