A Weak Arctic Posture Threatens America’s Ability to Lead

With over 1,000 miles of Alaska’s Arctic coastline, the United States stands to benefit from the region’s increasingly accessible natural resource deposits and commercial maritime transit routes. With the exception of the Cold War, the United States has invested very few resources in order to secure its position as a global leader in Arctic affairs.

At current standing, the United States lacks both the capabilities and political will to lead in the Arctic operating environment. A frequently cited Coast Guard report states that adequate U.S. presence and capability in the Polar Regions requires at least three heavy and three medium polar icebreakers. Currently, the Coast Guard only operates one of each – the Polar Star heavy icebreaker, which can break through thick Arctic ice year-round, and the Healy medium icebreaker, which is used in support of Arctic scientific research. Even if the Coast Guard were to acquire an adequate fleet of icebreakers to escort ships through polar sea ice, the Navy may still be unable to operate in certain Arctic conditions. According to a war game published by the United States Naval War College (USNWC), “Strategic and operational planners will simply need to accept that certain areas in the Arctic remain off-limits to U.S. warships unless the commander is willing to accept risks, the ice recedes away from the area of interest, or ships are produced with additional ice strengthening.” Outdated maps of America’s Arctic waters also exacerbate these capability gaps, forcing ships to rely on half-century old estimates of the region’s operating environment when in transit.

The American political and military establishment must therefore reevaluate its northern posture so as to foster greater stability and economic prosperity in the region. Failing to do so could ultimately threaten U.S. national security objectives, prompting reactive and potentially hostile engagement in the future.

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