The Arctic is quickly becoming a hot button issue for the U.S. military, and experts believe that the chances are good that it could become the next battleground for a Cold War, both literally and figuratively. For years, the Arctic has made its way into the news cycles thanks to concerns of the ice caps melting and the environmental impact that could have on the rest of the world. However an oft-underreported aspect of the disappearance of the ice caps is the military significance it could have, and the threat of Russian superiority in the region.
One example of the military and security concerns that the melting ice caps could cause is simply new waters opening for the movement of naval fleets. As pointed out by Newsweek, the U.S. Navy is predicting that the entire Arctic Ocean may have totally ice-free summers as soon as 2050. This would mean a vast new area of ocean that ships would be able to traverse. As it is, thanks to the caps that have already melted, an enormous area of “new ocean” is posing security and rescue concerns for the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard.
Rear Admiral Daniel Abel told Newsweek that “just the amount of new open water I have to deal with is the size of 45 percent of the continental U.S.” Thanks to a complete lack of deep-water harbors on U.S. territory in the Arctic, this means that both military and emergency-rescue missions have an ever-expanding amount of ocean to cover as the ice continues to melt.
U.S. military services are taking this threat very seriously, as they have expanded their training scenarios greatly thanks to the expanding Arctic Ocean. For example, near-future scenarios being played out include terrorists seizing ships in Arctic waters, nuclear-armed vessels transporting weapons in new waters north of Alaska, and even the ramifications of oil spills. But new training exercises may not cut it.
Although every nation with borders in the Arctic region are hoping that the current peaceful conditions continue, military forces are ramping up in the region. Russia, for example, is making aggressive moves in the region. The International Business Times reports that in the next five years alone, Russia is looking to double their troops in the Arctic region. Russia is building 10 new air-defense radar stations, 10 search-and-rescue stations, 13 airfields, and 16 deep-water ports across the Arctic. This opens up the very real possibility that Russia could gain complete military superiority in the region, according to Business Insider.
“We’re not even in the same league as Russia right now,” Coast Guard Commandant Paul F. Zukunft told Newsweek. “We’re not playing in this game at all.” One of Zukunft’s main concerns has to do with ships known as “icebreakers,” naval or commercial ships designed to quite literally break through layers of ice to aid in search and rescue missions or military research. The U.S. fleet has only two of these ships, while Russia has 27.
Compound this with recent reports that Russian military planes have been spotted in U.S. airspace off the Alaskan coast, and it’s easy to see why many are concerned that the U.S. may be falling behind in a critical region of the world. On top of this, Russia’s Northern Fleet is adding several hundred unmanned drones to their Arctic forces, according to International Business Times. Making matters even more worrisome for some is the recent news that as many as 2,600 soldiers may be cut from Alaskan bases, according to KTUU.
“This decision [to cut troops in Alaska] was obviously made without a full understanding of the geostrategic importance of Alaska’s troops to our national security,” Alaska senator Dan Sullivan told reporters. Rep. Don Young also chimed in, explaining that with the growing global threat that Russian superiority in the Arctic could pose, it’s troubling that the U.S. is considering cutting troops in the region rather than bolstering them.