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Report: Give US NORTHCOM Sole Arctic Oversight

Jun. 10, 2014 - 12:31PM   |  
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WASHINGTON — The division of Arctic responsibility between two US geographic unified commands could slow the Pentagon’s ability to develop military requirements in the region, according to a new report by a group of retired generals and admirals.

The Defense Department should make US Northern Command (NORTHCOM) the combatant command responsible for overseeing the Arctic, the CNA Military Advisory Board, a federally funded think tank, states in a May report.

“This division of the area of responsibility runs counter to the concept of unity of command and the tenet of total responsibility residing in one commander,” the report states. “This dual responsibility creates unnecessary tension and has negative impacts on the generation of requirements and sourcing of assets.”

In addition to NORTHCOM, US European Command has oversight responsibilities in the Arctic. A document, called the Unified Command Plan, developed by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, delineates combatant command borders and responsibilities. The document, which is typically updated every two years, has not been updated since April 2011.

Arctic-border nations have been jockeying for position in the region as polar ice caps melt, opening access to new shipping lanes and natural resources. While experts say the likelihood of military conflict in the Arctic is low, competition between nations down the road could present challenges.

“Maritime issues involving existing and potential claims of the extended outer continental shelf and shipping routes already exist,” the CNA report states. “As a warming planet affords increased access to the Arctic, the [CNA Military Advisory Board] cannot rule out new disputes arising over natural resource exploration and recovery, fishing and future shipping lanes.”

The changing dynamic of the Arctic is one example of how climate change is broadly affecting the military, experts say.

“The projected impacts of climate change could be detrimental to military readiness, strain base resilience both at home and abroad, and may limit our ability to respond to future demands,” the CNA report states.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, speaking at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs on May 6, said the Pentagon must adjust its capabilities “to meet new global realities, including environmental changes.” Hagel referenced the National Climate Assessment, an in-depth look at how climate change is impacting the US.

“It’s clear to me that there are changes happening, but I have to deal with the consequences of that,” Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert Papp said in an interview with “Defense News with Vago Muradian” television show.

Papp recalled his first trip to Kotzebue, in northwestern Alaska, 39 years ago and the changes that have occurred since.

“During the summertime up there we had to break ice to get up through the Bering Strait and to get to Kotzebue,” he said. “Thirty-five years later going up there as commandant, we flew into Kotzebue at the same time of the year [and] I couldn’t see ice anywhere.”

Late last year, the Pentagon released its first Arctic strategy, which calls for examining new types of naval equipment and infrastructure needed in the region over several decades. The Navy and Coast Guard have their own Arctic blueprints.

“The Defense Department is bolstering its engagement in the Arctic and looking at what capabilities we need to operate there in the future,” Hagel said May 6.

In addition to the Navy, the Coast Guard also has a mission in the Arctic. However, budget cuts have prevented the service from funding new polar icebreakers, ships that are key to operating in the region.

“I don’t see a way to fit a brand new polar breaker in the budget without displacing other things which are higher priorities for me,” Papp said.

CNA urges the US to “accelerate and consolidate its efforts to prepare for increased access and military operations in the Arctic.”

China Looking To Play a Role

The US and the other nations that border the Arctic are not the only ones looking at the region as part of their future plans.

As polar ice caps melt, China is looking to take advantage of potential opportunities that have broad national security implications, including new shipping routes along the Arctic rim and massive hydrocarbon reserves of oil and gas under the Arctic.

China views potential new shipping lanes along the Arctic rim as a way of avoiding maritime piracy and choke points along routes through the South China Sea and Malacca Strait. Shorter routes to Europe will also cut costs for exports.

In an effort to enhance its international position, China has established three polar research stations: the Great Wall Station and the Zhongshan Station in the Antarctic, and Yellow River Station at Ny-Alesund in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic. China also operates the MV Xuelong (Snow Dragon) polar research vessel that conducts survey missions.

China has been investing diplomatic time, money and energy in Iceland, where Beijing has a large Embassy and has been in discussions with Reykjavik officials about the creation of a major Arctic shipping hub on the island.

China wants the Arctic sea passages declared “international territory” or the “shared heritage of humankind.” Beijing has been attempting to gain full membership into the Arctic Council, made up of littoral countries — Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States. At present, China has been granted observer status. ■

Wendell Minnick in Taipei contributed to this report.

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