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As Challenges Arise, Arctic Could Demand Greater Capability

By Terri Moon Cronk
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 27, 2014 – A changing Arctic region with emerging challenges and opportunities demands greater attention from government and stakeholders, a Joint Staff official told a Senate panel here last week.

Air Force Brig. Gen. Kenneth Lewis Jr., director of trans-regional policy and partnership strategy for the Joint Staff, told members of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee that while “significant uncertainty” remains about the rate extent and pace of such changes, human activity in the Arctic is increasing.

“With more activity comes the potential of increased security challenges, but it also presents new opportunities,” he said. “We see the opening of the region as an opportunity to work collaboratively with allies and partners to keep the Arctic a secure and stable region where U.S. national interests are safeguarded, the U.S. homeland is protected, and nations work together to address challenges.”

For the near- to mid-term future, the armed forces’ existing infrastructure and capabilities are sufficient to carry out required missions in the region, Lewis said. But years from now, more activity is likely to lead to greater security and safety challenges, and while activity rates are uncertain, a “difficult situation” could result for DOD, he added.

Lewis described such a difficult scenario as one in which the Defense Department must balance the risk of having inadequate capabilities and insufficient capacity with the cost of making premature and unnecessary investments.

“The view that competition for resources and boundary disputes will lead to regional conflict overlooks the fact that the Arctic is a region bounded by nation-states that are not only publicly committed to approaching Arctic issues with a common framework of international law, but these nations have demonstrated the ability and commitment to doing so for the last 50 years,” he pointed out.

Such a “low-level threat” in the region is reflected in DOD strategy, he said.

“Our strategic approach to the Arctic seeks to link goals with resources and activities in a manner that's consistent with the low-level threat and the uncertainties regarding the rate of increase in human activity, all the while taking practical physical realities into consideration,” Lewis added.

DOD seeks to preserve the freedom of the seas in the Arctic, he said, which is strategically consistent with the nation’s global interests preserving the rights, freedoms and uses of the sea and airspace based on international law.

Likewise, he added, “Promoting navigational and overflight freedoms whether in an increasing, accessible Arctic or in other maritime spaces, such as South China Sea, is vital to preserving the global mobility of our armed forces and communicates to all the world that the United States is committed to upholding international norms and the rule of law.”

Lewis pointed out that U.S. troops are manned, trained and equipped to be the “away team,” operating forward-deployed for long periods of time in austere environments of the world.

“The U.S. military supports and collaborates with domestic civil authorities, allies and international partners in search and rescue, humanitarian assistance [and] disaster relief. Establishing a foundation of cooperation in these areas, both internal and external to the U.S. government, is vital to the success,” Lewis said.

And while the defense infrastructure and capabilities in the Arctic region are adequate in today’s security environment, Lewis emphasized the status could change.

“As with any region, capabilities will have to be re-evaluated as conditions and regional activities change and any gaps will need to be addressed,” he said.

(Follow Terri Moon Cronk on Twitter: @MoonCronkAFPS)

Contact Author

Air Force Brig. Gen. Kenneth Lewis Jr.

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