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22 Nov, 2013 18:11

US military set to increase presence in ‘melting’ Arctic

US military set to increase presence in ‘melting’ Arctic

The US wants to be “very involved” in Arctic waters, as melting ice caps open opportunities for sea routes, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said. However, unlike other Arctic nations such as Russia, the Americans still lack the necessary hardware.

As the melting ice in the Arctic opens a new polar sea lane, the issues of claiming and tapping energy resources, as well as related security and environmental problems will continue to grow in importance, Hagel told journalists en route to a security conference in Halifax on Thursday.

“That’s going to give many new opportunities to countries, to the world. That will come with new challenges as well. So the United States needs to be very active in this group and be very involved,” Hagel was quoted as saying by AP.

The US has been tempted by what it has estimated to be 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves and 30 percent of undiscovered gas deposits in the Arctic. The areas with potential resources have until recently been covered by an ice cap, which is beginning to shrink.

According to experts quoted by AP, Arctic waters could see largely ice-free summers as early as 2030, and there could be a whole month of ice-free conditions by the mid-2020s. Ice-free is understood to mean less than 10 percent coverage.

The prospect has prompted the US military to develop plans for expanding communications, developing sturdy icebreakers, and negotiating international agreements for tracking traffic in the Arctic and conducting search-and-rescue operations. The US Navy said it will complete the plans by the end of this year, with no budget estimates currently available.

AFP Photo / Martin B

The director of the Navy’s task force on climate change, Rear Adm. Jonathan White, said the US needs to step up its planning efforts if it wants to operate ships and aircraft in the region by 2025, as even the basic research and development plan has not yet been outlined.

“What do I have to start thinking about now – about research, planning, making long-term investments for things like hull strengthening or bridge insulation, even how we conduct routine operations like ship and aircraft refueling?” White speculated, speaking at his office in the US Naval Observatory.

The US Coast Guard currently has just two working icebreaker ships in service, and even those need to be fitted with hardened hulls and better insulation if they are to operate in the icy waters of the Arctic.

Security concerns should be foremost for the US and other nations operating in the Arctic, White argued.

“We’re looking at a pretty dramatic increase in shipping, and that brings into play the concern by the Arctic nations – how do they respond to emergencies, search and rescue and people that get into trouble up there,” he said.

The maritime traffic through the Bering Strait rose by about 50 percent between 2005 and 2012, with 483 ships moving through the strait last year. Some of those vessels relied on the help of the Russian ice breakers to travel across the so-called Northern Sea Route.

Russia, which has been exploring the Arctic for centuries, is still the only nation in the world operating a fleet of nuclear icebreakers. The apparent advantages of nuclear ships for operations in the Arctic include the absence of the need for regular refueling – which currently is not an easy task in most of the region.

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently stressed the Arctic was essential for the country’s economic and security interests.

U.S. Navy safety swimmers stand on the deck of the Virginia class submarine USS New Hampshire after it surfaced through thin ice during exercises underneath ice in the Arctic Ocean north of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska (Reuters / Lucas Jackson)

Speaking at the “Arctic – Territory Of Dialogue” forum in September, Putin pledged to considerably increase the Arctic area protected by the Russian government for its environmental importance, and said about $44.5 million has been allocated for cleaning up pollution already present in the region.

Putin stressed that the right to extract oil in the Arctic “will only be given to operators, who have tried methods to clean oil spills under ice.” The environmental activists opposing any oil extraction in the region have, however, claimed no reliable cleanup methods exist.

At the same time, the Russian President indicated the country has been readying to defend its interests in the Arctic, beefing up its military presence in the region for the worst-case scenario by reviving former Soviet military bases there.

Other than Russia and the US, the nations that may lay their claim on potential Arctic resources include Canada, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Sweden and Denmark (through its territory of Greenland). Those have been joined by China that sent its first icebreaker ship through the Arctic last year and signed several agreements with Arctic states.

President Barack Obama in May unveiled a 13-page US strategy for the Arctic, asserting that nations must protect the region's fragile environment and keep it free from conflict. However, the plan also made it clear the US does not want to be left behind as the other countries eye natural resources and exploiting potential new sea routes.

The already existing North Sea Route, which lies in Russia’s sector of the Arctic, has been experiencing a revival, and China has shown interest in using it to reach European markets. The route offers an alternative way from the Pacific to Europe, which is shorter, faster and safe from pirates compared to the traditional transit through the Indian Ocean and via the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean. However, navigation in the Arctic Ocean depends on the seasonal changes of ice coverage.