How world powers are fighting for a melting Arctic
For decades, the frozen Arctic was little more than a footnote in global economic competition, but that is changing as its ice melts with global warming.
Russia is now trying to claim more of the Arctic seabed for its territory. It has rebuilt Cold War era Arctic military bases and recently announced its intention to test its Poseidon nuclear torpedo in the Arctic. In Greenland, recent elections ushered in a new pro-independence government that opposes foreign extraction of rare earth metals as its ice cap recedes, including projects that China and the United States are relying on to fuel the world. technology.
The Arctic region has warmed at least twice as fast as the planet as a whole. With the pack ice now thinner and disappearing earlier in the spring, several countries have their eyes set on the Arctic, both for access to valuable natural resources, including fossil fuels which are now being used as the driving force. of global warming, and as a shorter route for trade ships. An oil tanker carrying liquefied natural gas from northern Russia to China tested this shorter route last winter, crossing the normally frozen Northern Sea Route for the first time in February using an icebreaker . The route cut shipping time by almost half.
Russia has built its fleet of icebreakers for years for these and other purposes. The United States, meanwhile, is catching up. While Russia has access to more than 40 of these ships today, the US Coast Guard has two, one of which is past its expected lifespan.
As an expert in maritime trade and Arctic geopolitics, I have followed the growing activity and geopolitical tensions in the Arctic. They underscore the need for new thinking on US Arctic policy to deal with emerging competition in the region.
The problem with the US icebreaker fleet
The aging fleet of US icebreakers is a lingering subject of frustration in Washington.
Congress has postponed investing in new icebreakers for decades in the face of more pressing demands. Today, the lack of polar-class icebreakers is undermining America’s ability to operate in the Arctic region, including responding to disasters as shipping and mineral exploration increase.
It may seem counterintuitive, but the shrinking sea ice can make the region more dangerous – breaking ice presents risks to both ships and oil rigs, and the open waters should attract people to the sea. both more navigation and more mineral exploration. The US Geological Survey estimates that about 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 13% of the undiscovered oil could be found in the Arctic.
The US Coast Guard has only two icebreakers to deal with this changing environment.
The Polar Star, a heavy icebreaker that can break ice up to 21 feet thick, was commissioned in 1976. It is usually stationed in Antarctica in the winter, but it was sent to the Arctic this year to ensure an American presence. The aging ship’s crew had to fight fires and deal with power outages and equipment failures, all in some of the most inhospitable and remote places on Earth. The second icebreaker, the smaller Healy, commissioned in 2000, suffered a fire on board in August 2020 and canceled all operations in the Arctic.
An icebreaker solution
One way to increase the icebreaker fleet would be to have the allies jointly purchase and operate icebreakers, while each still forms its own fleet.
For example, the Biden administration could work with NATO allies to create a partnership modeled on the strategic airlift capability of NATO C-17 aircraft. The Airlift Program, launched in 2008, operates three large transport planes that its 12 member countries can use to quickly transport troops and equipment.
A similar program for icebreakers could operate a NATO-led fleet, perhaps starting with icebreakers provided by NATO countries, such as Canada, or partner countries, such as Finland. Similar to strategic airlift capacity, each member nation would purchase a percentage of the operating hours of the shared fleet based on its overall contribution to the program.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced a step towards further such collaboration on June 9, 2021, with the intention of establishing a new Center for Arctic Security Studies, the Sixth Regional Center of the Ministry of Defense. The centers focus on research, communications and collaboration with partners.
Using the Law of the Sea
Another strategy that could strengthen U.S. influence in the Arctic, mitigate impending conflicts, and help clarify seabed claims would be for the Senate to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The Law of the Sea came into effect in 1994 and established rules for how oceans and ocean resources are used and shared. This includes determining how countries can claim parts of the seabed. The United States initially opposed a section that restricted deep seabed mining, but that section has been amended to alleviate some of those concerns. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have all urged the Senate to ratify it, but that still has not happened.
In recent years, however, countries “near the Arctic”, including China, Japan, South Korea, Britain and many members of the European Union, have become more engaged and Russia has become more active.
With growing tensions and growing interest in the region, the era of cooperative engagement began to recede as the sea ice melted.
Rockford Weitz is Professor of Practice and Director of the Fletcher Maritime Studies Program at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.