Wall Street Journal: U.S. Navy Plans to Extend Its Reach in the Arctic

Region is taking on expanded strategic importance, as climate change opens up navigable sea lanes

The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps are deepening their commitments to Arctic security and to operations in Alaska, top Pentagon officials told Congress on Wednesday.

Navy Secretary Richard Spencer said the service would undertake extensive Arctic operations this summer and fall, while the Marine Corps commandant said that Marines are committed to training in Alaska to an extent not seen in decades.

The actions are part of a broader U.S. commitment to step up its presence in a region taking on expanded strategic importance, as climate change opens up navigable sea lanes.

Mr. Spencer said he would like to send Navy vessels through the Northwest Passage, a northern sea route that skirts the U.S. coast and winds through waters in and around the Canadian coast. The route reaches a low-ice point in the early fall and becomes more navigable.

“You will begin to see us with regular operations in the Arctic,” Mr. Spencer told a Senate committee.

Earlier this year, Mr. Spencer announced plans to conduct freedom of navigation operations, or FONOPs, in the Arctic. Mr. Spencer also previously announced a renewed presence of Navy forces in once-shuttered bases in the Aleutian Islands.

“If the possibility exists to go all the way around the Northwest Passage, I’d actually give that a shot. It’s freedom of navigation,” he told reporters after the hearing Wednesday. “If we can do it, we’ll do it.”

The U.S. and allied militaries often conduct freedom of navigation operations around the world. Such exercises assert the rights of ships from the U.S. and elsewhere to operate freely in waterways where territorial disputes have raised tensions and where a continual U.S. presence can discourage or counter excessive claims. Operations in the South China Sea have focused on Chinese maritime claims around islands and outposts across the region.

“We’re going to have an exercise this summer in Adak,” Mr. Spencer said, referring to an Aleutian Island base. “We’re doing a sea-to-shore refueling exercise near the mainland. Alaska remains a tremendous asset.”

As the Arctic opens up to greater navigation, major powers are vying for supremacy over areas previously locked under ice.

Fishing, oil exploration, research and even vacationing on cruise liners have gained new potential in a region that in many ways remains ungoverned. The U.S. now vies with Russia, Canada and other Arctic countries for influence. China has also declared itself a “near-Arctic power.”

“We’ve had more Marines in Alaska in the past three to four years than we’ve had in the distant past,” said Gen. Robert Neller, the Marine Corps commandant, who said Alaska presents extensive training opportunities. Gen. Neller has also pushed during his tenure to send Marines to Norway to learn from Norwegian forces how to operate in extreme cold-weather environments and remind Russian forces that Marines can operate in the Arctic.

The Navy isn’t the only U.S. force operating in the far north. It has no icebreakers and no ice-hardened ships in its inventory. The U.S. Coast Guard, which also operates in the far north, has struggled for years to get funding for a new fleet of icebreakers to replace its tiny and aging fleet. The Defense Department recently announced a contract to build a new, heavy icebreaker and the likelihood is that more will follow, part of a goal to have six icebreakers on the seas.

By:  Ben Kesling
Source: Wall Street Journal