Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter @JosephVMicallef.
On June 9, 2020, the Trump administration unveiled a new national security and defense strategy for the polar regions. Titled "Memorandum on Safeguarding U.S. National Interests in the Arctic and Antarctic Regions," the presidential memorandum is the latest sign of the administration's growing interest in polar affairs.
The recognition that the U.S. needs to define and implement a comprehensive polar strategy is long overdue. The Arctic and Antarctic regions, however, are subject to very different geopolitical constraints and represent very different operating environments. Much of the administration's polar strategy appears to be shaped by Arctic concerns, and will likely prove less than ideal in Antarctica.
This is part one of a two-part series on U.S. strategic policy in the polar regions. In Part I, we will look at U.S. threats and strategy in the Arctic region. In Part 2, we will do the same for the Antarctic region.
U.S. Policy in the Arctic
In February 2019, at the urging of the White House, Congress finally appropriated $655 million dollars for a new Coast Guard icebreaking fleet. The proposed "polar security cutters" have been under discussion for more than two decades. The funding covers the cost of only one icebreaker and enough to begin work on a second. This was followed by a speech, in May 2019 at the Arctic Council's meeting in Helsinki, by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, where he warned that Russia's and China's Arctic ambitions threaten to transform the region "into a new South China Sea."
Related: Part II: US Polar Strategy and the Geopolitics of Antarctica
In August 2019, President Donald Trump suggested that the U.S. should purchase Greenland from Denmark. The Danish government promptly said that the island was not for sale. Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen publicly dismissed the notion as "absurd," and Trump was widely derided for his suggestion. This was not, however, the first time that the U.S. had offered to buy Greenland. In 1946, the Truman administration offered Denmark $100 million in gold bars, the equivalent of $5.7 billion today, for the island.
Thule Air Base, which Greenland hosts, has been in operation since 1943, and is the northernmost U.S. air base. It also hosts a ballistic missile early warning system and satellite tracking system. The island would be an important strategic asset for the U.S. if the Arctic region continues to warm. Its acquisition would make a lot of sense, even if the prospects of doing so are virtually nonexistent. In the meantime, the U.S. has stepped up foreign aid to the Greenland territorial government and reopened its consulate in Nuuk, Greenland's capital.
The renewed American interest in the polar regions is driven, in part, by the desire to push back against the expansion of Russian and Chinese influence and military force projection in the region, as outlined in the 2018 National Security Strategy and in the Pentagon's June 2019 Department of Defense Arctic Strategy. It also reflects the recognition that a warming polar region could unlock significant resource potential, as well as open new maritime transit routes between North America, East Asia and Europe.
At the heart of the memorandum is the goal of having "a ready, capable and available fleet of polar security ice breakers that is operationally tested and fully deplorable by fiscal year 2029." In addition, the memorandum calls for the U.S. to secure "associated assets and resources capable of ensuring a persistent United States presence in the Arctic and Antarctic." The Pentagon has already announced that the Navy will increase its surface presence in Arctic waters, and that it is considering building either a naval base or expanding port facilities, most likely in either Adak or Nome, on the Bering Sea.
The Trump administration indicated in 2019 that it may conduct Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) in Arctic waters. There are only two areas where such operations are relevant: Canada's Northwest Passage and Russia's Northeast Passage. A FONOPS operation through the Northeast Passage would likely lead to a confrontation with Russia. Moscow would again sharply oppose any such operation, both diplomatically and, conceivably, militarily.
In 1965 and 1967, U.S. Coast Guard cutters ostensibly undertaking scientific research attempted a transit through Vilkitsky Strait. The passageway connects the Kara and Laptev seas through the Severnaya Zemlya archipelago. Moscow opposed the transit, deployed Soviet Navy ships and planes to prevent it, and applied significant diplomatic pressure. Eventually, Washington aborted the mission. It's likely that U.S. Navy submarines routinely transit the Northeast Passage, but they do so underwater. Those transits are not publicized and are not considered FONOPS.
Ottawa, on the other hand, while it would vigorously object to any such operation, is unlikely to take any concrete steps to oppose it. Although any such U.S. action would aggravate already strained U.S.-Canada relations, the U.S. has transited the Northwest Passage before, but it has always obtained Canadian permission prior to doing so.
FONOPS operations in the Arctic also carry significant risks. In 2019, for example, a buildup of ice in the Northwest Passage forced the Canadian Coast Guard to suspend maritime transit. It would be deeply embarrassing to the U.S. if the Navy was forced to abort a proposed FONOPS because of hazardous ice conditions.
The Arctic region has long been an arena of military rivalry. It represents the northern approach to North America and, by extension, to the U.S. Historically, it represented the shortest air corridor for intercontinental bombers flying between the United States and the Soviet Union, and that continues to be the case for Russia and the U.S.
Moreover, nuclear armed ballistic missile submarines often hide beneath the polar ice cap. The ice cap provides cover from detection, while the region's proximity to Asia reduces the missiles' flight time. In addition, the Arctic region connects the Northwest and Northeast passages with the Atlantic, via the GIUK-N (Greenland, Iceland, United Kingdom and Norway) Gap, and with the Pacific, via the Bering Strait.
Over the last several decades, polar regions have seen a sharp warming trend. Time will tell whether this trend will continue, stabilize or reverse itself. The immediate impact of Arctic warming, especially if it continues, is threefold: It allows resource exploitation in the region, it supports maritime transit along polar shipping routes, and it opens up large tracts of the Arctic Ocean to the conduct of naval surface operations.
In 2008, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimated that the Arctic contains more than 1.67 quadrillion cubic feet of natural gas. That's equivalent to 30% of the world's remaining undeveloped supply, and is four times the current U.S. reserves. This estimate does not include methane hydrates, whose existence on the Alaskan continental shelf has already been confirmed, and which could boost reserves exponentially.
In addition, USGS estimated that there were also potential reserves of 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids and 90 billion barrels of oil. According to the USGS, the region also has large subsurface deposits of a wide range of minerals.
Maritime transit across the Northeast Passage or the Northwest Passage could cut shipping times between Asia, Europe and North America by a third, saving thousands of dollars in operating costs per voyage.
Conflicting Territorial Claims in the Arctic
Unlike Antarctica, there is no Arctic landmass. Roughly one-third of the Arctic Ocean sits atop the Eurasian and North American continental shelf. In addition, if the Mendeleev and Lomonosov ridges are classified as part of the continental shelf, then the sovereignty of more than half of the Arctic Ocean could be decided, in accordance with the U.N. Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), on which country has the strongest claim to the sea bed.
There are six countries that have Arctic coastlines: Russia, Norway, Iceland, Denmark (Greenland), Canada and the U.S. Two other countries, Finland and Sweden, are considered Arctic countries, although they do not have any coastline on the Arctic Ocean or its adjacent seas. China's northernmost point of land is in Heilongjiang, about 900 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Beijing, however, claims that China is a "near-Arctic state," in part because of Arctic-like climate conditions in the Himalayas, and has long shown an interest in Arctic affairs.
The Arctic region was extensively explored from the late 15th century on. Even earlier, between the 10th and 12th centuries, Viking explorers also traveled through the region, though the extent of their voyages is not entirely known. Those earlier exploration efforts are still relevant, as they form the basis of ongoing land claims in the region.
Currently, there are conflicting assertions among the six nations that have extended claims over the Arctic Sea and the ocean floor. In 1925, Canada, in accordance with a concept in international law called the sector principle, unilaterally extended its maritime boundary to cover an area from 60°W to 141°W and northward all the way to the North Pole. The distance between Canada's northernmost point of land, Cape Columbia on Ellesmere Island, to the geographic North Pole is 415 nautical miles (478 statutory miles).
The sector principle is a concept in international law whereby international boundaries are extended over sea areas in the Arctic toward the North Pole following lines of longitude. The same principle is used over land in the Antarctic to the South Pole.
Canada has also claimed that the various channels and straits that constitute the Northwest Passage are part of its internal waters. The U.S. and several other countries have contested that claim, arguing that the Northwest Passage is an international waterway allowing free and unencumbered passage.
In 1926, the Soviet Union claimed sovereignty over all the islands and lands between 32°E and 168°W, between its coastline and the North Pole. During the Cold War, Soviet-era maps of the Arctic marked the USSR's northern boundary as a line along 32°E longitude from the Kola Peninsula and 180°E longitude from the Bering Strait, extending toward the North Pole. Based on those coordinates, approximately a third of the Arctic Ocean was considered Soviet territorial waters. Russia's current claims are less expansive than those extended by the Soviet Union.
Under UNCLOS, maritime states can claim a 200-mile-wide Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) off their coasts. This EEZ can be extended up to 350 miles if a country can show it has an "expanded continental shelf" that extends beyond the 200-mile limit. According to the Russian claim, the Lomonosov and Mendeleev ridges, two roughly 1,000-mile-long underwater mountain chains that span the Arctic sea floor almost all the way to Greenland and the Canadian Arctic, are part of the Russian continental shelf.
Based on Russia's extended continental shelf claims, roughly 460,000 additional square miles of the Arctic Ocean would come under Moscow's sovereignty. The area would extend to virtually the 200-mile EEZ of the U.S., Canada and Denmark/Greenland. It would also include the geographic North Pole. Under International Law, the North Pole is considered "the common legacy of all mankind" and cannot be claimed by any country.
In 2007, however, the Russian Arktika expedition -- the first crewed descent to the seafloor beneath the North Pole -- did plant a Russian flag made of titanium on the Arctic floor at the geographic pole. The action brought sharp rebukes from the U.S., Canada and Denmark. The Kremlin claimed, however, that it was not asserting sovereignty and, according to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavarov, "The purpose of the expedition is not to stake whatever rights of Russia, but to prove that our shelf extends to the North Pole."
Norway has extended a claim from 5°E to 25°E, extending to the North Pole, and the U.S. has extended a claim from 170°W to 141°W, also extending to the North Pole. Denmark has claimed that the Lomonosov and Mendeleev ridges are extensions of Greenland's continental shelf. It has extended a claim from 60°W to 10°W, also reaching to the North Pole. The area covers 350,000 square miles.
Russia and Norway had a long-standing dispute over the demarcation of their respective boundaries in the Barents Sea. The dispute was finally resolved in 2010, when both countries signed a treaty dividing the contested region evenly between them. None of the other conflicting Arctic land claims has been resolved. Most of these have been submitted to the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) for adjudication. The U.S. is the one exception. Although the U.S. has signed the UNCLOS treaty, it has not formally ratified it.
China in the Arctic
China has not extended any land claims in the Arctic region. Over the last several decades, however, it has shown a keen interest in the Arctic and has injected itself into Arctic affairs both diplomatically and economically. Since 2013, Beijing has had Observer status on the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental body of the eight Arctic nations. It has also created joint Arctic research stations with Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland.
China currently operates two icebreakers: Xue Long 1 (Snow Dragon) and Xue Long 2. Both are designated as polar research vessels. It has announced plans to build a third icebreaker, a Polar Class 2 vessel with a displacement of 26,000 tons. The icebreaker would be capable of breaking through 10-foot-thick ice at a speed of two knots. It may also be nuclear powered, making it the first nuclear powered surface ship in the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).
The two Xue Long icebreakers have a displacement of 21,000 and 13,990 tons. By comparison, Russia's Arktika, a nuclear-powered behemoth, displaces 33,540 tons. The U.S. Coast Guard currently has two operating polar icebreakers: The Healy displaces 16,257 tons, and the Polar Star displaces 11,037. The proposed Polar security cutters will have a displacement of 23,300 tons.
China has incorporated Russia's Northern Sea Route (Northeast Passage) into the One Belt One Road (OBOR) Initiative, designating the route as the Polar Silk Road. In addition to being shorter than the Suez Canal route, the Polar Silk route offers China an additional advantage: It would be a route where the U.S. Navy would find it extremely difficult to operate on a sustained basis.
Additionally, China has invested in a variety of mining projects in the Arctic region, which have significantly expanded its footprint. Although the infrastructure development associated with these projects is commercial, they could, in a pattern already evidenced in the OBOR initiative, be used for military purposes.
China's MMG Ltd. has obtained zinc and copper deposits in Izok Lake and High Lake in Nunavut. The Shandong Gold Mining Company is proposing, subject to Ottawa's approval, to buy a gold mine owned by TMAC Resources. Both mineral projects are adjacent to Canada's Northwest Passage and would require construction of docking facilities along that passage to ship out the ore. Additionally, Jilin Jien Nickel Industry Co. Ltd. operates a mine at the northern tip of Quebec.
Chinese companies have two resource projects in Greenland with Australian partners: Citronen Fjord at the very top of Greenland and Kvanefjeld along its southwest coast. In 2015, General Nice, China's largest coal and iron ore importer, took control of the Isua iron ore project in Greenland. The company proposed to bring in 5,000 Chinese miners to operate the facility, the equivalent of around 10% of Greenland's current 56,000 population. The project has been on hold due to low iron ore prices.
China's economy has a large appetite for raw materials. Its investment in the Arctic parallels its investments in other mineral assets around the globe. Nonetheless, the fact that infrastructure development associated with those projects might also have military applications has raised Washington's concerns.
Since 2011, U.S. Northern Command has had sole responsibility for the Arctic region. Prior to that change, portions of the Arctic region also came under the Pacific and European Commands. NATO has also stepped up its involvement in the Arctic region. The NATO exercise Trident Juncture in 2018 saw a U.S. aircraft carrier operating above the Arctic Circle for the first time since the 1990s. The 2020 exercise, Cold Response, planned for 16,000 NATO troops, was intended to simulate a clash with Russia during the Norwegian winter, but was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
NATO has a natural role to play in Washington's Arctic strategy. Five of the Arctic nations -- the U.S., Canada, Iceland, Denmark and Norway -- are already members of NATO. Sweden and Finland, two other Arctic nations, are closely associated with NATO and coordinate military activity with that organization. Most significantly, NATO was created to counter Soviet aggression in Europe. In the short term, notwithstanding China's aims in the region, Russian military power poses the most significant challenge to U.S. interests in the Arctic. NATO already exists, is already tasked with countering Russian aggression, and is already active in the Arctic region.
The Trump administration's plans to expand the USCG polar icebreaker fleet is a necessary and important first step to countering Russian and Chinese aims in the Arctic region. It is only the first step, however, in what must be an expanded and more active role for the U.S., both diplomatically and militarily in the region.
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