The Department of Defense released an updated Arctic Strategy that focused on domain awareness and enhancing operations but also increased attention on Russia and China’s activities.
The report said the U.S. Arctic deterrent force “will require agile, capable, and expeditionary forces with the ability to flexibly project power into and operate within the region.”
Although the document did not go into specifics, it said while DoD examines the attributes of Joint Force capabilities, posture, operations, and activities needed for deterrence in the Arctic, “it will do so in a strategy-driven and resource-informed way.”
This means DoD will decide on actions based on national interest, National Defense Strategy goals and priorities, DoD’s Arctic objectives, and emerging threats and not a parity-based approach that approximates competitors’ capabilities and numbers of units, systems, or bases.
Commander of U.S. Northern Command is designated as the department’s Arctic Capability Advocate. In that role the commander will coordinate with other combatant commands, military departments, and defense agencies “to ensure that Arctic capability gaps are identified and prioritized, and that appropriate means of advocacy are emplaced to effectively communicate associated risks.”
The report noted modernizing missile and cruise missile defense systems “is critical to maintaining a layered approach to domain awareness through multi-domain sensors that include terrestrial radars and space-based capabilities,” the report said.
To that end, “among potential Arctic defense investments, DoD will prioritize modernization of infrastructure supporting enhanced domain awareness,” it continued.
The department is conducting a binational study with Canada’s Department of National Defence to evaluate possible solutions for modernizing sensor coverage in the region to deter, detect, track, and enable defeat of current and emerging airborne threats.
The U.S. is also enhancing maritime surveillance in the Greenland-Iceland-U.K.-Norwegian gap, “a strategic corridor for naval operations between the Artic and the North Atlantic” by working with the U.K. and Norway on P-8 Poseidon aircraft patrols. This adds to existing NATO air policing missions based out of Iceland.
The strategy emphasized command, control, communications, computers and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) is “essential to operations in the Arctic but remains challenging above 65 degrees North latitude.”
Communications challenges in the region include atmospheric interference from solar and magnetic phenomena that degrade high-frequency radio signals, limited satellite-based communications, and designing ruggedized equipment that is made to function in the harsh cold conditions. This means rapid freezing and thawing cycles and temperatures below 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
“There is a need for deployable communications and data networks capable of operating in the northern latitudes. This requires establishing robust and dynamic communications architecture with terrestrial, aerial, and space layers that are fully integrated and interoperable with mission partners,” the report said.
The strategy underscored the Coast Guard is the lead agency for homeland security in the Arctic and DoD will continue to support the new Polar Security Cutter program. This “provides a key capability to ensure interoperability between Coast Guard and Navy vessels and to support U.S. presence in the Arctic region.”
The department also intends to conduct regular exercises and deployments in the Arctic, both independently and with allies and partners within and outside the NATO context.
“Exercises with Arctic allies and partners enable our ability to deter aggression from strategic competitors, including anti-submarine warfare and cold weather and mountainous training,” the report said.
DoD intends to remain active in other host nation exercises like Trident Juncture, Arctic Challenge, and Cold Response. Similarly, domestic exercises like Arctic Edge and Bold Quest “will enhance the Joint Force’s familiarity with, and proficiency operating in, Arctic conditions and will improve joint, as well as Service, operations in the region. The Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex enables training and exercising opportunities in Arctic conditions and across domains.”
The report said the Arctic provides “an alternative vector for U.S. power projection and maneuver as part of DoD operations in other regions. DoD will maintain access to the Arctic to support the global mobility and projection of U.S. military forces.”
It argued forward deployed and pre-positioned equipment in Arctic partner countries supports the DoD’s ability to quickly respond to regional contingencies. The Defense Department will “assess the needs, costs/risks, and benefits of targeted investments to modestly enhance existing, regional infrastructure, both in Alaska and in Europe, to enable operational flexibility to project forces into the region on an expeditionary basis.”
While the report said surveillance is foundational to defense, it admitted DoD’s ability to detect threats and defend North America is challenged by the Russian and Chinese advancing capabilities.
It specifically noted Russia’s advanced cruise missile and hypersonic glide vehicle capabilities and it is working to establish new air defenses and coastal missile systems, sensors, and early warning radars.
Russia has been increasing its commercial and defense investments in recent years. After forming the Northern Fleet Joint Strategic Command in 2014, Russia has gradually created new units, refurbished old infrastructure, and established new military bases on its Arctic coastline.
Meanwhile, the report emphasized China’s presence in the Arctic, even while noting it is more limited with no territorial claims.
The report said China’s two icebreaking vessels, the Xuelong and Xuelong 2, and civilian research efforts “could support a strengthened, future Chinese military presence in the Arctic Ocean.” This could potentially include the deployment of submarines.
The strategy noted China has a research station in Iceland and Norway and is pursuing energy development and infrastructure projects in Russia. China is linking economic activities to broader strategic objectives under the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, and while stated interests “are primarily focused on access to natural resources and the opportunities offered by the Arctic sea routes for Chinese shipping,” the report warns China is seeking a role in Arctic governance.
China continues to look for new opportunities to invest in dual-use infrastructure in the Arctic and declared itself a “Near Arctic State.” However, DoD underscored the U.S. “does not recognize any such status.”