The Drift

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WASHINGTON – Good Evening, Drifters

Well the weather is heating up here in DC. Today I parked my car in Kalorama while attending a conference on Connecticut Ave and completely forgot where I parked. After walking around for 30 minutes I found my car, but I had a lot of time to think about how hot it’s getting here in the District.

The conference, by the way, was the American Society of Naval Engineers annual Technology, Systems & Ships Conference, which believe it or not is one of my favorites every year. It’s so in the weeds but those weeds issues have such sweeping impact on the future of the Navy. The problems Navy engineers solve today in cubicles inside the Humphries Building at the Navy Yard will win or lose the next war, and that’s exciting stuff. Friend of The Drift, Capt. (Ret.) Mark Vandroff asked NAVSEA head Vice Adm. Thomas Moore about rust, and you know we love that topic here at The Drift, and you can look for that answer tomorrow at Defense News.

It suffices to say, Moore agrees with The Drift.

But back to how damned hot it is. I figured we’d think cold thoughts and dedicate this edition of The Drift to a little arctic chat. The Senate Armed Services Committee is having the military look at what it would take to build a port up there and so I figured I’d call Bryan Clark, retired submarine officer and naval analyst extraordinaire at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and ask him what he thought. Turns out he know a ton about it, so I made it tonight’s Drift.

Without further ado, here’s my chat with Bryan.

Let’s Drift!


The Drift: Congress wants the Navy to look at what it would take to build a port in the Arctic, just like the Russians are doing up at Northern Clover. What do you think of that idea?

Bryan Clark: Conditions are changing up there and its worth figuring out if this is even possible and how expensive this might be. So, the reason I think they should study it is not the same reason the Congress does. The Congress is thinking you should study it so you can go do it. And having studied this issue, having gone out there, the perspective I have is that it’s probably less feasible now to build it than it was even 10 years ago.

If we were to try and build such a base up by, say, Prudhoe Bay[, Alaska], you wouldn’t have anywhere to build it because the permafrost is melting and you have these marshy conditions. You would spend a lot of time trying to reinforce the ground where you would build the installation. So, its not a great place to build what you would consider a traditional naval installation. Then for more than half the year – say, two-thirds of the year – it is more or less inaccessible.

You could build something in Nome[, Alaska,] area. That might be accessible, it’s a rocky, somewhat more normal foundation, unlike the north slope that is a marsh that’s permanently frozen. So that might be more possible and its worth studying to say: “Well, how far north can you build this thing and how much is it going to cost.”

Could you do that in Nome?

Right now, Nome isn’t set up to accommodate very large or very frequent ship visits. So, you could see what it would take to accommodate longer, more frequent visits from a frigate or destroyer, maybe even accommodate a crew swap. You’d need something more like what you’d have in Singapore for the LCS.

So, could you put that in Nome? That’s what you’d study. And that way you’re at least part way up the coast. It’s a much shorter transit up to the Arctic from, say, Washington.

I think the idea of putting a base up in the far north is a bad idea. 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.

What might be a better idea would be to make a waypoint in Nome and use your Afloat Forward Staging Base for operations in the far north during the times of year when that is viable.

How many people live in Nome? Would you have a workforce, or would you have to ship in contractors?

There are a few thousand people who live in Nome. [Bryan is correct, there are 3,841 souls per last census] So, it’s pretty small, you wouldn’t have a big workforce. But a lot depends on what level of support you are talking about here. You’d have enough people to support a relatively austere way station.

During the time of year when you had ships coming in and staying for three weeks, maybe doing a crew swap, you might send a voyage repair team. You’d need a place for them to stay, temporary housing and buildings that store equipment, places to do inside work, to do voyage repair instead of having to drive all the way down to Puget Sound to do that. You’d end up contracting and bringing those folks up there for e period every year. 

If you augmented that with an AFSB that operated up close to the Arctic Circle you’d be able to use that as a forward staging point that might be able to support operations.

It sounds like you think it may be worth it after all?

The study should look at a range of options for providing for naval forces operating up there. Because right now they are correct, the big problem is, like the Coast Guard, you have to transit all the way down to Kodiak for the Coast Guard and for the Navy you might have to go all the way to Puget Sound to get able support.

Is Russia making a mistake by putting so many forces up there? If its unwise for us to put a lot of forces up there, does it make any more sense for Russia?

The Russians are in a very different situation because they have 7,000 miles of coast line on the Arctic. We have maybe 1,000 total and theirs is inhabited to a degree that ours is not. They actually have a viable sea route that goes along their arctic coast. And the land up there is a lot more amenable to building installations on it that will last. It’s not marshy like the north coast of Alaska, its more of a normal sea coast. For them, the environment is better suited for it and there is a lot more traffic up there to warrant installations.

For them, the high north is a major part of their economy and this northern sea route is becoming more and more important as a potential money-maker for them.

So, it makes sense that they have more infrastructure than we do?

Oh, yes. So, people get worried about, for example, the icebreaker differential between us and Russia but for them the Arctic is their back yard. And they don’t have a Gulf of Mexico or an East and West Coast like we do, so for them the Arctic is the equivalent of their West Coast. 

So why do people fixate on this, do you think?

My read of it is that it’s a holdover from the Cold War competition when we look at it very symmetrically: The missile gap, the satellite gap. You know, each generation needs to come up with a new thing to measure ourselves against with the Russians. I think with China you are seeing a lot of the same stuff, where we are going to start talking about how big the Chinese Navy is versus the U.S. Navy. It’s sort of an irrelevant comparison but, still, people will make those comparisons. So the icebreaker comparison is convenient for national security hawks to say “Look, they’ve got 47 ice breakers and three or four nuclear ice breakers, and we’ve got two – one of which is broke.

And two isn’t enough given that we have to resupply McMurdo Sound.

And so, yes, we need more ice breakers. And I’d say sure, maybe a couple more. But our concern with ice breakers is more from a research standpoint. We have a coast line on the arctic. It’s not exactly the sea route that the Norther sea route is. We don’t use the arctic that the Russians do. We don’t have the same exposure as the Russians do – they’ve got 7,000 miles of coast line, it’s really difficult to patrol and they’re somewhat neurotic about homeland defense anyway. It’s a perceived vulnerability on the part of Russia and has been for a long time so they’ve always put a lot of money into the ability to break ice, maintain access.

So, comparing our Arctic capabilities to theirs, it’s kind of off base because you are comparing two very different countries on things that they need in different amounts.