The Navy and Marine Corps released a new Arctic strategy today, calling to extend their new focus on day-to-day competition with Russia and China into the Arctic as it becomes more navigable and therefore more congested in the coming decades.
Citing an expected rise in the use of Arctic waters for commercial shipping, natural resource exploration, tourism and military presence, the strategy calls for the Navy and Marine Corps to increase regular presence in the Arctic. Doing so will require the sea services to collaborate with allies as well as domestic partners like the Coast Guard and Alaska law enforcement organizations, and focus research and acquisition decisions on being able to operate successfully in the High North.
This strategy – A Blue Arctic: A Strategic Blueprint for the Arctic – comes on the heels of last month’s tri-service maritime strategy signed by the Navy, Marines and Coast Guard and continues the current leadership’s push to explain what role the sea services will play in global operations going forward.
“In the decades ahead, rapidly melting sea ice and increasingly navigable Arctic waters – a Blue Arctic – will create new challenges and opportunities off our northern shores. Without sustained American naval presence and partnerships in the Arctic Region, peace and prosperity will be increasingly challenged by Russia and China, whose interests and values differ dramatically from ours,” reads the strategy.
“Competing views of how to control increasingly accessible marine resources and sea routes, unintended military accidents and conflict, and spill-over of major power competition in the Arctic all have the potential to threaten U.S. interests and prosperity. These challenges are compounded by increasing risk of environmental degradation and disasters, accidents at sea, and displacement of people and wildlife as human activity increases in the region.”
Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite told reporters today that the Navy and Marine Corps have remained present in the Arctic in recent decades, but that presence has largely been under the ice or in the air. As competition in the region grows, he said, it will be important to have a more visible surface presence – with both manned and unmanned ships – to make clear that the U.S. will operate in all international waters, including those above the Arctic Circle.
He cited several recent examples of high-profile Navy presence in the Arctic – the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group venturing into the Arctic Circle for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union and participating in NATO’s Trident Juncture 2018 exercise, the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group’s participation in Northern Edge 2019 off Alaska, and multinational surface actions groups operating in the Barents Sea and other Arctic waters last year – as the types of presence operations he’d like to see more of.
Braithwaite was careful not to commit the U.S. Navy to too much operational presence there – rather, he said the Navy needed to have a consistent presence in the Arctic but also be dynamic and unpredictable. Essentially, the Navy needs to create the perception that there’s always the possibility it could be operating under, on or over the Arctic at any given time.
To be more present, the Navy will need several things.
First, it needs ports and airfields to operate from.
On that front, Braithwaite suggested it was unlikely that the Navy itself would build new infrastructure but rather would look to leverage existing locations operated by joint and international partners.
Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) asked Braithwaite during his confirmation hearing last year about looking into investing in a strategic Arctic port in Alaska. Braithwaite told reporters today that he was stationed in Adak when he was a young pilot and did in fact return there as Navy secretary to make good on his promise to Sullivan.
“Unfortunately, it looks like the set from a zombie apocalypse, to be very honest with you. That’s a very harsh environment, it’s been very harsh on the infrastructure there. It would cost an inordinate amount of money to reopen it,” he said.
“But there are other options that we have to be able to operate out of other airfields in that part of the world, in the Arctic. Of course we have our partnerships with our NATO allies: there’s a new air station opening up in Evenes, Norway, that can support both the P-8 and the Joint Strike Fighter, and we’ve been working with the Norwegian ministry of defense” to coordinate on the U.S. Navy making use of that airfield.
“It’s no secret, I visited the Coast Guard base while I was in Alaska in Kodiak, to look at what the port facilities were there, what the airfield – the runways, the condition, the length, all the rest of that – if we could begin to operate P-8s from that airfield,” the SECNAV continued.
“So I think a lot of those things are on the table for my successor and the Navy uniformed leadership to determine. But I do believe with all my heart and soul that you will see the Navy operating again in a more permanent manner above the Arctic Circle from either our allies’ bases or from some of the bases that we share with some of the other uniformed services.”
Second, the Navy will need the right equipment to operate in the High North.
The strategy document lays out several areas of investment for the Navy:
- The Department will continue leading critical advancements in research, development, testing, and evaluation – including the development of cold weather-capable designs, forecasting models, sensors, high latitude communications, and navigation systems – while enhancing our ability to meet future demands.
- Command, control, communications, computers, cyber, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C5ISR). The Department will assess and prioritize C5ISR capabilities in the Arctic Region, to include resilient, survivable, and interoperable networks and information systems of naval tactical forces, operations centers, and strategic planning. These capabilities will enhance domain awareness with the joint force, U.S. interagency, allies, and partners in the Arctic Region.
- Naval Forces. The Department will evaluate and modernize existing and future forces to provide manned and unmanned operational presence and patrol options in cold weather and ice-diminished Arctic waters. We will improve hydrographic surveys and sensors to support the Fleet. In a Blue Arctic, the Department must have a more credible presence in Arctic waters. This means ensuring that Arctic operations are considered in our design and modernization plans, and that our defense industrial base can build and sustain forces for the Arctic.
Braithwaite told USNI News during the media call that “a lot of our global positioning systems do not work in the High North, and therefore as those seaways open up and ships and aircraft begin to transit those spaces, we have to think through how we operate.”
He said much of that work was classified and he couldn’t discuss it in detail, but he said some of the Navy’s Arctic allies had solutions that the U.S. Navy would be interested in leveraging.
As for preparing ships to operate in the Arctic, he acknowledged that the Navy would have to consider whether to ice-harden any ship hulls, which would allow greater access in the Arctic but would also cost quite a bit. He noted a long-term need to be present in the Arctic but said that the next several Navy secretaries and chiefs of naval operations would have to figure out how much to invest in getting the ships ready for that environment. As the Navy increases its usage of unmanned systems, sending them up into regions inaccessible to manned ships may be a way to strike a balance, he noted.
Braithwaite also discussed the idea of the Navy buying icebreakers, an idea that stems from a June memo by President Donald Trump that called for a more capable Arctic and Antarctic icebreaking fleet by 2029. The Coast Guard has been in charge of that mission in recent decades, but Braithwaite said in a December Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that the Navy was looking into purchasing icebreakers for its own use. He repeated that idea again in the media call today.
In the SASC hearing, Braithwaite said he went to Finland to see icebreakers there as a possible solution the Navy might consider buying. He said it was important that the U.S. have an icebreaker construction capability but that today the U.S. can’t build fast enough to meet Trump’s directive.
“It’s not a mission that is central to the United States Navy, but it’s one that we rely on the Coast Guard to provide, and in this instance, per the executive order, we are looking at ways to procure those,” Braithwaite said during the hearing.
“We are looking within the Department of the Navy at how we can facilitate that. Part of commissioning those ships means that they become U.S. naval vessels, and there are requirements that we have to have U.S. naval personnel in command of those vessels. So I’ve asked the [chief of naval operations] to look into the process by which we could facilitate that,” he added.
.@SECNAV Kenneth Braithwaite recognized Finland’s importance as Arctic strategic partner during his visit last week. He also took the opportunity to check out #Finland’s icebreakers. @USNavy pic.twitter.com/hZUmGuGPLm
— U.S. Embassy Finland (@usembfinland) November 13, 2020
Today, he told USNI News during the media call that he met with the White House just today about the ongoing research into finding an icebreaker capability for the Navy.
“We had a meeting today, we are in discussions with the White House on what the best course forward is for us to procure icebreakers,” he said. He said most of the discussion around the Navy procuring icebreakers was classified, but he said “we have several options on the table, I think we’ll be able to announce that in the not-too-distant future” and that the Navy was “working in concert with the Coast Guard, who would continue to have the lead in that space.”
And third, the Navy would need a clear mission.
The Arctic strategy document lays out the need for presence with the end goal of winning day-to-day competition, to avoid a greater crisis or conflict later on. This thinking is laid out in greater detail in the tri-service maritime strategy, which focuses on what the Navy, Marines and Coast Guard must do to engage in and win in this competition phase, which leaders say is already ongoing today.
“U.S. Naval forces must operate more assertively across the Arctic Region to prevail in day-to-day competition as we protect the homeland, keep Arctic seas free and open, and deter coercive behavior and conventional aggression. Our challenge is to apply naval power through day-to-day competition in a way that protects vital national interests and preserves regional security without undermining trust and triggering conflict,” reads the strategy.
“This regional blueprint underscores the use of naval power to influence actions and events at sea and ashore. Left uncontested, incremental gains from increased aggression and malign activities could result in a fait accompli, with long-term strategic benefits for our competitors. The U.S. Navy currently has routine presence on, under, and above Arctic waters, and we will continue to train and exercise to maximize this capability. The Department will maintain an enhanced presence in the Arctic Region by regionally posturing our forces, conducting exercises and operations, integrating Navy-Marine Corps-Coast Guard capabilities, and synchronizing our Fleets.”