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Arctic Report Assesses Defense Role, Future in Region

By Lisa Daniel
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, June 6, 2011 – The Defense Department has sent to Congress a report on its Arctic operations that leaders say will put the department in a good position to shape U.S. interests as the region undergoes dramatic climate and social changes.

The Report to Congress on Arctic Operations and the Northwest Passage, mandated by the fiscal 2011 National Defense Authorization Act, “was true value added” to U.S. policies on the Arctic, a DOD official speaking on background said June 3 when the report was sent to Congress.

The Arctic is warming on average twice as fast as the rest of the planet, resulting in more human activity in the area, a report summary says. The report assesses U.S. national security objectives in the region, and the capabilities and infrastructure needed to support them.

Things have changed a lot since the eight-nation Arctic Council was established in 1996, but the changes are happening slowly enough that the United States and other members -- Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Sweden -- can make deliberate decisions about its future, the official said.

The United States is engaged in partnerships with other nations in the Arctic, including military-to-military exercises.

“Because it’s slow onset, we have the ability to shape how that happens and ensure it happens in a cooperative fashion,” she said. “It gives us the ability to move forward in a measured and strategic way.

“The report is an excellent way to crystallize our interests in the Arctic,” she added.

The region, which covers one-sixth of the world’s landmass, is undergoing challenges of increased human population, causing issues over sea, land and air domains as it becomes more open to scientific and commercial ventures, and possible national security threats, according to the DOD official and the report summary.

“When you consider sovereign defenses, the Arctic is very important to our military,” the official said. “Sovereign defenses are not negotiable.”

The report addresses the advantages and disadvantages of a recent amendment to the U.S. Unified Command Plan that removed U.S. Pacific Command from shared oversight in the region, leaving shared command to U.S. Northern Command and U.S. European Command. The amendment, which President Barack Obama signed April 6, was approved to simplify the command structure, the official said.

The Unified Command Plan is the responsibility of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and is reviewed every two years. The Joint Staff coordinates input from the combatant commanders, service chiefs and department leadership.

The report also assesses the status of U.S. icebreaking equipment in the region, which currently exists with the Coast Guard, but not the Navy, the summary says.

The report summary lists as challenges in the area:

-- Shortfalls in ice and weather reporting and forecasting;

-- Limitations in command and control, communications, intelligence and other capabilities due to a lack of assets and harsh conditions; and

-- Limited inventory of ice-capable vessels and shore-based infrastructure.

Other assessments are ongoing in the area, the official said, including a Coast Guard study on high latitudes and a Northcom report to integrate priorities, due out in the fall.

Along with the challenges, the opening of the Arctic also “presents opportunities to work collaboratively in multilateral forums to promote a balanced approach to improving human and environmental security in the region,” the summary says.

“We have an opportunity to get this right,” the official said. “We’ll have to invest prudently going forward.”

 

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The opinions expressed in the following comments do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Defense.

6/10/2011 2:41:34 PM
Canada and the United States, under the umbrella of NORAD, should jointly monitor and guard the maritime approaches to Alaska and the Canadian Arctic Archipelago setting aside the issue of the Northwest Passage.
- Pierre Leblanc, Ottawa, canada

6/9/2011 3:38:32 PM
The Panama Canal, the Turkish Straits, the Strait of Magellan and the Suez Canal are all strategic waterways that constitute internal waters. Furthermore, the legal status of the Northwest Passage has long been in dispute, and no nation has accepted Canada's claim that it is internal waters. Finally, even if it were internal waters, under Article 8(2) of UNCLOS, all nations still would be entitled to non-suspendable innocent passage through the passage--including warships. So, the issue is relevant to DOD.
- James Kraska, NWC

6/7/2011 2:42:01 PM
Northwest Passage is an internal Canadian waterway - I fail to see the relevance of why US DOD would be reporting this to Congress.
- Ryan, North America

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