NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.–Amid increasing activity in the Arctic region due to melting sea ice and expanding great power competition in the region, U.S. Northern Command has strengthened its role for developing and driving operational requirements there, the head of the command said on Monday.

Air Force Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy said that earlier this year NORTHCOM “reinvigorated” its Arctic Capabilities Group, increasing participation in the group within the command’s headquarters and taking over as chair himself to give the body “teeth.”

Past exercises and operations done in the Arctic region included the equipment that the U.S. military operates with elsewhere but it doesn’t always work well, O’Shaughnessy said here at the Navy League’s annual Sea-Air-Space exposition.

Based on these lessons, particularly with the Navy, “we have put that demand signal there as part of the formal requirements process to make sure we have the ability to operate within the Arctic environment,” he said. “Not only within the Navy but also amongst the other services as well.”

The Arctic Capabilities Working Group serves all the combatant commands, O’Shaughnessy said, mentioning European Command, Strategic Command, Indo-Pacific Command, and Transportation Command by name.

Bolstering the working group also has the effect of driving the combatant commands “to a higher level” and obtain their input and generating requirements for Arctic operations that can be delivered to the Defense Department and the Joint Staff “in a coordinated manner” and “in a unified approach that will allow a little bit more focused attention on it,” O’Shaughnessy said.

O’Shaughnessy appeared on a panel at the show with Canadian, Navy and Coast Guard officials to discuss strategies for the Arctic. At the same time, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was addressing the Arctic Council in Finland, where he highlighted that China made $90 billion worth of infrastructure investments between 2012 and 2017, largely aimed at economic development.

But he warned that China’s aims in the region may go beyond economic.

“This is part of a very familiar pattern,” Pompeo said. “Beijing attempts to develop critical infrastructure using Chinese money, Chinese companies, and Chinese workers, in some cases, to establish a permanent Chinese security presence.”

Artist rendering of the Polar Security Cutter. (Image: VT Halter Marine Inc.)
Artist rendering of the Polar Security Cutter. (Image: VT Halter Marine Inc.)

Pompeo also pointed to a Pentagon report issued last week on China’s power, saying that it says that the country “could use its civilian research presence in the Arctic to strengthen its military presence.” Referring to China’s build-up of military capabilities in the South China Sea, he said its “pattern of aggressive behavior elsewhere should inform what we do and how it might treat the Arctic.”

Pompeo also called out Russia, which cooperates as a member of the Arctic Council but also attempts to bully others, makes false claims, and is boosting its military presence in the region.

“In the Northern Sea Route, Moscow illegally demands other nations request permission to pass, requires maritime pilots to be aboard foreign ships, and threatens to use military force to sink any that fail to comply with their demands,” he said. “These provocative actions are part of a pattern of aggressive Russian behavior here in the Arctic. Russia is already leaving snow prints in the form of army boots.”

The U.S. Coast Guard two weeks ago released a new strategy for the Arctic that highlights great power competition in the region from China and Russia. The service also awarded a contract to

VT Halter Marine for the first of up to three new heavy polar icebreakers, the Polar Security Cutter (PSC).

The PSC will replace the aging Polar Star, which the Coast Guard used to aid in annual resupply missions to the National Science Foundation’s McMurdo station in Antarctica. The first PSC is slated to be delivered in 2024 and initially will take on the McMurdo mission. Once the other two heavy icebreakers are delivered by 2028, the Coast Guard will have assured access to the Arctic and Antarctica.

“We are one of the biggest advocates to replace the Polar Star icebreaker,” O’Shaughnessy said at Sea-Air-Space, adding that the PSC “is going to be important to us and the nation.”

Operating in the Arctic is “completely different” from anywhere else and to be able to do so U.S. forces have to train and exercise in that environment, he said. The participation of the military services in these exercises is increasing, he said.