Melting Arctic ice opens new front in strategic power competition

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Warming seas and thinning polar ice caps promise to turn the Arctic into a hub of greater economic activity — and a new hotspot for military competition.

That prospect is shaping U.S. military strategy for Arctic operations and is drawing attention to the importance of space systems to keep watch over the region, monitor the climate and maintain constant communications.

“This is a region of immense geostrategic significance and a key location for global power projection,” said the Department of the Air Force’s Arctic strategy published in 2020.

The Arctic region surrounding the North Pole is more than twice the size of the continental United States. The area is particularly reliant on air and space assets due to its size, inhospitable weather and lack of infrastructure.

The U.S. Air Force and Space Force provide about 80% of all Defense Department resources in the Arctic region, including military bases, training complexes, satellites, command and control stations, and early warning and missile defense radars.

“The Arctic is really key terrain for us,” the Space Force chief of space operations Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, told SpaceNews in a recent interview.

“We have invested, and we continue to invest in the Arctic. It’s of strategic importance to us, and it’s only going to continue to grow in importance to our nation,” says Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Raymond, shown above shaking hands with an airman at Thule Air Base, Greenland. Credit: DoD

At Clear Space Force Station near Fairbanks, Alaska, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency last year completed construction of a long-range discrimination radar, designed to track ballistic missiles. Space Force units will start operating the radar in 2023.

Raymond noted that the Pentagon’s 2023 budget request includes $68 million to build dormitories for troops expected to be permanently based at Clear. Thule Air Base in Greenland also is home to missile warning, space tracking, and satellite command-and-control units.

“We have invested, and we continue to invest in the Arctic,” said Raymond. “It’s of strategic importance to us, and it’s only going to continue to grow in importance to our nation.”

Clear Space Force Station is one of five major installations the U.S. military operates in Alaska. The others are Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Eielson Air Force Base, Fort Wainwright and Fort Greely.

In its Arctic strategy, last updated in 2019, the Defense Department described the region as a potential vector for an attack on the U.S. homeland and a part of the world where Russia and China are operating more freely. The strategy said DoD “must be able to quickly identify threats in the Arctic, respond promptly and effectively to those threats, and shape the security environment to mitigate the prospect of those threats in the future.”

In 2021, the U.S. Army and Navy published visions for how to posture for the Arctic. These documents highlight the potential for conflict over maritime boundary claims and economic rights.

Russia, for example, requires foreign vessels to obtain permission and be escorted during transit of the Northern Sea Route that runs along the Russian Arctic coast to the Bering Strait, noted the Army’s strategy. “The decreasing amount of sea ice will lead to new routes opening in the future and may become an area of contention as Arctic nations attempt to exert control over key sea lanes.”

For the Navy, the issue is what all this could mean for maritime security. Despite containing the world’s smallest ocean, the Arctic region has the potential to connect nearly 75% of the world’s population — linking Asia, Europe and North America, said the Navy’s vision document.

ARCTIC SHOULD REMAIN ‘PEACEFUL’

Overseeing U.S. military operations in the Arctic is Gen. Glen VanHerck, head of U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command.

VanHerck told lawmakers during a hearing this spring on Capitol Hill that military efforts in the Arctic are meant to ensure the area remains “peaceful, stable and cooperative.” He noted that the United States is one of eight nations that in 1996 formed the Arctic Council. The other seven members are Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Sweden.

There are now concerns that as Russia becomes more isolated following its invasion of Ukraine, it could take a more aggressive posture in the Arctic. Russia’s eastern border is only 90 kilometers across the Bering Strait from the coast of Alaska.

VanHerck noted that 25 percent of Russia’s gross domestic product comes from oil, minerals and other natural resources extracted in the Arctic. “So they absolutely have a vested interest in the Arctic, and they also want to ensure that it is secure for their efforts.”

Over the past several years, Russia has revitalized a dozen or so military installations in the Arctic that had sat dormant after the Cold War, said VanHerck. “Not only are they placing defensive capabilities that they state are obviously for defensive purposes, they are putting offensive capabilities into the Arctic,” he said, including missiles that could strike North America.

Russia formed the Northern Fleet Joint Strategic Command in December 2014 to coordinate efforts in the Arctic. Since then, DoD said in its strategy document, Russia has gradually strengthened its presence by creating new Arctic units, refurbishing old airfields and infrastructure, and establishing military bases along its Arctic coastline.

Russia also has been working to establish a network of air defense and coastal missile systems, early warning radars and rescue centers, the DoD strategy said. In February 2021, Russia launched the Arktika-M satellite to monitor the climate and environment in the region.

The United States is also watching China’s moves in the Arctic. “China calls itself a near-Arctic nation and wants to be influential in the Arctic as well,” said VanHerck.

Concerning U.S. capabilities, “I would assess that we’re in the game plan development,” he told the House Armed Services Committee. “We’re not able to have the persistence that I need to compete day-to-day in the Arctic.”

Another looming concern for DoD is how climate change could impact U.S. military infrastructure in the Arctic. The issue was investigated recently by the department’s inspector general, who concluded in a report last month that DoD will need to invest billions of dollars to make military installations in the Arctic and sub-Arctic more resilient to climate change.

The IG evaluated Thule Air Base in Greenland and DoD’s five military bases in Alaska.

“Officials from all six installations identified current climate and energy challenges, such as cracked runways, sunken foundations, and multiple power outages,” said the IG report. At most of these installations, the “day-to-day focus was on reacting to immediate problems or reducing risk to existing hazards, rather than planning for future hazards.”

The report said some construction projects at Army, Air Force and Space Force installations are already being funded to support increased Arctic operations.

MORE SITUATIONAL AWARENESS

There is a huge need in the Arctic for reliable surveillance and communications systems because miscommunications could trigger unintended conflict, Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote, deputy chief of staff for Air Force Futures, said at a Wilson Center panel discussion.

“Awareness about what is going on in the Arctic is a key part of preserving peace,” he said.

For example, in military wargames, the “avenues of approaches over the Arctic” for enemy missiles or bombers are a major concern. “The Arctic is the shortest route between our competitors and us.”

The U.S. Air Force has operated in the Arctic for decades, Hinote said. “But our use of the Arctic as a strategic buffer is eroding for all the reasons that have been talked about, especially climate change, and especially with some of the activities that we see Russia and China engaging in.”

The Long Range Discrimination Radar at Clear Space Force Station, Alaska, includes a multi-face radar designed to provide search, track and discrimination capability in support of homeland defense. The complex also includes a mission control facility, power plant and maintenance facility. Credit: Missile Defense Agency

As the Arctic melts, “competition for resources and influence in the region will increase,” he said.

Hinote said the U.S. Air Force in recent years has intercepted and warned away a growing number of Russian military planes flying near the edge of Alaska’s restricted airspace. These security concerns “drove our focus on the Arctic and the release of a strategy.”

Wargames organized by the U.S. military and allies typically have focused on “countering great powers specifically in Europe and in the Asia Pacific,” Hinote said. “And one of the things that we felt like we did not understand as well was how that competition would spill over into the Arctic.”

Live military exercises like NATO’s Cold Response, NORAD’s Operation Noble Defender, and Northern Command’s Arctic Edge are helping the U.S. and allies “understand the nature of the competition,” he said. The submarine-focused Ice Exercise (ICEX) has been held since the 1960s, making it the longest-running Arctic exercise.

To bolster the U.S. posture in the Arctic, the Air Force is stationing 54 F-35 advanced fighter aircraft at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska.

“Alaska is an incredibly well-positioned base of operations for defending the northern approaches to the United States, and this is why so many of the intercepts that happen when an adversary’s aircraft is coming from the north are done with assets that are stationed in Alaska,” Hinote said.

The Department of the Air Force’s Arctic strategy also recommends greater use of space assets to support military and homeland defense efforts.

“Space capabilities are tailor-made to support a region where there is sparse ground infrastructure,” Lt. Gen. William Liquori, deputy chief of space operations for strategy, plans and programs for the U.S. Space Force, said at the Wilson Center panel.

“The satellite command-and-control capabilities that we have at Thule, those are there because military operations are going to happen in the Arctic,” said Liquori. “And that means we’re going to need to have satellite coverage in the Arctic.”

To fill gaps in satellite communications coverage over the Arctic, the Air Force worked out a deal with the Norwegian Space Agency subsidiary Space Norway to launch two U.S. military communications payloads on Norwegian satellites. The payloads, developed by Northrop Grumman, will be integrated into the Arctic Satellite Broadband Mission satellites, projected to launch on a SpaceX rocket in 2023.

Any Arctic strategy has to consider the importance of the space domain, said Mir Sadat, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

The United States is not doing enough to “prepare for the new frontier.” In contrast, Russia and China, by increasing their activities in the region, are positioning to one day take advantage of shorter sea lanes, Sadat said. A key goal for China and Russia is to “reach global markets or military targets faster and much more cheaply,” he said.

Satellites to watch what Russia and others are doing on the ground is another critical capability that the United States might need to expand, said Scott Herman, CEO of Cognitive Space.

The company participated in the recent Arctic Edge 2022 exercise as a military contractor, orchestrating collection opportunities across commercial satellite operators.

Today, many commercial remote-sensing constellations can’t support Arctic activities because they can’t reach those high latitudes, said Herman. But if the Arctic becomes a geopolitical flashpoint, “you may see some adjustments to some of the satellite constellation plans to make sure they’ve got sufficient northern exposure.”

In its strategy, the Department of the Air Force said there is a need for “domain awareness through new technologies ranging from over the horizon radar to space assets.”

FEARS OF ‘MISCOMMUNICATION’

Michael Sfraga, chair and distinguished fellow of the Wilson Center’s Polar Institute, said an imminent war in the Arctic is unlikely.

“I think that’s a low probability,” said Sfraga, who is based in Alaska. But he believes the risk will increase as countries step up activities.

“The higher probability, unfortunately, is a miscommunication: An exercise gone wrong, a missile fired by mistake, Russian bombers are escorted out of our airspace and there’s a miscommunication between pilots,” he said.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine now casts things in a different light, he added. “No one thought something like Ukraine would actually happen. If anybody would have told you 20 years ago that China would have built islands in the South China Sea and claimed that territory, I would have said that seems pretty far-fetched.” The lesson for the United States is to remain “vigilant and diligent.”

It’s well known that Russia derives a significant portion of its GDP from natural resource development in the Arctic, Sfraga said. It’s also continuing to expand its military presence and capabilities in the region. “China, which sometimes forgets that it’s not actually an Arctic state, is doing everything it can to establish its own influence in Arctic governance and economic development.”

“While there’s no imminent threat of conflict in the Arctic, the increasing activity and proximity of these aggressive powers requires the U.S. to maintain situational awareness and operational capacity,” he said.

The United States has to be better prepared to operate in the Arctic, Sfraga said, and noted that satellite-based services are sorely needed in the area.

“Satellite communications, imagery, all of those things are very important to our national and civil security, search and rescue,” he said. “There’s just limited capacity.”

“Presence equals influence,” he said. “Showing potential adversaries that you can actually conduct operations and protect your own interests in a landscape like the Arctic serves as a deterrent and is incredibly important.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of SpaceNews magazine.