US Navy P-8A Poseidons launched AGM-84D Harpoon missiles in Europe for the first time last month during an exercise off of northern Norway, another sign of the increasing military focus on the strategically important region.
The P-8s, widely considered the best maritime patrol planes in operation, launched the missiles at a target barge near the Andøya Space Defense facility in northern Norway during the exercise At-Sea Demonstration/Formidable Shield.
The exercise focused on missile defense and most used during it were surface-to-air interceptors, but the Harpoons – so named because they were first designed to target surfaced submarines, or “whales” – were air-to-surface variants.
As an anti-ship missile, the Harpoon gives the P-8 “the ability to challenge enemy naval movements, either in support of offensive operations or in order to defend friendly forces,” the US Navy’s Sixth Fleet said in a release.
“At-Sea Demo/Formidable Shield provided a realistic opportunity to exercise” the Poseidon’s ability to “project lethal fires,” Cmdr. Kyle Raines, Sixth Fleet public affairs officer, told Insider in a statement.
At a briefing before the exercise, which is held every other year, officials stressed the defensive focus and said it wasn’t conducted with a specific foe in mind.
US Navy Capt. Jonathan Lipps, who directed the exercise, said it wasn’t “targeted against a specific country or threat” but had evolved in response to state and non-state actors’ use of drones, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles.
“It’s about protecting both maritime units and the land environment from the missile threat, not about, if you like, offensive missile capabilities. It’s about defensive missile capability,” said British Royal Navy Rear Adm. James Morley, deputy commander of Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO, which conducted the exercise.
This year’s iteration was “the most complex joint and combined integrated air- and missile-defense exercise ever conducted at sea,” Lipps said.
The missiles used during the exercise were “a good example of a growing recognition” that successful combat operations in the future will “require close coordination of offensive and defensive systems,” said Ian Williams, deputy director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“There are a lot of efficiencies that can be gained by integrating strike and defense, particularly in sensors, to detect enemy missiles and to locate and neutralize the shooter,” Williams told Insider in an email.
There are also more practical reasons to fire Harpoons from P-8s.
Like its predecessor, the P-3 Orion, the Poseidon “has an anti-surface-warfare mission, and the Harpoon missile is the current armament that meets that requirement, so it is not a surprise that the aircraft is exercising that capability,” said Steve Wills, a military historian and expert on US Navy strategy.
“Every naval platform has live-fire exercise requirements, so this firing could be one of those,” Wills added in an email.
At-Sea Demo/Formidable Shield concluded on June 4 and navies involved touted several achievements during it.
A US destroyer and a Dutch frigate worked together to “negate” a ballistic missile threat in what the US Navy called “a groundbreaking cooperative engagement.” Norway’s navy said one of its frigates used a missile to down a target moving at supersonic speed for the first time. The British navy tested artificial intelligence against live missiles at sea, also for the first time.
The exercise “unquestionably demonstrates” NATO’s ability to defend its “integrity and resolve against credible threats from the ocean depths to low-earth orbit,” Lipps said in a statement.
Russia assumed the Arctic Council chairmanship on May 20, and while the council’s mandate “explicitly excludes military security”, growing military activity in the increasingly accessible region loomed over the summit.
While a thawing Arctic means Russia is losing its northern buffer, it also means economic opportunity, particularly the Northern Sea Route, which Russia says runs through its waters but the US and others say is in international waters.
Adm. Michael Gilday, chief of US naval operations, told a House Appropriations subcommittee in April that the Navy had done “about 20 different exercises and operations in the high north and the Arctic” over the previous 18 months.
Russia has bristled at that activity, as senior officials made clear in the days before the summit.
Adm. Alexander Moiseyev, head of Russia’s Arctic-based Northern Fleet, told reporters in mid-May that US military assets in Norway have led to an “increase of the conflict potential in the Arctic.”
At May 17 press conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov rejected criticism of Russian military activity in the Arctic, calling it “our territory, our land.”
“We are in charge of keeping the Arctic coast safe,” Lavrov said. “Everything Russia is doing there is absolutely legal. When NATO tries to justify its ‘offensive’ in the Arctic, it’s a slightly different situation.”
Marine Corps Lt. Col. Anton Semelroth, a US Defense Department spokesman, told Insider that the US “does not seek conflict or escalatory actions in the Arctic” and that Russia “is continuing to strengthen” its military presence there.
“Russia claims the right to regulate Arctic waters in excess of the authority permitted under international law,” he said. “The US does not recognize this overstep of authority.”
‘We are starting to press our luck’
The summit itself passed without the fireworks of the 2019 meeting, where then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the region had become “an arena for power and for competition” and referred to a “pattern” of “aggressive behavior” from both Russia and China.
The council, established in 1996, is meant to promote cooperation on issues affecting Arctic countries and communities, and Pompeo’s sharp language shook the meeting.
Speaking ahead of their meeting on the sidelines of the summit, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US sought “a predictable, stable relationship with Russia,” while Lavrov said, “Our task is to make the best of the diplomatic opportunities we have” – sentiments both echoed in speeches during the summit.
Nonetheless, both officials were repeatedly asked about military tensions in the region.
At a press conference with his Icelandic counterpart, Blinken said their countries had “concerns” about “increased military activities” in the Arctic that have also increased the danger of “accidents” and “miscalculations.”
Lavrov said more than once during the summit that meetings of Arctic countries’ military staffs, halted after Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea, should resume so those militaries’ capabilities can “tackle day-to-day matters” such as disaster relief and search-and-rescue operations.
US officials, including Blinken, have rejected that resumption.
“The Arctic meetings with Russia were halted for a reason,” Semelroth told Insider, saying there could be “no return to business as usual in our defense relationship” until Moscow adhered to agreements to end fighting in Ukraine and returned Crimea to Kyiv.
In the days since the council meeting, military activity in and around the Arctic has continued.
“My interest is … throughout the Atlantic but also up into the Arctic, and if you understand the geography through the [Greenland, Iceland, UK] Gap … into the Arctic and all the changes that are going forward with the Arctic, there is quite a sense of urgency,” Vice Adm. Andrew Lewis, commander of the exercise and of the US Navy’s 2nd Fleet, told Insider during a briefing for the exercise.
NATO exercise Formidable Shield also began last week, taking place off of Scotland before moving to Andoya Space Defense Range in the Norwegian Arctic.
Officials involved in Formidable Shield described it as “the most complex” air- and missile-defense exercise “ever conducted at sea” but stressed that it wasn’t directed at an individual threat.
Russia has a longstanding concern about aerospace defense but is likely less concerned about Formidable Shield than about “manpower intensive” exercises like Trident Juncture, which involved a US aircraft carrier strike group operating off of Norway’s coast in 2018, or “the much larger sorties” by NATO navies into its “near sea zone” in the Barents Sea, said Michael Kofman, senior research scientist in the Russia Studies Program at the CNA think tank.
Speaking to lawmakers last month, Gilday said the Navy had just concluded “a four-month anti-submarine-warfare operation” with “key partners in the north” and has more planned.
“We are on the cusp of two more exercises, one in the high north and the Norwegian Sea with an amphibious ready group … along with a carrier strike group, if we can get it up there,” Gilday said.
Russia’s military presence in the Arctic hasn’t risen to Soviet-era levels but it is increasing.
Moiseyev said last week that the Northern Fleet will conduct sea trials on 13 new ships this year, which will join the roughly 50 it has in service. The fleet recently practiced hunting submarines and “underwater saboteurs” in the Barents Sea.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that threats around the world, “including in the immediate vicinity of our borders,” continue to demand “constant high combat readiness” by Russia’s military.
US and Russian officials say their countries can cooperate on issues of mutual concern in the Arctic, and the current military dimension there “does not limit the ability to productively work towards solutions to other challenges the region faces,” such as climate change, said Marisol Maddox, an Arctic analyst at the Woodrow Wilson Center think tank.
“However, we are starting to press our luck by increasing military operations without having sufficient dialogue with Russia about military matters so as to reduce risk in the event of a misinterpretation or accident,” Maddox said.
As Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin reviews the US military’s footprint across the globe, one top lawmaker is questioning whether a new combatant commander is needed to meet growing threats from Russia and China in the increasingly accessible Arctic.
Three US combatant commands – Northern Command, European Command, and Indo-Pacific Command – converge in the Arctic. Each command has assigned forces, but those forces are very different.
Indo-Pacific Command has more than 100 naval vessels to operate around the Pacific Ocean, but US European Command has only a handful of guided-missile destroyers, which mostly focus on the Mediterranean. Northern Command has no assigned naval forces for its area of responsibility off the US coasts.
At two recent House Armed Services Committee hearings, Rep. Elaine Luria, a Virginia Beach Democrat and vice chair of the committee, pressed Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck and Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters- leaders of Northern Command and European Command, respectively-about whether they have enough forces and the right operational structure to address the challenges in their regions.
Neither VanHerck nor Wolters said there were any problems, and Luria, a retired Navy commander, told Insider in an interview that she doesn’t see any lack of leadership.
However, the complexities of that huge geographic region and the competing interests there could require a new approach, such as assigning forces specifically to the Arctic.
“It happened over time that the map has shifted as far as where the combatant commanders’ geographic areas are,” Luria said. “Should there be a single combatant commander with forces assigned to the Arctic? It’s a question I was trying to kind of go after from the combatant commanders.”
The Unified Command Plan, which lays out the organizational structure for the combatant commands, was last updated a decade ago with regard to the Arctic, and that region is now “the ultimate unfunded mandate,” said Heather Conley, who directs the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, referring to military programs seen as needed but not included in its budget.
Those three combatant commands have their hands full – Northern Command with defense of the US, Indo-Pacific Command in the South China Sea, and European Command with its busy southern flank – Conley told Insider.
A subregional commander who can develop and advocate a coherent strategy for the Arctic is necessary, Conley said.
“You just don’t have anyone who wakes every day at a senior level thinking about the Arctic,” she said in an interview. “You have Congress … pushing the administration constantly, militarily, to think about this.”
That increased thinking is reflected in the Arctic-specific strategies released by the Pentagon and service branches – seven of them between 2019 and 2021 alone, Conley said.
“I’ve never seen such an amazing array of military strategies,” Conley told Insider.
Luria cautioned that great-power competition with Russia and China could increase the demand on the Navy around the globe, stretching it even thinner as it continues with other missions, such as the withdrawal from Afghanistan and efforts to counter Iran.
“As soon as we started to implement the withdrawal from Afghanistan, one of the very first questions that was asked was, ‘Where’s the aircraft carrier?'” Luria told Insider. “Like, we need an aircraft carrier to support this withdrawal. If we don’t have land forces in the region, is that going to create even more of a demand on naval forces?”
‘Raising the alarm flag’
The global posture review announced in February is meant to help reprioritize how the military uses its forces and resources.
Its results aren’t expected until later this year, but Luria said the Navy needs to lean on allies while boosting its own presence in the Pacific and gaining proficiency in the North Atlantic and Arctic.
“If you ask am I satisfied with what our presence is in any [area of responsibility], my answer is going to be ‘No,’ because I think we need to grow the Navy and we need more forces and we need to deploy forward more,” Luria said.
Growing the Navy will require building more ships at a faster pace – even as the service struggles to maintain the fleet it has.
Continuous maintenance delays and operational problems that have plagued the Littoral Combat Ship program, the Zumwalt-class guided-missile destroyers, and the new Ford-class aircraft carriers – which has been the focus of Luria’s ire – only compound the Navy’s challenge.
“Each one of those failures falls on the backs of the sailors on the ships that are deployable, right? So we see these double deployments of carrier strike groups and other ships, you know, really lengthy deployments,” Luria said. “So we need to build more, we need to operate and maintain more efficiently, and we need to stop decommissioning ships faster than we can build them.”
Instead, Luria supports “modest investments” in research and development for new technologies alongside smaller investments in upgrading cruisers rather than scuttling them early, as the Navy wants to do.
While planning for the future is necessary, Luria said divesting ships now ignores immediate needs. The situation with China “really keeps me up at night,” she said.
“It’s not just the Navy, but as a country I think that we need to be focusing a lot more on that issue and the existential threat that we have from China,” Luria said, citing Beijing’s growing economic influence and the expansion of its military, particularly its navy.
Rather than settle for what it’s being given, the US Navy needs to make the case to Congress for what it needs to meet those threats, Luria told Insider.
“One of my biggest takeaways is I don’t feel like the Navy is sort of raising the alarm flag enough,” Luria said.
Forest fires don’t typically survive cold, wet winters. But “zombie fires” buck the mold.
In boreal forests just below the Arctic Circle, these rare blazes travel and persist underground, deep beneath the winter snow cover. They bide their time until the snow melts and spring begins, then reignite on the surface and begin to wreak havoc again, starting right where they left off.
Zombie fires can be devastating: In 2008, one such fire was responsible for 38% of the burned land in Alaska alone, scorching an area the size of San Francisco, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature. That research predicts these fires will become more common as the Earth continues to warm.
“It is possible that we may see more zombie fires in the future,” Rebecca Scholten, a climate researcher at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam who co-authored the study, told Insider. “We do see an upward trend in summer temperatures in boreal regions, and this goes in line with increases in annual burned area.”
Scholten’s team found that zombie fires were, unsurprisingly, more frequent after hotter summers in which large fires burned across wide areas. The higher summer temperatures climb, the drier the subterranean vegetation and soil become – and that’s what zombie fires consume as they hibernate. The bigger the fire, the deeper its flames can penetrate underground in the summer. That makes them more likely to survive the winter.
Burn. Sleep. Repeat.
Scholten’s team looked at reports from local fire managers and firefighters, as well as satellite imagery of Alaska and Canada’s Northwestern Territories captured between 2002 and 2018. They found 74 zombie fires in those 16 years.
“We can identify zombie fires from satellites because they appear close to an old fire scar,” Scholten said.
In Canada, they found that fires pulled through the winter following the six hottest summers in the study’s time frame. The analysis suggested that zombie flames can spread up to 650 feet (200 meters) underground. But no zombie fires survived the winter after the seven coolest summers.
The scientific term for zombie fires is “overwintering,” since the blazes hibernate underground for up to eight months like bears, then awaken four weeks after the snow starts melting. But Scholten said the colloquial moniker works.
“I like the term – it’s a really visual and engaging description,” she said.
Overwintering fires require a specific habitat. They happen in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions of North America and Siberia because the deepest soil layers there, called peat, are rich with organic matter. The smoldering flames can devour that matter, thereby staying alive even when the surrounding temperatures drop to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
Overall, zombie fires are still rare: The new research suggests they accounted for just 0.8% of the total burned area in Alaska and the Northwestern Territories during the 16 years studied. But because climate change makes both hot summers and large, intense wildfires more likely, zombie blazes may become more common, too.
Atmospheric carbon-dioxide concentrations hit a record high last year, and the last seven years have been the seven warmest ever recorded, according to NASA. The Arctic, in particular, is warming faster than the rest of the Earth.
A vicious cycle
Perhaps the worst part of the zombie fire phenomenon is its self-perpetuating nature. When a fire burns through trees and vegetation, that emits carbon dioxide, exacerbating the climate problem.
A zombie fire is double trouble: It burns through flora in the summer before its hibernation and during the spring after. In between, the peat it burns underground emits methane, a greenhouse gas with 80 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide.
“What’s special about fires in arctic and boreal regions is that the largest part of carbon emissions comes from the soils,” Scholten said.
Her group found that large overwintering fires in Alaska and the Northwest Territories emitted 3.5 million metric tons of carbon between 2002 and 2018.
More emissions means more warming, which increases the likelihood of more zombie fires, which in turn create more emissions, and so on.
It’s possible to hunt down zombie fires
Most fires are caused by people or lightning strikes. In Alaska and Canada, lightning season begins in June, which kicks off fire season.
But zombie fires don’t follow that schedule. They start “as soon as the snow melts and dry fuel is available,” Scholten said.
So the new study suggests that by keeping tracking of summer temperatures and recording where the largest fires were each summer, firefighters might be able to predict and suppress zombie fires before they fully reignite.
Doing so would be cheaper than fighting a full-blown fire, the study authors wrote, and would also limit the blaze’s greenhouse-gas emissions.
Over the next two weeks, US armed forces will crawl through, drive over, fly above and shovel into Alaska’s thawing tundra, training to defend this sparsely populated state from a power whose ambitions increasingly defy geography.
Some 10,000 uniformed service members from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines will participate in the Northern Edge training exercise aimed at countering China, Russia and other potential adversaries that threaten the Arctic frontier and broader Indo-Pacific region.
This comes as Beijing becomes an increasingly active great power competitor as global warming makes resources more accessible, opens new shipping lanes and spurs military jockeying.
“China in the South China Sea continues to make territorial claims that are not recognised by the international community. We see that China’s using a series of abject intimidation, economic, coercion techniques to try and justify their territorial claims,” said Lt. Gen. David Krumm, commander of Alaska Command and the Eleventh Air Force.
“We need to make sure that pattern is not repeated up here in the Arctic,” added Krumm, an Alabama native overseeing Northern Edge.
US Air Force/1st Lt Savanah Bray
Locals say Washington is finally waking up to the strategic importance of Alaska, America’s largest state geographically and least densely populated, too often considered an afterthought by the “Lower 48.”
“Finally you’ve figured out this is an important place,” said Fran Ulmer, former Alaska lieutenant governor and chairwoman from 2011-2021 of the US Arctic Research Commission. “At least the US government has started paying more attention.”
A big wake-up call for Arctic nations Canada, Norway, Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, the US and Russia came in 2018 when China declared itself a “near-Arctic power” despite its location some 930 miles away. Ironically, China was an Arctic power until 1858 when the Qing empire conceded far northern territory to Russia, nine years before the US purchased Alaska, allowing it to join the club.
Few see China making a grab for territory outright. But money, trade, logistics, six research stations, an aggressive icebreaker-building programme, “plausible dual-use” research projects and an explicit long-term Arctic road map have done little to mask Beijing’s ambitions.
Even as China refers to the Arctic as a “global commons,” internal documents suggest a more strategic outlook, analysts said, as Chinese scholars posit that controlling the region would afford Beijing a “three continents and two oceans’ geographical advantage” over the Northern Hemisphere. In March, Beijing pledged to add a “Polar Silk Road” to its signature global infrastructure Belt and Road Initiative.
“China seeks to become a ‘polar great power’ but downplays this goal publicly,” the Brookings Institution said in a report last month.
Xinhua/Wu Yue via Getty Images
A 2018 Chinese white paper outlined three objectives: to understand, protect and develop the Arctic, a region where the attraction is evident. Access to its natural resources could help power China’s economy. And rapidly melting ice from Alaska to Norway could halve freighter voyages to Europe and reduce vulnerability, underscored by the Suez Canal’s closure in March after a vessel ran aground.
“They’re very good at driving a long-term strategy,” said Cameron Carlson, founding director of the Homeland Security and Emergency Management programme at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. “China’s been very astute, whether in Alaska or other parts of the Arctic, very good about inserting themselves.”
That includes embedding itself in major Arctic organisations, sending 33 high-level officials to the region since 2000, using scientific exploration to gain a foothold and mapping the seabed with its home-grown Xuelong 2 icebreaker.
“They conduct oceanographic research for climate change and, I suspect, undersea warfare,” said James Kraska, maritime law professor at the US Naval War College.
On other fronts, China has sought control over infrastructure with potential military use, making plays to develop a large regional port and acquire a submarine base in Sweden; buy an old naval base and three airports in Greenland; and acquire 250 square kilometres (96.5 square miles) in Iceland for an airstrip and golf course “in an area where golf cannot be played,” Brookings said.
And in a now standard playbook, Beijing has used economic muscle to gain political leverage, ploughing billions into smaller Arctic nations and employing divide-and-conquer tactics – as seen, analysts said, when investments in Greenland fanned local hopes of independence from Denmark.
“Once they have commercial, diplomatic and under-the-table payments, they build constituencies,” said Walter Skya, Asian studies director at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. “You have to hand it to them, they are persistent.”
HEIKO JUNGE/NTB Scanpix/AFP via Getty Images
Beijing’s growing confidence and ambition befits its huge economy and global importance, Skya said. “But it tends to overreach, like a fat man at a buffet,” he added. “And over time, people don’t say ‘these Chinese are wonderful.’ Resentment tends to build up.”
China is hardly alone in attempting blatant land grabs, however. In 2019, then US president Donald Trump rather bizarrely offer to “buy” Greenland, a source of rare earth minerals used in everything from jet fighters to cellphone batteries, only to cancel a trip to Denmark in a huff after being rebuffed.
China’s own bid to exploit the island’s rich deposits were set back when a pro-environment party secured a plurality in parliament last month, pledging to halt mining.
Beijing is in many ways only doing what Western powers have long done, securing resources and trading routes for its population, said Ulmer, adding that demonising China could undermine US interests. “They’re people rich and resource poor,” she said. “The less the US wants to do with China, the more that China will do it with Russia.”
The heart of the Northern Edge exercise is at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Nearly a metre of snow and dense pine trees line the road leading from Anchorage into the Chugach Mountains above the base.
“This big base is out of the range of our adversaries,” said Laura Sturdevant, an Alaska World Affairs Council board member and former US Air Force intelligence officer, pointing out Elmendorf-Richardson’s criss-crossing runways as a bald eagle soared overhead. “China, Russia, the US – Alaska is in the middle of all of it.”
Held every two years – with a complementary Arctic Edge exercise in alternate years – the May 3-14 Northern Edge includes up to 300 aircraft and personnel from around the Pacific. Details have not been released. But past scenarios – some including trained dolphins to help detect underwater intruders – sought to encourage role players to think creatively when confronting extreme weather, severed communications, nonexistent airstrips and limited cooperation between insular military branches.
US Navy/MCS3 Erik Melgar
Increasingly, the Pentagon has also leaned on unmanned technology to “patrol” Alaska’s vast reaches, including over-the-horizon polar radar, low-earth orbit satellites and fixed seabed surveillance.
Also on its radar: how to defend against quasi-civilian “grey zone” tactics seen, for example, in China’s use of the coastguard and fishing fleets to harass and deter other nations who dispute its South China Sea claims, seen in March on the Philippines’ Whitsun Reef.
“The US absolutely will not and could not use our fishing fleets to impede on other countries in their economic zones. We would not do that. Yet we see China do it,” said Krumm. “What we don’t want is that mentality to come up here to the Arctic.”
Also worrying Washington is the spectre of Beijing and Moscow joining forces. While the two have a checkered history, their interests align in opposing democratic, human rights, market economic and rule of law values that threaten autocratic systems.
Russia has been President Xi Jinping’s most frequent foreign destination, and China’s share of Russian foreign trade rose to over 18% in 2020 from 10% in 2013.
Russia’s reliance on Chinese funding for its Arctic infrastructure projects – including the port in Zarubino, a deep water port at Arkhangelsk and the Yamal LNG project – increased significantly after Moscow’s 2014 takeover of Crimea curtailed Western financing.
The two have also held joint military exercises in the Barents and North seas and eastern Siberia, and Moscow has stepped up sales of fighter jets, missile systems and an early warning anti-missile system to China. And in December, they flew joint bomber patrols over the Sea of Japan and East China Sea.
That said, significant fissures exist. China has advocated more multilateral control over the Arctic befitting its “near-Arctic” status while Russia, with the longest Arctic coastline and effective control over sea routes, considers itself the “Arctic superpower.”
Vadim SavitskyTASS via Getty Images
Critics say the US is slowly waking up as American fishermen complain of aggressive Russian sorties over the Bering Sea, which at one point narrows to just 55 miles between the Alaskan and Russian coasts.
Last year, US jets scrambled 14 times to counter Russian aircraft testing their defences, double the normal levels, said Krumm, and the most in nearly a decade.
America’s two Cold War-era icebreakers – compared with nearly four dozen for Russia, nine of which are nuclear – keep breaking down or catching fire; the Arctic was only recently incorporated into strategic planning; and the Pentagon still lacks a central Arctic coordinating office, analysts say.
Last year, US Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Karl Schultz called the situation “a woefully unacceptable level of presence in an area where we must be a leading force”.
So far, the Biden administration has largely maintained Trump’s Arctic policy, which last June called for three heavy icebreakers by 2029, four support bases and more focus on impeding China’s Arctic ambitions.
“Do we want the Arctic Ocean to transform into a new South China Sea, fraught with militarisation and competing territorial claims?” then secretary of state Mike Pompeo told the non-military Arctic Council in 2019, warning Russia and China against “aggressive” action.
One change is likely to be more focus on environmental issues, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken set to visit the next Arctic Council ministerial in Iceland on May 19-20.
US Coast Guard/PO1 Cynthia Oldham
To better handle another Exxon Valdez-type oil spill, vessel collision or other mishap, analysts have recommended closer US integration with allies to check Arctic militarisation and the construction of a northern deep water port around Nome, Alaska. Currently the closest strategic US port is 1,300 miles away.
“There’s going to be a tremendous amount of shipping, as much as 2,000 ships a year,” said Bill Walker, a lawyer and a former Alaska governor. “We need a response capability when the worst happens.”
Analysts also recommend that Washington focus on driving a wedge between Russia and China.
“China is not an Arctic nation, and it is in the US interest to limit China’s influence,” the Centre for a New American Security said in a recent report, citing the risk of an arms race. “There is no time to waste.”
Washington’s slow start compares with Moscow’s chest thumping. In recent years, it has strengthened airfields and restored Cold War-era Arctic military posts, including one on Wrangel Island a few hundred miles from Alaska’s coast, and last year drove its new nuclear-powered icebreaker to the North Pole.
One thing most agree on: as the economic and military stakes rise, the jockeying will only intensify.
“Alaska’s strategic importance is indisputable,” said Major Meg Harper of the North American Aerospace Defence Command and the US Northern Command. “The escalation of Russian activity and Chinese ambitions in the region demonstrates the strategic importance of the Arctic. Competition will only increase.”
A pizzly was first discovered in the wild in 2006, when a hunter in Canada’s far north killed a bear with white fur and brown patches as well as the humped back and long claws characteristic of a grizzly bear. DNA testing confirmed the bear was a hybrid, The Associated Press reported at the time.
Since then, sightings of pizzlies in the wild have become more common. A 2017 study published in the journal Arctic documented eight pizzlies who were the offspring of one female polar bear that had mated with two separate grizzly bears.
According to DeSantis, grizzly bears are moving further north as temperatures rise. Meanwhile, “polar bears are increasingly having to search for other food sources, when hunting seals from sea ice become untenable,” she said.
Polar bears typically rely on sea ice to hunt for seals, which make up the vast majority of their diet. A 2018 study published in Science found as sea ice continues to decline, “polar bears are likely to experience increasingly stressful conditions and higher mortality rates.” And arctic sea ice is declining rapidly, as the Arctic experiences higher rates of warming than the rest of the globe, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
DeSantis said polar bears and grizzly bears have been observed near whale carcasses, prompting them to “engage in opportunistic mating.” Since polar bears and grizzlies only diverged about 500,000 to 600,000 years ago, she said, their offspring are able to produce offspring as well.
But it will take time and additional research to know how well suited these hybrids are to survival.
“Most of the time, hybrids are not more vigorous than either of the two species,” DeSantis said, adding that individual species generally have adaptations best suited for their habitat. But she said there have been some instances where hybrids are more vigorous, “particularly if that environment is deviating from what it once was.”
For decades, the frozen Arctic was little more than a footnote in global economic competition, but that’s changing as its ice melts with the warming climate.
Russia is now attempting to claim more of the Arctic seabed for its territory. It has been rebuilding Cold War-era Arctic military bases and recently announced plans to test its Poseidon nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed torpedo in the Arctic.
In Greenland, the recent election ushered in a new pro-independence government that opposes foreign rare earth metal mining as its ice sheet recedes – including projects counted on by China and the US to power technology.
The Arctic region has been warming at least twice as fast as the planet as a whole. With the sea ice now thinner and disappearing sooner in the spring, several countries have had their eyes on the Arctic, both for access to valuable natural resources, including the fossil fuels whose use is now driving global warming, and as a shorter route for commercial ships.
Russia has been building up its icebreaker fleet for years for this and other purposes. The US, meanwhile, is playing catch-up. While Russia has access to more than 40 of these ships today, the US Coast Guard has two, one of them well past its intended service life.
America’s aging icebreaker fleet has been a persistent topic of frustration in Washington.
Congress put off investing in new icebreakers for decades in the face of more pressing demands. Now, the lack of polar-class icebreakers undermines America’s ability to operate in the Arctic region, including responding to disasters as shipping and mineral exploration increase.
It might sound counterintuitive, but diminishing sea ice can make the region more dangerous – breakaway ice floes pose risks both to ships and to oil platforms, and the opening waters are expected to attract both more shipping and more mineral exploration. The US Geological Survey estimates that about 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 13% of undiscovered oil may be in the Arctic.
The US Coast Guard has just two icebreakers to manage this changing environment.
The Polar Star, a heavy icebreaker that can break through ice up to 21 feet thick, was commissioned in 1976. It is usually posted to Antarctica in the winter, but it was sent to the Arctic this year to provide a US presence.
The crew on the aging ship has had to fight fires and deal with power outages and equipment breaks – all while in some of the most inhospitable and remote locations on Earth. The second icebreaker, the smaller Healy, commissioned in 2000, suffered a fire on board in August 2020 and canceled all Arctic operations.
The Law of the Sea took effect in 1994 and established rules for how the oceans and ocean resources are used and shared. That includes determining how countries can claim parts of the seabed. The US initially objected over a section that limited deep seabed mining, but that section was amended to alleviate some of those concerns.
Ratification would give the US a stronger international legal position in contested waters. It also would enable the US to claim more than 386,000 square miles – an area twice the size of California – of Arctic seabed along its extended continental shelf and fend off any other country’s overlapping claims to that area.
The Arctic has generally been a region of international cooperation. The Arctic Council, an international body, has kept eight countries with sovereignty over land in the region focused on the Arctic’s fragile ecosystem, the well-being of its Indigenous peoples, and emergency prevention and response.
Over the past few years, however, “near-Arctic” countries, including China, Japan, South Korea, Britain and many European Union members, have become more engaged, and Russia has become more active.
With the rising tensions and expanding interest in the region, the era of cooperative engagement has started to recede with the melting sea ice.
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Dubbed “Regaining Arctic Dominance,” the strategy aims to create a dedicated headquarters and specialized Arctic warfare units, improve infrastructure in the region, and invest in individual and collective training.
Although mentioned only briefly in the document, Army special-operations units are expected to have a significant role in the region both in peacetime and during war.
Why the Arctic?
Economic and military activity in the Arctic is nothing new, but the region’s value has been steadily increasing as it becomes more accessible.
As the ice melts and more passages open, trade becomes easier. The Northern Sea Route, stretching along the Russian coast from Norway to the Pacific Ocean, promises to connect Europe and Asia, two markets with more than 70% of the world’s GDP.
In addition, the increased accessibility caused by climate change allows for the exploitation of natural resources that have thus far been unreachable. Although the exact size of the oil and natural gas reserves underneath the Arctic is still uncertain, it is considerable enough to catch the interest of every major global player and several regional ones.
Further, climate change means that the region is becoming increasingly accessible to military forces.
Recent satellite images show that Russia is amassing forces in the region and testing new weapons.
In addition to Russian ground and air force buildup in the Arctic, there is the formidable Northern Fleet, which is Russia’s largest naval formation, accounting for close to 75% of its naval power. It is responsible for both the Arctic and the Atlantic oceans.
Russia is a legitimate Arctic state and has the world’s longest Arctic coastline. China doesn’t border the Arctic, but Beijing still wants a slice of the pie.
In 2018, China declared itself a “near-Arctic state” and launched the Polar Silk Road Initiative. Similar to the much-criticized Belt and Road Initiative, this project aims to make the Arctic a route for Chinese goods.
Since 1996, the countries bordering the Arctic – Iceland, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Canada, Russia, and the US – have used the Arctic Council to address issues facing the region, with the exception of security matters. A number of non-Arctic states have observer status with the Council, including China.
Army commandos in the Arctic
In the Arctic, Army special-operations units can contribute significantly to deterrence in peacetime and in a potential conflict.
Rangers, Delta Force operators, and Green Berets all have valuable mission-sets and skills that can translate very well to the Arctic domain.
The 75th Ranger Regiment is the world’s premier light infantry special-operations unit focused on direct-action missions, such as raids, ambushes, and airfield seizures.
The harsh Arctic climate means logistics and the resupply of forces are particularly challenging, making the Rangers’ ability to seize airfields especially useful in case of conflict.
Delta Force is the Army’s direct-action special-mission unit and primarily specializes in hostage rescue and counterterrorism.
In the Arctic, Delta Force could conduct unconventional warfare and sabotage operations similar to the World War II missions of the British Special Air Service (SAS), a unit that influenced Delta’s formation and early days.
The SAS wreaked havoc on Nazi and Italian forces in North Africa, destroying more planes on the ground than the Allied planes did from the air. SAS operations also forced the Axis powers to use a significant number of their forces for base and vehicle convoy security rather than on the frontlines.
“We certainly have the capability and the necessary skill sets to operate all alone and deep behind enemy lines for long periods without regular resupply. The Unit has already done it in the past during Desert Storm and the invasion of Afghanistan but also more recently in Syria,” a former Delta Force operator told Insider.
Finally, Special Forces operators can be very valuable as trainers of conventional Army units.
Green Berets thrive in foreign internal defense, or the training of foreign partner forces. They can take that knowledge to train their conventional counterparts in specialized skills such as mountaineering and cold-weather operations.
The 10th Special Forces Group already routinely trains soldiers from the Army’s 4th Infantry Division in cold-weather operations.
There are many other courses run by Green Berets that could prove useful, such as the Special Operations Advance Mountaineering School and the Winter Mobility Instructor Course.
“If you look at the Multi-Domain Task Force and long-range precision fires that will be in there, the capabilities, it’s ideal for the amount of training space that we have, whether it’s a maritime component, whether it’s a land component, or an air component,” Maj. Gen. Peter Andrysiak, commander of US Army Alaska, told Insider during a March press briefing.
“So there’s a lot of opportunities to look at the breadth and depth of a future battlefield where Special Operations Command will play a role,” Andrysiak added.
All of the above units can also conduct special reconnaissance and direct both airstrikes and naval gunfire.
Other Army special-operations units, such as the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, known as the “Night Stalkers,” and the Psychological Operations Groups could also contribute by enabling operations or shaping the critical information environment.
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.
“We have a long history of training and operating out here. It really hit its peak in the ’80s,” Maj. Gen. Peter Andrysiak, commander of US Army Alaska, told Insider in a March interview.
In the 1990s and 2000s, the Army shifted its focus to the Middle East, adapting its formations and capabilities to better deploy and operate there. “As a result, those [Arctic] skill sets atrophied,” Andrysiak said.
But the Army is refocusing on the high latitudes, underscored by the release in mid-March of its Arctic strategy, titled “Regaining Arctic Dominance.”
With adversaries, namely Russia and China, increasing their activity in the Arctic, the Army “must have the proper training to endure the harsh Arctic environment during extended operations, equipment that can function in challenging terrain and extreme temperatures, and the infrastructure to sustain the force over vast distances,” the document says.
Among the strategy’s objectives are the creation of an operational headquarters, led by a major general, with specially trained and equipped combat brigades, an increase in the materiel readiness of Arctic-capable units, and an improvement in the training of US forces to operate in the region.
The goal is have soldiers capable of high-end operations not only in Alaska but throughout the Arctic and in mountains elsewhere, but the Army is still assessing what it needs to do that.
‘In and through’ the Arctic
US Army Alaska conducted its Arctic Warrior exercise in February, reflecting a decision made last year to “start focusing on the coldest parts of the year,” Andrysiak said in March.
“Now what we’ve been asked to do is start training in October and largely finish up by March and then build the higher-end skills to operate in and through” the Arctic, Andrysiak told Insider.
Extreme cold, snow, and mountainous terrain all present specific challenges in the winter months, and during the exercise, the Army’s Combined Arms Center led a review to find where equipment fell short.
“They’re in the process now of doing this very detailed gap analysis that the Army will then take in turn and figure out what they’ve got to do to adapt existing capabilities or, where necessary, acquire new capabilities,” Andrysiak said.
Col. J.P. Clark, chief of the strategy division within the Army general staff, said at a March press conference that “shortfalls in equipment” found during the analysis “will be handled pretty quickly,” with requests to address “near-term deficiencies” likely coming in the 2023 defense budget.
“We have a year to kind of dig into those questions and see where we want to have the money go,” Clark said.
The strategy calls for equipment that can be used in temperatures as low as -65 degrees for extended periods, but much of the service’s gear – such as tents, batteries, and vehicles – can’t function well or at all in that extreme cold.
Freezing temperatures make it hard to keep water on hand, hindering cooking and other essential operations. Extreme cold also affects electronics, which are also hampered by the region’s long distances and sparse satellite coverage.
“We’ve got to go back and figure out where do we need to alter the key performance parameters [for equipment] and then what modifications that we need to make to existing capabilities,” Andrysiak told Insider.
The cold affects hydraulics, brakes, even weapons on vehicles, but snow poses a different challenge. “That 16 or 18 inches of snow, if you’re not plowing it, they can’t operate in it,” Andrysiak said. Ground movement can also be hard in warmer months, when lakes, rivers, and swamps thaw.
In the 1980s, US Army Alaska had 700 small unit support vehicles, a tracked vehicle that can move through snow. Now it has “less than 50,” and while the Army is working on a replacement, whether it will be what’s needed “is yet to be determined,” Andrysiak said.
As analysis of mobility challenges unfolds, “we can inform our modernization efforts of those potential future requirements,” Elizabeth Felling, a strategic planner in the Army general staff, said at the press conference.
Infrastructure needs are also an issue. While there are many bases across the state, parts of Alaska lack transportation infrastructure, like paved roads or ports, inhibiting movement.
“If we want to be able to project power to remote locations, either we’ve got to change the equipment that we operate with so that it relies less on infrastructure or we’ve got to build the infrastructure, which takes a lot of time,” Andrysiak said.
The Army is “looking at how well our bases … support our forces and their ability to train,” Felling said, adding that as training requirements become clear, so will infrastructure needs.
The Army’s embrace of multi-domain operations – working with other service branches in the air, on land, at sea, and in space and cyberspace – brings with it new infrastructure requirements and new challenges for logistics and sustainment, both exacerbated by the harsh Arctic conditions.
The Army is reviewing requirements for different approaches to multi-domain operations, Clark said. “Once we kind of figure out what we want to do, then we can figure out what the logistical tail that is required.”
The Army has 11,600 soldiers in Alaska, and it’s “premature” to say how many more may be stationed there, but, Felling said, “options are being worked with Army senior leaders, and we expect that there will be announcements for that probably later on this year or maybe even next.”
The Army has already started an Alaska-focused recruiting campaign. Other efforts are underway to improve quality of life there to boost retention.
“There’s no doubt that with ‘people first‘ being a priority for the chief of staff of the Army and [for] us … we’ve got to make an investment that’s commensurate – that speaks to ‘people first,'” Andrysiak said.
The strategy outlines how the Army will support the Defense Department’s Arctic strategy, published in 2019, and officials said last month that the service’s goals will take years to reach.
“We have a long time period for the implementation,” Clark said. “It will be quite a bit in order to get our full multi-domain force as has been laid out. We’ve used 2028 and 2035 as our waypoint and our aim point.”
But things are moving quickly, according to Andrysiak, who said the strategy itself came together in about six months.
“The sense of urgency and investment … has been unprecedented, in my opinion,” Andrysiak told Insider.
Andrysiak said he was “confident” that some equipment could be adapted “relatively quickly” and that there was “the right level of engagement and support” to address other shortfalls.
“There’s a lot that we have to learn in the human dimension, and our ability to operate in the human dimension is largely impacted by material solutions,” Andrysiak added.
“What we’ve got to do here has got to be measured in years, because this is just a very unique environment,” Andrysiak said. “My view is with this strategy the Army knows that. It’s a multi-year approach, and they’re committed to that.”
February was a historic month for US Air Force bombers, with two first-of-their-kind operations on opposite sides of the globe.
On February 3, a B-1 bomber and 40 airmen deployed to the Aero India trade show in southern India. A US bomber was last in India in 1945, when it was still under British rule, making this a first for of the Republic of India.
The event included the first US bomber flyover with an Indian fighter jet – “a very significant moment” in US-India military ties, Lt. Col. Michael Fessler, lead US demonstration pilot at Aero India, said in a release.
Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, head of US Pacific Air Forces, echoed that sentiment later in February, telling Insider it was “very exciting to see.”
The “value” of being on the ground is the “collaboration and just the ability to talk in person with those that have mutual interests,” Wilsbach said during a press conference at the Air Force Association air-warfare symposium.
US-India ties tightened in recent months, spurred on by rising tensions with China. India only recently disengaged from a standoff with China – the deadliest in decades – on their disputed border in the western Himalayas.
The US increased its support for India during that months-long confrontation by delivering cold-weather gear and through “intelligence-sharing,” Wilsbach said in November.
“The ability to partner up with India to the max extent that we can is really important to us,” Wilsbach told Insider in February.
Wilsbach visited Indian Air Force leaders in early March to discuss “ways to further strengthen” bilateral ties.
Their activities “have really been a great demonstration of partnership with our Norwegians friends and an ability to work through the interoperability that is so important,” Gen. Jeff Harrigian, commander of US Air Forces in Europe and Africa, told Insider at another AFA press conference.
Tensions between NATO and Russia have been elevated since Moscow’s 2014 seizure of Crimea. Norway shares a border with Russia and has in the past been cautious about NATO exercises near that boundary.
“The Arctic is a very important area for the cooperation between the United States and Norway,” Frank Bakke-Jensen, Norway’s minister of defense, said at a recent think-tank event.
“This deployment represents a unique opportunity for cooperation and joint training with” Norwegian forces, Bakke-Jensen added. “At the same time, the scope of Allied activities must be measured to avoid unnecessary escalation and misunderstandings.”
“A great deal of what we’re doing now with our bomber task forces is part of the competitive space,” Gen. Timothy Ray, who oversees bomber operations as head of Air Force Global Strike Command, told Insider at a separate AFA press conference.
“So my ability to quickly get to places around the globe and to show presence and support for partners and allies to augment the forces that are forward, I think, is a very powerful thing,” Ray added.
As a result, US bombers have been doing more round-trip flights from the US, which “have a bit of an unpredictability that gives us some opportunities,” and more short-term overseas deployments known as bomber task forces, which “give us a different set of opportunities,” Ray said.
“We’ve put a lot of focus on the Pacific and on Europe,” Ray added.
“Norway and India have been strategically quite significant,” Ray said. “Now we’re kind of just hitting our stride, and I think expanding beyond the normal” locations – such as the UK, Diego Garcia, or Guam – “has really been effective.”
“A lot more options are on the table,” Ray added. “We’re going to continue work them.”
US officials are careful with how they describe those operations, saying they’re meant as messages to friends and foes but not as threats, but observers question whether that messaging will have the desired impact.
The Biden administration is still working on a broader strategy for Asia, and the fact that bomber flights there have continued apace suggests “bureaucratic inertia” and comes with a “risk of misperception,” Van Jackson, a senior lecturer in international relations at New Zealand’s Victoria University, told Insider in February.
Russia is getting the message, “but there is so far no indication that it is causing them to back down,” Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, told Insider.
Bomber flights, particularly in sensitive areas of the Arctic, “probably” reinforce Moscow’s “perception that NATO is a threat, and a growing one, that requires Russia to counter-posture and continue to modernize their capabilities,” Kristensen said. “As such, this resembles the action-reaction dynamic we remember from the Cold War.”