A new cold war is forming — very cold.
The Navy expects to have enough trained personnel and equipment by 2030 to respond to contingencies and emergencies in the Arctic, said Robert Freeman, spokesman for the Oceanographer of the Navy. Beyond 2030, the Navy "will be capable of operating deliberately in the Arctic region as needed."
Rapid melting of Arctic ice is advancing nations' economic and strategic concerns, and is becoming another front on which Russia is becoming more assertive.
Adm. Bill Gortney, the head of U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, said on Feb. 10 confirmed that Russia is flying more flights over the Arctic, including sorties over the Bering Strait.
"They've been very aggressive, under my NORAD hat, for us in the Arctic. Aggressive in the amount of flights, not aggressive in how they fly … it's just the numbers have been up," Gortney said at the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association Conference and Exposition in San Diego.
The Russians are flying Tu-95H Bear long-range bombers in what appears to be an attempt to send a message, Gortney said.
"The question is what they're doing and why they're doing it," he said.
Still, the flights haven't caused any intense exchanges or near misses similar to those seen in the skies over Eastern Europe in recent months.
"We haven't seen anything that crosses into the unprofessional. They're talking and squawking like they should, they're doing more of it," Gortney said.
The reason is a rapid decrease in arctic ice. Arctic ice is rapidly thinning. disappearing and Amounts are diminishing and the remaining ice is thinner; There has been a 40 percent decline in thickness since 1990, according to Craig Lee, chief scientist on a Marginal Ice Zone research project sponsored by the Office of Naval Research. He presented his findings Feb. 5 at the Naval Future Force Science and Technology Expo, which was hel in Washington, D.C.
The changes mean major waterways will be consistently be open in summer months by the mid-2020s. Open water begins in August, peaks in September, and returns to ice in November. This will likely bring a flotilla of trans-Arctic container shipping, fleets of fishermen — and military patrols.
Diminishing ice fields mean Russia will have a new active border to protect, and it is close to many key oil and gas fields are in the region. Russia has reactivated 10 bases on its northern border. It has also conducted destroyer and cruiser patrols, and missile tests in the region; last April, 50 Russian paratroopers landed on drifting Arctic ice near the North Pole.
Russia is not alone in its military posturing. The Arctic is a resource-rich region tangled in a web of disputed claims and untested treaties as nations vie for their share of sovereignty. Five have Arctic lands: the United States, Russia, Canada, Norway and Denmark. Three have Arctic equity: Iceland, Finland and Sweden. Russia in 2007 planted a flag on the seabed beneath the North Pole to lay claim to the underwater range.
And China looks to get in the game, as well. The latter is completing its fourth Antarctic research station and looking to build a fifth station, according to a December 2014 Heritage Foundation report. Lessons learned there will have great value in the Arctic, which is thought to contain massive mineral, oil and gas reserves. Upward of 22 percent of undiscovered recoverable hydrocarbon fuel is believed to reside in the region.
Some analysts liken the Arctic to a modern-day gold rush. Others fear it will be more like the wild, wild West.
Right now, the U.S. submarine patrols are routine, but air operations are minimal and, essentially, there essentially is no surface ship presenceexperience. The service is identifying future requirements, setting funds aside, and gaining allies and experience through four annual and two biennial exercises, Freeman said. Surface operations will increase in the coming years, but a seasonally sustained presence will require a number of changes as the harsh environment covers vast distances with little infrastructure.
The Navy's Arctic Roadmap for 2014 to 2030 speaks of the need for modifications in ship architecture, though there is no funding allocated for these changes.
To operate in the Arctic, surface ships must have reinforced hulls that can break through ice. Superstructures and external equipment must be able to withstand freezing rains and ice buildup. Fuel and heating/ventilation systems must be protected from frigid temperatures.
Difficultly in maintaining broadband communications must also be addressed. On top of all this, there are few nautical charts that meet surveyed to modern standards or aids to navigation. Only about 5 percent of the ocean basin has been surveyed, Freeman said.
The Russians have nearly a one dozen ice breakers and a surface navy geared for cold-weather operations. The U.S. Navy, which is postured for Pacific operations, can do very little above the waterline. It has no ice breakers or surface ships capable of sustained Arctic operations.
The Coast Guard has two icebreakers: the medium icebreaker Healy, which mainly supports scientific research, and the 399-foot icebreaker Polar Star. The latter is back in action after being mothballed in 2006, but sister ship Polar Sea is inactive and unlikely to return to service. The Coast Guard has invested $10 million for a replacement, and asked for another $6 million in fiscal 2015 to keep that effort trudging forward. The new icebreaker would replace Polar Star when that ship's seven- to 10-year reactivation period ends.
The Canadian navy is spending $3.2 billion to build five Arctic patrol ships, though critics say the lack of an ice-breaking capability will prove detrimental (some in the Canadian military have dubbed the ships "slush-breakers").
Staff writer Joshua Stewart and David Pugliese contributed to this report.