The US Army released its strategy for the Arctic this week, highlighting its dedication to projecting power across the region in order to secure its economic and security interests as well as those of its allies. It was the latest in the military’s ongoing efforts to pivot resources toward renewed great power competition, but a plethora of buzzwords could not mask the fact that US strategy is sorely stuck in Cold War Era problems and solutions.
The unclassified version of the strategy, entitled “Regaining Arctic Dominance,” outlines the Army’s dedication to the Pentagon’s tripartite mission in the Arctic region:
1. To defend the homeland,
2. To maintain a favorable balance of power, and
3. To and ensure the Arctic domain remains free and open.
To be sure, the US needs a greater capacity to monitor, defend, and deploy in the Arctic region. The notion that it is somehow “regaining” a lost power, however, or that it can match the immense materiel support and infrastructure that Russia has developed in the region any time soon, is simply not supported by any evidence.
The Arctic is considered by the military to be one of the three frontiers of contemporary international relations, alongside space and the seabed. Each frontier is defined as such by an “undetermined sovereignty” that, in the Army’s words, serves to create a “potentially contested space.”
Such a contest has been developing in the Arctic at an increasing rate as climate change has led to the opening of new waterways and thus, trade routes.
Aside from three military bases in Alaska, however, the US has very little infrastructure in the region and only two specialized icebreaker ships compared to Russia’s 40. Further, as the strategy points out, the Arctic accounts for some 10 percent of Russia’s GDP and 20 percent of its exports, to say nothing of its historic claims to the region.
Concerning China, whose Belt and Road Initiative depends on conquering Arctic trade routes to complete its trade circuit with the Maritime Silk Road, the US is on a more equal footing. China also has two icebreakers ships, but its military access to the region is limited and its economic ties, though increasing, are as of yet dependent on smooth relations with Russia.
In all, this means that the US strategy in the Arctic will largely operate along the lines of US foreign policy strategy circa 1950–2016: US troops in return for foreign trade.
According to “Regaining the Arctic,” the US will focus on equipping, training, and deploying troops and materiel primarily in support of its allies and economic partners among the Arctic Five. In all likelihood though, guaranteeing a free and open Arctic for US allies will likely mean something closer to preventing Russia and China from increasing access the precious rare earth metals, oil, and natural gas reserves that the Arctic holds.
This Cold War mentality is not enough to meet the demands of the modern battlespace. And the promise of a “calibrated” multi-domain presence is not enough to overcome that fact.
If the US is to command the arctic it must develop much more specific means of deploying new technologies and troops, and it must draft much, much more specific and achievable objectives for the region. Projecting power for its own sake is not enough. Fearing Russia for the sake of the twentieth century is not enough.
The Biden administration ought to quantify and qualify exactly what the US wants do in the Arctic, how it wants to do it, and how long it intends to do it for. Anything less is a blank check for another deployment the nation can’t adequately hold.