September 23, 2020 | Defense News

Great power competition heats up in the thawing Arctic, and the US must respond

September 23, 2020 | Defense News

Great power competition heats up in the thawing Arctic, and the US must respond

Russia and China have been busy in a rapidly changing Arctic, and America seems to have barely noticed. Focused elsewhere, the U.S. now finds itself ill-prepared to compete in the thawing, resource-rich arena that also offers adversaries avenues of approach to the American homeland.

If America is going to compete effectively against Russia and China, Washington must recognize that the competition is playing out in the Arctic too — and act accordingly.

Rising interest and activity in the Arctic largely coincide with the ongoing retreat of sea ice. Correspondingly, vessel traffic in waters north of the Bering Strait has increased 128 percent over the last decade.

The pace of activity will only increase as the region begins experiencing ice-free summers over the next 15 to 30 years. This, in turn, will open access to significantly shorter ocean routes and vast deposits of oil, natural gas, critical minerals and rare earth elements. That is no small thing, since the Arctic is estimated to house 22 percent of the world’s untapped oil and natural gas resources.

Russia, eager to exploit these opportunities and lacking sufficient warm water ports, has been quick to take advantage of the evolving conditions in the north. Moscow has invested heavily in its Arctic military posture, establishing an Arctic-focused Joint Strategic Command, refurbishing 50 regional sites to include airfields, radars and rescue stations, and opening 16 deep-water ports.

Eager to secure its own access to the Arctic, Russia seems increasingly inclined to deprive that access to others by enacting unlawful Northern Sea Route passage restrictions. Even more alarmingly, last year Russia deployed a Bastion coastal defense cruise missile unit directly across the Bering Sea from Alaska. According to the previous commander of U.S. Northern Command, this system could enable Moscow to “control access to the Arctic through the Bering Strait, but also to strike land targets in parts of Alaska with little to no warning.”

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China Military and Political Power Russia U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy