Priorities for Future Arctic Challenges and Opportunities

The Arctic Ocean covers an area of 5,427,000 square miles, an area nearly the size of Russia.[1] The United States is among seven other nations that make claims to Arctic territory including Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, and Sweden.[2] This vast area is home to some of the harshest and inhospitable weather in the world. However, lying amongst these unforgiving conditions are vast economic resources ranging from oil and natural gas reserves, marine life, and tourism opportunities.[3] As the Earth undergoes significant climate change, more of these resources will become available for exploitation. “The changing environment and competition for resources may contribute to increasing tension, or conversely, provide opportunities for cooperative solutions.”[4] For these reasons, the United States must look ahead to the future and begin addressing the capability gaps that prevent it from fulfilling the guidelines set forth in the 2010 National Security Strategy. It can do so by investing in five key areas which include Maritime Domain Awareness, oceanographic information such as sea floor, ice and weather reporting, increased Arctic presence in the form of improved shore-based infrastructure, an increased number of ice-capable vessels, and increased participation in multinational Arctic exercises.

Maritime Domain Awareness is “the effective understanding of anything associated with the global maritime environment that could affect the security, safety, economy, or environment of the United States.”[5] In terms of homeland defense, the U.S. Coast Guard has been honing their ability to operate in the Arctic by increasing their search and rescue capability, cold-water maritime security efforts, and freedom of navigation operations. Currently this type of awareness for Department of Defense entities is lacking. As Arctic shipping lanes become more accessible during the summer months, the level of human activity in these areas increases. If the Department of Defense wishes to monitor and record the level of activity in the Arctic, an increased number of “underwater sensors, shore-based sensors, unmanned aerial systems, and national reconnaissance satellites” will be necessary.[6]

Enhancements to the Maritime Domain Awareness network are likely to be costly but also support and enhance the other areas of Arctic concern. A preliminary investment in the awareness network is necessary before substantial financing in any other areas of Arctic development. By first establishing a reliable network of sensors and monitoring equipment, the U.S. can forge ahead in other areas of Arctic development while maintaining awareness of the effects of our efforts as well as the efforts of other Arctic nations.

Arctic communications are challenging because of solar and magnetic phenomena.[7] Funding limited improvements to the Enhanced Polar System (EPS) that enables secure satellite communication and data transfer at high latitudes, is a significant step forward and just one example of where improvements should be made.[8] However, if the United States wishes to operate on a larger scale, such as operations by a surface task force, greater communication upgrades are necessary. Ultimately, by improving our domain awareness systems, the Department of Defense can support the first of the enduring American interests in reference to the Arctic, which is to promote the “security of the United States, its citizens, and U.S. allies and partners.”[9]

Because “the extent, impact, and rate of climate change in the Arctic are uncertain” it is “challenging to plan for possible future conditions in the region and to mobilize public or political support for investments in U.S. Arctic capabilities.”[10] The Department of Defense must position itself closely with the organizations that have made significant headway in analyzing and predicting Arctic environmental conditions. The resource and funding availability of the National Ice Center should be expanded to accommodate not just the needs of subsurface assets but also surface and air platforms.[11] Organizations like the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) are moving beyond data collection and dissemination by making information available and understandable to a wide range of users.[12] In the near term, it would benefit the DoD to begin building its cadre of ice floe experts whom are able to coordinate and partner their abilities with these types of civilian and government professionals. These types of military climate specialists would prove to be invaluable in the future because they would possess the ability to look at environmental conditions and estimate their specific impact on military operations and capability development.

Furthermore, oceanographic technology responsible for sea floor mapping and charting require vast improvements. The United Nations Law of the Sea allows nations to claim an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) out to 200 nautical miles from its established coastal base line. The boundaries of the EEZ can be extended, with the presence of a continental shelf, out to 350 nautical miles from the base line. However, the presence of the continental shelf is based on the “relevant information, including geodetic data, permanently describing the outer limits of its continental shelf” that is provided by the coastal State making the claim.[13] Russia has staked its claim to continental shelf resources covered by the Lomonosov Ridge with a potential overlap with Canada’s own EEZ-extension claims. The United States does not intend to dispute these claims but this type of situation highlights the glaring discrepancy in our ability to map, monitor, and justify our own EEZ rights as well as moderate conflicts between other Arctic nations.[14]

Currently, there are nine fundamental mission areas that the Department of Defense sees itself playing a major role in the Arctic now and in the future. While it is nearly impossible to divert resources substantial enough to make an impact over these nine mission areas, by improving the existing shore-based infrastructure present in our Alaskan Arctic territory and to a limited extent, in our partner’s sovereign territory, we can greatly improve the DoD’s capacity to operate more effectively over six of the nine mission areas. These six areas are: search and rescue (SAR), regional security cooperation, humanitarian assistance/disaster response/defense support of civil authorities, maritime security, power projection, and sea control.[15]

As human activity increases, the demand for the six above listed mission areas will increase as well. Presently “U.S. infrastructure capable of supporting current military operations is sparse, particularly in northern Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. In the eastern Arctic, U.S. forces can receive support from Thule Air Base, Greenland, or rely on Allied nations for necessary basing and infrastructure support.”[16] Although there are significant challenges associated with Arctic construction such as long lead times and triple or quadruple cost, the U.S. must begin reinforcing its current capabilities that will allow it to respond to crisis in the Arctic.[17] Our ability to project influence is highly proportional to our level of presence. The remote distances, absent of any support, along the Northern Sea Route or Northwest Passage where commercial vessels operate, mean severe consequences should these vessels require immediate assistance. The same type of shore-based support will become evermore necessary as military vessels and other U.S. assets begin operations to support maritime security, power projection and sea control efforts. Increasing the capability of current Arctic infrastructure is a way for the DoD to advance “U.S. leadership that promotes peace, security, and opportunity through stronger cooperation to meet global challenges.”[18]

Russia has already surged ahead with their ability to exploit Arctic resources. Their fleet of 34 heavy and medium icebreakers allows them to support the sprawling Northern Sea Route that is vital to sustain the two million Russian inhabitants living in the Arctic Circle.[19] Compared to the three U.S. Coast Guard medium and heavy icebreakers and zero “U.S.-flagged heavy icebreakers in the U.S. commercial fleet,” our ability to project power and operate safely commercially and independently is severely underdeveloped.[20] Just as increased shore-based infrastructure enhances our presence in the Arctic, maritime presence will be necessary for the U.S. to ensure control of its sovereign territory. Also, naval surface presence will ensure that newly opened commercial lanes will not be a haven for terrorist or trafficking practices. The U.S. must begin limited production of ice-hardened vessels to avoid being caught off-guard and ill prepared should rapid climate change result in demand for maritime security operations.

In the nature of mutual economic and strategic defense interests, the U.S. must be able to equally participate and contribute to the efforts put forth by other Arctic nations. The four previously mentioned integrated priorities focus on developing materiel and science assets that allow us the ability to understand and function in the Arctic. The fifth priority that demands attention centers on the Department of Defense’s ability and requirement to expand our partner capacity with Arctic nations. Annually, Norway hosts a joint military exercise called “Cold Response.” The purpose of the exercise is to “focus on cold weather maritime/amphibious operations, interoperability of expeditionary forces, and special and conventional ground operations.”[21] In 2010, among the 9,000 participating troops and 14 partner nations the U.S. sent only 200 Marines.[22] Operation Cold Response is just one example of the type of exercises where the U.S. must begin seeing an opportunity to learn from the lessons and experiences of other Arctic nations.

This is not a call for the U.S. to lead a cold weather multinational exercise but rather a call to mobilize our partnership opportunity. Undoubtedly the defense requirements of the United States are much greater than that of Norway and most other Arctic nations. The operational and intellectual opportunities presented by working closely with our Allies are invaluable. In order to serve as a partner to these other Arctic nations, the DoD must assess the existing capabilities of our Allies. What capabilities do partner nations already have? What capabilities do they see a need for? What are their lessons learned from their Arctic operations? Where can we find partnering opportunities? It is in these areas that the Department of Defense must invest resources. After these sort of questions have been answered, more attention, both intellectual and monetary, can be diverted to support the gaps in desired future capabilities.

In conclusion, the Arctic Ocean is an area that offers immense economic and security opportunities for the United States. Along with these opportunities there are numerous challenges present. The harsh environment, vast frigid isolation and unpredictable weather conditions make any sort of human presence riskier than operations conducted almost anywhere else on earth. Coupled with scientific knowledge gaps, territorial disputes, and competing fiscal requirements, it is extremely difficult to ascertain where money should be spent and what its resulting impact will be on the current, near and future terms. First, investing in Maritime Domain Awareness systems will allow decision makers to monitor and observe the impact current operations are having on the Arctic prior to committing hard assets to these areas. Second, improving the ability to predict weather conditions and model future climate expectations increases the level of awareness required to make decisions as to whether Arctic conditions are changing gradually or drastically. Once environmental conditions have been thoroughly assessed, improvements to existing shore-based infrastructure will be required. Ultimately, the improved shore-based support will pave the way for much needed ice-hardened commercial and military surface vessels. Focus in these areas will lead to strengthened U.S. security caused by increased presence. Finally, in the interest of international cooperation, the U.S. must invest in the cold weather experience of our Allies. The Arctic is an area that can be viewed as having the potential for future conflict or future cooperation for all nations involved. If the United States prepares for conflict, it will likely get conflict. If it prepares for cooperation, it will likely get cooperation. Cooperation or conflict is coming; it is imperative that the U.S. begins its preparations now for which case it wishes to behold.

[1] Wikipedia, “Arctic Ocean,” last accessed September 2011,

[2] “Maritime Jurisdiction and Boundaries in the Arctic Region,” International Boundaries Research Unit: Durham University (United Kingdom).

[3] “National Security Presidential Directive/NSPD-66,” Office of the President of the United States (Washington D.C., January 2009), 2.

[4] “Navy Arctic Roadmap,” Department of the Navy (Washington D.C., November 2009), 6.

[5] U.S. Coast Guard Official Website, “Acquisition Directorate: Maritime Domain Awareness,” last modified February 7, 2011,

[6] “Report to Congress on Arctic Operations and the Northwest Passage,” Department of Defense (Washington D.C., May 2011), 14.

[7] Ibid, 16.

[8] Los Angeles Air Force Base Official Website, “Enhanced Polar System,” last modified August 16, 2011,

[9] “National Defense Strategy,” Department of Defense (Washington D.C., June 2008), 7.

[10] “Report to Congress on Arctic Operations and the Northwest Passage,” Department of Defense, 10.

[11] National Ice Center Official Website, “Mission Statement,” last accessed September 2011,

[12] National Snow and Ice Data Center Official Website, “Monthly Highlights,” last modified August 2011,

[13] Oceans and Law of the Sea, (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, 1982), Part VI, Article 76, Paragraph 9.

[14] Alexander Lyskin, “Russia, Canada Back Science to Resolve Dispute Over Arctic Claims,” RIA Novosti, last modified September 16, 2009,

[15] “Report to Congress on Arctic Operations and the Northwest Passage,” Department of Defense, 14-15.

[16] Ibid, 23.

[17] “Design: Arctic and Subarctic Construction,” Department of Defense (Washington D.C., January 2004), 1-6.

[18] “National Defense Strategy,” Department of Defense, 7.

[19] “Report to Congress on Arctic Operations and the Northwest Passage,” Department of Defense, 27.

[20] Ibid, 27.

[21] Thomas Nilsen, “Large NATO Exercise Starts in Northern Norway,” Barents Observer, last modified February 18, 2010,

[22] Nathan Braden, “Marines Participate in Cold Response 2010,” EUCOM official website, last modified February 24, 2010













Braden, Nathan. EUCOM official website. “Marines Participate in Cold Response 2010.” Last modified February 24, 2010.


Department of Defense. “Design: Arctic and Subarctic Construction,” Washington D.C., January 2004.


Department of Defense. “National Defense Strategy,” Washington D.C., June 2008.


Department of Defense. “Report to Congress on Arctic Operations and the Northwest Passage,” Washington D.C., May 2011.


Department of the Navy. “Navy Arctic Roadmap,” Washington D.C., November 2009.

International Boundaries Research Unit: Durham University. “Maritime Jurisdiction and Boundaries in the Arctic Region.” United Kingdom.


Los Angeles Air Force Base Official Website. “Enhanced Polar System.” Last modified August 16, 2011.


Lyskin, Alexander. “Russia, Canada Back Science to Resolve Dispute Over Arctic Claims.” RIA Novosti. Last modified September 16, 2009.


National Ice Center Official Website. “Mission Statement.” Last accessed September 2011.


National Snow and Ice Data Center Official Website. “Monthly Highlights.” Last modified August 2011.


Nilsen, Thomas. “Large NATO Exercise Starts in Northern Norway.” Barents Observer. Last modified February 18, 2010.


Oceans and Law of the Sea. United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, 1982.

Office of the President of the United States. “National Security Presidential Directive/NSPD-66,” Washington D.C., January 2009.


U.S. Coast Guard Official Website, “Acquisition Directorate: Maritime Domain Awareness.” Last modified February 7, 2011.


Wikipedia. “Arctic Ocean.” Last accessed September 2011.



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