The Navy continues to build on its experiences in the Arctic for operations in the region, but U.S. allies and partners remain critical enablers for all aspects of these operations, according to Adm. Robert Burke, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe.
The Navy in early January released its strategy for the Arctic, but that followed more than a century of naval operations in region and ongoing exercises and training there, Burke said on Tuesday during a pre-recorded event on the Navy in the Arctic hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Asked by Heather Conley, an Arctic expert with CSIS who moderated the discussion whether the Navy needs ice-strengthened ships to better conduct its missions in the region, Burke didn’t answer directly. Instead, he discussed the service’s current capabilities, lessons it is learning, and the critical importance of allied partnerships.
Burke pointed out that the Danish and Norwegian navies aren’t full-up with ice-hardened ships and yet “they routinely operate all of their navies in marginal ice” because of their skill level in understanding the risks and being able to “read the ice.”
The U.S. Navy, through exchanges and joint training and exercise, combined with experience, is learning from its allies here, he said.
“We are now, having spent some time training with them, doing ship exchanges back and forth for different purposes,” he said. “Our DDG CO’s are going into the fjords in marginal ice. Learning how to mitigate that risk intelligently.”
There is a lot the U.S. Navy can do in the areas of training and tactics and procedures “so I’m going after that low hanging fruit right now,” Burke said.
The new Navy strategy for the Arctic doesn’t make specific recommendations for how future naval forces will be tailored for operations in the region but does say a “more credible presence…means that ensuring that Arctic operations are considered in our design and modernization plans, and that our defense industrial base can build and sustain forces for the Arctic.”
While the Navy doesn’t have bases in the Arctic to support its operations, it frequently relies on its partners for capacity here, Burke said.
Navy DDG-51 destroyers and submarines go into port in Norway and the U.S. has support agreements with its partners that can be leveraged if the Navy isn’t able to respond to immediately respond to an incident such as a rescue operation or oil spill, Burke said.
Recent visits by Burke to Denmark and Iceland were driven by the need to further explore opportunities with these countries to support operations, he said.
“We’ve got pretty good options up there right now but I like more options and more scope and more depth and so we’re working that pretty hard,” he said. “But more is better when it comes to those logistics options to do refueling, rearming if we do go into combat, repair of ships, resupply, and a lot of these nations are becoming increasingly sensitive to the situation and are interested in contributing.”
In addition to commanding U.S. Naval Forces in Europe, Burke is also the commander of U.S. Naval Forces Africa, and commander of Allied Joint Forces Command Naples.
The U.S. Senate and House delegation representing Alaska has directed the Defense Department to study basing needs in the Arctic for the Navy and Coast Guard but so far hasn’t been able to get their colleagues in Congress to authorize the establishment of an operating base in Alaska in the Arctic region.
As for U.S. operations in the Arctic region, Burke said that the Navy has been participating in various allied exercises there and that all the ships that operate from his command in Rota, Spain, have spent time above the Artic Circle and in the Barents Sea.
From May through November 2020, the Navy had surface ships in the region continuously, he said. He pointed out that the Navy had its Strike Group in the Arctic last summer for the first time since the Cold War.
Lessons had to be relearned but that experience gained from the U.S. Sixth Fleet command is being shared throughout the fleet, Burke said.
The Arctic region is growing in importance as melting ice opens more of the sea to things like commerce, fishing, oil and gas exploration, and research activities.
Russia is expanding its Arctic capabilities and threatening to restrict lawful commerce in international waters and China is also increasing its activity in the region and is calling itself a near-Arctic nation. Such actions have helped spur the U.S. to pick up its pace in the region, committing to the production of new heavy polar icebreakers for the Coast Guard and doing more and larger military exercises.