WASHINGTON — For weeks on Capitol Hill, lawmakers have been peppering Pentagon officials about their plans in the Arctic. Russia, it seems, is winning in the Arctic while the US military hasn't even got its snow boots on.
Lawmakers in most instances referenced the testimony of Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, who with Defense Secretary Ash Carter, acknowledged the region as strategically important. Russia had just decided to reactivate six brigades, four of them in the Arctic, Dempsey said in response to questions from Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska.
It was a factoid that appeared long after Dempsey's mention of it at that March 3 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, bolstered by an Associated Press report March 12 that the Russian military had launched sweeping military maneuvers in the Arctic and other areas, a show of force ordered by President Vladimir Putin amid spiraling tensions with the West over Ukraine. The five-day Arctic drills involved 38,000 servicemen, more than 50 surface ships and submarines, and 110 aircraft.
The combination fueled a push and pull in budget hearings that seemed to produce little beside agreement between lawmakers and military officials that the Arctic is important. Between the Navy and Coast Guard, some lawmakers were confused about who is responsible for the region.
It is US Northern Command, which took responsibility for the region in October. Its ambitious mandate — in line with DoD's 2013 Arctic Strategy — includes persistent domain awareness, robust communications, deployable forces and infrastructure in the Arctic.
Yet the US cannot reliably navigate, communicate or sustain its forces in the Arctic, NORTHCOM's commander Adm. William Gortney said at a March 12 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
NORTHCOM is studying requirements that would inform its operational plans, with a report due in the spring, he said.
At the hearing, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., expressed concern over Russia's icebreaker fleet, its bomber runs in the region, and "that we're well behind the Russians in terms of this, not only as an opportunity, but also as a growing area of military competition, that they're clearly making it out to be."
"We need to figure out what are the capabilities that we need, because it's a very harsh place," Gortney told Sullivan at the hearing. "I mean, I love visiting your state, but it's a hard place to live and operate."
Sullivan, the most vocal on the issue, lamented while questioning a Navy official at a SASC hearing on March 11, "We have a 13-page Arctic strategy that nobody seems to be paying attention to in my view."
Sullivan had been asking about the Arctic and icebreakers in hearings all week and not getting the answers he wanted. The chief of naval operations, at a different hearing would not comment about about the need for new icebreakers, Sullivan said, because they fall under the purview of the Coast Guard and Department of Homeland Security.
Sullivan then asked Thomas Dee, the deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for expeditionary programs and logistics.
"You don't have to answer here, but I'd like the Navy collectively to get back to us and just answer the simple question — is it in the national interest of the United States given the developments in the Arctic, to have an additional heavy icebreaker. I'm not interested in whose budget it is or 'sorry, that's not my [issue].' National security is everybody's issue.
Land forces did not get a pass. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, noted in a March 11 Senate Appropriations Committee hearing that Alaska's congressional delegation had written a letter to Army leadership suggesting that instead of drawing down the Army presence in Alaska, which was the subject of listening sessions there earlier in the month, the Army do the opposite.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, at the hearing, said he would develop the Army's strategy based on the prescription of NORTHCOM'S coming strategy. In response to questions from Murkowski about the wisdom of troop cuts in Alaska, Odierno repeated a theme of his testimony: The Army's budget is stretched to the limit.
"I believe it's an important piece of what we do in the Pacific," he said of Alaska. "There's lots of areas I could make that same comment [about]. And that's the problem. We now have to make difficult decisions that impact our security. And that's somewhat distressing, frankly."
At a SASC hearing on Wednesday, Odierno gave Sullivan a similar response, that the Army is not large enough to meet an Arctic threat and that there are other contingency plans it cannot meet.
To at least make a point about the value of soldiers in Alaska, Sullivan asked if the Army could have participated in recent Army-Air Force exercises in the region with anyone by Alaska-stationed troops.
"In the Arctic environment, no, because they are specifically trained to operate in Arctic weather," Odierno said. "It would take months of training for them to be prepared to operate in such a harsh environment."
One of the most charged exchanges came on Wednesday at a House Armed Services Committee hearing. Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., grilled Vice Adm. Charles Michel, the Coast Guard's deputy commandant for operations, over the service's deliberative approach to fielding an icebreaker.
Coast Guard's only active heavy icebreaker is the 40-year-old Polar Star. Its sister ship, the Polar Sea, was cannibalized to get the Polar Star underway; it has to undergo an 15- to 18-month survey, and could take up to 10 years to reactivate. There is also a medium icebreaker, the Healy.
These icebreakers are not warships. They largely conduct research missions in the Arctic and, including an annual mission, called Operation Deep Freeze, to break through the Antarctic ice to resupply McMurdo Station, a US research facility in Antarctica.
Asked about a new icebreaker for the US, Michel said the service is in the early stages of an acquisition. While it was clear that it would be expensive to build, requiring special steel and construction techniques, it was unclear who might do the building.
"The problem is, sir, is that we have not built a heavy Polar-class icebreaker in this country for over 40 years. The Polar-class were the last that were done," Michel told Garamendi.
"And these are exceedingly complicated ships. Just because they exist in one of the most challenging environments in the earth, and they're basically designed to collide with blocks of solid ice."
Garamendi replied, "We know that we buy our rocket engines from Russia. Maybe we can buy a ship from Russia. Since you seem not to be too anxious to get about the task."
When Garamendi pressed Michel for information to fuel a decision about fielding, Michel said he would provide it as soon as he could get it. That set Garamendi off.
"I think I had best stop because I am about to climb up and down your back," Garamendi said. "That answer is not a satisfactory answer: As soon as you can get it."
Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., stepped in with an olive branch. The Navy is looking at multibillion-dollar funding gaps for submarines, ships and ballistic missile defenses, he said. That is to say, it's up to Congress.
"Last year the Marine Corps had to fight to get its amphibious ship, which we wouldn't have gotten if it hadn't been for [Virginia Republican Rep. Rob Wittman's] hard work on his subcommittee," Forbes said. "We realize you can't build it without dollars."