WASHINGTON, DC — The next major frontier of global competition is rapidly emerging: the Arctic.
The melting of Arctic ice has opened up new transit routes and allowed access to an estimated 22% of the world’s undiscovered oil and natural gas resources. And Russia has sought to take advantage of these new conditions.
At the Center for Strategic and International Studies last week, US Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, commented on the US’s underwhelming presence in the region.
“The fact that we don’t have the capacity in any material way to have a surface presence in the Arctic is something that we ought to address,” Selva said.
That presence is poised to change with the Coast Guard’s proposal to build a new icebreaker.
“Whether that means we need one or two or four or 12 heavy ice breakers I’ll leave that to the experts. But from a strategic perspective, the ability to surveil and understand and manage the change that’s happening in the Arctic accrues to our interests and the interests of all of the countries that have features that border the Arctic and that includes Russia.”
“I’m not sure that they’re [icebreakers] the solution but they are probably part of the solution,” Selva added.
Currently, the US has two icebreakers: the Coast Guard Cutter Healy, which is mainly used for research but can chip away at 4 feet of ice, and the refurbished heavy icebreaker Polar Star, one of the world’s most powerful non-nuclear ships.
Meanwhile, Russia continues to expand upon its planned militarization of the Arctic with more than 20 icebreakers.
“We’re not even in the same league as Russia right now,” Newsweek quoted Coast Guard Commandant Paul F. Zukunft as saying in July 2015. “We’re not playing in this game at all.”
“We basically have nothing,” Sen. Angus King (I-ME), echoed last week to reporters upon returning from a trip to Greenland, the Washington Examiner reports.
“The president put money in his budget this year to start the process of a new icebreaker, but by the time a new icebreaker is built, the current one will be way beyond its current life, so it’s a replacement not a new one,” King said.
When asked about the procurement of the icebreakers Gen. Selva responded, “how we buy them, I’m going to leave that to the people that worry about that problem everyday.”
According to Robert Kaplan, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and author of “The Revenge of Geography,” the Arctic will “give new meaning to sea power and especially air power in future decades.”
In terms of trade, polar routes like the Northern Sea Route from East Asia to Europe via the Arctic Ocean provide economic opportunities that will further “lock the United States, Russia, and China in an ever tighter embrace,” according to Kaplan.
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