The U.S. navy is planning a massive push into the Arctic to defend national security, potential undersea riches and other maritime interests.
An "Arctic roadmap" by the Department of the Navy details a five-year strategic plan to expand fleet operations into the North in anticipation that the frozen Arctic Ocean will be open water in summer by 2030.
While the plan talks diplomatically about "strong partnerships" with other Arctic nations, it is clear the U.S. is intent on seriously retooling its military presence and naval combat capabilities in a region increasingly seen as a potential flashpoint as receding polar ice allows easier access.
"This opening of the Arctic may lead to increased resource development, research, tourism, and could reshape the global transportation system. These developments offer opportunities for growth, but also are potential sources of competition and conflict for access and natural resources," says the 33-page document, signed by Admiral Jonathan W. Greenert, vice-chief of Naval Operations.
"While the United States has stable relationships with other Arctic nations, the changing environment and competition for resources may contribute to increasing tension, or, conversely, provide opportunities for co-operative solutions," it says.
"Action items" in the planning document include:
- Assessment of current and required capability to execute undersea warfare, expeditionary warfare, strike warfare, strategic sealift (and) regional security co-operation.
- (Assessing) current and predicted threats in order to determine the most dangerous and most likely threats in the Arctic region in 2010, 2015 and 2025.
- Focus on threats to U.S. national security, although threats to maritime safety and security may also be considered.
- Identify the relevant actors concurrent to the forecast time frame.
- Determine incentives and motivations for each actor.
If the recent surfacing of a U.S. submarine near the North Pole left any doubt, the navy's roadmap makes it clear the U.S. and other nations will increasingly flex military muscle in the resource-rich region, says a specialist on Canada's northern security.
"The Arctic is transforming and everyone else gets it and they're not going to go away," Rob Huebert, associate director at the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary, said Friday.
But behind a public façade that promotes international Arctic co-operation, Huebert says, "if you read the document carefully you'll see a dual language, one where they're saying, 'We've got to start working together' ... and (then) they start saying, 'We have to get new instrumentation for our combat officers.'
"People want to hope for the best and everyone's talking about co-operation and playing by the rules and I think they're trying not to provoke the Russians. But everyone has also recognized that, to a certain degree, the Russians are going to do what the Russians are doing," including more test launches of their Bulava intercontinental missiles from submarines on Russia's Arctic coast.
Canada was one of the first countries to identify the strategic issues of a melting Arctic and successive federal governments this decade have, "a very accurate set of understandings of the problems that are coming. But in a typical Canadian fashion, we're still in a situation that we haven't started spending."
The Harper government has announced over the last several years the creation of a military training centre in the Arctic, economic aid to the region, as well as the construction of a new port, an icebreaker and a fleet of Arctic patrol ships. Work is under way on the various projects, but in many cases it will take years before they are ready.
Defence officials recently told a parliamentary committee that plans to build six to eight Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS) for constabulary duties will have minimum armament capabilities, few add-on capabilities and, "probably ... a gun, but that seems an afterthought," said Huebert.
"The speed is being reduced so, if you're in a situation where the ice is indeed diminishing, you're going to be left with this very slow craft that's going to be the major instrument for us for the next 40 years. So we're penny-pinching at this point in time."
The Norwegians and Danes, by comparison, have spent the last 15 years re-arming with a very combat-capable and Arctic-capable navy and air force, he said. The Norwegians recently spent $7 billion on the most expensive class of ships that they've ever built. The five frigates are designed for high-Arctic operations with an air superiority capability and state-of-the-art U.S. Ageis combat systems.
"They're clearly understanding that the future is not nearly as nice as what all the public policy statements say," said Huebert.
And the U.S., in addition to the planned naval re-armament, is to station 36 F-22 Raptor stealth fighter jets -- 20 per cent of its F-22 fleet and what many consider the best overall fighter jet in the world -- in Anchorage, Alaska.
"If the north isn't important, why are you taking such a scare, such an expensive aircraft ... and putting one fifth of them in the Arctic? That tells you something."
Even the Chinese, he said, are building two to three new ice breakers that will give them an icebreaking fleet larger than the Americans and, "pretty well ... larger than ours."