For years now, the U.S. military’s responsibilities in the Arctic had been divided up amongst three geographic combatant commands: USNORTHCOM, USEUCOM, and USPACOM. The area of responsibility (AOR) for NORTHCOM, which was established by the 2002 Unified Command Plan following the 9/11 attacks, included all of North America. Alaska, however, though technically assigned to NORTHCOM, still had its command forces assigned to USPACOM. In the same year, EUCOM gained responsibility for Russia, Iceland, and Greenland in 2002. Thus, it has been difficult for the military to develop a vision for the Arctic with three different commands assuming responsibility over various parts of the region.
Now, however, the 2011 Unified Command Plan (UCP) should help to significantly streamline American military responsibilities up north. This past April, President Obama signed the new plan, which redraws the borders of the military’s geographic combatant commands. USEUCOM has added the Laptev and Eastern Siberian Seas to its AOR. NORTHCOM will assume larger responsibility in the Arctic, overseeing the North Pole and its surrounding areas, along with the Bering Strait between the U.S. and Russia. NORTHCOM has also been tasked with advocating for Arctic capabilities. A spokesman from the Pentagon explained the reasoning behind this, stating,
“Northcom was given advocacy responsibility for Arctic capabilities primarily due to having the only U.S. Arctic territory within its area of operations.”
The spokesman added that Northcom already has a history of close cooperation with Canada, the Department of Homeland Security, and the U.S. Coast Guard, all of which play important roles in the Arctic. He explained that “these relationships are key to human and environmental safety and security.”
The increased emphasis on the Arctic in the new UCP mirrors changes that have taken place in other countries’ militaries. In 2009, Norway moved its Operational Command to Reitan, outside Bødo in the extreme north of the country. Russia is developing a special Arctic forces unit to be based in Pechenga, near the border with Norway. While the U.S. won’t be headquartering any of its commands in Alaska soon, the fact that the Arctic is one of the primary changes in this year’s UCP speaks volumes of the region’s growing significance in the eyes of the Pentagon.
U.S. Admiral James Winnefeld, commander of both NORTHCOM and NORAD (the North American Aerospace Defense Command), spoke with the Associated Press at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado. NORAD is headquartered there. Admiral Winnefeld remarked,
“There are a host of issues that face us as this beautiful part of the world opens up more and more…And in order to be prepared for that, we have to keep our eye on the defence side of it, the security side of it, the environmental side of it, search and rescue, the safety side of it.”
In the commander’s blog, he discussed his perspective on the Arctic in more detail. He wrote,
“As the Department of Defense’s Arctic advocate, USNORTHCOM has to identify the capabilities to work in that environment and support our interagency and international partners to ensure a peaceful opening of the region.”
We will see if NORTHCOM is up to the task in the next two years, before the next UCP is released.
“Unified Command Plan Reflects Arctic Importance,” Defense.gov
“The Arctic Challenge,” NORAD and USNORTHCOM Commander’s Blog