The Changing Arctic Region
The Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the globe. In the past 100 years, average Arctic temperatures have increased at almost twice the global average rate.
Warming air and water temperatures in the Arctic are changing the geography:
- The summer melt season is showing an accelerating net diminishment of sea ice
- Glaciers and shore-based ice sheets are also melting at an accelerated rate
- Snow over land is diminished
- Permafrost is melting
- Sub-Arctic plant and animal species are showing evidence of northward migrations
Due to the significant retreat of sea ice, previously unreachable areas have started to open for maritime use several weeks each year. The predicted rise in oil and gas development, fishing, tourism, and mineral mining could alter the region’s strategic importance. In the coming decades, the Arctic Ocean will be increasingly accessible and more broadly used by Arctic and non-Arctic nations seeking the region’s abundant resources and trade routes.
The U.S. Navy and the Arctic
The United States is an Arctic nation through the state of Alaska and its surrounding territorial and Exclusive Economic Zone waters located in and around the Arctic Circle.
The U.S. Navy has responsibilities to provide ready forces for current operations and contingency response in all the world’s oceans, including the Arctic Ocean.
The Navy acknowledges that the Arctic is currently a low threat security environment where nations are committed to resolving differences peacefully, but the Navy will be prepared to ensure national interests are protected if necessary. Navy functions in the Arctic are no different from those in other maritime regions; however, the Arctic environment makes the execution of many of these functions much more challenging.
Despite warming climate, the Arctic remains a challenging operating environment:
- Harsh climate, vast distances, remote locations
- Little infrastructure to support surface or air operations
- Limited operational polar experience in the Fleet
Given the vast distances and virtually no supporting infrastructure, naval forces without specialized equipment and operational experience face substantial impediments. Naval operations in the Arctic Ocean will require special training, extreme cold-weather modifications for systems and equipment, and complex logistics support.
The U.S. Navy’s submarine fleet has decades of experience performing missions and exercises under the sea ice, but the Navy’s surface and air forces have limited operational experience in the region. The Navy will need to periodically evaluate preparedness for operations and conduct training exercises in harsh conditions as changes occur over time in order to ensure the Navy can operate in a more accessible Arctic Ocean.
In November 2009 the Navy released the first Arctic Roadmap, which was designed to promote studies and assessments to help the Navy better understand the changing environment and its impact on future readiness, and to capture the challenges of high latitude naval operations. At the request of CNO Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the roadmap was updated in 2014 to serve as an implementation plan that outlines the Navy’s strategic approach for the Arctic Ocean and the ways and means to support the desired defense and national end states.
The 2014 Arctic Roadmap:
- Prepares the Navy to respond effectively to future contingencies
- Delineates the Navy’s Arctic leadership role within DoD
- Articulates the Navy’s support to national priorities
This roadmap emphasizes low-cost, long-lead activities that position the Navy to meet future demands. It also emphasizes cooperative activities with interagency and international partners to share capabilities, reduce cost, and maximize efficiency.
The roadmap provides direction to the Navy for the near-term (present-2020), mid-term (2020-2030), and far-term (beyond 2030), placing particular emphasis on near-term actions. In the near- to mid-term, the Navy will concentrate on:
- Improving operational capabilities, expertise, and capacity
- Extending reach
- Working collaboratively with interagency and international partners to achieve strategic objectives
In the mid-term, Navy will provide support to the Combatant Commanders, U.S. Coast Guard, and other federal agencies. In the far-term, increased periods of ice-free conditions could require the Navy to expand this support on a more routine basis.