US Maritime Strategy and the High North–no Mention of Western Arctic, Alaska or Canada (or Northwest Passage)

(Note UPDATE at end.)

Further to this post,

No, Virginia, the Arctic is not a Hotly-Contested Region like the South China Sea–and China is not a Big Deal up there at This Point

it is striking that this article at War on the Rocks,excerpted below, focuses almost exclusively on the High North of European NATO and northwest Russia. Of course the fact that the author is writing from a Norwegian standpoint (see end of the quote below) is a major explanation–but in fact that is the maritime area where most US naval and air attention is being placed. For good defence reasons as described in the piece.

Currently, and for some time to come, there is almost no likelihood of Russian surface naval or coast guard activity in the Canadian Arctic though some off Alaska in ice-free waters is another thing. As for China, a properly requested and authorized icebreaker voyage in Canadian waters would be no huge deal. There is far too much scaremongering hoo hah going on about Arctic threats, e.g.: “Top defence official says China is a threat to Canadian Arctic“.

Note also the references to the Royal Navy and US Coast Guard at the bottom of the post:

Predictable Unpredictability? U.S. Arctic Strategy and Ways of Doing Business in the Region

The U.S. Navy approach toward the Arctic appears to be fraught with contradiction. Its new strategic plan for the region, Blue Arctic: a Strategic Plan for the Arctic, was published in January 2021 and calls for a stronger U.S. footprint and greater influence in the region. In line with the tri-service maritime strategy, it highlights an increased urgency to strengthen Arctic deterrence without undermining stability, reducing trust, or triggering conflict. The Navy, however, seems to be pursuing the two main goals — deterrence and stability — with contradictory methods at times…

The Growing U.S. Interest and Presence in the Arctic

The Arctic has risen up the list of U.S. strategic priorities over the past decade, as demonstrated by the large number of policy documents, including strategies produced the Department of Defense and the various defense branches. This interest has been driven by “growing geostrategic, economic, climate, environment, and national security implications” of the rapid changes occurring in the region. The previous Navy Arctic Roadmap from 2014 assessed that the need for a routine Navy presence in the Arctic, driven by sustained periods of ice-free conditions, would not materialize until after 2030. However, the new Arctic strategy expresses a deeper sense of urgency about the need to strengthen the U.S. foothold in the coming decade as a result of significant regional changes. These include more complex and urgent challenges ranging from greater access to sea routes and resources to increased military activity and attempts to alter Arctic governance by China and Russia…

Notably, the Arctic document is unclear about how U.S. forces are to be employed in the various parts of the region. It lacks an important appreciation that the Arctic is vast and made up of subregions with highly divergent levels of development, infrastructure, economic activity, and military importance — and thus differing security challenges and needs. As Timothy Choi correctly observes, the strategy treats the Arctic monolithically, without a more detailed discussion of the different naval requirements for the various parts of the region [emphasis added].

In practice, however, the European Arctic, also called the High North, has received special attention in recent years for a number of reasons. It stands out as a highly militarized part of the region, in a strong contrast to the Alaskan coast. The western part of the Arctic plays a crucial role in Russia’s military strategy, hosting bases and operational areas for the strongest part of the Russian navy — the Northern Fleet, including the largest share of its strategic submarines. The region has experienced a high level of systematic military build-up and activity since 2007. As a result, Russia’s ability to control and deny access to large parts of the Arctic, as well as to pose a threat to sea-lines of communication in the North Atlantic, has increased, making the regional operational environment much more complex and challenging for U.S. and allied forces. A key issue of contention has also been unilateral Russian control of the Northern Sea Route. This has been disputed by the United States, with a promise to exercise the principle of freedom of navigation along the route by “having some ships make the transit in the Arctic” — though the benefits of this idea have been disputed.

U.S. submarines and aircraft have continued patrols in the Arctic after the Cold War. Recently, however, the stronger U.S. focus on the region has also been expressed in an increased surface naval presence in the ice-free parts of the region, with a greater emphasis on sea control. Given the opening of new sea-lines of communication in the Arctic Ocean, combined with the fact that many of the world’s most active shipping lanes lie within the North Atlantic, the United States re-established the Second Fleet in August 2018 (following its disestablishment in 2011) to counterbalance the growing Russian presence. To further strengthen the Arctic deterrent, the United States has enhanced some of its existing facilities, such as the Thule Air Force Base in Greenland, and deployed forces for exercises that have increased in number and scope. In January 2017 there were 330 U.S. marines in Værnes in Norway, the number further expanded to 700 in 2018. In January 2021, more than 1,000 marines arrived in northern Norway to take part in winter training. In February, four U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer bombers landed at the Norwegian air base in Ørland for the first time in history. Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David Berger argues that the undersea fight while deployed on expeditionary advanced bases will be so critical in the High North that the Marine Corps must be part of it. Notably, the United States has demonstrated its more assertive stance in the region by periodically deploying strategic capabilities, such as the Harry S. Truman carrier strike group that took part in NATO’s Trident Juncture exercise in 2018, operating close to the Arctic Circle for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union [emphasis added]

The Tricky Arctic Balancing Act

A strengthened American and allied military presence in the Arctic is necessary in the light of the sharp expansion of Russia’s military posture and willingness to use force in pursuit of foreign policy objectives. The U.S. Navy’s force employment involving creating risk, uncertainty, and keeping the adversary on its toes is at the same time a significant departure from the core of policy toward Russia, not least in the European Arctic. This has been traditionally based on a credible defense and deterrence combined with transparency and predictability about military activity to avoid unnecessarily exacerbating tensions and fueling the spiral of security dilemma. Likewise, this policy takes into account the fact that the Arctic is of critical importance to Russia and that not a lot of foreign military presence close to Russia’s borders is needed to fire under the persistent Russian sense of insecurity. Moreover, Russia is the dominant military power in the Arctic. After more than a decade of systematic military modernization and build-up in the region, the asymmetry of power between Russia and other regional stakeholders has deepened further. This is particularly evident in the High North, where Russia’s military focus has remained concentrated, notwithstanding the expansion of its military foothold in central and eastern parts of the Arctic. Despite its increased presence, the United States is unlikely to deploy enough military power to tip the balance against Russia in the region for the time being [emphasis added].

…Meanwhile, cooperation with allies such as Iceland, Norway, and the United Kingdom on air policing, domain awareness, intelligence sharing, exercises, and training plays an important role in increasing the U.S. regional footprint [NO CANADA]. Alliances and partnerships in the region have been highlighted in the U.S. Arctic policy documents over the years as the greatest strategic asymmetric advantage over rivals in the region, and therefore the cornerstone of regional strategy [but no mention of NORAD in the article]…

Katarzyna Zysk [tweets here] is professor of international relations and contemporary history at the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies in Oslo, where she also serves as deputy director and head of the Security Policy Centre. The views expressed here are her own.

Note the UK also interested in the Arctic off northwest Russia,

Royal Navy Plans to Patrol the Barents Sea With Multinational Task Force

plus what the US Coast Guard is doing/planning:

Coast Guard Deploying More Ships To Pacific, Arctic

The Coast Guard is charting a path to be more engaged everywhere from the Middle East to the Arctic, dispatching attachés to embassies in Europe and the Indo-Pacific and sending more ships on long deployments to take some of the workload off the Navy…

In the High North, the guard’s largest icebreaker, USCGS Healy, is still scheduled to sail the Northwest Passage through the Arctic later this year [emphasis added], despite having been crippled by an engine failure late last year. Its planned voyage will follow the push of two 270-foot Medium Endurance Cutters “further North in the Atlantic than any other ships of that class had previously ventured,” Schultz said. 

[Presumably the US will seek Canadian consent to the transit under the Americans’ understanding of how the bilateral 1988 Agreement on Arctic Cooperation applies:

“…

*The Government of Canada and the Government of the United States agree to take advantage of their icebreaker navigation to develop and share research information, in accordance with generally accepted principles of international law, in order to advance their understanding of the marine environment of the area;

*The Government of the United States pledges that all navigation by U.S. icebreakers within waters claimed by Canada to be internal will be undertaken with the consent of the Government of Canada.

4. Nothing in this agreement of cooperative endeavour between Arctic neighbours and friends nor any practice thereunder affects the respective positions of the Governments of the United States and of Canada on the Law of the Sea in this or other maritime areas or their respective positions regarding third parties…”

See also the bottom at p. 1 PDF of this 2006 letter from the US embassy, Ottawa, regarding earlier Northwest Passage transits of the Healy.

It seems significant that the planned transit is by the USCG, for which there is good precedent and diplomatic arrangements, and not by a US Navy ship (if it could make the voyage) as the latter would be outside the 1988 agreement and a real challenge to Canadian sovereignty claims if no permission were sought.]

The new deployment of hulls to Europe and the Pacific will be bolstered by a diplomatic push on the ground, as Schultz is sending Coast Guard attachés to work out of American embassies.

Later this year, a Coast Guard officer will be assigned to the embassy in Copenhagen to work with Denmark and Norway on issues involving the Arctic, a posting that signals Washington’s increasing interest in operating the High North “as our strategic competitors maneuver for advantage in the region,” Schultz said during his annual State of the Coast Guard address, which preceded his press conference [the USCG already has for some time had a defence attaché in Ottawa, also scroll down here]

UPDATE: USCG following 1988 agreement:

US Coast Guard announces plans to transit the Northwest Passage this summer

The Healy, which had its season cut short by a fire last year, will sail from Dutch Harbor to Nuuk this summer.

The U.S. Coast Guard will transit through the Northwest Passage later this year, in collaboration with Canada, Adm. Karl L. Schultz announced on Thursday [March 11].

In an annual Coast Guard address, Schultz said, “Today, along with Global Affairs Canada, we’re planning a Northwest Passage transit for cutter Healy later this year.”..

A spokesperson for the U.S. Coast Guard told ArcticToday that the mission is “definitely not a FONOP; it’s being planned in coordination with Canada.”..

The mission, to be undertaken with Canada’s foreign service agency, falls under the terms of the 1988 treaty on U.S.-Canada cooperation in the Arctic, rather than a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP), as was floated in recent years…

The treaty is “more or less an official ‘agree to disagree’ document,” Troy Bouffard, an instructor at University of Alaska Fairbanks, told ArcticToday. The agreement allows the U.S. and Canada to work cooperatively in the Arctic without ceding any recognition of claims or sovereignty on either side…

Solid.

Mark Collins

Twitter: @mark3ds

6 thoughts on “US Maritime Strategy and the High North–no Mention of Western Arctic, Alaska or Canada (or Northwest Passage)”

  1. More on planned planned USCGS Healy Northwest Passage transit by excellent Levon Sevunts of Radio Canada International:

    ‘U.S. Coast Guard to send icebreaker through Northwest Passage with Canada’s consent

    The U.S. Coast Guard is working with the Canadian government to send its medium icebreaker Healy through the Northwest Passage in late summer as part of Washington’s strategy to expand American presence on the world’s oceans, Canadian officials confirmed late Friday.

    Speaking during the annual address on the State of the U.S. Coast Guard in San Diego, California on Thursday, USGC Commander Admiral Karl Schultz said U.S. officials along with Global Affairs Canada are planning “a Northwest Passage transit for cutter Healy later this year.”

    According to the Arctic Icebreaker Coordinating Committee of the U.S. University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System, Healy will begin its voyage in mid-August in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, and move east through the Northwest Passage. The icebreaker is expected to reach Nuuk, Greenland, in mid-September.

    Officials at Global Affairs Canada said Friday that the U.S. Coast Guard approached the federal government regarding a possible voyage of the Healy through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago in the summer of 2020.

    “As provided in the 1988 Agreement Between the Government of Canada and the Government of the United States of America on Arctic Cooperation (Arctic Cooperation Agreement), U.S. icebreakers require Canada’s consent to navigate through the waters of Canada’s Arctic archipelago,” Grantly Franklin, a spokesperson for Global Affairs, told Radio Canada International in an email.

    “The United States has also submitted a request to conduct marine scientific research while in waters under the sovereignty or jurisdiction of Canada.”

    The federal government is reviewing this request, Franklin said.

    “Canada is currently collaborating with the U.S to make sure that the Healy will be in a position to respect Canadian rules and regulations, including those related to reducing the spread of COVID-19, while navigating in Canadian Arctic waters,” Franklin added.

    According to the U.S. Coast Guard, Healy last transited the Northwest Passage in 2003. The last U.S. Coast Guard cutter to make the trip was USCGC Maple in 2017, coast guard officials told Radio Canada International…

    The U.S. Coast Guard is working with the Canadian government to send its medium icebreaker Healy through the Northwest Passage in late summer as part of Washington’s strategy to expand American presence on the world’s oceans, Canadian officials confirmed late Friday.

    Speaking during the annual address on the State of the U.S. Coast Guard in San Diego, California on Thursday, USGC Commander Admiral Karl Schultz said U.S. officials along with Global Affairs Canada are planning “a Northwest Passage transit for cutter Healy later this year.”

    According to the Arctic Icebreaker Coordinating Committee of the U.S. University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System, Healy will begin its voyage in mid-August in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, and move east through the Northwest Passage. The icebreaker is expected to reach Nuuk, Greenland, in mid-September.

    Officials at Global Affairs Canada said Friday [March 12] that the U.S. Coast Guard approached the federal government regarding a possible voyage of the Healy through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago in the summer of 2020.

    “As provided in the 1988 Agreement Between the Government of Canada and the Government of the United States of America on Arctic Cooperation (Arctic Cooperation Agreement), U.S. icebreakers require Canada’s consent to navigate through the waters of Canada’s Arctic archipelago,” Grantly Franklin, a spokesperson for Global Affairs, told Radio Canada International in an email.

    “The United States has also submitted a request to conduct marine scientific research while in waters under the sovereignty or jurisdiction of Canada.”

    The federal government is reviewing this request, Franklin said.

    “Canada is currently collaborating with the U.S to make sure that the Healy will be in a position to respect Canadian rules and regulations, including those related to reducing the spread of COVID-19, while navigating in Canadian Arctic waters,” Franklin added.

    According to the U.S. Coast Guard, Healy last transited the Northwest Passage in 2003. The last U.S. Coast Guard cutter to make the trip was USCGC Maple in 2017, coast guard officials told Radio Canada International…

    Troy Bouffard, director of the Center for Arctic Security and Resilience at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said the transit is part of “normal business” between Ottawa and Washington in the Arctic.

    The transit arrangement falls squarely under the 1988 U.S.-Canada Arctic cooperation agreement, Bouffard said.

    Under the agreement, Washington “pledges that all navigation by U.S. icebreakers within waters claimed by Canada to be internal will be undertaken with the consent of the Government of Canada.” And Ottawa in turn agrees to grant that consent whenever asked.

    Canada claims that the waters of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago that constitute the Northwest Passage are internal waters, but the U.S. disagrees and considers the passage an international strait.

    The 1988 “agreement to disagree” allows both parties to stick to their legal claims while working together in the North American Arctic, Bouffard said.

    “I think this is the continuation of the bilateral cooperation that needs to happen,” Bouffard said. “I don’t think this is a legacy of any administration. This is something that the United States and Canada have managed for many-many years.”..

    “I expect that this was received well by Global Affairs Canada, in both of our coast guards and I hope to see that the transit would be cooperatively and even jointly escorted by the Canadian Coast Guard, as well as the Royal Canadian Navy.”

    Bouffard said he would love to see the RCN’s newly commissioned Arctic offshore patrol vessel HMCS Harry deWolf accompany Healy during its transit…
    https://www.rcinet.ca/eye-on-the-arctic/2021/03/12/u-s-coast-guard-to-send-icebreaker-through-northwest-passage-with-canadas-consent/

    Mark Collins

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  2. Meanwhile US Army joins Arctic policy party–Norway somewhat in mind, perhaps to take place of Marines who have been active there but now turning to Western Pacific (https://thebarentsobserver.com/en/2020/08/washington-pulls-700-us-marines-out-norway)?

    ‘US Army Releases Arctic Strategy: Will Improve Service’s Posture in the Region

    The US Army recently completed its new Arctic strategy, laying out how the service can better position itself to operate in the region. The strategy includes plans about establishing an operational two-star headquarters with specially trained and equipped combat brigades.

    “The changes in the geopolitical environment and actions of great power competitors, combined with the evolving physical environment, require the Army to refocus and analyze options to rebuild our Arctic capabilities”, the newly released and unclassified version of the US Army Arctic strategy states.

    The US Army announced the launch of the the strategy on Tuesday [March 16], calling the release timely “especially given increasing levels of great power competitor activities in the Arctic region”.

    Signed by the US Army’s Chief of Staff General James C. McConville and Secretary of the Army Ryan D. McCarthy, the strategy lays out how the Army will generate, train, organize and equip forces to partner with Arctic allies and secure US national interests and maintain regional stability.

    Being in line with the US National Security Strategy and the Arctic strategy released by the Department of Defense, the Army strategy describes the Arctic as a region of strategic competition, having the potential to “ become a contested space where the United States’ great power rivals, Russia and China, seek to use military and economic power to gain and maintain access to the region at the expense of US interests.”..’
    https://www.highnorthnews.com/en/us-army-releases-arctic-strategy-will-improve-services-posture-region

    Mark Collins

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    1. More on US Army, note Nordics (USMC giving up basing in Norway as part of Pacific pivot https://thebarentsobserver.com/en/2020/08/washington-pulls-700-us-marines-out-norway) and, gasp, Himalayas!

      ‘Army’s new Arctic strategy aims to build expeditionary capability

      The Army’s newly released Arctic strategy will primarily impact troops stationed in Alaska, but the document has global ambitions that go beyond the northernmost U.S. state.

      The strategy document released Tuesday, “Regaining Arctic Dominance,” lays out the Army’s plans to establish a two-star headquarters in Alaska to manage Arctic-focused combat brigades outfitted with tracked vehicles, tents, sleds and other equipment to help soldiers navigate deep snow and rugged terrain.

      The strategy also discusses plans to put a multi-domain task force in Alaska that combines intelligence, cyber, space and electronic warfare to deny access to enemy forces — important for a region where sea lanes and flight routes are needed to traverse great distances.

      Maj. Gen. Peter Andrysiak, the Army’s top officer in Alaska, said soldiers up north have already started shifting their summer-focused training cycle into the winter months to get used to jumping and living in the cold…

      The strategy is also intended to develop an expeditionary, cold-weather force able to deploy outside the United States.

      The strategy’s forward, cosigned by Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville and former Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, mentioned plans to train alongside Indian military forces in the Himalayas.

      “We are trying to build an Arctic capability that is effective, and not only in the Arctic region, but other areas of extreme cold weather, high altitude and mountainous environments, of which the Himalayas do qualify,” said Elizabeth Felling, a strategic planner for the Army who joined the call with reporters.

      European partners, like Norway, Sweden and Finland, are also beginning to coordinate with Andrysiak’s command to find cold weather training opportunities, Andrysiak told Army Times previously. But the Arctic strategy goes beyond simply training with foreign forces.

      “With the forces in Alaska, when they’re properly trained and equipped, we can ensure an Arctic-capable formation to meet the demands of our geographic combatant commanders around the globe, whatever those may be,” Felling added.

      Army Alaska command is planning future exercises with Indian troops in the Himalayas, where India has a contentious border with neighboring China.

      The command also recently took over responsibility for Yudh Abhyas, a bi-annual exercise with the Indian military. The exercise was previously held at Joint Base Lewis McChord, in Washington state, and focused on desert climates, but that’s now changing to an Arctic mission…’
      https://www.armytimes.com/news/your-army/2021/03/17/armys-new-arctic-strategy-aims-to-build-expeditionary-capability/

      Mark Collins

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