Arctic Security Heats Up

COMMENTARY Environment

Arctic Security Heats Up

Nov 6th, 2008 9 min read
Peter Brookes

Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs

Peter helps develop and communicate The Heritage Foundation's stance on foreign and defense policy through his research and writing.

By many accounts, the sea ice that covers much of the earth's Arctic region is melting. The size -- that is, the extent -- and thickness of the Arctic ice floes are diminishing, following a three-decade trend and brushing up against last year's historic lows.

While many ruminate about the lives of polar bears, climate change in the Northern Hemisphere and even the fate of small island nations from rising sea levels, there are other possible implications, too -- those of the security kind.

It turns out that while the geographic North Pole belongs to no one, the area around it may hold significant natural resources, including large deposits of previously inaccessible oil and natural gas. Considering the high cost of energy to consumers and the high value of oil and natural gas to producers these days, people and governments, naturally, are paying very close attention to the dramatic changes taking place in the Arctic Ocean.

Circumpolar nations, most notably the U.S., Russia, Canada, Norway and Denmark, are scrambling to claim and control the vast untapped ocean floor under the disappearing ice -- even the transit lanes through the Arctic.

Hello, climate change; goodbye, peaceful pole.

Resource-rich region

The Arctic (an undefined area, but generally above 66 degrees North latitude) may have as much as 90 billion technically recoverable barrels of oil and nearly 2 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas, based on current industry capabilities and practices, according to a just-released four-year study by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). By comparison, there are more than 1 trillion barrels of proven oil reserves and more than 6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas globally; the world consumes nearly 90 million barrels of oil a day.

In the first publicly available assessment of the region, the USGS estimates the Arctic accounts for more than 20 percent of the yet-to-be-discovered, technically recoverable resources in the world, including nearly 15 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its natural gas.

That is good news -- but who owns it?

According to the 1982 United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea, states have a right to a 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) off their coasts. The EEZ can be extended if it is part of a country's continental shelf, where the state can claim sovereignty over natural resources. This, of course, can lead to conflicting territorial claims. Indeed, experts assert this issue could be particularly difficult in the Arctic, where states' potential rights to the resources around the largely unexplored North Pole, especially the potentially rich Lomonosov Ridge, an undersea mountain range, more than 1,200 miles long, are likely to overlap.

In May, the five Arctic Ocean-bordering states met on Greenland. The resulting Ilulissat Declaration reaffirmed the nations' commitment to an orderly settlement of conflicting claims concerning the continental shelf, among other issues tied to the Arctic region. Researchers from these countries have been collecting data from the sea bed to support their Arctic aspirations. Of course, some countries are not waiting to mark their territory.

In August 2007, two Russian deep-submergence research vehicles, Mir-1 and -2, planted a titanium flag on the sea bed near the North Pole at a depth of nearly 14,000 feet, claiming for Moscow a territory between the undersea Mendeleev and Lomonosov ridges the size of France, Germany and Italy combined. While some derided the flag-planting as a little more than a geopolitical stunt, the Russians are likely serious about their claims, considering their quest for oil and gas rights -- indeed, energy hegemony across the globe. (Russia is the world's No. 1 producer of natural gas and No. 2 exporter of oil. Some experts believe Russian oil reserves have peaked and will be depleted by 2030.)

In July, Moscow announced it would send its Northern Fleet Navy, based at Severomorsk on the Kola Peninsula, to patrol Arctic waters -- perhaps, the first time it has done so since the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Indeed, it was reported in late September that a Northern Fleet submarine had completed a 30-day transit under the Arctic ice, surfacing off the Kamchatka Peninsula in the northern Pacific Ocean.

Some experts are expecting more than a few new submarines and surface ships for Russia's once-mighty Kola Peninsula, including, perhaps, another run at developing aircraft carriers that could be operating in northern climes in the out-years. The shipbuilding program will not include just warships, but also as many as 14 new ice breakers in the coming years. In fact, Russia commissioned the world's largest nuclear-powered ice breaker last year, 50 Years of Victory, bringing the number of nuclear ice-crushing ships available for Arctic duty to seven.

The Russian Navy has tried to downplay its more muscular stance in the Arctic, insisting it is just part of its natural re-emergence as a great naval power. That re-emergence will be bolstered by a 30 percent increase in Russia's defense budget next year. In a throwback to the Cold War, Moscow already has its Long Range Aviation operating widely, including in the Arctic, using Tu-95 reconnaissance and Tu-142 anti-submarine aircraft from bases in Russia's northern and far eastern military districts.

In addition to its military maneuvers, in September, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev instructed the drafting of a new state policy on the Arctic, including a law expressing Moscow's view of the country's northern border. The Kremlin also has sent scientific exhibitions to the Arctic to survey the area and collect evidence, including soil samples, to support Moscow's claim to the Lomonosov Ridge as an extension of Russia's continental shelf. But the Russians are not the only ones gearing up for possible Arctic action.

Canada, for one, is not standing idly by when it comes to the Arctic. Canadian scientists are building their own case for claims on the Lomonosov Ridge -- and a second sub-surface mountain range in the West, called the Alpha Ridge, in the Beaufort Sea. In support of this, Ottawa also has announced plans to build six to eight medium-sized ships, capable of operating in ice 3 feet thick, to conduct Arctic patrols. Canada has one large and five light- to medium-sized icebreakers; all are reaching the end of their service lives. Some say the mid-sized ships may not be up to the task, instead calling for larger ships for the job of looking after Canada's so-called "High North." One skeptical Canadian politician said the new ships are more aptly called "slush-breakers."

But that is not all. In August, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced plans to establish a deep-sea port on Baffin Island to support Canadian air and sea patrols in the region, especially the new-construction ships. Ottawa also plans to build a new winter fighting school at a base on Resolute Bay in the Northwest Passage, 400 miles south of the North Pole, affirming that Canada plans a growing -- and long-term -- presence in the Arctic.

While Canada reportedly has fewer than 200 soldiers and 1,500 volunteer indigenous Inuit rangers operating in the Arctic, providing security to more than 1.5 million square miles of Canadian territory, large-scale, joint exercises, such as the Nanook series, have increased. The commander of Joint Task Force North, which kicked off Nanook '08 in late September, said: "Our purpose is to exert sovereignty, demonstrate sovereignty and security, but also learn how to live off the land and learn more about the operating environment here in the north."

A Canadian commission also recently recommended Ottawa establish a surveillance network to monitor activities in the Arctic as well as build a new research station near the Northwest Passage. Ottawa also wants recognition of its sovereignty over the Northwest Passage, the once-mythical route that offers the quickest and most economic waterway between Asia and Europe, eliminating the need for, and limitations imposed by, the Panama Canal. The route, which by some estimates might be navigable year-round by 2050, would shorten shipping distances between the two continents by more than 2,000 miles, cutting costs and travel time for sea cargo.

Scandinavian scramble

Denmark, which lays claim to the Arctic through its possession of self-governing Greenland, also is getting in the race. Copenhagen boldly claims the Lomonosov Ridge is a geological extension of the large island land mass, which in reality is more white than green.

But conflicting claims are not restricted to the Russians, who are not likely to be intimidated by Danish claims. The Danes also are sparring with the Canadians over ownership of tiny Hans Island, a rocky Arctic outcrop, which both countries claim.

The Danes are not the only ones on the move in Scandinavia. Norway, an energy giant, plans to spend more than $100 million on a new electronic surveillance system to monitor Russian actions in the north, according to a Defense News report in June. Reminiscent of the Cold War and its role as a front-line NATO state in it, Norway will establish radar stations and open-water monitoring facilities in the Barents and Norwegian seas, according to Oslo. The proposed surveillance system is a response not only to Russia's re-invigorated interest in the Arctic, but also to Moscow's heightened military activity on the neighboring Kola Peninsula and surrounding environs.

The Americans, who lay claim to the Arctic through Alaska, also are paying more attention to the region. For instance, in May, the U.S. military launched its annual Northern Edge series of exercises in and around Alaska. Over a two-week period, the exercise involved more than 5,000 personnel from units from as far away as Hawaii and Japan, as well as more than 100 aircraft and a number of U.S. Navy ships. The Russians, not surprisingly, highlighted the annual Alaska exercise this year, using it as a rhetorical foil for justifying their own military build-up in the Arctic. Although always tight-lipped about its operations, the American silent service is believed to have held submarine exercises with the British last year in northern waters, no doubt to test itself in the Arctic's changing environment.

The diminished ice coverage certainly will change the strategic situation in the Arctic region, long a hopeful safe harbor for Russian fleet ballistic missile submarines in their cat-and-mouse game with adversary attack submarines and anti-submarine aircraft.

While seemingly natural allies on Arctic issues, Canada and the U.S. actually dispute some territory in the Beaufort Sea, known as the Wedge, as well as the navigational status of the Northwest Passage. Washington views the Northwest Passage as international waters, while Ottawa sees it as an internal waterway. Canada has strongly objected to U.S. submarine transits of the passage, which has become a cause celebre in the Canadian press from time to time.

Despite this, in August, a Canadian research ship, Louis S. St. Laurent, and an American Coast Guard cutter, Healy, conducted joint exploration of the northern sea bed, working to develop a three-dimensional map of the sea floor.

So, while all the countries concerned have promised to allow diplomacy, science and international law to resolve how the potentially rich Arctic should be divvied up in terms of sovereignty, it is not clear it will end up that way. For instance, while the cold front that has descended on East-West relations over the Russia-Georgia conflict may not last forever, issues that appear nongermane certainly could get in the way of bilateral or multilateral cooperation. Indeed, even before the Georgia dust-up, an expert group expressed concern about the possibility of the Arctic becoming increasingly militarized as the global demand for energy and raw materials skyrockets, overwhelming well-intentioned diplomatic efforts.

In its report, the USGS called the Arctic region "the largest unexplored prospective area for petroleum remaining on Earth." With little reason to doubt it, that assertion will not be ignored by the major powers that ring the Arctic. With the surge in energy prices being driven by sluggish new production, continuing limits on global refining capability, jittery energy markets and rapidly increasing demand from the likes of India and China, countries are likely to hedge their bets in the Arctic.

U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen, during a recent visit to Alaska, said in a radio interview: "For the last 20 years, the conventional view for policymakers in Washington is that any activity in the Arctic is basically related to science."

Those days are gone -- probably for good. Indeed, Washington is expected to shortly issue a presidential national security directive on the Arctic -- arguably the first major policy statement on the issue in more than a decade.

But it will take more than a presidential policy statement to address the challenges of the Arctic. More resources will have to be devoted to the task, including increasing the number of U.S. ice breakers, which stands at a paltry three superannuated ships.

The U.S. has a lot at stake in the Arctic. Now is not the time for getting a case of cold feet in projecting American power to protect and advance our national interests in the north.

Brookes, Peter is a Senior Fellow in National Security Affairs and Chung Ju-Yung Fellow for Policy Studies in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in the Armed Forces Journal