WASHINGTON — The United States and its allies have been chilling out this summer, but experts and officials say something has been missing that prevents them from making the most of the experience.

A flurry of exercises, patrols and news releases has made one point clear: The Arctic is a strategic hot spot. Over the past few months, the U.S. has sent some of its highest-end and most sophisticated assets to the Arctic region, including the highly secretive attack submarine Seawolf, its Rota, Spain-based missile defense destroyers, and Air Force B-2 bombers.

And it has not been alone. The United Kingdom, Canada, France, Denmark and others have joined the U.S. in patrols and exercises in the High North, as both Russia and China have stepped up their presence in the region.

But according to analysts, governments and a senior former military official, the Western coalition lacks adequate surveillance and intelligence in the region.

“We have significant domain awareness challenges, and that really begins in the high latitudes,” former U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft told a virtual audience at the 2020 Defense News Conference, which took place Sept. 9-10. “Things start to get pretty dark once you get up higher than 72 degrees north.”

Among the allies, a consensus has formed that as China and Russia seek to exploit the warming Arctic for new, faster shipping routes and for resources, it’s essential they invest in greater surveillance capabilities. To illustrate the issue, Zukunft said the Coast Guard recently made a stunning discovery in the Arctic — something for which the service should have received early warning from intelligence officials.

“We sent a national security cutter to patrol that region in a relatively ice-free portion of the season,” Zukunft recounted. “And we stumbled upon a joint exercise between Russia and China. Our intelligence community did not have awareness that this was going on. So we were the originators of this information and otherwise we would not have known. We need to continue to invest in domain awareness.”

Zukunft posited that it should be possible to identify high-threat locations in the Arctic region and send assets to monitor those areas. That would be more effective than trying to saturate the whole region with air and surface assets, he said.

Snow blind

That’s an assessment agreed to by U.S. allies such as Denmark. Last winter, the Danish prime minster said in an interview that the increased Russian activity in the Arctic meant her country should invest in more space-based surveillance as well as anti-submarine capabilities.

But that is easier said than done, according to Bryan Clark, a retired U.S. Navy submarine officer and analyst with the Hudson Institute.

“To get Arctic and Antarctic imagery, you have to use polar orbits,” Clark explained. "Geostationary satellites won’t work down there: You’d get a very small area for a very expensive satellite. … Unless you want to put in place a dozen polar-orbiting satellites, you just aren’t going to get the kind of real-time imagery that you get in the mid-latitudes.

“Nobody has spent that kind of money to do strictly polar imaging. So once you go up north, you are stuck with the polar-orbiting satellites, and those give you just this really short window of coverage. That is until someone invests a lot of money in it.”

Tracking satellites from the Arctic

Many of the satellites that gather information on our planet pass over the polar regions. Satellite ground stations located in these remote areas are best positioned to collect the data and talk to the missions passing above them. This video presents the most northern ground station used by the European Space Agency — SvalSat, located within the Arctic Circle — where contact is made with many of ESA’s Earth observation missions. (European Space Agency)

The U.S. Space Development Agency is planning to expand polar coverage somewhat, Clark said. But it will not likely be enough to get the kind of coverage the area demands.

“The Space Development Agency’s intent is to expand the coverage in the High North, but to really get up to the poles, you need polar orbits,” Clark said. "Some of these commercial efforts may be trying to expand polar coverage for environmental purposes and those satellites are pretty cheap.

“So from a space perspective, I think they will be trying to expand a little bit on what they have in the mid-latitudes and rely on commercial coverage.”

But the Department of Defense will really get its money’s worth from unmanned aerial surveillance, Clark said.

In a February hearing before the House 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 activities with suspicion, especially in the establishment of an Arctic base as well as the installation of coastal missile batteries, early warning radars and air defense assets, 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.”