KODIAK, Alaska — In six oceans, the U.S. Navy is considered the master. In the seventh, the Arctic Ocean, it will rely on others. As global warming opens the Arctic Ocean to commercial and industrial traffic, the Navy is pushing to catch up with Russia, Canada and even Denmark in its Arctic ability. If a crisis were to happen now, the Navy lacks the ability to act in the Arctic without the help of one of those countries or the Coast Guard.
Last year, the Navy asked the War Gaming Department of the Naval War College to find out what it needs for sustained operations in the Arctic.
In the resulting 2011 Fleet Arctic Operations Game, the Navy learned how big its Arctic shortcomings are. As a force, the Navy lacks everything from bases and Arctic-capable ships to reliable communications and cold-weather clothing.
While the Hollywood image of a war game involves commanders pushing ships around a table in response to threats from another country, an operations game looks at smaller threats. A group of 88 people, including industry experts, government officials and senior level naval officers, participated in the game last September.
“We looked at search and rescue, oil spill response, maritime domain and maritime safety and security issues,” said Walter Berbrick, assistant research professor in the War Gaming Department at the Center for Naval Warfare Studies. “They were all fictional scenarios.”
The game’s conclusions: the Navy is not adequately prepared to conduct long-term maritime Arctic operations; Arctic weather conditions increase the risk of failure; and most critically, to operate in the Arctic, the Navy will need to lean on the Coast Guard, countries like Russia or Canada, or tribal and industrial partners.
To sustain operations in the Arctic, the Navy needs ice-capable equipment, accurate and timely environmental data, personnel trained to operate in extreme weather, and better communications systems. Much of the environmental data will come from other Arctic nations. “We have limited capability to sustain long-term operations in the Arctic due to inadequate icebreaking capability,” Berbrick said. “The Navy finds itself entering a new realm as it relates to having to rely on other nations.”
In the past 30 years, the Coast Guard has been on point leading maritime Arctic operations, but as the Department of Defense develops more of an interest in what is going on in the Arctic, the Coast Guard — a part of the Department of Homeland Security — will work closely with the Navy to share information.
“It’s very likely that whatever operation goes on up there would be a joint operation,” said Coast Guard Capt. Craig Lloyd, chief of response for the 17th Coast Guard District. “All of the Department of Defense and U.S. Northern Command is interested in what is happening in the Arctic.”
Navy submarines have visited the Arctic on an irregular basis for the past half-century, sailing under the Arctic ice to test equipment and conduct classified missions. Last spring, the Navy’s submarine fleet brought its newest submarines, the Virginia-class USS New Hampshire and the Seawolf-class USS Connecticut, to an organized exercise beneath an ice station. The next such exercise has been scheduled for 2013.
Surface ships are rarer in the Arctic. The Navy participates in the joint Northern Edge exercise in the Gulf of Alaska during odd-numbered years. In 2009, it brought the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis north. Last year, the cruiser USS Lake Erie and destroyer USS Decatur came north.
Trips to the true Arctic — defined as north of the Aleutian Islands — are still more infrequent, due to a lack of icebreakers. The Navy turned over its last icebreaker to the Coast Guard in 1966.
In an Arctic emergency, the Coast Guard has some resources in place and might take a lead role over the Navy. The Coast Guard routinely sends a Coast Guard C-130 from Kodiak to the Arctic to patrol, and it has relationships with people who live and work in the Arctic. During the summer the Coast Guard conducts operations in the Arctic to prepare for law enforcement, oil spills, and search and rescue.
This summer, the Coast Guard will deploy cutters to the Arctic Ocean for regular patrols.
Navy officials understand the need to conduct exercises in the Arctic so they can get ready for the real thing, but they don’t have a strategy. “We are the only Arctic nation without an Arctic strategy,” said Cmdr. Blake McBride, Arctic Affairs officer for Task Force Climate Change. “The Coast Guard and Department of Defense are working on a strategy to help answer the issue, and advocate for capabilities.”
Aside from signing National Security Presidential Directive 66, which requires the U.S. to have a presence in the Arctic, the Arctic hasn’t been a priority for the U.S. government, largely because there isn’t an immediate military threat.
“It’s becoming a higher priority, but we don’t make our own priorities,” McBride said. “We don’t foresee a military threat in the Arctic, but it doesn’t mean we will not need to be able to operate there.”
The Navy’s future plans to conduct operations in the Arctic largely depend on the budget. “It’s all about the money,” McBride said. “If you don’t have the budget or funds to invest in manpower and equipment then you don’t have anything.”
The Navy has an “Arctic Roadmap” that discusses the Navy’s future plans for the Arctic through 2014.
Navy officials have done the work called for in phase one and two of the roadmap, which largely consisted of developing research, assessing fleet readiness, completing capabilities-based assessments like the Fleet Arctic Operations Game, and formalizing cooperative agreements.
The biggest hurdle comes in the next phase, which calls for funding equipment and Arctic training. Navy officials say they are drafting a budget request to address those items.