The Arctic has long been of interest to the U.S. military, and the American military has been intimately involved in the hostile environment for more than two centuries.
Navy Rear Adm. Robert Peary led the first expedition to reach the North Pole in 1909. Navy Rear Adm. Richard E. Byrd led aerial expeditions over the Arctic in the 1920s.
In 1958, the USS Nautilus — the world's first nuclear-powered submarine — sailed under the ice to the North Pole. The next year, the USS Skate surfaced at the pole.
Climate change has opened vast areas of the Arctic to surface ships. For generations, navigators looked for a Northwest Passage from Europe to Asia through the Arctic. Now one exists.
This changes the calculus for military operations in the Arctic and the importance of the Arctic to the defense of the United States and its allies. The U.S. Navy continues exercises and missions in the region, said Navy Adm. James G. Foggo, the commander of U.S. Navy Europe/Africa and the commander of NATO's Allied Joint Force Command in Naples. The admiral spoke as part of his most recent podcast.
Russia is another country evincing interest in the Arctic, and given that country's recent acts — sending troops into Georgia, illegally annexing Crimea, sending troops into Ukraine and propping up the Assad regime in Syria — there is concern about their actions in the high north.
"The opening of the Arctic is an opportunity to work collaboratively with other nations to maintain security and stability in the region and with those who are willing to help maintain the freedom of the seas," Foggo said. The U.S. 6th Fleet routinely works with those nations. The USS Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group operated north of the Arctic Circle as part of NATO's Trident Juncture exercise earlier this year.
"It is imperative that we remain actively engaged in the region — especially with Arctic allies and partners — where all Arctic nations conduct military training and exercises on a regular basis," Foggo said. "By leveraging experience and knowledge through Nordic partners, we have much to gain: they have a wealth of experience in northern latitude operations and are highly skilled, technologically advanced, and neighbors who are interoperable with our NATO force."
The Arctic is part of the changing geostrategic environment. "Warming trends have sparked increased interest in the Arctic’s abundant natural resources and potential maritime trade routes — even from non-Arctic states," the admiral said. "Russia has recently embarked on a robust Arctic militarization plan. Russian forces have reoccupied seven former Soviet bases in the Arctic Circle and have also built new bases, to include the Trefoil base in Franz Josef Land and the Northern Clover base on Kotelny Island."
The Russians have renewed capabilities in the North Atlantic, and that includes extending their reach into the Arctic. "The improved capability of Russia to project power into this region, from the Northern Sea Route to the Greenland-Iceland-U.K. Gap, is something that we must pay particular attention to," he said.
China is also interested in the Arctic. Last year, China released an Arctic policy. "Identifying themselves as a 'Near-Arctic State,' China has eyed investment opportunities that range from natural resource exploration to the future commercial maritime traffic potential of the 'Polar Silk Road,' and that's their term," he said. "Earlier this month, the Arctic Council held its ministerial meeting in Finland, where Finland turned over chairmanship to Iceland. Arctic diplomacy has been solid since the creation of the council in 1996, but — like the ice of the High North — we're starting to see some fissures."
The non-Arctic states interest has posed challenges, but the Arctic Council is well-equipped to confront most of these issues. "Yet it has one limitation — the mandate explicitly excludes military security," he said. "That's where the U.S. Navy comes in, as an extension of diplomacy and guarantor of peace and stability."
Russia is trying to claim sovereignty in the region. The government enacted a policy change requiring sovereign vessels to provide 45 days notice to transit the Northern Sea Route — the Arctic route connecting the Kola Peninsula with the Bering Strait.
"This new law further requires foreign warships to embark a Russian pilot as well as provide details about the vessel — a clear violation of sovereign immunity," Foggo said. "Russia has also noted that they might bar innocent passage through the territorial sea for any reason, and they have threatened to sink any craft that defies Russian mandates while sailing in the Northern Sea Route."
This is against international law, he said.
"If Russia attempts to enforce beyond what the law of the sea allows, it could set a dangerous precedent for the entire international community," Foggo said. "That is, powerful coastal states may amend the law of the sea whenever they want to for their benefit and because they possess weapons capable of enforcing their new policies."
The U.S. Navy will continue to maintain a presence in the Arctic, because it is important for defense and trade. "As the Arctic enters a new era of unprecedented access, the U.S. Navy will work with its allies and partners to actively shape the future of the world’s smallest ocean, in line with our shared values and interests," he said.