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Future Military and Coast Guard Activities in the Arctic

USS Texas in Arctic

A member of the USS Texas inspects the deck of the fast-attack submarine in October 2009. The USS Texas was the first submarine of its kind to conduct operations in the Arctic. Images courtesy of U.S. Navy.

Patrick L. Smith
Lt. Roger Callahan speaks with camp medic Lt. Huy Phun about cold weather safety gear at the Applied Physics Lab Ice Station camp in the Arctic Ocean

U.S. Navy personnel confer about cold weather safety gear at the Applied Physics Laboratory Ice Station camp in the Arctic Ocean in March 2009. Images courtesy of U.S. Navy.


USS Annapolis (SSN 760) is on the surface of the Arctic Ocean

The USS Annapolis breaks through three feet of Arctic ice during ICEX 2009. Images courtesy of U.S. Navy.


North Pole

The crew of the USS Hampton after surfacing in the polar ice cap region during ICEX 2004, a joint exercise between the U.S. and British submarine forces in 2004. Images courtesy of U.S. Navy.

Unlike Antarctica, the Arctic has no ban on weapons, and nations surrounding the region have started increasing their military presence there. Canada, Russia, and the United States have begun deploying surveillance assets and conducting Arctic military exercises, flights, and exploration missions using icebreakers. As yet, however, no country has clear legal authority to conduct maritime interdictions, ensure safe transit of commercial shippers, or conduct routine surveillance of maritime traffic.

Opening Arctic sea routes may complicate relations among nations that want to exploit oil and gas reserves in the region. Strategic choke points such as the Bering Strait, the Queen Elizabeth Islands in the Northwest Passage, and the Severnaya Zemlya and New Siberian Islands in the Northeast Passage are subject to control or even blockade. If melting of the permafrost damages roads or pipelines, freedom of maritime shipping will become critical.

The United States has several interests in the region, including approximately 1000 miles of Alaskan coastline. A 2007 National Security Presidential Directive calls on the Secretaries of State, Defense, and Homeland Security to “develop greater capabilities and capacity, as necessary, to protect United States air, land, and sea borders in the Arctic region.” According to Rear Admiral David Gove, the U.S. Navy will soon be called upon to monitor activities related to early warning/missile defense, maritime presence and security, and freedom of navigation and overflight. Admiral Thad Allen has recommended establishing forward operating bases to support search and rescue, pollution response, and security operations in the region.

Actual military conflict over access to shipping lanes or resources appears unlikely, at least for the foreseeable future. The vast majority of accessible oil and gas reserves lie in territorial waters, and the working conditions in the region, even during summer months, are so harsh and unpredictable that cooperation for mutual safety and economic advantage appears to be in everyone’s best interest.

The U.S. Coast Guard’s immediate concern is lack of resources for rescue operations and response to environmental disasters. More and more cruise ships are operating in regions far away from Coast Guard services (there have already been accidents that required rescuing passengers in dangerous conditions). An oil spill in the Arctic would be catastrophic because there are few resources in the region for containment and cleanup, and the cold-water temperatures would inhibit evaporation.

U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ships require timely and detailed information on icepack composition and drift. Naval vessels operating within the icepack can make use of precise information on the distribution and age of ice and on pack motion to avoid high-pressure ridges and identify navigable leads. At the 2008 First Workshop on Satellite Imaging of the Arctic (Copenhagen, Denmark), requirements for improved ice monitoring in support of shipping and activities in the Arctic were discussed, and a recent U.S. Coast Guard report defined specific requirements for satellite-based imagery for tracking ice floes. Basically, the extent of ice surveillance must be sufficient to cover several days’ passage and resolution to delineate routes permitting safe and efficient navigation.

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