Cold War Games: U.S. Is Unprepared To Test The Waters In Icy Arctic (#GotBitcoin?)
Navy explores expansion of operations in far North, going head-to head with rivals Russia and China. Cold War Games: U.S. Is Unprepared To Test The Waters In Icy Arctic (#GotBitcoin?)
The Navy is planning to expand its role in the Arctic as climate change opens up more ocean waterways and the U.S. vies with great-power rivals Russia and China for influence in the far north.
A Navy warship will sail through Arctic waters in coming months on what’s known as a freedom of navigation operation, or FONOP, said Navy Secretary Richard Spencer in an interview with The Wall Street Journal this week. It will be the first time the Navy has conducted such an operation in the Arctic.
The Navy also is planning to station resources in Adak, Alaska, which would mark a return to the onetime World War II and Cold War base that operated from 1942 to 1997, when U.S. troops were withdrawn. The new detachment could include surface ships and P-8 Poseidon patrol and reconnaissance aircraft, he said.
“The concept is, yes, go up there,” Mr. Spencer said, adding that plans for new Arctic operations are in early stages. “We’re developing them as we speak,” he said.
The Arctic has become a markedly more contentious military and commercial environment as the changing climate has led to greater ice melt in the summer, opening more navigable waterways and leading to greater sea traffic in once-impassable lanes.
The National Snow and Ice Data Center found that 2018 saw the third-lowest Arctic ice level since satellite data collection began in the late 1970s, part of an adverse trend the center says threatens to further accelerate global warming and negatively affect climate patterns. This could open up more trans-Arctic maritime routes, according to the Government Accountability Office, allowing exploration of untapped petroleum reserves and threatening the borders of countries once insulated by thick ice off their coasts.
The U.S. and allied militaries have used freedom of navigation operations around the world to assert the rights of ships from the U.S. and elsewhere to operate freely in waterways where there are territorial disputes, hoping to discourage or counter excessive claims. Dozens of such operations in the South China Sea have targeted excessive Chinese maritime claims around islands and outposts across the region.
The Arctic mission will be the first time the U.S. Navy will undertake a FONOP in the Arctic, according to Cmdr. Jereal Dorsey, a Navy spokesman. Mr. Spencer said that the planning hasn’t yet addressed which ports would be visited or which ship will be used.
Russia has long worked to develop its Arctic capabilities because of its lengthy northern coastline and use of Arctic waters for trade and national defense, including establishment of military bases.
China, which has declared itself a near-Arctic power, issued a comprehensive Arctic policy last year that included a desire to build a “polar silk road” and to ensure its freedom to operate in the region.
Adak, which sits at the end of the Aleutian Islands near Russia, once served as a U.S. naval facility and still has a functioning airstrip used for commercial flights. The base was closed in the 1990s as part of the Base Realignment and Closure Program, better known as BRAC.
The decommissioned naval station was taken over in 2003 by the Aleut Corporation, founded in the 1970s to settle Alaska-native claims against the federal government. With only a few thousand acres of the island still under government control, the Navy is currently in talks with the corporation, Mr. Spencer said. The Aleut Corporation didn’t respond to a request for comment on the matter.
“It has some amazing facilities,” Mr. Spencer said. “Could we bring some surface ships there? Yes.”
The Navy’s planning is part of a broader move by the U.S. military to expand its influence in a region it has discounted, according to experts and military officials, and doing so is likely to pose a series of challenges.
Expanded military operations in the far north will require coordination with the Coast Guard, which handles a large portion of search-and-rescue missions and other U.S. surface capabilities in the Arctic. Mr. Spencer hasn’t said whether the Navy plans to move into some of these roles, but has said the Navy will work with the Coast Guard.
The Coast Guard also operates the only U.S. icebreaker in the region, a cause of concern among some lawmakers and defense officials because Russia operates dozens of icebreakers and the Chinese are building a fleet of such vessels. The most recent U.S. defense budget includes authorization for new icebreakers, though the first one won’t be ready for use for years.
Ships that regularly sail in icy waters must be ice-hardened or winterized, to withstand the pounding and stress of thick ice and cold temperatures. The Navy’s current fleet hasn’t been designed to operate in icy waters, the GAO said, but some experts and lawmakers have said the issue will have to be addressed.
The Navy is preparing changes to its official Arctic operations policy to include a broader focus on surface warfare, Mr. Spencer said. Existing policy focuses in large part on the Navy’s submarine and air patrol capabilities—not surface navigation.
Sen. Dan Sullivan (R., Alaska) said in an interview that surface navigation was important to emphasize the U.S. role as an Arctic nation.
“I’ve been pressing them to do something—not just with submarines,” Mr. Sullivan said. “It kind of defeats the purpose if you can’t see it.”
The Navy has moved to expand its footprint in the Arctic region in other ways recently. It launched what officials called the Second Fleet in August to focus on the North Atlantic and on expanding Marine Corps training for extreme cold-weather operations.
Currently, 600 Marines are training in Norway, with that country’s forces, and are preparing for land warfare in Arctic conditions, part of a longstanding commitment to such operations.
The coming Arctic freedom of navigation operation and plans for expanded missions in the far north are planned, in part, to better understand how to work and operate in the extreme cold, Mr. Spencer said.
“We’ve got to get up there and learn,” he said. “There’s no other way to do it.”
U.S. Names Arctic Policy Czar To Keep Tabs On China, Russia
Career diplomat James DeHart tapped to bolster the U.S. position in the Arctic, including repelling Beijing’s advances.
The State Department has tapped a career diplomat to coordinate efforts to bolster the U.S. position in the Arctic, including repelling China’s advances and capitalizing on commercial opportunities there.
James DeHart begins work Wednesday as the first U.S. coordinator for the Arctic region, representing the State Department in a Trump administration campaign encompassing several U.S. government departments and agencies. He will report directly to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Deputy Secretary Stephen Biegun, advising them on Arctic policy and engaging other Arctic nations in regional talks.
“A year or two from now, I think people are going to look back on the period of time that we’re in now and recognize it as a pivot point for us on the Arctic,” Mr. DeHart said in an interview. “We’re launching a comprehensive and integrated diplomatic strategy and engagement with the Arctic.”
Ice melt due to climate change has U.S. officials, as well as China and Russia, eyeing opportunities for resource extraction and shipping. Meanwhile, other regional powers have focused on the dangers posed by climate change—a discrepancy that hindered consensus at last year’s Arctic Council meeting.
In that context, the U.S. aims to maintain the Arctic as a site of peaceful cooperation, to guard against threats to national security, Mr. DeHart said, and to support economic growth and development in a manner consistent with international norms and “responsive to the needs of the local communities, including the indigenous communities throughout the Arctic.”
In a speech at the Arctic Council meeting last year in Rovaniemi, Finland, Mr. Pompeo warned against Chinese encroachment in the region and challenged Beijing’s assertion of its status as a “near-Arctic” state. More recently, a Chinese state-owned firm’s purchase of a gold mine in the Canadian Arctic has raised alarm.
China’s pursuit of what its officials have referred to as the Polar Silk Road is cause for concern, Mr. DeHart said, noting that Beijing’s approach to infrastructure investment elsewhere is “a model that doesn’t fit well into the Arctic, from our perspective and I think from the perspective of our close partners in the region.”
Beijing has acknowledged that Chinese territory doesn’t touch the Arctic Circle, but says China is a stakeholder in Arctic affairs and has an interest in developing shipping, carrying out scientific research and exploiting the region’s oil, gas, minerals, fisheries and other natural resources.
By contrast, Russia is an Arctic power, and has collaborated with the U.S. and other countries in the region on search and rescue, pollution, and disaster response, Mr. DeHart said. Deteriorating relations with Russia since its 2014 invasion of Ukraine have complicated matters, and Moscow is “becoming increasingly active” in the Arctic, including on security issues, he said.
The U.S. aims to maintain the region as a zone of international cooperation, but also recognizes that “the Arctic is NATO’s northern flank,” he said.
Noting that the department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs has most of the Arctic nations in its portfolio and the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs works on the “soft side” of Arctic issues, Mr. DeHart said, “I don’t plan to crowd anybody out.”
The creation of the post is the latest in a series of administration actions on the Arctic, including the White House’s plans to acquire a fleet of icebreakers; the June 10 reopening of the U.S. consulate in Nuuk, Greenland; and Mr. Pompeo’s recent meetings in Copenhagen with the Danish, Greenlandic and Faroese foreign ministers.
Mr. DeHart has held senior posts in Washington and abroad during his 28 years in the foreign service, including as deputy chief of mission in Norway and as assistant chief of mission in Afghanistan. He most recently served as a senior adviser for security negotiations and agreements in the department’s political-military affairs bureau. In that capacity, he represented the U.S. in negotiations with South Korean officials over cost-sharing for the American military presence on the Korean Peninsula.
Recent U.S. actions are part of a long-term plan for the region, Mr. DeHart said, as the nation’s interests in the Arctic are ongoing.
“Our involvement is not a flash or a moment in time,” he said. “This is really an enduring commitment here that we have to the region, and I think that we’re all going to see this sustained.”
Russia’s Siberian Waters See Record Ship Traffic As Ice Melt Accelerates
The Northern Sea Route is becoming a highway to move Russia’s oil and natural gas exports while some global carriers shy away.
The Arctic has gone through its warmest summer on record, and with the ice melting, more ships than ever are sailing along Russia’s Siberian coast, underscoring its role as a growing energy transport corridor and potential as a new ocean trade route.
The Northern Sea Route, which runs from Alaska to the Baltic Sea, counted 71 vessels and 935 sailings across the waterway from January to June this year, according to the NSR information office. That was up by double digits from the same period a year ago and a big increase from the 47 vessels and 572 voyages in the same period of 2018.
The mostly frozen seaway is used in warmer seasons to move some of Russia’s energy exports to overseas markets. Container ships and general cargo vessel operators also have used the route to move goods between Asia and Europe as it cuts an average 10 days of sailing time compared with the standard route through the Suez Canal.
Freight transport on the NSR is at its highest from July to November. Some sailings also take place in the rest of the year, and the Russian government expects largely ice-free year-round trips starting in 2024.
“There are many more ships because the ice is thin and you can sail without the help of icebreakers,” said Arne O. Holm, editor in chief of the Norway-based High North News, which monitors the NSR. “The NSR needs a lot of investment to attract bigger cargo vessels, but activity is picking up, and if the ice keeps melting it will be another option to move cargo from northern China to Europe.”
The National Snow and Ice Data Center, a private science research group supported by U.S. government agencies, said in September that this summer was the warmest on record in the Arctic, with the extent of sea ice across the entire Arctic shrinking to 3.74 million square kilometers, or 1.44 million square miles. That’s not much more than half the average ice cover of 6.7 million square kilometers measured from 1979 to 2000.
“There was no ice at all across the coastline in September, no need for icebreakers or ice-hardened vessels,” said Nikos Papalios, a mechanic on a crude tanker that sails the NSR.
“It stayed above freezing for 10 days, from the port of Sabetta to the Bering Strait, and it was pleasant to sit on the deck. It felt out of place,” Mr. Papalios said.
Most vessels operating in the NSR are natural gas carriers and oil tankers carrying exports to European and Asian customers from Novatek’s Yamal liquefied natural gas project and Gazprom’s Novy Port crude oil project at the Yamal Peninsula along Russia’s northern coast. These heavily reinforced ships are built to move through ice-filled waters and can cost more than $200 million each, more than twice the price of similar-size ocean vessels.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said the NSR will be key to develop the Arctic and become a global transport route.
The Russian government expects cargo volumes across the waterway will reach 32 million metric tons this year, up 78% from 18 million metric tons in 2018. Novatek expects to ship about 52 million metric tons of LNG a year by 2030.