WASHINGTON — Amid rising global temperatures, vast stores of untapped resources and next-level transit potential, the race is on for who will set the course in the Arctic.
The Arctic panel at the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space exposition comes at a time when the sea ice on top of the world continues to retreat, presenting billions of dollars in new economic potential that is surfacing alongside new environmental and security challenges.
“There will be strategic competition over resources — hydrocarbons and shipping routes, primarily — and global warming will exacerbate them by exposing those resources,” retired Navy Adm. James Stavridis, a former leader of U.S. European Command, said in a 2016 interview with sister publication Military Times.
Melting sea ice could for the first time render roughly 13 percent of the Earth’s undiscovered oil, as well as a third of its undiscovered gas, viably accessible.
What’s more, about $1 trillion worth of gold, zinc, nickel and platinum is believed to lie in the region, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
Transiting the increasingly open waters of the Arctic could prove as valuable as the resources that lie in wait. Melting sea ice will likely increase the use of three routes that cross the Arctic, opening them up for potential year-round transit.
Increased use of the Northern Sea Route, the Northwest Passage and the Transpolar Route would save thousands of miles and days’ worth of transit for ships moving between major trading blocs, according to the GAO.
“Literally a new ocean is transforming before our eyes,” Heather Conley, an Arctic issues expert for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Military Times in 2016.
At the same time, more ships transiting the Arctic could lead to more pollution and greater environmental impacts on the region.
Newly available spaces could also bring about territorial claims that did not have to be adjudicated when the Arctic wasn’t melting.
As the five Arctic coastal states — the United States, Canada, Russia, Norway and Denmark (of which Greenland is a territory) — prepare submissions regarding where their territory will extend into the Arctic, Moscow’s plan includes a ridge that would span a considerable distance across the Arctic Ocean, according to a February report by the Congressional Research Service.
While areas of cooperation have emerged among the Arctic countries, Russia has made clear its aim to increase its presence in the far north. Countering these claims will make icebreaker ships that much more vital, and U.S. icebreaker assets are lagging.
Two of the U.S. Coast Guard’s three polar icebreakers have exceeded their 30-year planned service lives, and a third is currently nonoperational.
Though Arctic ice is diminishing, icebreakers will not become obsolete. In some ways, according to CRS, it could increase demand. Significant areas of the Arctic remain covered in ice, but a general decrease of ice in the region could lead to more vessels operating in the area.
Those ships would need icebreaker support to help them navigate through the remaining frozen sections.
Icebreakers would also need to escort any ships from the surface fleet that would venture north.
While the United States’ icebreaker assets remain outdated and few in number, Russia has launched the world’s largest nuclear-powered icebreaker, one designed to dwarf the capabilities of any conventionally powered vessel.
Russia has also signaled other ambitions for the Arctic. It holds at least half of the Arctic’s coastline, population and probable mineral wealth, according to CRS, and Russia is eyeing the economic opportunities that would come with setting up icebreaker escorts, refueling posts and commercial ship supplies along the Northern Sea Route.
The Russian advantage in the Arctic was nodded to by the U.S. Coast Guard commandant during a 2017 speech, according to a Foreign Policy report.
“They’ve got all their chess pieces on the board right now, and right now we’ve got a pawn and maybe a rook,” Adm. Paul Zukunft was quoted as saying.
“If you look at this Arctic game of chess, they’ve got us at checkmate right at the very beginning.
America’s other near-peer adversary on the global horizon, China, has also announced construction of its own icebreakers, adding yet another player to the Arctic mix.
While it has no Arctic coast to claim, Beijing sees big opportunities in shorter sea routes and new stores of energy-related natural resources.
China’s export-dependent economy would move much faster and less expensively should new ocean transport routes open.
How things will play out up north remains to be seen. But considering the melting ice, increasingly assertive rival powers and a U.S. force that has not kept up with required capabilities, the Arctic clock is ticking.
“We should work with allies for a balanced approach that begins with broad area surveillance, heightened monitoring, intelligence/information sharing with allies, regular patrols of air and sea, mapping, and scientific research,” Stavridis told Military Times. “At the same time, we need a dialogue with Russia that hopefully can make the Arctic a zone of cooperation, not of conflict.”