The U.S. should be concerned about its lack of presence in the Arctic, according to one security expert.
Speaking at the Wilson Center recently, Global Brief magazine founder Irvin Studin painted a picture of Arctic geostrategy in which “Russia is way ahead” of the U.S. in the region.
Studin was referring to the Kremlin’s plans for its northern regions, which include “the opening of 10 Arctic search-and-rescue stations, 16 deepwater ports, 13 airfields, and 10 air-defense radar stations across its Arctic coast.”
In light of the Ukraine crisis, Russia “is flexing its military muscles in the ‘High North’ to make it clear that it won’t brook any interference in its national interests up there.”
While Moscow positions itself for success in the region, the United States remains relatively under-equipped.
Despite “some preliminary steps to provide the resources needed to execute leadership on the Arctic Council,” the United States “is falling behind in Arctic development.”
The time has come for the U.S. to take its role in the Arctic more seriously.
While Russia and other countries increasingly focus on the Arctic, the United States has failed to meet some of its most basic Arctic requirements.
For example, the U.S. Coast Guard currently sails just one heavy icebreaker—which was built in the 1970s – and well below its icebreaker fleet requirement.
Russia, conversely, sails nearly 30 icebreakers, some of which are nuclear-powered.
According to Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Ala., “the rest of the world is making decisions and placing a priority on Arctic investment and vision; America cannot afford to be left behind and miss the opportunities that are emerging there for the taking.”
U.S. government documentation identifies three main focuses for America’s chairmanship of the Arctic Council:
- Improving economic and living conditions for Arctic communities
- Arctic Ocean safety, security, and stewardship
- Addressing the impacts of climate change
Retired U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert J. Papp, the State Department’s special representative for the Arctic, said the United States’ “top priority as chair is to prepare the circumpolar region for ‘the birth of a new ocean’” and the subsequent “competition for vast natural resources.”
Yet the U.S. is poorly positioned to implement its strategy.
Adm. Paul Zukunft, the Coast Guard’s current commandant, says “we’re not even in the same league as Russia right now” and that six new icebreakers are needed to handle the increasing Arctic missions assigned to the Coast Guard.
The Congressional Research Service’s naval and Arctic expert Ronald O’Rourke has illustrated the discrepancy between the U.S. and other Arctic nations when it comes to icebreaking capacity.
He reports that Russia has 19 icebreakers in its inventory, whereas the U.S. only has three (one of which, the Polar Sea, is not operational).
Even Finland, an Arctic nation without Arctic Ocean coastline, sails more icebreakers than the U.S.
Unless the U.S. takes more seriously its role as an Arctic nation, including but not limited to fielding a greater Coast Guard presence there, its chairmanship of the council will amount to little more than a formality.