The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
Northern Exposures

The widening competition for Arctic resources and access begs U.S. policy coherence.

Published on May 1, 2010

The newest Russian national security strategy, released in May of last year, warns that within a decade nations could be at war over resources in the Arctic Ocean.1 In language reminiscent of the “correlation of forces” hand-wringing of the 1970s, Moscow’s strategy states that Arctic resources will become the “critical point for the world military balance.”

How fortunate for Russia, seeing as how that high-latitude nation, wrapping 170 degrees around the Arctic Circle, dominates the geography of the polar north. Russia, a country said to “think like the North and drink like the North”, has embarked on a project to ensure that it becomes the first Arctic superpower. In 2001, Russia was the first state to file a continental shelf claim under the Law of the Sea Convention for exclusive rights to the oil and mineral resources beneath the Arctic seabed. Canada and Denmark (the latter with Greenland) have protested the claim. Russia’s cheeky 2007 stunt to plant a flag fashioned from titanium on the seabed of the North Pole is but the overture of the geostrategic opera now playing out in the High North. Subsequent acts—long-range Tupelov-95 “Bear” and Tupelov-160 “Blackjack” strategic bomber flights over the Arctic, renewed after a 15-year suspension—are raising hackles in Canada and Norway. Flush with petrodollars, Moscow clearly sees the Arctic as a key to sustaining its stream of oil, gas and mineral wealth well into the future. All of which raises the question: Is the warning contained in the new Russian strategy a cold-blooded strategic prediction, a sign of practical intent, or mere bluster from a nation still smarting from wounded pride since the demise of the Soviet Union?

The Russians aren’t the only ones rediscovering the Arctic, however. The New York Times suggested back in 2005 that Arctic waters were an emerging arena of competition in a High North version of the “Great Game.”2 Writing in Foreign Affairs in the spring of 2008, Scott Borgerson warned of an “Arctic meltdown” and conflict in the region.3 The European Commission, too, suggests that changes in the Arctic’s physical environment are altering the geostrategic dynamics of the region and will affect global security.4 All the while Canada has been taking Russia at its word, firing back diplomatic missives in response to each move by Moscow and shoring up its own assertions of “sovereignty” over parts of the Arctic Ocean. In a sign that the issue is fast becoming a budding national preoccupation, the Canadian government has announced plans to build up to eight ice-strengthened patrol vessels to enforce strict laws in the famed Northwest Passage. Comprised of a network of Arctic Ocean waterways, some of which are nearly one hundred miles wide, the Northwest Passage cuts through Canada, connecting the North Atlantic in the east to the Beaufort Sea in the west.

Whatever various governments think may happen in the far North in the more or less distant future, some things are happening already. In 2004, there were some 6,000 vessels operating in the Arctic. The most comprehensive study on shipping trends in the region, the Arctic Council’s Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment, expects brisk growth in Arctic vessel traffic in the coming years.5 The prospect of increasing numbers of oil tankers, cargo vessels, cruise ships, oceanographic research ships and fishing fleets entering the area is compelling the five core Arctic littoral states—Russia, Canada, the United States, Denmark and Norway—to focus seriously on the Arctic for the first time. What exactly is the problem, and how do the five states see the solution?

One aspect of the problem has a legal character. Canada’s notoriously excessive maritime claims, for example, draw a huge line around the entire North American Arctic archipelago, labeling the surrounding oceans throughout the continent-wide area as “internal waters”—the equivalent of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. The Law of the Sea Convention, by contrast, defines the waterways of the Northwest Passage as an international strait, which has a dual character: it is indeed Canadian “territorial seas”, but is also open to the international community for unimpeded transit.

Norway, meanwhile, seeks international recognition for greater control of the resource-rich waters off the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, responsibility for which Oslo gained under the 1920 Spitsbergen Treaty, which has 40 members, including all five Arctic nations. Although the treaty recognizes Norwegian sovereignty over the islands, Russia has resisted Oslo’s offshore claims, and the two are also at odds over control of portions of the Barents Sea. Canada and Greenland dispute ownership of Hans Island, an insignificant speck of ground between the two countries. In 1984, Denmark’s Minister of Greenland Affairs rushed to the island and planted the Danish flag there as a way to visibly reject Canada’s claim. Canada also claims authority over part of the Beaufort Sea off the coast of Alaska, while also rejecting Russia’s seabed claims in the Arctic Ocean that snake outward on the seabed from the Siberian landmass to as far as the North Pole.

Why does anyone care about such legal claims? It’s not just national pride. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the region holds 13 percent of the undiscovered oil and 30 percent of the undiscovered natural gas in the world, and these figures do not include potentially vast reserves of methane gas hydrates.6 Areas of the Beaufort Sea, waters north of Siberia and the seabed of the Sverdrup Basin are all probable areas of interest. Most Arctic energy resources, however, are located within coastal states’ recognized 200-mile exclusive economic zones—not subject to controversy or potential to incite conflict. The talk of a war over energy resources is mostly hype—red meat for Canadian and Russian nationalists. It’s not the only economic factor in play, however, and more than economics is involved as well.

Ottawa’s claims are built on a northern mythos of Canada’s close and historic connection to the Arctic, even though virtually the entire population of the country is concentrated along its southern border with the United States. But the prospect of increased traffic in this once forgotten region has created a profound sense of unease that Canada is awakening to a new national vulnerability. Russia seeks global recognition and economic growth powered by natural resources. Greenland needs to develop natural resources if it ever hopes to give up subsidies from Copenhagen and become a viable independent country, a prospect two decades away. Greenland has a population of only 55,000 people and is three times the size of Texas. As China travels the world to lock up long-term contracts for oil and gas, an newly independent Greenland could expect generous offers from Beijing. Norway, a small country with an economy based on oil and fishing, wants to fence off as much of the Barents Sea and the waters surrounding Svalbard as possible in order to give it leverage within the European Union. These competing narratives are tied to national interest, and fuel a contest of words and wills that stars Moscow and Ottawa as the principle antagonists, but of necessity also includes major roles for the United States, China and perhaps even the European Union.

Of course, no one would be getting excited about new access to resources and possible conflict over them if it were not for climate change. Climate change, when dipped into any given geopolitical broth, works like litmus paper. It makes idealists optimistic, and realists pessimistic. It turns the State Department into the voice of reason and reveals the Defense Department as an actor determined to shape the future. Both views are reflected in the new U.S. policy toward the Arctic.

The U.S. Approach

Five broad factors are now contributing to rising tension in the Arctic—all related to the possible competition for resources freed up by global warming. The foremost Arctic resource is water, as it pertains to international shipping. Ninety percent of international trade goes by sea. If the Arctic ice melts sufficiently to create predictably navigable waters, then intercontinental tanker and cargo traffic between Europe and Asia may be able to knock 10 to 14 days off their transit times. In a global world economy that is calibrated to “just in time” manufacturing, the cost savings could be enormous.

Second, persistent demand for oil, gas and minerals in the developing world, even in a depressed global economy, will combine with tight supplies to create high commodity prices. Those prices would rise even higher in the event of economic recovery in Europe and North America, making the Arctic seabed’s mineral wealth even more attractive to resource-hungry markets.

Third, and related to these factors, we are experiencing a creative burst in technology for operating in the extreme cold of the Arctic environment. New technologies are making drilling in the punishing conditions of the Arctic Ocean feasible, and new icebreaker ships are making it easier to travel through the ice pack.

Fourth, while climate change might help to expand marine navigation, permafrost thaw in Siberia and Canada could disrupt road and rail infrastructure on land. Roads, oil pipelines and buildings built on the permanently frozen ground, which stretches 1,000 miles inland, could crumble as the ground melts.7

Fifth, with increased activity and greater numbers of ships come potential new threats to homeland security. The attacks of 9/11 altered the perception of port, vessel and waterway security, galvanizing public attention toward maritime vulnerabilities. The opening of the Arctic is gradually doing the same, not least in Alaska.

It took awhile for these factors to drive any serious thinking. Until January 2009, the U.S. government was uncharacteristically circumspect, if not to say ambivalent, about the prospects for Arctic competition and conflict. The Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Sea Power, a maritime strategy signed by the service chiefs of the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard in 2007, was a classic two-handed document. Climate change, it says,

is gradually opening up the waters of the Arctic, not only to new resource development, but also to new shipping routes that may reshape the global transport system. . . . While these developments offer opportunities for growth, they are potential sources of competition and conflict for access and natural resources.

Well, yes.

Finally, however, the White House launched a new Arctic Region Policy in January 2009 that set forth U.S. strategic and political-military interests in the High North.8 The policy broadly reflects America’s essential defense, transportation and homeland security interests in the Arctic.

Defense Policy: The United States, both a continental and major maritime power, is rediscovering that it is also an Arctic nation with broad and fundamental interests in the region. A look at the Arctic Region Policy serves as a point of departure for examining how U.S. security will complement or potentially conflict with the security postures of other nations in the region.

The United States maintains four major force elements in Alaska—Alaska Command, a sub-unified command under U.S. Pacific Command that prepares forces for deployment and conducts Alaskan defense; Joint Task Force Alaska, a standing joint task force under U.S. Northern Command created to provide military support to civil authorities, such as law enforcement; the U.S.-Canadian Alaska NORAD region; and 11th Air Force, which operates F-22 fighter jets.

Strategic U.S. national security interests in the Arctic are grounded in maintaining nuclear deterrence. Ballistic missile submarines constitute the most survivable component of the nuclear force. Situated among three continents, the geographic proximity of the Arctic Ocean to U.S. territory makes it an especially attractive location for submarine patrols. Taking refuge near ice, stationary submarines are virtually undetectable. In recent years, missile defense has become an additional element of strategic deterrence, and the rudimentary Alaskan network of radar and interceptor missiles at Fort Greely, which are armed with non-nuclear kinetic warheads, is the culmination of President Reagan’s once far grander vision of strategic defense.

Alaska is a principle vector for nuclear or conventional ballistic missile attack from Europe, Asia or the Middle East. Along with Upgraded Early Warning Radars, Alaska hosts X-Band Radar radar on the island of Shemya in the Aleutians. The old Distant Early Warning system, which extends from western Alaska to Greenland, has been upgraded and is now known as the North Warning System. The North American Air Defense Command operates 26 ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California. The Navy is entering the field of missile defense after numerous successful demonstrations of the Arleigh Burke-class of guided missile destroyers. The next generation of missile defense is gravitating toward sea-based platforms, making missile defense—like strategic deterrence—inextricably connected to freedom of navigation.

Navigation: The Arctic Ocean is a difficult operating environment. Extreme wind chill, darkness and ice-covered decks in pitching seas pose serious safety challenges for sailors. Surface warships face damage from topside icing when operating at high latitudes. Rime ice (freezing fog) on the windward side and ice build-up coating the topside of warships has to be removed with baseball bats in order to maintain a vessel’s reserve buoyancy. Floating ice or pack ice endangers bow-mounted sonar domes and interferes with towed arrays. Propellers, rudders, fin stabilizers and sea chests are all vulnerable in ice-infested waters.9 Extreme conditions affect more mundane systems as well, weakening steel hulls, exceeding hydraulic temperature tolerances, and cracking or shedding protective coatings and insulators.

One way to escape or mitigate these conditions is to get out of the wind and go under the ice. Submarine navigation is the safest, fastest and most efficient method of transiting the Arctic Ocean. A warmer climate, however, will facilitate surface transit, increasing naval and shipping traffic. Strategic mobility throughout the Arctic Ocean has global implications for the military, since the seas are interconnected and form a single world ocean. Surface transit through the Arctic promises to cut days or weeks off heavy sealift logistics transit times, thereby facilitating force surge and sustainment to virtually any other corner of the globe. Since the United States has the best logistics capabilities in the world, an ice-free Arctic works to relative U.S. advantage. Utilizing the Arctic route could facilitate improved crisis response and accelerate time-phased force deployment schedules to move forces from one theater to another.

Merchant shipping is also interested in using the shorter routes through the Northern Sea Route and Northwest Passage, and perhaps a transpolar route straight across the North Pole. The United States and Russia are poised to manage all traffic through the Bering Strait, the gateway connecting the Pacific Ocean to the Arctic Ocean. The Bering Gate is a narrow choke point only 52 miles wide, and the two states must use their positions astride the strait to ensure other Arctic states adopt only internationally accepted vessel safety, security and traffic management regulations. Otherwise, individual Arctic states will try to enforce unilateral rules that impede Arctic shipping for the rest of the world. Compared to the current routes via the Panama Canal and Suez Canals, commercial shipping transits from the Pacific to the Atlantic through the Northwest Passage could save two weeks of travel time. This savings translates into lower fuel costs, less ship steaming time and a reduction in labor costs for the commercial shipping industry. Although transport by ship is the most environmentally friendly way to move heavy cargo, bunker fuel is nonetheless extremely dirty, so less travel time means fewer stack emissions.

One-third of Russia’s territory lies north of the Arctic Circle, and the Northern Sea Route links these areas. Most of the rivers in Siberia flow north to the Arctic, providing the best avenue for moving resources and goods over long distances to international markets. Established in the 1930s, the infrastructure and port facilities of the Northern Sea Route were busy during the Soviet era but deteriorated in the 1990s. In recent years, however, the western end of the Northern Sea Route has experienced a renaissance, becoming the busiest Arctic waterway. Russia is lavishing attention on transportation infrastructure for the area as part of its northern development strategy. The largest nickel mine in the world, for example, is operated by Norilsk and is located in the region.

Russia has more icebreakers than any nation on earth. Three more heavy, nuclear-power ships will join the fleet by 2016 if current plans mature. These powerful ships can operate along the northern coast throughout the entire year. A variety of planned ice-strengthened service vessels will see to offshore port service and search-and-rescue operations. Similarly, if the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard expect to reliably operate in the Arctic, the Coast Guard’s dwindling handful of aging icebreakers must be recapitalized right now, since vessels are acquired on very long procurement cycles.

Homeland Security: As U.S. near-shore or offshore oil and gas activity in the region increases, the Coast Guard will be spread dangerously thin. The world’s largest coal deposit lies inland along the northwest coast of Alaska. The world’s largest zinc mine is located at Red Dog, near the Chukchi Sea, and its products are carried by sea. Thus, economic development in the Arctic, even on land, is bound up with the safety and security of civil merchant shipping. The Coast Guard is already in desperate need of new icebreakers and ice-hardened patrol vessels. The United States has grossly undercapitalized the capabilities needed to confront future missions in the Arctic, including critical infrastructure protection for ports, waterways and fixed and floating platforms on the continental shelf, search and rescue, and maritime security. We are suffering from a case of northern exposure.

In the summer of 2008, the Coast Guard conducted a “proof of concept” study for a strategic, forward-operating location in Barrow, Alaska, situated 320 miles north of the Arctic Circle. With a population of 4,000, Barrow is the northernmost settlement on the North American mainland. This exercise is a good first step toward honing an Arctic presence and response capability, but the force will have to grow.

The Diplomatic Angle

The United States has its defense policy ducks more or less in a row. The diplomatic aspects of U.S. policy, however, need work. All Arctic states would do well to mind their manners. Like vacationers who forget how to act when they’re away from home, most Arctic nations have been prone to boorish behavior in the region, acting in ways that are popular at home but harmful to their own long-term interests in regional stability. Russia and Canada suspect each other’s intentions. Norway and Denmark, like Russia and Canada, are too close to the problem to offer responsible and detached multilateral leadership in the region. Only the United States can fill that role.

We have made a start. All five nations with Arctic territory met in 2008 at Ilulissat, Greenland and emerged with a declaration that acknowledged the Law of the Sea Convention as the essential rule set for resolving Arctic conflicts. Sweden, Finland and Iceland did not participate, unfortunately. Though less endowed with Arctic resources than the core five, all three countries display a refreshing lack of Arctic emotionalism and are thus likely to be natural supporters of American leadership in Arctic governance. We should bring them in from the cold.

We need especially to help our Canadian friends, who have uncharacteristically acted quite unilaterally over the Arctic. By claiming sovereignty over the Northwest Passage, a position clearly inconsistent with the Law of the Sea Convention, Ottawa has painted itself into a corner. The Canadians have desperately sought to get the U.S. government on board with their maritime claims before international shipping from China, Japan and Korea arrive in the region and begin to use Arctic maritime routes. We cannot board that particular vessel, however, not least because the issue of transit through the Arctic Ocean cannot be addressed bilaterally between the United States and Canada. Thus we have a potential problem with our best neighbor.

In order to gain diplomatic leverage to champion their claims, Canada and Norway have tried to persuade the United States that Russia is causing all the problems—an argument, one supposes, they think we will buy on account of habit. Canada’s main concern is the Russian continental shelf claim over the Lomonosov Ridge on the seabed of the North Pole. Certainly, Russia has embarked on a program to maximize its influence in the Arctic, but Moscow has been surprisingly moderate and responsible in its conduct. Russia is following the rules in asserting its claim to the seabed of the North Pole, dutifully filing a legal continental shelf claim and offering supporting scientific data with the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. Norway is anxious to assert authority over the waters beyond the Svalbard Islands, but the 1920 treaty is silent on whether Norway may claim an offshore exclusive fishing zone beyond the territorial sea. In neither case is it clear that the two U.S. allies have a stronger diplomatic or legal position than Russia.

Obviously, this is all a potential diplomatic nightmare, one that could get us in trouble with friends and complicate an already fraught U.S.-Russian relationship—reset or not. And yet we seem to have hardly begun even to think about it. The U.S. government should avoid being drawn into Arctic squabbles on the side of any one claimant. We should try instead to play the role of an honest broker. It is wrong to assume that the Russian Federation is over-reaching in either case; the contrary is true, as Russia has plausible claims that should be resolved through the dispute resolution procedures in the Law of the Sea Convention.

Meanwhile, we should quietly urge Norway, Canada and Denmark to reflect on the relative importance of some of the Arctic disputes. In an early 2009 speech, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer wisely delivered a note of caution to member states on just this point:

The indivisibility of the security of Allies has always been a core principle of NATO. And it’s a principle we ignore at our peril. Clearly, the High North is a region that is of strategic interest to the Alliance. But so are the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea, and the Mediterranean. There are many regions—but there is only one NATO. And we must ensure that, as we look today at the High North and perhaps in the future at other regions, we do not get drawn down the path of regionalization—because that is the path to fragmentation. And that is a path we must avoid at all costs.

This is good advice, and not only for NATO. The only way the Arctic nations can effectively manage the risks of increased activity, protect against asymmetric threats and maintain safety and regional order is to cooperate with one another. A closely coordinated regional approach to Arctic governance under the framework of the Law of the Sea Convention will minimize uncertainty, build confidence and deepen polar stability. Each of the five Arctic core nations and the three associated Arctic states has an interest in encouraging American leadership in the High North to this end. For our part, we need to prepare ourselves better to do the job right.

1Presidential Decree, Dmitry Medvedev, Security Council of the Russian Federation, Strategy: National Security Strategy Russia 2020, Decree No. 537 (May 12, 2009).
2Clifford Krauss, Steven Lee Myers, Andrew C. Revkin and Simon Romero, “As Polar Ice Turns To Water”, New York Times, October 10, 2005.
3Borgerson, “Arctic Meltdown: The Economic and Security Implications of Global Warming”, Foreign Affairs (March/April 2008).
4European Commission Communication on the European Union and the Arctic Region, November 20, 2008.
5Arctic Council, Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment 2009 Report (2009), pp. 73, 90.
6Ed Struzik, “Dawn of a New Arctic”, The Edmonton Journal, May 3, 2009.
7Steve Connor, “Arctic Thaw Threatenes Siberian Permafrost”, The Independent (UK), June 14, 2008.
8President George W. Bush, National Security Presidential Directive 66, Arctic Region Policy.
9A “sea chest” is a recess in the hull of a vessel that serves as an intake reservoir from which piping systems draw raw water from the ocean. Typically sea chests are protected by steel gratings covered with baffle plates to dampen the effects of the speed of the vessel or state of the sea.

James Kraska is a U.S. Navy commander serving as the Howard S. Levie Chair of Operational Law at the U.S. Naval War College.