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Arctic threats, water shortages and rising conflicts: Climate change will require military responses

As impacts from climate change grow in the coming years, troops might see beefed up Arctic capabilities, such as icebreaking ships, better infrastructure and mobile nuclear reactors in the region.

At the same time, forces face increased conflict in northern African and the Middle East over dwindling water resources and more demand for responses to damage from ever-increasing natural disasters.

That’s the diagnosis from a panel of military intelligence and planning experts who testified this week before members of the House Armed Services Committee.

Melting ice in the Arctic means a more navigable region that’s seeing increased investment and interest from adversaries China and Russia, said Maria Langan-Riekhof, director of the Strategic Futures Group at the National Intelligence Office.

Russian mini-subs have planted the Russian flag on the seabed beneath the North Pole. China has launched its first observation satellite that provides Arctic and Antarctic region coverage, BNU-1.

Victorino Mercado, the acting assistant secretary of defense for strategy, plans and capabilities, kept nearly all of his remarks focused on Arctic competition for the nearly two-hour hearing.

The competition between those two adversaries and the United States is only “amplified” by the changing climate and physical environment in the Arctic, he said.

While Russia maintains a vast Arctic border and claims that reach the North Pole, China does not border the region. But, Mercado noted, that hasn’t stopped the Chinese government from gaining ground in other regions such as Africa and South America through “predatory” lending tactics in infrastructure projects and military assistance.

Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., asked Mercado about military exercises that might play a role in preparing for shifts due to climate change.

Mercado noted that the Pentagon had recently updated its Arctic strategy and through exercises such as Trident Juncture, which in 2018 was one of the largest NATO exercises held in years, offer opportunities for training with partner nations near the Arctic such as Norway.

The Navy’s reestablished 2nd Fleet, slightly more than a year in operation, has monitored North Atlantic Russian submarine activity. The fleet opened a temporary Maritime Operations Center in Iceland in September.

Mercado also pointed to increased cooperation with Canada and use of Alaska training facilities to test equipment and tactics. Stefanik reminded the expert of the cold weather training facility in her district at Fort Drum, N.Y. as part of that preparation.

In a March Senate hearing, then-head of U.S. European Command, Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti warned members that the U.S. needed to be able to respond to Russia’s movement of weapons systems into the Arctic.

Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., asked on where the Defense Department stood on developing micro nuclear reactors to serve energy needs in austere environments such as the Arctic.

Earlier this year, the Pentagon posted a request for information on the feasibility of developing mobile nuclear reactors, transportable by truck to use in theater.

The project even listed a dozen remote locations that could be powered by such a reactor. Those included Thule, Greenland and Fort Greely, Alaska.

Concerns besides the Arctic at Wednesday’s hearing includes a combination of political instability, economic crises and water shortages that have and will likely continue to plague nations in both North Africa and the Middle East.

Those factors stand to exacerbate already hostile conditions.

Langan-Riekhof stressed that while there hasn’t been a major conflict over water shortages yet, situations such as those in Syria and Libya had other factors, water shortages compounded problems.

“One area is water disputes,” she said. “That has not yet to date led as a single cause to conflict between two nations. But moving forward, future constraints, particularly in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia – areas with extreme drought – water supplies will be challenged going forward.”

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