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Navy spots an Arctic future, but struggles to plot a course

Members of the Applied Physics Laboratory Ice Station clear ice from the hatch of the Los Angeles-class submarine USS Annapolis after the sub broke through the ice while participating in Ice Exercise 2009 in the Arctic Ocean. A U.S. Navy Arctic Roadmap looks at what's needed in anticipation of increased traffic as Arctic ice melts, opening up trade routes and access to natural resources.

The Navy has published a thorough breakdown of what it needs for future surface operations in the Arctic, from new doctrine to platform assessments and an updated cold-weather handbook for sailors.

The next step? Getting buy-in from the rest of the fleet.

With shrinking budgets and growing mission requirements elsewhere, particularly the Pacific, the service has little appetite for new tasks, experts say, especially ones that are decades away and where threats remain speculative.

“We know there is no immediate threat in the Arctic, and there are [threats] elsewhere,” said Robert Freeman, a meteorologist and the spokesman for the Navy’s Task Force Climate Change, which released the report last month.

Meteorologists say shrinking ice coverage in the Arctic Ocean over the coming decades will open international sea routes and offer access to untapped oil reserves, driving more traffic and potentially sparking territorial disputes. The Navy study, the Arctic Roadmap 2014-2030, estimates traffic going through the Bering Strait will double by 2025.

Critics say the U.S. military is not preparing fast enough for a presence in the international waters gradually opening, particularly as other nations including Russia, Norway and Canada establish regional commands or send more warships to train in the Arctic. U.S. nuclear submarines have operated under Arctic ice for decades, but few, if any, surface ships are hardened for the region.

The U.S. started to close its planning gap in the past year. The Obama administration released a national security strategy for the region in May, which the Pentagon followed with a national defense strategy. Earlier this year, the administration established an Arctic ambassador position for work with other Arctic nations.

The Navy study projects sea traffic in the Arctic over the coming decades, and it lays out milestones for preparing to operate in the Arctic, as well as a few general timelines. The Navy wants more sailors trained in Arctic operations by 2020. It wants to be able to respond to a national security threat in the region by 2030.

Yet as meteorologists move forward with Arctic planning, the Navy’s operational side is focused on other parts of the globe.

The service is already manning more ships with fewer sailors than in past years, its top officers say. Combatant commanders across the globe meanwhile request more ships than the Navy can give them, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert told the House Armed Services Committee earlier this month.

Arctic planning is likely to take a backseat at a time of tight budgets and the possibility of further cuts in the years ahead, Freeman and others admit. Even sending surface ships to future Arctic exercises with other countries, which the Navy did in 2010 and 2012, could be difficult as the service considers other needs, they say.

Under the study, Navy leaders aren’t required to meet the timelines but must produce regular progress reports, which Freeman considers a step forward.

“It’s drawing in the operational community more than they were before,” he said. “It’s making the operational fleet look at this. They could come back and say, ‘It’s too hard. We have to table this until later.’ And that’s fine.”

The trouble with waiting is that the development of Arctic technologies, infrastructure and training take time. The region is vast and inhospitable — the Arctic Ocean is 5.4 million square miles, or about 1.5 times the size of the U.S. — and it has little of the support infrastructure that warships rely on for refueling and replenishing.

Meteorologists don’t know how to forecast weather in the region. Broadband communication is virtually non-existent. Few ships are hardened for prolonged operations in the Arctic.

The two combatant commands responsible for the region — Northern Command and European Command — have yet to outline plans for Arctic operations, and there are questions of which of the Navy’s numbered fleets should cover the region.

On a higher level, the U.S. has yet to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas, an agreement that creates the framework for nations to map and claim sovereignty over their submerged continental shelves, widely seen as important for avoiding territorial disputes.

Russia underlined international interest in the Arctic in 2007, when it planted a flag on the seabed beneath the North Pole. Russian territory accounts for roughly half of all Arctic land, and the country is making its case for including wide swaths of seabed as part of its continental shelf.

Norway moved its operational command above the Arctic Circle in 2009. Canada, meanwhile, is spending $33 billion to build 28 Arctic vessels in the next 30 years, while Denmark, which has access to the region through Greenland, is establishing an Arctic Command.

Yet the Navy study and most experts agree open conflict is unlikely in the region. More likely scenarios involve emergency responses, from search-and-rescue to cleaning up after an oil spill or recovering a downed plane. The U.S. signed a search-and-rescue agreement with other Arctic nations in 2011.

Others say an increased military and Coast Guard presence in the region will encourage U.S. energy companies to invest in the Arctic. The U.S. is currently mapping its continental shelf in the region, despite not being a party to the UNCLOS agreement that recognizes shelf claims.

The Coast Guard is fighting its own battles for Arctic equipment. Two of its three icebreakers are functional, and one has been in service for longer than 30 years. A 2010 study by the service concluded it needed a total of three heavy and three medium icebreakers to meet its statutory requirements, an expansion it projected would cost $2.8 billion.

An amendment to last year’s defense authorization bill by congressmen from Alaska and Washington called for the Navy to build as many as four icebreakers for the Coast Guard — but was stripped from the final bill.

Walter Berbrick, a professor at the Naval War College and director of its Arctic Studies Group, said that absent funding, the Navy needs to begin reaching for the “low-hanging fruit” of preparation. Sailors should “cross-deck” with foreign navies such as Norway or Denmark and report back with their experiences. Officers need to attend seminars and symposiums on the region.

“There’s so much uncertainty now around the region,” Berbrick said. “Our people have to get smarter.”

A full capabilities assessment by the Navy — which the roadmap suggested be finished this fiscal year — would be another positive step forward, Berbrick said. When the services and Congress are ready to allocate money for the Arctic, they’ll know what they need, he said.

“We’re saying this is something we have to do,” Freeman said. “Now we have to decide when we want to do it and how much money we have to invest.”

beardsley.steven@stripes.com
Twitter: @sjbeardsley

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