As the Arctic Warms, Why is U.S. Falling behind Russia?
With ice sheets growing thinner all the time in the Arctic, Russia is plowing ahead with efforts to establish a formidable naval and commercial presence in the region. The United States meanwhile has been accused of sitting on its hands and doing little to meet or counter Russia’s efforts.
Icebreaking ships are critical for use in breaking through Arctic ice sheets, and in this arena Russia, by far, has the upper hand. It maintains a fleet of 41 such ships, which cost about a billion dollars each to manufacture. The U.S., on the other hand, has only two icebreakers, and one of them, the Coast Guard cutter Alex Haley, is five decades old.
A one-time salvage vessel belonging to the U.S. Navy, the Alex Haley “has amounted to the government’s only asset anywhere nearby to respond to an accident, oil spill or incursion into America’s territory or exclusive economic zone in the Arctic,” The New York Times’ Steven Lee Myers wrote.
In addition to this shortcoming, America’s “underwater charting is paltry, while telecommunications remain sparse above the highest latitudes,” noted Myers. “Alaska’s far north lacks deepwater port facilities to support increased maritime activity.”
Russia, however, is building 10 new search-and-rescue stations, “strung like a necklace of pearls at ports along half of the Arctic shoreline,” wrote Myers, and it is reopening military bases that were shuttered after the end of the Cold War.
“The United States really isn’t even in this game,” Admiral Paul F. Zukunft, the Coast Guard’s commandant, said at a conference in Washington this year. “When Russia put Sputnik in outer space, did we sit with our hands in pocket with great fascination and say, ‘Good for Mother Russia’?”
The Obama administration has taken some actions, mostly on paper. President Barack Obama introduced a national strategy for the Arctic two years ago, and in January, to develop the coordination of that strategy, he established an Arctic Executive Steering Committee, led by the director of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, John P. Holdren.
Meanwhile, Russia has telescoped its sovereign designs on a vast expanse of the Arctic roughly the size of South Africa, about 463,000 square feet, according to the Times. Based on a “geological extension of its continental shelf,” the country submitted the claim to the United Nations, the second time it has done so after the U.N. rejected its first submission in 2001 due to lack of scientific evidence.
Although Canada and Denmark have made competing claims, Russia made a symbolic move to shoulder its way in by planting a titanium Russian flag in the seabed thousands of feet beneath the North Pole in 2007.
While Obama’s Arctic committee does its brainstorming, the U.S. Army said it’s thinking about reducing the two brigades it maintains in Alaska, and, in a report (pdf) released last year, the Navy conceded it is lacking in experience in Arctic Ocean operations.
-Noel Brinkerhoff, Danny Biederman
To Learn More:
U.S. Is Playing Catch-Up With Russia in Scramble for the Arctic (by Steven Lee Myers, New York Times)
The New Ice Curtain (Center for Strategic & International Studies) (pdf)
Coast Guard Shifts Vessel from Fighting Cocaine Smuggling to Keeping Watch on Arctic Oil Drilling (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Steve Straehley, AllGov)
Exxon Teams with Russians to Drill for Arctic Oil (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)
Russia’s First Shipment of Arctic Oil to Europe Arrives in Netherlands (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)
Russian Capitalists Celebrate Global Warming by Building $20-Billion Natural Gas Plant in Arctic (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)
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