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Climate Change Opens Door to Arctic for Competitors, DOD Official Says

Dec. 13, 2019 | BY Terri Moon Cronk , DOD News

The Arctic is a region where strategic trends are amplified by the effects of the changing climate and physical environment, a lead Defense Department official said on Capitol Hill, Dec. 10.

Most notably, "the Arctic continues to grow more accessible as the sea ice diminishes," said Victorino Mercado, acting assistant defense secretary for strategy, plans and capabilities.  

An airplane in Arctic
Cold Parking Lot
An LC-130 Hercules aircraft sits on an Arctic region skiway that was created by airmen from the 109th Airlift Wing, April 11, 2019.
Photo By: Air Force
VIRIN: 190411-Z-A3538-001C

That means the Arctic is becoming more navigable over greater periods of time, resulting in increased interest and activity in the region, he said.

Countries are exploring the potential of Arctic shipping routes, and opportunities in natural resource development and tourism, he added.

Mercado made his remarks before the House Armed Services Committee, subcommittee on intelligence, emerging threats and capabilities, in a hearing on climate change in the era of strategic competition.

"The door is open to increase activity in the Arctic by the United States, our allies, partners, but also our strategic competitors," he said.

The Arctic will continue to be characterized by extreme temperatures, vast distances, magnetic anomalies — which complicates communications — and market seasonal variations, Mercado said. 

Lab worker looks at grass in permafrost.
Gary Larson
Gary Larson, facility operations manager with the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, points out green grass in permafrost that is older than 10,000 years during a tour of the Army Corps of Engineers Permafrost Tunnel Sept. 12, 2019. The only one of its kind, the permafrost tunnel allows for research on permafrost and how it affects climate change.
Photo By: Daniel Nelson, Army
VIRIN: 190912-A-ZW424-1021

"Together, these conditions form a harsh and demanding operating environment for all, including the U.S. joint force," he said. 

The DOD 2019 Arctic Strategy takes into account these environmental conditions as part of the department's strategic approach to the region, Mercado emphasized.

"The department's desired end state for the Arctic is a secure and stable region, where U.S. national interests are safeguarded, the U.S. homeland is defended and nations work cooperatively to address challenges," he pointed out. 

The immediate prospect of conflict in the Arctic continues to be low, but DOD maintains a clear-eyed approach to its competitors' activities and their implications for U.S. interests, Mercado added.

A paratrooper in Alaska
Airborne Training
A U.S. Army Alaska soldier descends during airborne training at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, as part of exercise Arctic Aurora, June 5, 2019. Arctic Aurora is an annual training exercise involving Army elements and the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force, which focuses on strengthening ties between the two nations.
Photo By: Alejandro Pena, Air Force
VIRIN: 190605-F-YH552-0158

In making these assessments, we begin with a fundamental difference between Russia and China, he noted.

Russia is an Arctic nation, China is not, Mercado added. 

"Russia's military investments in the Arctic contribute to its territorial defense, but may have implications for access to the region," he pointed out, adding that China is seeking a role in the Arctic to include governance, despite its having no territorial claims in the region.

"There is a risk that to further its ambitions, China may repeat predatory economic behavior in the Arctic that it has exhibited in other regions," Mercado warned.

The DOD Arctic Strategy establishes three defense objectives derived from the National Defense Strategy that guide the department's approach to addressing competition in the Arctic — and defending the homeland is No. 1 — in addition to competing when necessary to maintain favorable regional balances of power, and ensuring common domains remain free and open, he said.

Airmen display an American flag in the Arctic.
Arctic Pose
Airmen from the 109th Airlift Wing pose for a group photo in the Arctic, April 11, 2019.
Photo By: Air Force
VIRIN: 190411-Z-A3538-003C

The United States' network of allies and partners is a key strategic advantage for the nation in the Arctic, Mercado said.

"They are the cornerstone of the department's strategic approach. Six of seven other Arctic nations are either NATO allies or NATO-enhanced opportunity partners," he noted. 

"Our allies and partners are highly capable and proficient in the Arctic region's operating conditions," Mercado said. "They also share the U.S. interest in maintaining the international rules-based order, including in the Arctic region."