Russia plans to expand its military presence in the Arctic, officials said Monday. According to Nikolai Patrushev, the former head of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB) and the current head of the Security Council, Russia is going to create a number of “dual use” facilities in the Arctic, facilities that will be expected to host commercial craft as well as vessels of both the Northern Fleet and the FSB’s border service.1
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Patrushev’s announcement is connected with the continued development of the or the “northern sea path,” basically an updated and modernized version of what was once known as the “northeast passage.” The rapid melting of the Arctic has opened up previously unreachable parts of Russia’s northern coast and has made what was once a near-impossible voyage far more practical. Traffic on the route, while still paltry compared with the traffic going through the Suez or Panama canals, has grown rapidly in recent years, and is forecast to increase as the Arctic stays ice-free for longer periods of time. Should warming continue, the northern sea path could very easily become one of the world’s busier maritime corridors. In comparison with the route through the Suez, it allows container traffic from Europe to Asia to reach its destination traveling about 4,000 fewer miles and roughly 13 fewer days.
Global interests—including those of the United States—are at stake in this changing region.
Commercial opportunities are expanding exponentially in the polar regions as the ice pack retreats, and the need for commensurate U.S. government engagement is also increasing. Shipping companies are eager to capitalize on the savings of time and fuel made available by an ice-free Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route linking Europe and Asia. Oil and gas companies have already identified massive reservoirs suitable for development should the waters become reliably passable. A number of Arctic countries are already harvesting finfish and shellfish from polar waters, and other non-Arctic nations are demonstrating their intent by building ice-strengthened and ice-breaking-capable ships to facilitate their ventures. Ecotourism is burgeoning as luxury ships provide comfortable access to exotic and pristine wildlife venues.
This rapid uptick in human activity in the Arctic crosses numerous U.S. national interests, especially where the country has sovereign rights. Among the concerns are maritime safety, national security, economics, and natural resources (including fisheries, oil, and gas), national defense, and border control. National Security Presidential Directive 66 outlines the intended U.S. policy in the Arctic. However, to date the government’s presence in the polar regions has been more symbolic than effective, conducted almost exclusively by ice-breaking vessels—most recently the U.S. Coast Guard cutters Polar Sea(WAGB-11), Polar Star (WAGB-10), and Healy (WAGB-20). The Department of Defense operates an aircraft- and missile-detection system, and submarines are thought to also operate to an extent in the Arctic. But to achieve the goals of NSPD-66, a broad scope of additional action is urgently required.
As commercial maritime operations continue to ramp up in the near term, the Coast Guard’s existing resources cannot keep up with the needed levels of shipping oversight, marine casualty and incident response, maritime domain awareness (MDA), and national defense. Of the service’s three icebreakers—heavy breakers Polar Sea and Polar Star and medium breakerHealy —only the latter is functional. The other two, because of age and years of restricted budgets, are now inoperable and in need of significant overhaul. The Polar Star is scheduled to be ready for operations in late 2013, after significant reactivation work to allow her to potentially operate for another seven to ten years, barring further major mechanical breakdown. The Polar Sea would need mechanical work costing millions just to limp back under way for a few years, but even that is not budgeted, as the ship is slated for scrapping later this year.
Excerpted from U.S. Naval Institute’s The U.S. Navy and The Arctic Question
On July 8, 1879 USS Jeannette, a barque rigged, propeller driven U.S. Navy steamship departed San Francisco on a voyage to reach the North Pole from the western Pacific via the Bering Straight north of Russia (sometimes referred to as the Northeast Passage). She was also to try to determine the fate of a Swedish expedition headed by Nils A. E. Nordenskjold aboard his vessel the Vega, which was believed to be in Alaskan waters. Her commander, Lt. Cmdr. George Washington DeLong, had discussed a new Arctic exploration with Henry Grinnell, a wealthy and politically connected New York ship owner who had been involved in two previous Arctic expeditions. However Grinnell felt he was too old to be involved. Support for the Jeannette Expedition, as it would be called, ultimately came primarily from newspaper publisher James Gordon Bennett Jr., who had inherited ownership of the New York Herald. Described as a playboy eccentric, it is widely held that without Bennett’s drive, political influence and financing the expedition would not have occurred.
The Jeannette had been officially commissioned a U.S. Navy vessel on June 28. The ship carried a crew of 32, of who five men, including DeLong, a 1865 U.S. Naval Academy graduate, were attached to the U.S. Navy. DeLong had Arctic experience, having participated in the search for survivors of explorer Charles Francis Hall’s failed 1872 Polaris expedition. The popular press frequently emphasized that the Jeannette effort was in fact a U.S. Navy enterprise “…a national work [that] will extend the geographical survey and topographical knowledge of the northern boundary in the interests of commerce and navigation.”