Frozen Priorities, Cold Interests and some Issues
The priorities of the United States are based, with some variety of degrees, on the same basis of the nations reviewed so far: economic and strategic/military. Alaska, as was mentioned in the previous part, it is the strategic linchpin cleavage and pivotal point for any US Arctic involvement, either in the nearby areas or the Arctic Ocean. This strategic importance is increased by the recent Russian assertive actions and the posibility of aiding Canada and the European allies, which might be affected by Russia.
The Economic Side
In terms of Economics, the first priority is to gain and secure access to resources that are present in the Alaskan Arctic areas and in the waters in front of it. Those resources are oil, natural gas, methane hydrates, minerals and marine species. Sovereignty is deemed to be exerted in order to secure those resources and to also provide better protection to the environment and develop resources in the area (Andersen & Perry, 2012; The White House, 2009). As a matter of fact, it is estimated that in the Alaskan Arctic there could be over 30 billion barrels of oil, 221 trillion cubic feet of natural gas plus additional 85.4 trillion cubic feet. Coal, non – mineral resources, zinc, lead, copper, gold, silver, rare mineral material along with important commercial fisheries, timber and fresh water are also present in the area. These are the resources that the United States can develop, exploit and take advantage. But also those are the resources that needs to be secured (Andersen & Perry, 2012; O’Rourke, 2014; Conley & Kraut, 2010).
Nevertheless, oil and gas reserves are the most important resources that can provide a certain amount of energetic independence, complementing other exploration and extraction sites such as the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Coastline and sidelining sources that are far from stability along with the problem of prices should a disruption takes place (Andersen & Perry, 2012). This also provides an advantage besides the mere energetic independence in the sense that dependence on unsecure, long and vulnerable lines of supply is simply avoided. In this sense the United States faces a similar dilemmaas the one faced by the European Union[i], and at some extent Russia. This demand might increase the stakes when the competition for the control of resources unleashes and increases in intensity.
Additionally, there is the issue of the Arctic melting and the opening of new commercial routes, where Alaska is located not only in front of the Bering Strait but is also at the gates of the Northwest and Northern Sea Route. These routes, for instance, could provide China, Japan, and South Korea cheap routes to export goods to North American and European markets (O’Rourke, 2014; Conley & Kraut, 2010). Along with commercial shipping, the traffic in the area is related to resources extraction and transport, supply transit to the communities inhabiting the region, and cruise ships for tourist purposes (O’Rourke, 2014). This of course drives the United States to fulfil its own need of exerting sovereignty, not only for the control of the transit on its territorial waters (and of the Northwest Route), but also of every activity that can pose a risk to the nation itself or even to provide a fast answer to any situation of emergency in the area.
The Strategic/Military Side
This takes us to the military priorities and interest that the United States has in the Arctic in the strategic/military aspect. As a first, the Arctic was of strategic importance for the United States facing the Soviet threat during the Cold War. Even during the Second World War, the Arctic was important for the country. The prospects of an occupation of Greenland by the Third Reich and its utilization as a platform for attacks against America and the transatlantic shipping concerned the US (Andersen & Perry, 2012)[ii]. An agreement with the exiled Danish government and American military presence followed. During the Cold War the Thule Air Force Base was created. This base had the purpose of providing a forward base for the Strategic air Command’s nuclear bombers until the introduction of nuclear submarines and ballistic missiles (Andersen & Perry, 2012).
Radars of the American – Canadian Distant Early Warning network were also to be deployed at Greenland, and its extension ranged from Greenland to Alaska, all throughout the Arctic coastline of both Canada and the United States. The network and the infrastructure was completed and became fully operational by 1993, and they are still operating as the integrated defence system of the US – Canadian North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) (Andersen & Perry, 2012). Additionally and during the Cold War, the area was used by both superpowers and their allies as a yard for air and naval manoeuvres and the testing of nuclear ballistic missiles (O’Rourke, 2014).
Currently, the United States seeks to be able to conduct early warning and missile defence operations, to deploy air and naval defence forces to support strategic deterrence, execute global airlift and sealift, maintain maritime presence, and the secure freedom of navigation and overflights in the Arctic (Andersen & Perry, 2012). Terrorism is also another strategic – and security – interest for the country, mainly in regards to preventing and/or mitigating the effects of terrorist attacks or the potential of such a threat in the area. Needless to say, it is also of strategic importance for the United States to secure the access to resources in the aforementioned areas – given its condition as coastal Arctic State – trough sovereignty (Andersen & Perry, 2012; The White House, 2009; The White House, 2013).
Beyond those priorities, there are some current issues that provides an idea of how much the Arctic is once again important for the geopolitical and security interests of the United States. 9/11, for instance, brought back the importance of the radar network for homeland security and terrorist attack prevention. NORAD also received maritime warning in addition to the air-space surveillance tasks it had in the light of post 9/11 activities and the melting of the ice caps. But the resuming of bomber patrol flights by Russia and the increased intensity of those flights near Alaska and Canadia Arctic air space have incresed the attention given to the radar network[iii]. Three command posts are based at Alaska and since those three posts are held by one person, he or she can draw, if not to station, advanced fighters – such as the newest Lockheed F22 Raptor – to defend Alaskan airspace (Andersen & Perry, 2012; Conley & Kraut, 2010)[iv].
Alaska is also a key, if not central, element for the United States ballistic missile defence. Indeed, one of the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) radars have been deployed in Alaska[v]. A high-capacity radar has also been deployed in one of the Aleutian Islands and nearly 20 mid-course interceptor missiles are on to be deployed for the purpose of providing an anti-ballistic shield for American territory. A satellite network control facility is also deployed at the Thule Air Force Base, where it could be potentially used as an air -naval harbour with fuel facilities (Andersen & Perry, 2012).
The geographical location of Alaska itself would seem to be ideal for placing defences against missiles attacks originating from Russia, Iran, China, and North Korea. Additionally Alaska could provide a platform for operating sea – based missile defence assets like the Aegis cruisers of the US Navy thanks to the melting ice. The deployment of American nuclear submarines armed with ballistic nuclear missiles for attacks and patrols in the area have been a constant since the Cold War and it still seems to be relevant for the United States Navy for deterrence and attack purposes (Andersen & Perry, 2012; Conley & Kraut, 2010). O’Rourke (2014) mentions that Canada, the United States, and Denmark executed a joint naval exercise in Canadian Arctic waters in 2010.
The fact that the ice cap is melting could, as Andersen & Perry (2012) remark, provide a sort of operational complement for the US Navy submarines with the increased presence of surface combatants which, in turn, can use the Arctic as a strategic passage to project itself and reach any point. This could also ease any sealift as well as airlift. The F22s could fly from Alaska to any base in Japan or Europe being able to reinforce those areas following a crisis in short time, while the C-17 Globemaster transport aircraft can reach Europe or any location in the Pacific. Those airplanes can supply bases in short time as well or even carry humanitarian supplies if needed at any location in the Pacific or Europe, taking advantage of Alaska’s location (Andersen & Perry, 2012).
On the soft or secondary security aspects, the Coast Guard operates between 2 to 3 icebreakers and requires 3 heavy and 3 medium icebreakers to perform operations during winter and summer seasons, plus 6 heavy and 4 medium icebreakers for a permanent operational presence (O’Rourke, 2014). Those assets are needed to perform any activity in the area related to emergency response and policing. The Coast Guard is in need of more assets and infrastructure to carry out search and rescue operations and to provide a quick response to any emergency situation.
Actions made in this regard included the establishment of a Task Force and agreements between the Arctic Countries for Search and Rescue operations (O’Rourke, 2014). Those operations are an interest and priority by default for the United States. New assets are in necessity for the United States Coast Guard to enhance its operational capacities related to search and rescue and emergency response, as well as exercising sovereignty and policing the Alaskan arctic waters.
One of the reimaining issues is if the mentioned actions are enough for the United States to achieve its objectives. And also even if the priorities and issues are fully satisfied and met. Or if the contrary, more actions are needed to be implemented. It is clear at this point that the Arctic – and Alaskan – strategic importance is valued accurately. But it is one thing is to provide a correct assessment and estimation, and another is to do the actions that provide strength to those assessments and estimations. This is especially so when it is very clear that: first, the Arctic will increasingly become a geopolitical hotspot – with all of the consequences – as well as an important region hosting two sea lines of communication; and second, that cooperation and hopes of a low risk of conflict in the area are fading away day-by-day with the renewed aggressive and assertive actions made by Russia.
However, the core question is whether the United States is fully prepared to defend its Arctic area and to defend its allies, their respective interests and territories in the Arctic/High North. And how prepared is the United Stated to address properly any highly potential situation of conflict with Russia – or China – should the Arctic become the main scenario or just one scenario of an open confrontation between the United Stated, Europe andUS and Europe. Also, how the United Stated is ready to react if Russia executes any aggression in the Baltics, Scandinavia or Ukraine, aggression that could invove the Arctic as well. The next and last part will solve these questions and provide a set of recommendations that should be followed by the United States, if it wants to protect its Arctic interests and perform well as a partner for the security of its North american and European Arctic allies.
Conley, H.; & Kraut, J (2010). U.S. Strategic Interests in the Arctic. An Assessment for Current Challenges and New Opportunities for Cooperation. Washington, USA: Center for Strategic & International Studies.
Hensley, N (2014). Russian bombers on training missions intercepted by U.S. fighter jets off coast off Alaska. Retrieved from: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/russian-bombers-spotted-u-s-fighter-jets-alaska-article-1.1896572 on 16.08.2014
O’Rourke, R (2014). Changes in the Arctic: Background and Issue for Congress. Washington, USA: Congressional Research Service.
Perry, C. M; & Andersen, B (2012). Chapter 3. The Arctic Five: Priorities, Policies, & Programs. The United States. In: New Strategic Dynamics in the Arctic Region: Implications for National Security and Cooperation (pp. 98 – 131). Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis.
The White House (2009). National Security Presidential Directive and Homeland Security Presidential Directive. Retrieved from: http://fas.org/irp/offdocs/nspd/nspd-66.htm on 19.06.2014.
The White House (2013). National Strategy for the Arctic Region. Washington DC; USA.
[i] Situation that is not a problem for Norway, for instance.
[ii] During World War II the North Atlantic was an important area, where supplies were transported from America to the United Kingdom. Thus the strategic need to protect that area.
[iii] See: Hensley, N (2014). Russian bombers on training missions intercepted by U.S. fighter jets off coast off Alaska. Retrieved from: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/russian-bombers-spotted-u-s-fighter-jets-alaska-article-1.1896572 on 16.08.2014
[iv] The main command post is the Alaskan NORAD Region (ANR), and the person posted there holds also the Alaska Command (ALCOM), a – component – command of the US Pacific Command (USPACOM), and the Eleventh Air Force Command (11 AF). The 11 AF is part of the USPACOM Pacific Air Force (PACAF), and this fact allows the commander to draw the fighters or any other air asset under that command.
[v] The other two of the whole system were deployed in Greenland and in the United Kingdom.
* Cover image ‘Alaska National Guard‘ by The National Guard