WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy’s Barents Sea patrol is the latest sojourn into an increasingly militarized Arctic, where questions of international law are proliferating.

For the first time since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. Navy is making regular trips to the Arctic Circle, with the four-ship patrol sailing in the Barents Sea. Three of the four ships, which sailed alongside the British Royal Navy frigate Kent, were destroyers based in Rota, Spain, as part of an operation spearheaded by the U.S. Navy’s 6th Fleet.

The trip into Russia’s backyard was the latest in what the U.S. Navy has made clear will become a habit in the frigid waters of the Arctic. And that it was carried out by Europe-based destroyers could herald even more operations in the High North as the service plans to grow to six destroyers forward-deployed there from today’s four.

The patrol in the Barents Sea, much of which is part of Russia exclusive economic zone, follows high-profile patrols by the American aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman in 2018 and a surface action group patrol in 2019. And while a Naval Forces Europe news release made clear Russia was given advance notice of the patrol to avoid confusion, the message is still pointed: The U.S. Navy is back in the Arctic Circle after being gone for 30 years.

The choice of the Barents Sea is an interesting one due to its operational significance to the Russian submarine fleet, which remains world-class even as much of its surface fleet degraded after the end of the Cold War, said Bryan Clark, a former U.S. submarine officer who is now a senior fellow with The Hudson Institute.

“The Barents are an area where Russian submarines like to operate, and we’ve kind of left [the area] alone for so long that it’s become an extension of the areas they deploy that they see as their bastion,” Clark said. “They monitor them closely, it’s right offshore. They treat the Barents a little like we treat the VACAPES [Virginia Capes Operating Area off Norfolk, Virginia].

“So we’ve left them alone for so long that they feel like the Barents, the Kara and the White Sea — they kind of see as a free zone for Russian submarine operations.”

Clark said that by sending three destroyers equipped with sophisticated anti-submarine kit, the U.S. Navy is putting Russia on notice that the country doesn’t have free reign over the Barents.

“By putting some ships up there, we’re telling them: ‘Well, no, this is not a free zone [for] submarine operations — these are international waters,’ ” Clark said. “It would be a little like if the Russians deployed a bunch of anti-submarine warfare frigates in the VACAPES. We couldn’t do anything about it, but it would put us on notice that we maybe needed to be a little more careful.”

But Russia hasn’t absorbed the renewed U.S. patrols quietly. On Friday, Russia announced a live-fire exercise in the Barents, presumably a response to the five-ship patrol.

A frozen flashpoint

The return of the U.S. Navy to the High North is part of a larger refocus of national attention to the Arctic, as warming waters and melting ice open more time-efficient shipping routes and give nations greater access to natural resources that may have once been cost-prohibitive to reach.

Russia in particular has made clear to the international community that it has core economic interests there and will defend them, even building icebreakers with cruise missiles and deck guns to patrol frozen waters.

Russia, with 7,000 miles of Arctic coast, sees the region as both a security liability and a key to its long-term economic success. Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2017 put estimates of the mineral wealth in the region at $30 trillion.

In a February hearing before the Transportation and Maritime Security Subcommittee, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, Michael Murphy, testified that Russia’s military buildup in the Arctic threatens the United States’ and NATO’s northern flank.

Although Russia has cooperated on oil spill response and search-and-rescue missions, the U.S. views the country’s moves with suspicion, especially in the establishment of an Arctic base and the installation of coastal missile batteries, early warning radars and air defenses, Murphy said in testimony.

“The Russian military buildup in the Arctic has implications beyond its waters,” he said. “From a geostrategic perspective, the Arctic and the North Atlantic are inextricably linked. The Arctic provides Russian ships and submarines with access to a critical naval chokepoint: the GIUK gap that plays an outsized role in NATO’s defense and deterrence strategy. Underwater trans-Atlantic cables also run through this area."

“In short, NATO’s northern flank must once again command the attention of the United States and its allies,” he added.

Similar to its concerns for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, which has become a flashpoint in Sino-U.S. relations, the U.S. is taking issue with Russia’s attempt to force shippers to use Russian pilots and pay for use of the Northern Sea Route, which runs through Russia’s exclusive economic zone. Russia has heavily invested in icebreakers to keep the Northern Sea Route open for as long as possible each year, and therefore the country views it as something of a toll road.

“Russia's restrictions on the freedom of navigation in the Northern Sea Route are inconsistent with international law,” Murphy said.

The success of the Northern Sea Route — which has been among the things that has attracted China to the Arctic, as it seeks to find cheaper ways to get its goods to Europe — is in question, said Clark, the Hudson Institute analyst.

“The Russians’ argument is that if shippers get the benefit of a faster transit time in exchange for the Russian investment in icebreakers, they should pay a fee to use the NSR,” Clark said. “The area where the Northern Sea Route runs is completely in Russia’s exclusive economic zone; nobody is arguing about it being in their EEZ. So an argument could be made that it’s Russia’s place to create a route and try and monetize it."

“What’s interesting is that the shipping traffic hasn’t gone up dramatically, and that’s due to the predictability aspect. The problem shippers face is they aren’t going to use that route if it’s unpredictable how long it takes," he added. “If it takes 50 percent longer than expected because Russia has to go break ice, I’m losing money, when I could have gone a more predictable route that took longer but I could predict my arrival time.”

Shippers that miss their windows could have ships sitting offshore for days until another arrival window opens up and they can drop their goods on the pier. “So predictability is a bigger issue than speed,” Clark said.

Whether Russia is making a simple business play in its EEZ is a perspective that the U.S. Navy views with skepticism, given the other militarizing activities in the Arctic. The service also doesn’t want to set a precedent for the creation of toll roads that could metastasize elsewhere, like the South China Sea, where China has claimed expansive maritime rights.

Whither icebreakers?

But even if the U.S. wanted to challenge Russia’s restrictions on freedom of navigation in the Northern Sea Route, it would be challenged to do so without a fleet of reliable icebreakers.

The U.S. would have to navigate often frozen waters, but imagines an embarrassing situation where a vessel sent to conduct a freedom-of-navigation operation breaks down or gets stuck in ice, former Coast Guard Commandant Paul Zukunft said in a 2018 event at the Wilson Center. The U.S would be left without a working icebreaker to go rescue it, he explained.

“When I was the commandant, the National Security Council approached me and said: ‘Hey, we ought to send the Polar Star through the Northern Sea Route and do a freedom of navigation exercise,’ ” he recalled. “I said: ‘Au contraire, it’s a 40-year-old ship. We’re cannibalizing parts off its sister ship just to keep this thing running, and I can’t guarantee you that it won’t have a catastrophic engineering casualty as it’s doing a freedom-of-navigation exercise, and now I’ve got to call on Russia to pull me out of harm’s way. So this is not the time to do it.’ ”

The Coast Guard operates a single heavy icebreaker, the USCGC Polar Star, with a second, the Polar Sea, reserved as a parts locker for the former.

But help is on the way.

After years of public cries for assistance from senior Coast Guard leaders, the military service embarked on a recapitalization program to field three heavy ice breakers and three medium-sized icebreakers — heavy and medium referring to the kinds of ice they can break and not necessarily the size of the ships.

In April 2019, the Coast Guard announced it had signed a $746 million contract with VT Halter Marine of Pascagoula, Mississippi, for the detailed design and construction of its first polar security cutter — the first of the heavy icebreakers. And with the fiscal 2021 budget submission now before Congress, the Coast Guard says it can fully fund the second polar security cutter, according to a Congressional Research Service report.

To date, the Coast Guard and the Navy have put $1.2 billion into the Polar Security Cutter program, with another $555 million requested in 2021, according to the CRS report.

For some analysts, including the National Science Foundation and a recent Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments study, the Coast Guard should do away with the medium icebreaker and instead focus on buying a fleet of four heavy icebreakers.

“The design is different enough that the medium icebreaker ends up becoming a new start, and so you have two classes of ship where you may as well just have four heavy icebreakers,” Clark said. “That should meet most of your needs.”

Supporting points north

Another issue with operating in the High North is the lack of any significant infrastructure.

The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act directed the defense secretary to work with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Coast Guard and the Maritime Administration to submit a report to Congress that evaluates potential sites for a northern port. It then requires the defense secretary designate one or more of the sites as “Department of Defense Strategic Arctic Ports” within 90 days.

A U.S. port in the Arctic would serve as a counter to recent Russian activity there, including the construction of its “Northern Clover” military base, which features missiles, radars and military personnel.

But putting something in a place on Alaska’s north slope, like Prudhoe Bay, could be ill-suited because melting permafrost will turn that area into a marshland, Clark said.

“I think the idea of putting a base up in the far north is a bad idea,” he said. “It’s too expensive, and then you’ll build it and not be able to use it for a large part of the year. It becomes a white elephant.”

For the U.S., aside from its concerns about freedom of navigation in the Northern Sea Route, it’s focused on policing its exclusive economic zone.

“It has to have sufficient presence to enforce its EEZ so people don’t come in there and extract minerals or fish or something without permission,” Clark said. “So you have to have some [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities] up there — polar-orbiting satellites, and we’ve advocated for more unmanned aerial vehicles.

“And then you’ve got to have some mechanism to enforce it, so you do have to have enough Coast Guard vessels to go up there at the times that people would be doing some sort of resource exploitation to go interdict them. That is probably a couple of cutters up there in the summer months, and right now they are deploying from southern Alaska, and that’s something like [an 800-mile] transit just to get to your deployment area.”

Clark offered an alternative option: “We should look at building another expeditionary mobile base to keep up there in the summer months to use as a forward-deployed support station that could provide [support] out of Nome, Alaska, or be maintained at sea.

“You need some way of supporting cutters up there because there is nowhere to pull in or fly people off the ship if need be. Say you interdict an illegal fisher. Now you have to do something with them, so what do you do? Drive them back to Anchorage?”

Missing the point?

While the U.S. Navy is back in the Arctic, the patrols it’s been conducting may point more to America’s capability shortfalls in the region than its strengths.

The patrol in the Barents Sea is a good signal, said Jerry Hendrix, a retired U.S. Navy captain and an analyst with The Telemus Group, but the service should focus more on freedom of navigation.

“In many ways I think it sent confusing signals,” Hendrix said. “There are no significant disputes or territorial claims in the Barents Sea, and in many ways it may have just demonstrated that we don’t have the fleet to do a freedom-of-navigation [operation] in the ice-laden Northern Sea Route.”

Even though the Northern Sea Route goes through Russia’s EEZ, the U.S. would like that transit to remain free — a principle that the U.S. Navy struggles to uphold because none of its surface ships are ice-hardened, Hendrix said.

“[The Russians are] treating the Northern Sea Route like it’s the Mississippi [River],” Hendrix said. “And they’re requiring that if you take your tanker through there, you have to have a Russian pilot and you have to be escorted by a Russian icebreaker. So in order to pass through, you have to pay the piper because this isn’t the high seas.

“Look, this route cuts two weeks off the transit time moving goods from Asia to Europe,” he added. “Northern Sea Route is a coming thing. With the impact of climate change, this is going to be open more of the year. … But the U.S. Navy hasn’t built a [surface] ship capable of operating around ice since [World War II].”

David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.