Natural Security Blog: Post

In the Arctic, Difficult Choices Loom about U.S. Military Capability

Military activity is on the rise in the Arctic. The Canadian military, for example, is bolstering its presence in the region, in part to offset Russian influence and to prepare for the opening of the Arctic Circle to resource exploitation and commercial travel.  In fact, this week, the Canadian military is conducting the largest military exercise to-date – Operation NANOOK – with some 1,000 troops, air and naval assets and unmanned drones. “All of this is very much about enlarging the footprint and the permanent and seasonal presence we have in the North," Canadian Defense Minister Peter McKay said last month in Afghanistan. “Members of the Canadian Forces say military capabilities are growing and becoming more complex in the North – a key component of reasserting claim to the region,” The Toronto Sun reported last week. “The Canadian military is not looking at what the issues are today but what are the threats and hazards that Canadians could see, governments could see, not only today, but in the future, to see what capabilities we could need to address those threats and hazards,” said Canadian Lt.-Gen. Walter Semianiw, commander of Operation NANOOK. 

Russia has also taken steps to bolster its military presence in the Arctic. In July, Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov announced that Russia would protect its territorial claims in the High North with an Arctic military force. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin made a similar pronouncement in July: “We are open for a dialogue with our foreign partners and with all our neighbors in the Arctic region, but of course we will defend our own geopolitical interests firmly and consistently." According to published reports, “Moscow plans to build at least six more icebreakers and spend $33 billion to construct a year-round port on the Arctic shores.” 

As Canada and Russia move to develop a more permanent military presence in the Arctic, U.S. policymakers and military planners must make hard choices about our force structure to determine what assets we need to compete in the Arctic –or at best preserve our national interests there. The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard already train for missions in the Arctic, but military planners have increasingly expressed concern about whether the U.S. military has the capability to support a variety of missions in the Arctic. In our 2010 Broadening Horizons report, we noted that “Coast Guard officials and other experts voice concern that they are not yet equipped to deal with a significant increase in their Arctic activities, should that requirement arise, citing a lack of sufficient communication equipment that can function reliably in the Arctic region and only a small number of icebreakers.” The problem persists today. Two of the U.S. Coast Guard's large polar icebreakers, the Polar Star and Polar Sea, are both home ported in Seattle. The third, the HEALY, is primarily a research vessel that supports the National Science Foundation's Arctic missions, though it has capabilities that enable the U.S. Coast Guard to execute non-scientific missions. One U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker is wholly insufficient to support U.S. Coast Guard missions in the Arctic.

The United States has not made adequate investments in Arctic military assets, in part I suspect because the Arctic has not received the level of attention it deserves in Washington. But as the fall approaches, and Congress – specifically the Congressional debt super committee – prepares to make difficult choices about defense spending, U.S. policymakers must consider the force structure we need to secure our interest in the Arctic Circle. Large icebreakers – the naval assets that would enable the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard to have a more sustained presence and patrol larger areas of the Arctic Circle – take eight to ten years to build. Given that the Russian ice breaker fleet already significantly outnumbers the U.S. fleet – and their plans to build six more – we are already falling behind.

Photo: The U.S. Coast Guard polar icebreaker HEALY. The HEALY is currently conducting research operations in the Arctic Circle.

This post was updated to reflect the following correction: The USCG HEALY is not owned by the National Science Foundation, but does support NSF scientific missions in the Arctic. The NSF's PALMER is the U.S. fleet's only other icebreaking vessel besides the Coast Guard's exisitng ships.

Arctic, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Navy, Canada, Russia


Wash your mouth out with

Wash your mouth out with soap!

HEALY is most definitely NOT owned by the NSF!

Arden: Thank you for your


Thank you for your comment. You're absolutely right. The USCG HEALY is not owned by the National Science Foundation, but does operate in support of NSF scientific missions in the Arctic. The NSF-owned PALMER is the fourth and final icebreaker in the U.S. icebreaker fleet. The bottom line, of course, is that with only two functional icebreakers - one owned by the USCG and one by the NSF - the USCG needs more than one icebreaker to execute its missions in the Arctic.

Many thanks again for your feedback,

Will Rogers

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