Is the U.S. Navy Heading for Arctic Waters?

By Rear Adm. Jon White, Director, Task Force Climate Change and Oceanographer of the Navy and Rear Adm. William C. McQuilkin, Director, Navy Strategy and Policy Division (OPNAV N51)

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert signed the updated version of the U.S. Navy Arctic Roadmap Feb. 18. This document provides a way forward to ensure the U.S. Navy is prepared to operate in the Arctic in the future.  A large group of contributors worked hard to create this document, representing many different disciplines within the Navy, as well as the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The United States is an Arctic nation, with over a thousand miles of Alaskan coastline above the Arctic Circle and tens of thousands of miles of sovereign waters in the Arctic Ocean.  In the ice-locked past, this region was primarily of interest to indigenous peoples and security forces concerned about maritime security and strategic deterrence. That is changing.

The loss of seasonal sea ice in the Arctic is making the region more accessible to human enterprise.  Increased shipping is already evident, oil and gas exploration is evolving, commercial tourism in the Arctic is increasing, and new fishing grounds are waiting to be exploited. But we need to put all of that in perspective. Maritime commerce is expected to grow as the routes become more reliable, but the total shipping volume will remain small (less than 2 percent of global maritime traffic by 2025). To further illustrate this, only 46 ships transited the Northern Sea Route for ALL of 2012, while approximately 47 ships transited the Suez Canal on a DAILY basis.

Sailors and members of the Applied Physics Laboratory Ice Station clear ice from the hatch of the Seawolf-class submarine USS Connecticut (SSN 22) as it surfaces above the ice during ICEX 2011.

Sailors and members of the Applied Physics Laboratory Ice Station clear ice from the hatch of the Seawolf-class submarine USS Connecticut (SSN 22) as it surfaces above the ice in the Arctic Ocean during ICEX 2011.

 

There is little infrastructure on our Arctic coast, and the Navy has very limited presence in the Arctic Ocean.  It is true that we routinely operate submarines in the Arctic, but we rarely operate on the surface or in the air. There has been little need for us to go up there in recent decades.  Since we see no real threat at this time, why should we operate there?

For the Navy, the Arctic Ocean is a unique and harsh operating environment.  Just like every other ocean around the world, we need to have the capability to operate in the region when required by higher authority. That means having trained sailors with cold weather expertise; platforms, weapons, and sensors that can operate in the harsh Arctic environment; reliable high-bandwidth communications capabilities; infrastructure to ensure we can operate safely; and reliable logistics support for remote operations.  The Arctic Roadmap is designed to provide a way ahead to achieve those ends—we must invest now to develop and deliver capabilities that will be required for the U.S. Navy to operate in 2025 and beyond.

Ok.  So what does this new roadmap mean for the deck plate sailor?  Can a sailor enlisting today expect to spend time in the Arctic?  The chances of heading to the Arctic probably aren’t much greater than they are today—we aren’t going to start opening bases there or doing routine deployments anytime soon.

Initially, we will increase the number of cold weather exercises in which we participate.  In 2010, USS Porter (DDG-78) joined Canadian and Danish forces in the Davis Straits as part of Canada’s annual military exercise Natsiq. In 2011, USS Farragut (DDG-99) joined Norwegian and Russian forces in the multi-national exercise Northern Eagle, conducted in the Barents Sea off the north coast of Norway.  We expect this type of multi-national exercise participation to take place with greater frequency in the coming years as we build experience in Arctic operations.

Sonar Technician (Submarine) 1st Class Jose Gutierrez, assistant range safety officer, watches daily operations while maintaining communication with the command hut at the Applied Physics Lab Ice Station during Ice Exercise 2009.

Sonar Technician (Submarine) 1st Class Jose Gutierrez, assistant range safety officer, watches daily operations while maintaining communication with the command hut at the Applied Physics Lab Ice Station in the during Ice Exercise 2009.

 

We will also look for more opportunities to cross-deck U.S. Sailors with their counterparts in other Arctic nation navies, and with the U.S. Coast Guard, to gain experience and gather lessons-learned.  We will start including high latitude operations in our training and education programs, and the Arctic will be considered when developing strategic plans and guidance.

In the near term, we may be tasked to support the U.S. Coast Guard to ensure safe, secure and environmentally responsible maritime activity in the Arctic Ocean. For example, we may be called upon to assist with search and rescue operations, which are particularly challenging in the remote and demanding Arctic environment.  Or, we may be asked to provide support to civil authorities for disaster response.

We believe a stable and secure Arctic region will ensure our national interests are safeguarded and the homeland is protected—the road map will prepare naval forces over the next 15 years for operations there. We are committed to growing partnerships and alliances with our neighbor navies in the region and expect the Arctic to remain a low threat security environment.