A cold war in the Arctic | WORLD
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On thin ice

Arctic changes trigger an international race for newly available resources

The Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker 50 Years of Victory cuts through the ice near the North Pole. Ekaterina Anisimova / AFP via Getty Images

On thin ice
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STEVEN DECKER KNOWS knows there’s really only one way to teach soldiers how to survive and fight in the frigid, hostile Arctic environment: immersion. Decker is an instructor at the U.S. Army Northern Warfare Training Center based in Fort Wainwright, Alaska. Every year, he runs military personnel through a series of cold weather warfare courses.

Each time he gets a new batch of trainees, Decker starts them off with a few days in the classroom. Then, he turns them out in the snow. “We take you out to the field and make you live there for four days—in a tent or without it,” he said. During that time, Decker teaches students how to build shelters, travel on skis and snowshoes, and navigate to supply pickup points.

Decker has been running courses like this for about two decades. Interest in this kind of survival training in the past has largely depended on the personality of the general officer overseeing the region, he said. But recently, it’s getting a lot more attention. Decker doesn’t have an official explanation for the change, but he has a good guess: Leaders in the Pentagon finally realized that when it comes to the Arctic, “we’re way behind the power curve.”

With its pullout from Afghanistan in 2021, the United States is turning its attention to new defense arenas, including the far-off frozen North. Over the past few years, the Arctic has gained strategic significance as melting sea ice opens new shipping lanes and resource extraction possibilities. That’s spurred competition between the United States and its so-called “near peer” adversaries—China and Russia.

It’s a fractious situation exacerbated by Russia’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine and growing friendliness with China. Experts say the escalating cold war has revealed some U.S. vulnerabilities and added fresh urgency to Arctic training and development.

“We have dropped the ball,” Decker said. “And now we’re trying to reenergize that because of natural resources, shipping lanes, these kinds of things up here. America has interests in the Arctic, and we’re trying to protect them now. They finally realized this is a big deal.”

Students at the U.S. Army Northern Warfare Training Center move cross-country on snowshoes during training.

Students at the U.S. Army Northern Warfare Training Center move cross-country on snowshoes during training. John Pennell/Army photo/AP Footage/Alamy

SHERRI GOODMAN has had the Arctic on her radar since the 1990s when she served as the Pentagon’s first chief environmental officer. She was part of the U.S. effort to work with Russia to denuclearize and clean up contaminated Alaskan bases after the Cold War. Today, Goodman is a senior fellow at the Wilson Center’s Polar Institute.

The Arctic was historically a region of cooperation, she said, even when countries were at odds elsewhere in the world. In 1996, the eight Arctic coastal nations—the United States, Canada, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark (including Greenland), Iceland, and Russia—formed the Arctic Council to pool scientific knowledge and hammer out diplomacy.

But that era of cooperation ended after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022. Moscow was no longer invited to participate in the Arctic Council, Goodman said. Soon after, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) added Finland and Sweden to its ranks, making Russia the only Arctic country not included in the alliance.

Among the issues making the region a new priority for global powers: its changing climate. According to the Washington, D.C.-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the average Arctic surface air temperature last year was the sixth warmest since 1900 and summer temperatures hit record highs.

Goodman said warmer weather is fueling dramatic and visible changes in the region. Summer sea ice is retreating. Permafrost is thawing and collapsing. And that’s opening up “a whole new region of the world to be a contested area.”

“There’s much more activity in the Arctic, and countries all around the world—including China and many others—are eager to have access to the resources and the riches of a more open Arctic,” Goodman said. These “riches” include fishing stocks, oil and natural gas reserves, and shipping rights.

Goodman said Russia, the nation with the longest Arctic coastline, is leading the charge. The country derives about 20 percent of its gross domestic product from Arctic industries such as mining and energy production, she noted. “Putin has a goal to convert the Northern Sea Route that hugs the Russian Arctic coastline into a toll road for transportation, from Asia to Europe, from Shanghai to Rotterdam.”

A Chinese icebreaker cruises in Shanghai before heading to the Arctic last summer.

A Chinese icebreaker cruises in Shanghai before heading to the Arctic last summer. Zhang Jiansong/Xinhua via Getty Images

WITH THE OTHER ARCTIC STATES allied against it, Russia is courting the goodwill of its southern neighbor—China. Mark Montgomery, senior director of the Center on Cyber and Technology Innovation at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said fallout from the Ukraine conflict has “increased stressors on the Arctic” and “driven Russia and China together.”

Montgomery previously served as a Navy rear admiral and oversaw all U.S. military operations in the Indo-Pacific Command, a sweeping arena including portions of both the Arctic and the Antarctic. Though China is not technically an Arctic state, it has definite “Arctic aspirations,” Montgomery said. Beijing is operating more aggressively, and also developing ice-breaking ships, because it wants a stake in Northern Sea Route trade.

And while Alaska may seem far removed from “the China threat,” Montgomery said the air bases around Fairbanks and Anchorage would actually be a critical springboard if the United States ever had to launch “combat operations in Asia.”

The budding Russia-China partnership has served as a wake-up call for the United States to start addressing some of its Arctic vulnerabilities. But Montgomery notes Washington has one major weak spot: limited icebreaker capability. “The United States really took a holiday on this,” he said.

The United States has only two icebreakers, and aged ones at that. A third has been sidelined since 2010 due to engine failure. “Basically, the Coast Guard is down to one full-time icebreaker and it has a significant Antarctic responsibility every year,” Montgomery said.

By contrast, the Russians have more than 40 icebreaker vessels. Montgomery said even with the Navy and Coast Guard working together, “We very much pale in comparison to Russian icebreaker capabilities, even Chinese icebreaker capabilities, and some of the other Arctic states.”

The Arctic Council countries.

The Arctic Council countries. Peter Hermes Furian/Getty Images

The U.S. Coast Guard has set its sights on acquiring four or five new heavy polar icebreakers, but they’re not cheap. The first ship alone has an estimated $1.9 billion price tag. Although it was originally slated for delivery this year, its completion is now postponed until 2029.

In March, President Joe Biden signed a spending deal granting the Coast Guard enough money to buy a commercial icebreaker to support operations in the meantime. That will increase U.S. operational abilities in the far North significantly, Montgomery said.

The government also recently approved a $548 million face-lift for the port in Nome, Alaska. The dredging and expansion project will allow Navy and Coast Guard vessels, as well as cruise ships, to dock.

But securing funding for Arctic priorities is often tough sledding. Although advancement in the region tends to be a bipartisan issue, Montgomery said it can still be hard to convince lawmakers from the Lower 48 to foot the bill to revamp the Arctic fleet.

All these changes have translated to a renewed interest in the cold weather exercises provided at the Northern Warfare Training Center. Pete Smith is another instructor at the center, which now attracts students from all over the country.

Smith said what interests him most is trying to figure out how to help people fight in this difficult environment. Some soldiers coming through the course hail from places as far away as Texas and Puerto Rico and have never even seen snow before. “Suddenly, they’re immersed in it and have to figure out how to live in it and do their job in it,” Smith said.

It’s “highly unlikely” the United States would ever face a ground invasion in Alaska, Smith admits. But the intense training he and Decker provide ensures U.S. service members are prepared to face whatever challenges the next few decades may bring. “If anything kicked off with our near-peer adversaries … this division would be one of the go-tos for that type of contingency—going over there and supporting those NATO countries.”

Grace Snell

Grace is a staff writer at WORLD and a graduate of the World Journalism Institute.


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