The U.S. Navy's Role in a Changing Arctic

ICEX 2016 (File image courtesy USN)

Published Jul 26, 2017 6:52 PM by Navy Live

Rear Adm. Stuart Munsch, Assistant Deputy Chief of Naval Operations, Operations, Plans and Strategy (N3/N5B), delivered the following remarks during the 7th Symposium on the Impacts of an Ice-diminishing Arctic on Naval and Maritime Operations at the Naval Heritage Center in Washington, D.C., July 18. 

Adm. John Richardson, our Chief of Naval Operations, has articulated his vision for the future in an idea he calls “A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority.” In the design, he reminds us the U.S. Navy’s mission is to be ready to conduct prompt and sustained combat incident to operations at sea and that we will protect America from attack and preserve America’s strategic influence in key regions of the world.

The design recognizes our world has become dramatically more globalized, and the trend is accelerating. In accounting for the reality of our time, the design implores us to acknowledge how emerging technology, the rise of the global information, and the classic maritime system are interlinked. It recognizes that shipping traffic over traditional sea lanes is increasing, new trade routes are opening in the Arctic, and new technologies are making undersea resources more accessible.

An important line of effort in fulfilling our design is to expand and strengthen the Navy’s network of partners. The Arctic is an area of cooperation and partnership. The region has been conflict-free, largely due to the extraordinary efforts of inter-governmental fora, such as the very important Arctic Council, which is committed to promoting cooperation and interaction among the eight Arctic countries, six Arctic Indigenous peoples’ organizations, 13 non-Arctic countries, 13 inter-governmental, and 13 non-governmental organizations that have an interest in the Arctic, all of which are committed to sustainable development and responsible environmental and social assessments in the region.

We’ve been in the Arctic for quite a while; the world’s first successful submarine transit of the geographic North Pole was conducted by USS Nautilus in 1958, heralding the start of successful, extended Arctic undersea exploration and operation. Since then, the U.S. Navy regularly and routinely operates and conducts undersea exercises in the Arctic Ocean, and collaborates and cooperates with other Arctic nations by participating in multinational exercises, including “ICEX” held every two years. Through its Arctic presence, the Navy’s submarine force is able to contribute to our homeland defense.

Although we patrol the Arctic with our undersea and air assets, the Arctic is expected to remain a low-threat security environment. It is very encouraging that nations have demonstrated a sincere desire to leverage existing frameworks of cooperation to resolve disputes peacefully. Moreover, most nations are committed to the legal architecture set forth by the provisions of the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to peacefully resolve differences.

Our design nests under the “National Strategy for the Arctic Region” that defines the desired end state as an Arctic region stable and free of conflict, where nations act responsibly in a spirit of trust and cooperation, and where economic and energy resources are developed in a sustainable manner.

Shortly after the National Strategy for the Arctic was released, the Department of Defense released its 2013 Arctic Strategy that identified its objectives to ensure security, support safety, and promote defense cooperation and to prepare for a wide range of challenges and contingencies. This strategy was updated in 2016 to sharpen its focus on homeland defense in light of changes to the international security environment. To supplement the national-level guidance, the Navy released its Arctic strategy in a document that I know many of you are familiar with that we call the Arctic Roadmap. Signed by the CNO, the Arctic Roadmap identifies four strategic objectives:

- Ensuring sovereignty of the United States’ Arctic region;
- Providing ready naval forces to respond to crises and contingencies;
- Preserving freedom of navigation; and
- Promoting partnerships within the U.S. government and with its international allies and partners.

In addition to identifying strategic objectives, the Navy has been following a measured plan designed to improve our future capacity to conduct operations and training, to seek opportunities in science and technology, to make better use of facilities and equipment, to enhance maritime domain awareness, and to advance environmental observation and prediction. The Arctic Roadmap enhances the line of effort in our design to deepen the dialogue with research and development labs and academia.

As we execute our maritime Arctic strategy, we are especially determined to ensure focus on a particular objective: our national security interest in preserving the Freedoms of Navigation and Overflight and of other lawful uses of the sea in the Arctic. The Navy will be consistent in its global approach to maintaining peace and stability and promoting respect for international law. To support freedom of navigation, we have several options in the Arctic:  Navy submarines can and do conduct Freedom of Navigation Operations, either undersea or on the surface.  Additionally, Navy surface ships can conduct operations in open water during the summer melt season. Most importantly, we support the National Fleet Plan where Coast Guard cutters, as sovereign immune vessels, can challenge excessive claims through Freedom of Navigation Operations. Moreover, because Freedom of Navigation Operations support international law, they can be conducted by any allied navy, as is currently being done in the South China Sea.  Strategic international partnerships are the key to ensuring a peaceful Arctic. In accordance with our design, we are engaged in extensive security cooperation activities and other military-to-military forms of engagement to establish, shape, and maintain international relations and the partnerships necessary to meet security challenges and reduce the potential for friction.

We are also able to achieve our national maritime Arctic strategy by working in close collaboration with U.S. Coast Guard to address gaps in Arctic communications, maritime domain awareness, search and rescue, and environmental observation and forecasting capabilities in support of both current and future planning and operations. The Navy and Coast Guard collaborate and complement each other’s unique capabilities and authorities.

Specifically, the Coast Guard concentrates on safety and security, addressing such missions as Arctic fisheries protection, search and rescue, and environmental protection, while the Navy concentrates on defense missions. Because of our deliberate and extensive planning and interoperability, both services seamlessly support each other when called.

The Navy also works closely with our geographic combatant commands. Within their geographic area of responsibility, U.S. European Command and U.S. Pacific Command are fostering collaborative working relationships with regional partners. U.S. Northern Command, which has responsibility for the Arctic and Alaska, is the U.S. Department of Defense advocate for Arctic capabilities. Northern Command recently updated its plans for the Arctic and analyzed future capability requirements for this challenging and evolving region.

We continue to train and operate routinely in the region as we monitor the changing environment, revisiting assessments and taking action as conditions change. Our design encourages us to be receptive to innovation and creativity and to the lessons of history. It may be possible that the process by which non-military Arctic issues are being successfully resolved has the potential to serve as a model to resolve issues of national security among countries that have an interest in Arctic maritime stability.

We believe a near-term conflict over Arctic resources is unlikely, given the fairly high level of cooperation and adherence to international legal norms observed and practiced by Arctic and non-Arctic nations. For now, the Navy’s security posture remains appropriate for the Arctic. We have significant undersea capabilities and deep operational experience with our submarine force that routinely operates in the Arctic Ocean under the ice.  The Navy recognizes the strategic importance of the Arctic region, the national security implications of the diminishing sea ice of the Arctic Ocean, and the importance of free and unfettered navigation in this ocean.  The Navy also recognizes that an ice-diminished Arctic remains a very difficult maritime operating environment; the climate is harsh, the distances are vast, the infrastructure is limited, and darkness dominates the winter months.

In conclusion, as sea ice diminishes and the Arctic Ocean opens to more maritime activity, the Navy may be called upon more frequently to support other federal agencies and we will work with our international partners to ensure a secure, stable, and most importantly, a peaceful region. There are challenges ahead, but through our design and its principles of partnerships, learning, strength and teamwork the Navy will be vital to the Arctic’s stable future.

This article appears courtesy of Navy Live and has been edited for length. It may be found in its original form here

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.