The Reduction in Arctic Ice Cover Strains Naval Forces and Poses Security Threats

Violent extremism in the Middle East. A smoldering cauldron in the South China Sea. Civil war in Syria. Russian aggression. The world is often fixated on these issues – issues that saturate our headlines as media outlets deem them today’s top security threats. However, as important as these security concerns are on the global stage, there is one major threat that is almost always overlooked: the Arctic.

In 2004, the possibility of a large commercial tanker sailing through the Arctic was nearly non-existent. Even if a fleet of strong icebreaker ships carved a trail through the frigid region, the density and quantity of the ice made navigating the Arctic virtually impossible. However, today safe passage through the Arctic is commonplace. As global temperatures rise, the glacial Arctic has become pilotable for hundreds of large commercial tankers that sail through the region during the summertime on their way to deliver a host of resources around the world. However, the consequences of rising temperatures in the Arctic are far more complicated than just the added complexity of managing shipping lanes. Open access to oil, gas, and mineral deposits to a global community that craves energy poses just one of many long-term issues that a melting Arctic presents. A region once known for its breathtaking beauty and untouched terrain now has the potential to become what the former commander of NATO Admiral James G. Stavridis calls an “icy slope toward a zone of competition, or worse, a zone of conflict.” The Arctic could very well morph into the epicenter of tremendous tension and divisive competition.

It is a little known fact that the United States is counted among the Arctic countries due to Alaska’s northern location. This uniquely positions the U.S. to broker deals in the Arctic and facilitate collective planning and cooperation in the region. That being said, the Arctic is an incredibly delicate region with many nations at play. Tensions will continue to mount due to disputes among the border states, which also include Norway, Russia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, and Sweden. These international players will undoubtedly disagree over who owns what, and non-polar actors (China, India, the European Union, and Japan) will likely enter the fray in order to gain access to valuable resources. With thirteen percent of the world’s oil reserves and thirty percent of its natural gas located in the Arctic, it is no wonder that this polar region has become a focus for global competition.

The possibility of Arctic conflict is a very real threat. Despite unusually high rates of melting ice and the resulting shift in the landscape, the Arctic remains an extraordinarily difficult and dangerous environment to navigate. Conducting military missions in the region continues to raise immense challenges due to the unforgiving conditions. U.S. naval operations in the Arctic declined after the Cold War, but in recent years the Navy has been ramping up its presence again due to pressures from vying nations itching at the chance to stake their claim in the region. To increase readiness, the Navy is currently conducting a research expedition called Ice Exercise 2016 (ICEX 2016), with the goal of better understanding the Arctic terrain so that Navy forces can more successfully operate there in the future. One of the largest concerns for the United States is the possibility of another Cold War. During the Cold War, U.S. and Soviet submarines routinely lurked beneath the ice caps of the Arctic Circle. “The region was going to be a major battle zone between the U.S. Navy and the Soviet forces,” says Stavridis. Of course, today conditions are more peaceful than those during the time of the Cold War, but there are no guarantees for the future.

Oil is also the cause of much worry. Crocker Snow, director of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy’s Edward R. Murrow Center for Public Diplomacy, warns, “if you have a serious oil spill in the Arctic . . . the real fear everybody has is that it will be almost impossible to contain.” Additionally, increases in mining and ecotourism could severely damage the fragile environment and erode habitats.

In May of 2013, President Obama published the National Strategy for the Arctic Region, outlining the desired objective of a stable, peaceful Arctic. Later that year, the Secretary of Defense published the Department of Defense Arctic Strategy, which detailed supporting objectives: ensuring security, supporting safety, promoting defense cooperation, and preparing for a wide range of challenges and contingencies. “Our goal is not to militarize the Arctic,” said Jeffrey Barker, a civilian policy official on the OPNAV staff. “The president clearly stated that, our national objectives clearly state that.” However, despite stated intentions, as tensions intensify and competition increases, the United States may nonetheless find itself in the middle of a major clash.

Climate change, regardless of one’s position on the issue, has unquestionably created an international security concern. As the polar ice caps melt and Arctic summers become essentially ice-free, new waterways and shipping lanes are drawing the extreme ends of our globe into territorial disputes once rarely considered. Ironically, the depletion of Arctic ice has not only broadened horizons, but also brought international partners closer together––sometimes in cooperation and other times in dispute. Navigating these uncharted waters, both literally and figuratively, will require political, military, industrial, and scientific minds to engage on the global stage in order to avoid international conflict. Collaboration of this magnitude is both extraordinary and necessary. So often we concentrate our attention on the devastating conflicts in the East, West and South, but every once in a while it would be wise look to the North. Things are heating up.

Alexandra Hale

Author: Alexandra Hale

Originally from Boston, Ali is currently a sophomore in the Elliott School of International Affairs where she is majoring in International Affairs with a concentration in security policy and minoring in naval science and Chinese. Ali has a passion for military analysis and naval strategy - particularly how our military is currently using Soft Power tactics to improve our global community. She is currently a Mount Vernon Leadership Fellows finalist where she will be pursuing research in the field of Open Source Security. When she is not in DC, Ali loves to travel the world and experience new and exciting cultures.