Melting polar ice is thrusting the Arctic Circle into the geopolitical limelight. The frigid region is estimated to contain nearly a third of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 15 percent of its undiscovered oil, and the Arctic countries—Russia, Canada, Denmark, Norway, and, thanks to Alaska, the United States—are eying those resources as they jockey for position. But thawing ice will also expose new shipping lanes, and nations like the United States will have new responsibilities to keep those routes safe for commerce. The WSJ reports:
“The inevitable opening of the Arctic will essentially create a new coast on America’s north,” said Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the Navy’s top officer.Even though the anticipated change is years away, Navy and Coast Guard officials say the U.S. needs to prepare now to patrol and defend the new waterways—designing ice-resistant ships and expanding Arctic naval exercises—when military scientists predict a new expanse of water freed of ice.
The United States lags far behind Russia in terms of Arctic naval preparedness. Russia has 25 icebreakers, while the United States has just one working polar-class icebreaker, which is nearing the end of its intended lifespan. Securing the funds to expand America’s Arctic fleet won’t be easy—each one costs more than $75 million—but will be necessary if the United States wants to maintain the kind of strategic presence it has taken in other important waters abroad.Russia is already taking proactive steps to beef up its military presence in the melting Arctic waters. Last month, Putin told his Defense Ministry to “pay special attention to the deployment of infrastructure and military units in the Arctic.”Commercial shipping through the Arctic Ocean is no longer theoretical, either: a Chinese cargo ship has already traversed the northern coast of Russia. Pretty soon, America’s northern coast may be its most important.