- The US is seeking a larger presence in the Arctic as part of efforts to prepare for a potential conflict with another advanced military.
- The US military hasn’t spent much time in the Arctic in recent decades, which means there are a few lessons it’s learning about how to operate up there.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The US military has been turning more of its attention to the Arctic as a venue for so-called great-power competition with another powerful military – in this case, Russia. The US Navy has played a big role in that shift.
The USS Harry S. Truman’s presence at NATO’s Trident Juncture exercise in late 2018 was the first time a US carrier was above the Arctic Circle since the early 1990s. The USS Theodore Roosevelt’s participation in the US military’s Northern Edge exercise in Alaska was the first for a carrier in a decade.
On land, US Marines have rotated through Norway since the beginning of 2017, where they have trained with partners. In late 2017, then-Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller said the Corps was looking to use Army facilities in Alaska for more cold-weather training.
But being active in the Arctic requires adjusting to the harsh conditions there.
In some cases that means relearning old techniques – sailors aboard the Truman, for example, brought baseball bats to smash ice buildup on the ship – in others it means taking some punishment: Two Navy ships carrying Marines to Trident Juncture, for example, had to return to Iceland due to damage sustained in heavy seas; one went back to the US and never made it to the exercise.
Navy leaders have acknowledged the wear and tear caused by the these operations.
Former Navy Secretary Richard Spencer welcomed it, saying in October that he’d “write a check for that kind of damage any single time” after seeing “what we’d learned from going up there.”
There are still lessons being learned. Guided-missile destroyer USS Gravely joined a Canadian-led exercise off western Greenland in late 2019, Vice Adm. Andrew Lewis, the head of the Navy’s newly established 2nd Fleet, said this week.
Gravely “touched above the Arctic Circle, and we learned quite a bit up there,” Lewis said at an event hosted by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies and the US Naval Institute in Washington, DC, on Tuesday.
“We learned quiet a bit about logistics, how to operate around ice floes. There are some things that we don’t have a lot of experience in right now,” Lewis added.
US destroyers, which have gas-turbine engines, “use a lot fuel, and there’s no place to refuel for 1,800 miles.”
“The Canadians who operate up there routinely, as do the Danes, off of Greenland, they have these expeditionary logistics hubs, which are not optimised for one of our destroyers,” Lewis said. “They’re too big for them, and so there’s definitely some things that we’re having to work through to be able to truly operate in the high north.”
‘We don’t need some new magical kit’
The Navy hasn’t limited its sailors’ Arctic eduction to US ships. This summer, a Navy surface warfare officer sailed through the region on a Canadian frigate, reporting back to 2nd Fleet on how the Canadians operate there.
Ottawa is ready to continue sharing its insights, according to Martin Loken, minister of political affairs at Canada’s Embassy in Washington.
“Canada’s investing very heavily in our own ship capacity,” with six ice-capable Arctic offshore patrol boats and three coast guard icebreakers “in the pipeline,” Loken said Thursday at an Atlantic Council event hosted by the Norwegian Embassy in Washington, DC.
“We’ll be happy to share our experience with the US as we advance in those procurements, just as we are extremely closely knit across the whole spectrum of defence,” Loken added.
The US Coast Guard is working on building its first new icebreaker since the 1970s, though it likely won’t be able to send one to the Arctic regularly until after 2025.
But the US Navy isn’t planning to add new, Arctic-specific vessels, saying in a June 2018 report that there were no capability gaps requiring it to ice-harden its ships or to build new ice-capable ones, according to a Government Accountability Office assessment. US submarines have operated in the Arctic for decades.
Such ships probably aren’t needed, Keith Eikenes, deputy director general for security policy at Norway’s Ministry of Defence, said at the Atlantic Council event.
“The area that we’re talking about from the European Arctic standpoint, the North Atlantic, that strategic area, you don’t need an icebreaker to operate there,” Eikenes said.
“People live there. Those are ice-free ports year-round, so again we should probably remove some of these discussions about ice-hardened this or that. You can do lot of things in what we could call the Arctic in this context with the equipment that all of our nations have,” Eikenes added. “We don’t need some new magical kit, really, to be relevant and be present.”
As far as kit goes, however, there are a few things to keep in mind, according to Kåre R. Aas, Norway’s ambassador to the US and moderator of the event on Thursday.
“In all the experiences we have had from the Marines being periodically deployed in Norway is that when you go to an Arctic country like Norway, you need good underwear,” Aas said, drawing laughs.
Some Norwegians saw Marines learn that lesson first-hand, Aas added. “I think it was [during] one of the first contingents they deployed to Norway of Marines, there were 700 or something like that, the local population started to need socks and gloves.”
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