The Port of Nome plays a role in Navy’s new Arctic strategy
The Department of the Navy recently published A Blue Arctic, which they describe as “A Strategic Blueprint for the Arctic.” The 28-page document looks at the next two decades of Naval planning for the region which they see as becoming increasingly important in the global economy. They see their mission as fostering compliance with existing rules to assure a peaceful and prosperous Arctic region. “This regional blueprint focuses on cooperation, but ensures America is prepared to compete effectively and efficiently to maintain favorable regional balances of power,” reads the document.
According to A Blue Arctic, 90 percent of world trade travels by ocean. The amount of seaborne trade is expected to double in the next 15 years. As Arctic waters become more navigable, the volume of cargo and natural resources transiting to global markets will increase dramatically. The role of the Navy will be to deter aggression and ensure freedom of the seas. Also, the Arctic region holds about 30 percent of the Earth’s undiscovered natural gas reserves, 13 percent of oil reserves and perhaps most significantly, one trillion dollars worth of rare earth minerals. As the oceans warm fish stocks shift northward, potentially creating challenges to the international prohibition on Arctic fishing. Russian President Vladimir Putin estimated the mineral wealtdh of the Arctic at $30 trillion.
Russia has 15,000 miles of Arctic coastline, so it’s no surprise they are already heavily invested in Arctic infrastructure. Their current inventory of icebreakers is at 46, with more under construction. They have long-established ports along their Arctic coast and the Northern Sea Route, which connects the Far East with Europe, and runs entirely through Russia’s exclusive economic zone.
According to A Blue Arctic, Russia has militarized its northern flank. The Navy believes “the escalatory and non-transparent nature of Russia’s military activity and unlawful regulation of maritime traffic along the Northern Sea Route undermines global interests, promotes instability, and ultimately degrades security in the region.”
The U.S. government is taking issue with the Russian efforts to force shippers to use Russian pilots and pay for use of the Northern Sea Route. The Russians feel justified in this because they are using their significant icebreaker fleet to keep the route open as long as possible and because the NSR runs entirely in their Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ for short. The U.S. counters that Russian restrictions on navigation over the route are inconsistent with international law, citing UNCLOS, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Ironically, the U.S. is one of a handful of nations, which has not ratified UNCLOS.
As an important manufacturing nation China also has a vital interest in the Northern Sea Route. A Blue Arctic describes growing Chinese power as a threat to international rules-based order.
The effort to project power into the Arctic involves Nome in that it has been selected by the U.S. government as a deep water port site which can provide services to military and other vessels headed into Arctic waters. The 2020 water development bill authorized $379 million for the federal share of developing the Port of Nome to serve in this role. The expansion of the Port of Nome will have an impact on residents in the City of Nome.
“Over the last many years, we’ve had visits from the top brass in the military as well as in the Coast Guard,” said Nome Mayor John Handeland. “They all are seeing that migrating north with the needs for their deployment is something that is needed as a result of the Arctic. Global warming, open shipping lanes and additional traffic both from a civilian perspective as well as military activity associated with our good neighbor to the left. In addition to just the Coast Guard there is additional military presence that will be happening in our area, whether we like it or not, and that we need to be poised in such a manner that we can assist them.”
The more hawkish advocates of projecting military power into the Arctic cite Russia’s current construction of an armed icebreaker. The Maritime Executive, a trade publication of the marine industry, calls an icebreaking rescue tug currently under construction “a combat icebreaker.” It is equipped with cruise missiles and a deck gun. “The future Ivan Papanin combines the functions of a tugboat, patrol, icebreaker and a scientific vessel. It can solve an unlimited number of different tasks and, thanks to the inherent design solutions, can work in the Arctic region as efficiently as possible,” said United Shipbuilding Corporation chairman Georgy Poltavchenko, speaking to Russian media. The Russians see the vessel as an answer to Norway’s similar vessel. A second Russian vessel of similar capabilities is scheduled for delivery in 2024 and three giant Arktika class nuclear icebreakers are scheduled for delivery over the next few years.
As none of the U.S. Navy’s ships are ice hardened, the Navy is hoping the Northern Sea Route can remain open to transit. “The Russians are treating the Northern Sea Route like it’s the Mississippi River,” said a retired Coast Guard officer, quoted in Defense News. “And they’re requiring that if you take your tanker through there, you have to have a Russian pilot and you have to be escorted by a Russian icebreaker. So in order to pass through, you have to pay the piper because this isn’t the high seas.”
A less strident analysis of the situation is offered by Lyle Goldstein, a research professor at the U.S. Naval War College. “One can hardly accuse the Kremlin of ‘aggression’ when its small deployments have all been to its own territories. These deployments, moreover, can also be justified as quite necessary for the safety of ships plying the NSR or to respond to an environmental emergency. And it is far from clear that a few hundred soldiers bunking in an Arctic Trefoil and staring at walruses on Alexandra Land are a threat to anyone in particular.” Goldstein goes on to say that American strategists must recognize that Russia is spending billions on unarmed icebreakers instead of warships such as aircraft carriers or nuclear subs. “Rather, the Kremlin has taken a page from China’s book and pursued commercial profits and development over military superiority,” said Goldstein. “Such commercial impulses are to be encouraged.”