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Can U.S. Close the ‘Arctic Security Gap’ as Entities Vie for a Rapidly Changing Region?

Greater national security investments are needed in the Arctic as climate change, increased shipping and a battle for dominance pose a mounting challenge on America’s northernmost border, experts told Congress.

“As we convene today, we are witnessing the opening of a new ocean: a fourth accessible, maritime border for the United States. The Arctic Ocean joins the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, and Pacific Ocean as a critical geographic component of our country’s maritime ring of security and opportunity” and “a region we cannot ignore,” Mike Sfraga, director of the Polar Institute and Director of the Global Risk and Resilience Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, told the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation and Maritime Security in prepared remarks on Thursday.

Sfraga called the Department of Homeland Security’s 2020-24 Strategic Plan “a helpful filter” through which to recognize and confront “rapidly evolving threats and opportunities” in the Arctic.

To effectively protect the homeland, he said, the United States must navigate the Arctic issues of climate, commodities, commerce, connectivity, communities, cooperation, and competition.

“We do not have a digital or information divide in America’s Arctic — we have a digital and information abyss. Less than 5 percent of the U.S. maritime Arctic is charted to modern international standards; we lack basic information about our Arctic domain,” Sfraga warned. “Insufficient access to reliable internet connectivity hinders education, commerce, search and rescue, and impedes informed infrastructure development and maintenance.”

America’s participation and leadership in the Arctic Council and Arctic Coast Guard Forum “is in our nation’s best interest” and can help “effectively mitigate and address the impacts of a warming Arctic.”

Russia operates 53 icebreakers, has six under construction and 12 more planned, while China, which declared itself a “near-Arctic” state, has four icebreakers and two more under development including a nuclear-powered one. The United States has one heavy icebreaker, the aging Polar Star, and recently awarded a contract to develop a new one. The Coast Guard’s 2019 Arctic Strategic Outlook says six new Polar Security Cutters are needed.

“We should share a sense of urgency to see our Polar Security Cutter fleet fully funded and in service sooner rather than later,” Sfraga told lawmakers, stressing that the Arctic “is no longer an isolated or remote region; rather it is a critical component of our global political, economic, social, physical, and security landscape.”

Scientist Abbie Tingstad of the RAND Corp. said climate change in the Arctic “matters for U.S. security because of the potential for a real or perceived security void to develop in the absence of additional action.”

“Averting a security void requires sufficient capability to promote safety, security, and stewardship in the region; multiple types of investments are needed to do this,” she said.

Tingstad said that in addition to Russian and Chinese interests in the Arctic, “indigenous autonomy and partnerships also affect whether and how areas of the Arctic are opened or maintained for business.”

“The vast majority of Greenlanders are indigenous, and Nuuk increasingly manages the country’s affairs, although Copenhagen still handles international relations and external security. Canada’s Inuit also have an increasingly strong voice in their portions of the Arctic,” she said.

“…We must consider whether and how to provision basic governance in a changing Arctic. Such governance includes U.S. Coast Guard activities, such as search and rescue, drug interdiction, and fisheries enforcement. Although the Coast Guard already operates in the region, its current resources are limited, and it could be overwhelmed with a rapid increase in demand for service capabilities. Here, we explore the concept of an Arctic security gap and some of the capability shortfalls that may inhibit the United States’ ability to avoid it – assuming this is something the nation decides to prioritize.”

Among questions that need to be asked, Tingstad noted, is why “defending the nation’s exclusive economic zone represents a small fraction of the Coast Guard’s discretionary budget.”

“By virtue of its operational history, statutory missions, and authorities, the Coast Guard will play a large role in any steps towards enhancing governance activities in the Arctic. However, our recent work on Coast Guard capability gaps in the Arctic reveals that this Department of Homeland Security component and military service is already operating at a disadvantage in the region,” she said, citing not just the number of specialized ships but more robust infrastructure and population in Russia and Northern Europe’s far-north cities as opposed to the U.S. and Canada — “this limits the ability of U.S. organizations, such as the Coast Guard, to carry out their roles and responsibilities in the region.”

Victoria Herrmann, president and managing director at The Arctic Institute, told the committee that the “dramatic changes brought about by Arctic warming pose the greatest threat to the stability of the region, and requires a whole-of-government approach to address the human security, economic development, and marine environment dimensions of maritime security in a climate changed Arctic.”

She emphasized supporting Arctic residents and local governments as they’re acting as first responders to emergencies, and are adapting to the changing maritime environment and economy.

“There are no easy solutions for these villages from a maritime security standpoint. By 2050, Alaska will be 2 to 4 degrees warmer than it is today regardless of how much we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions,” Herrmann said. “The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts that Alaska’s summer waters will be ice-free by 2030 — eleven years from today. However, it is essential that any Arctic congressional discussion occurring in Washington, D.C., acknowledge that developing investment strategies, maritime transportation policies, and a vision for a more secure northern homeland must be rooted in the human security of U.S. Arctic residents.”

Luke Coffey, director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy at The Heritage Foundation, said the primary U.S. security interests in the Arctic are “ensuring the territorial defense of the United States,” “enforcing U.S. sovereignty in the region,” “meeting treaty obligations in the Arctic region” through NATO, and “ensuring the free flow of shipping and other economic activities in the region.”

“While the military threat in the Arctic remains low, U.S. policymakers cannot ignore Russia’s recent activities to militarize the Arctic region or China’s increasing role in the region,” he warned. “Both directly impact America’s ability to meet the four aforementioned security interests.”

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Bridget Johnson
Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a terrorism analyst and security consultant with a specialty in online open-source extremist propaganda, incitement, recruitment, and training. She hosts and presents in Homeland Security Today law enforcement training webinars studying a range of counterterrorism topics including conspiracy theory extremism, complex coordinated attacks, critical infrastructure attacks, arson terrorism, drone and venue threats, antisemitism and white supremacists, anti-government extremism, and WMD threats. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and a private investigator. Bridget is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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