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International relations

Blue Arctic strategy: US Navy prepares for an ice-free north

New report calls for great power competition with China and Russia

A U.S. aviation support equipment technician observes flight operations on the flight deck of San Antonio class amphibious transport dock ship USS Somerset during an Arctic expeditionary capabilities exercise in the Pacific Ocean. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

NEW YORK -- The Arctic is gradually turning from "white" to "blue," with melting ice making the waters more accessible and navigable, and requires an updated strategy that fits the new reality. So said the U.S. Navy this week in a strategic blueprint for the region titled "a Blue Arctic."

"Despite containing the world's smallest ocean, the Arctic region has the potential to connect nearly 75% of the world's population -- as melting sea ice increases access to shorter maritime trade routes linking Asia, Europe and North America," it said.

But while alluding to the opportunities the rapidly melting sea ice provides, it also warned that in the decades ahead, the increasingly navigable Arctic waters "will create new challenges," especially from Russia and China, "whose interests and values differ dramatically from ours."

The strategy called for a sustained American naval presence in the region to defend the country's interests.

"As our naval force continues to meet the challenging demands of a Blue Arctic in this era of great power competition, the Department of the Navy remains committed to protecting the Arctic environment and ensuring naval forces do their part to help preserve it," Secretary of the Navy Kenneth Braithwaite said in a news release. "This blueprint guides how the department will continue to provide the right levels and types of presence on, under, and above Arctic water, ensuring America is prepared to compete effectively and efficiently to maintain favorable balances of power."

The U.S. has always had a presence "under" and "above" the water, through submarines and aircraft. The secretary's reference to a presence "on" the water points to more surface ships in the region.

"No longer limited to air, undersea, and strategic strike capabilities, rapidly melting sea ice increases Arctic access for surface vessels -- both manned and unmanned," the document said.

The strategy does not necessarily call for a permanent base in the Arctic. Enhanced presence will come though "a mix of permanently stationed forces, rotational forces, temporary forces, pre-positioned equipment and stocks, and basing infrastructure across the region," the navy said.

On the challenges Russia and China pose, the report noted that both countries were intent on imposing their will in the Arctic, potentially undermining global interests.

"Rising maritime activity is spurring Arctic states to posture their navies to protect sovereignty and national interests while enabling their ability to project power," the Blue Arctic strategy said. "Arctic states -- especially Russia -- are reopening old bases, moving forces, and reinvigorating regional exercises."

On China, it said the country views the Arctic region as a crucial link in its Belt and Road infrastructure initiative. "China is investing in ship building -- polar-capable cargo vessels, liquefied natural gas tankers, and nuclear-powered icebreakers -- as well as port infrastructure to improve access in the Arctic," it wrote. "We also expect increased Chinese navy deployments on, below, and above Arctic waters."

"China's growing economic, scientific and military reach, along with its demonstrated intent to gain access and influence over Arctic states, control key maritime ports, and remake the international rules-based order presents a threat to people and nations," it said.

Heather Conley, senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic at the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, welcomed the navy's framing of a great power competition in the Arctic, a suggestion she made in a 2019 report. In that report, Conley had noted, "While the United States believes the Arctic will remain of limited strategic value and that its current minimalist posture is sufficient, its two near-peer competitors, Russia and China, have taken dramatically different and long-term views of the region and have expanded their military and economic footprints."

Conley noted, however, that to maintain a presence of surface ships, the U.S. will need to expand its icebreaker capability. The U.S. has only one icebreaker that is operational today, operated by the coast guard.

If the navy were to seek its own icebreaking capabilities, Conley said, "the U.S. would shift some of its icebreaking capabilities from a law enforcement role to a military function."

She added that without a budget commitment to bulk up icebreaking capabilities, "at this point, the navy will primarily be active in the Arctic underneath the water (submarines) with occasional dynamic deployment in ice-free waters."

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