The size, breadth, and depth of ongoing collaboration in Arctic science, economic endeavors, indigenous peoples concerns, military cooperation and governance-related activities are the envy of many across the globe—and we want this to continue. That is why investment in Arctic initiatives needs to be a top priority for the U.S. and the Biden administration.
The opportunities of an opening Arctic— in terms of a diminishing maritime sea ice region— are an incentive for Arctic and non-Arctic nations alike to pursue easier access to extract minerals, harvest marine life, conduct maritime transport, advance tourism and project sovereign influence. The diminishing Arctic ice environment is enabling rising competition between national powers.
Russia is an Arctic nation that shares a critical waterway with the U.S. and is capable of projecting power to and through the Arctic. The Russian Federation has refurbished former Soviet Arctic bases and built additional bases. And with a dominant number of ice breakers, Russia can project surface forces in multiple directions simultaneously.
Russian national decision-making and defense planning are opaque at best, and Russia’s Arctic military advantage should be met with resolve and strength, as America cannot afford to be perceived to the Kremlin as weak in our Arctic commitment. It is beneficial to both nations to prevent conflict in the U.S.-Russian shared maritime regions.
Meanwhile, the advancing influence of the People’s Republic of China through use of its economic power to increase access across the Arctic is also worth noting.
China is normalizing an Arctic presence via nationally owned icebreakers, gaining port access, and advancing mining interests. It is not inconceivable China may someday (and perhaps sooner than we may anticipate) conduct extractive measures closer to the U.S. Arctic maritime Extended Economic Zone (EEZ) than preferable, particularly based on China’s track record of environmental stewardship elsewhere.
Enabling enhanced protection of the Arctic maritime environment in the U.S. Arctic EEZ and across the Arctic basin should be considered a national priority.
It is also in the U.S. national interest to find a way to decouple joint approaches between Moscow and Beijing in the Arctic region. This is possible through diplomatic rapprochement that does not condone or reward poor and often maligned Russian actions. Such rapprochement should be guided by realizing there are a number of common Arctic interests between Moscow and Washington, D.C., particularly since the U.S. and Russia are Arctic neighbors.
U.S. Coast Guard’s Role
A priority concern should be to advance the U.S. Coast Guard’s ability to secure and protect the U.S. Arctic maritime EEZ and to provide the USCG the means to accomplish this issue of vital national interest.
Against the backdrop of one of the most difficult operational and geo-strategically challenging theaters on the planet, the Coast Guard makes the challenging look easy in conducting search-and-rescue missions and disaster response, as well as providing law enforcement and support to civil authorities.
The USCG needs to project persistent power into the ice-laden regions of the U.S. Arctic as well as other international Arctic waters. The authorization of six and appropriation of one Polar Security Cutter (PSC) was a critical gain, and hopefully new funding for more ice-breaking cutters will be coming soon, as capacity is well below what is needed.
There is a real need to advance the Arctic maritime capacity of the USCG to protect the U.S. national interest in our own Arctic maritime EEZ. Complementing this is the need to advance measures that help the USCG and other Arctic region crisis responders be more capable to cope when disaster strikes.
The region is more susceptible than ever to a changing environment and increases in storm severity, coastal flooding, thawing permafrost, and erosion. These challenges impact our top Arctic national interest: the U.S. citizens who live across a challenging but vital region.
There should be consideration in either developing or enhancing infrastructure in and near Arctic Alaska to serve an expeditionary function providing logistical and affordable level of repair to support USCG and other military forces operating in the region. Establishing security and crisis response expeditionary facilities at places such as Kodiak, Dutch Harbor, or Nome could provide ice cutting and other Arctic-oriented vessels an important third option between repair at sea or return to home ports in the Continental U.S.
U.S. Interests Are Multidimensional
U.S. decision-makers need to consider that America’s Arctic interests are multidimensional. They include resiliency measures for U.S. citizens who live there as well as measures that advance economic development critical to secure a better tomorrow and lift the region to improved standards of living. They also include the ability to scientifically understand a region undergoing rapid change and the need to protect and preserve a region that is environmentally fragile.
Measures must provide the means to secure and defend U.S. national interests that start with Alaska and include a pan-Arctic view. This consists of the need to retain field defense capabilities and measures with U.S. allies and partners that retain peaceful development of the Arctic.
The state of Alaska’s official motto “North to the Future” remains as relevant as ever, and the importance of the Arctic will continue to rise. It is incumbent of national decision-makers to prioritize and provide the means to understand and to create a safe, secure, protected and viable Arctic since such measures are well within the U.S. national interest.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
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Randy “Church” Kee, Maj Gen, USAF (Ret), is the executive director of the Arctic Domain Awareness Center at the University of Alaska Anchorage and commissioner of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission.