OXON HILL, Md. — Enhancing presence and cultivating partnerships in the Arctic are vital to ensuring the region does not become a contested space, according to 2nd Fleet Commander Vice Adm. Andrew “Woody” Lewis.

“The Arctic is a cooperative area. But it will only remain a cooperative area if we continue to build those relationships — even with the Russians,” Lewis said at The Navy League’s 2021 Sea-Air-Space Exposition on Monday. “We have to work together because the environment is very, very challenging … and the environment is changing.”

“But if we aren’t present there, and if we aren’t continuing to build those partnerships, it will be a contested space,” said Lewis, who also heads NATO’s Joint Force Command Norfolk.

Failure to maintain presence in the Arctic would “cede the space to the Russians or somebody else,” Lewis said, adding that it could also become a space where conflict arises.

The U.S. Coast Guard, whom Lewis described as the U.S. “experts” in the Arctic, work closely with the Navy’s 2nd, 3rd and 5th Fleets — but he noted partnerships could exist outside of uniformed military or maritime communities.

The U.S. Navy has ramped up its presence in the Arctic in recent years. For example, the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman and its carrier strike group operated in the Norwegian Sea in 2018 — marking the first time a U.S. aircraft carrier had entered the Arctic Circle since 1991.

More recently, four U.S. Navy ships sailed into the Barents Sea between Russia and Norway in May to complete maritime security operations. The Navy said the operations were the first time a U.S. Navy surface ship had entered the Barents Sea since the mid-1980s.

The ships, the destroyers Donald Cook, Porter and Roosevelt, along with the fast combat support ship Supply (T-AOE 6), were accompanied by the United Kingdom frigate Kent.

In January, the Navy unveiled a “Blue Arctic” strategy for the region. The blueprint, which said the U.S. Navy “must operate more assertively” in the Arctic, cautioned that Russia is reopening old bases and “reinvigorating” regional exercises. Likewise, it predicts that this will continue in the “decades ahead” and that China will step up its naval activity “on, below and above Arctic waters.”

“Peace and prosperity in the Arctic requires enhanced naval presence and partnerships,” the report said.

Weeks after the report’s release, Lewis warned during a Jan. 26 American Enterprise Institute webinar that the Arctic could become the next contested space, noting the Russians were reinvigorating their military capabilities in the Arctic in an attempt to make it a militarily contested zone.

“That is not in the common interests of the other Arctic nations, and what we cannot allow to happen,” Lewis said.

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