On March 10, the National Academy of Sciences released a report requested by the U.S. Navy detailing the challenges climate change poses to its forces, along with recommendations for how it should respond. While the report states that climate change could cause areas like Russia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, and China to become potential “geographic hot spots,” which will require the U.S. Navy’s attention, the report places a large emphasis on the Arctic. The entire report is available for download in a prepublication edition here. It is 162 pages long, so I will summarize its six main recommendations.
All in all, the report takes a sober and realist view towards the geopolitics of the Arctic. The report’s findings, which set the tone for how it believes the U.S. naval forces should respond, are best summarized in the following passage:
“Although the likelihood of conflict in the Arctic is low, it cannot be ruled out, and competition in the region is a given. However, cooperation in the region should not be considered a given, even with close allies. Although there are mechanisms for bilateral and multilateral cooperation in the area, including the Arctic Council, these relationships and mechanisms are largely untested for emerging conditions. Additionally, with the ratification of UNCLOS, U.S. naval forces will be better positioned to conduct future naval operations and protect national security interests, especially in the Arctic.”
The report emphasizes that U.S. naval forces need to cover all of its bases, so to speak. This means that they must both actively reach out to partners to cooperate in the Arctic while preparing for the stark possibility of antisubmarine warfare in that very region. Icebreakers, R&D capabilities, antisubmarine warfare, and bureaucratic organization are all areas which need to be addressed in order to enhance America’s position in the Arctic.
- Ratify UNCLOS: NAS recommends that the leaders of the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard continue to promote ratification of UNCLOS, since “by remaining outside the Convention, the United States makes it more difficult for U.S. naval forces to have maximum operating flexibility in the Arctic and complicates negotiations with maritime partners for coordinated search and rescue operations in the region.”
- Allow the Coast Guard to manage the icebreaker fleet and determine its needs (not the NSF), begin Arctic training for naval forces, and streamline the division of responsibility in the Arctic amongst the three combatant commanders and government agencies:
- America’s icebreakers are old, obsolete, and currently run by the National Science Foundation. The NAS recommends that “future U.S. national icebreaker assets should be defined as part of a holistic force structure that also accommodates ongoing National Science Foundation-sponsored polar research needs,” rather than the other way around.
- Since the end of the Cold War, the military has “lost most of its competence in cold-weather operations for high-Arctic warfare.” To remedy this, the U.S. Navy should engage in Arctic training, while the Marines should begin cold-weather training – exercises that most other Arctic countries, including Canada, Russia, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland, already carry out, often on an annual basis.
- The current organizational structure in which three combatant commanders’ responsibilities in the Arctic overlap is no longer workable for such a complex and changing environment. Division of responsibilities amongst the government agencies and the commanders should be made more effective.
- Prepare for sea level rises, coastal surges, and storms that could affect low-elevation U.S. naval facilities worldwide.
- Build partnerships with with countries, multilateral organizations, and NGOs in order to address climate change together: The NAS urges the U.S. to build maritime partnerships in the Arctic by pursuing joint military training for maritime security and SAR, for instance. Taking a progressive stance, the report even suggests, “U.S. naval forces should seek to develop these partnerships with long-standing allies and nontraditional partners alike, including Russia, China, and nongovernmental organizations.” It certainly looks, then, that the report views China as a player to be taken seriously in the Arctic.
- Improve naval force capabilities in the Arctic, with special attention to antisubmarine warfare (ASW) capabilities and oceanographic research. While climate change will not, in principal, adversely affect U.S. antisubmarine warfare capabilities, increased activity in the Arctic will require more “robust” operations by submarines in the Arctic Ocean and surrounding seas. As naval capabilities are currently optimized for operations in non-Arctic waters, more needs to be done to enhance their effectiveness in frozen, choppy waters. NOAA and the Navy should also work together to improve mapping and charting of both the Arctic surface, including sea ice, and its subsurface, so that submarines can operate safely. If the U.S. does not improve its infrastructure and research capabilities in the Arctic, this will “put U.S. naval forces’ ability to operate as needed in the Arctic at risk if the United States does not keep pace with the capabilities of other Arctic nations, especially Russia with its extensive claims of Arctic sovereignty, as well as with non-Arctic nations, such as China.” The report’s emphasis on ASW demonstrates the extent to which the NAS contends that conflict is indeed a real possibility, as climate change may “drive the U.S. naval forces to conduct ASW operations in the Arctic.” As such, the following steps should be taken (p. 29):
“• Increased research for Arctic passive and active sonars;
• Long-range planning to install facilities that support Arctic ASW, such as
refurbishing and expanding the fixed array systems;
• Planning for aircraft support from the new P8;
• Development of high-latitude communications systems for relaying tactical
and environmental data;
• Identifying ports for emergencies; and
• Incorporation of a more robust under-ice capability on Virginia-class
- The Navy should improve its R&D capabilities and develop a philosophy that supports releasing previously classified information to the public. Scientists can then use this newly-released data in their research. For instance, analysis of submarine upward looking sonar has helped prove that sea ice is thinning. Special attention should also be paid to research on sea level rise and sea ice concentration and extent, since these factors will directly affect U.S. naval operations in the Arctic. The Navy should also work on developing a coupled model that investigates how climate change will affect the ocean-atmosphere-land cryosphere system, something it is not yet able to do.
“Climate Change Poses a Major Challenge for the U.S. Navy in the Arctic,” New York Times
U.S. Navy urged to improve Arctic capabilities
Arguably, it is unlikely that a military conflict can occur in the Arctic. The Cold War is over. The only possible threat to the Western littoral Arctic nations could come from Russia and its allies, but the chances of this happening are negligible, as Russia would not engage in a military conflict against NATO allies. Besides, Russia is having the healthiest relationship with the US in a decade ( START is a great illustration of this relationship).
I strongly agree with an assertion that the US should ratify the UNCLOS. The ratification of UNCLOS would help the U.S. military and will be in the national interest of the US. Indeed, by remaining outside the Convention, the United States “complicates negotiations with maritime partners for coordinated search and rescue operations in the region.” In addition, the failure of the US to ratify UNCLOS is a factor that could undermine UNCLOS’ effectiveness and any confidence in its capacity to manage expectations about continental shelf extensions.
I am confident that where Bush failed, the Obama administration will succeed. With the ratification of START, the Obama administration got the ball rolling, and since UNCLOS is a crucial legal regime for the Arctic Ocean, UNCLOS ratification will be climbing to the top of the US government’s agenda.