The Pentagon needs more icebreakers and strategic ports and better communications to prevent Russia and China from controlling new sea lanes in the Arctic, senior military and defense officials told Congress on Tuesday.
Air Force Gen. Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy, commander of the Northern Command, warned that U.S. adversaries view the Arctic as military avenues for future conventional missile and other attacks on the homeland.
“The threats facing the United States and Canada are real and significant,” Gen. O’Shaughnessy told the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on readiness. “The Arctic is no longer a fortress wall, and our oceans are no longer protective moats; they are now avenues of approach for advanced conventional weapons and the platforms that carry them.”
Gen. O’Shaughnessy said China and Russia are working together in seeking greater access to the Arctic, although Moscow mainly wants military advantage while Beijing is pursuing economic benefits. China has announced it is planning a “Polar Silk Road” as part of its global ambition to expand its power and influence.
The activities of both states have led other Arctic nations including the U.S., Canada, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland to develop closer security ties, said Gen. O’Shaughnessy, who is also commander of the U.S.-Canada North American Aerospace Defense Command.
Russia has 38 active icebreakers, including 10 capable of breaking through ice up to six feet thick. China recently commissioned several new icebreakers and announced plans for a nuclear-powered heavy icebreaking ship as part of its polar ambitions.
Militarily, the Russians are building and expanding military facilities in the Arctic, including multiple air bases. In September, Moscow deployed Bastion coastal defense cruise missiles opposite Alaska in the Bering Sea and is also placing long-range cruise missiles in the region.
“By fielding advanced, long-range cruise missiles … and expanding its military presence in the region, Russia has left us with no choice but to improve our homeland defense capability and capacity,” Gen. O’Shaughnessy said.
China is investing heavily in the Arctic and “is determined to exploit the region’s economic and strategic potential,” the four-star general said.
The Pentagon has scrambled to meet the threat. Congress recently funded construction of six icebreakers to bolster the sole 1970s-era heavy icebreaker deployed by the Coast Guard, which also has only one medium-sized icebreaker.
Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Dan Sullivan, Alaska Republican, said there is a growing recognition in Congress, the State Department and the media of the challenges faced in the Arctic, but that the Pentagon “has been slow to recognize the threat and even slower to address it with real capabilities.”
“We’re improving, but we’ve got a long way to go,” Mr. Sullivan said.
Mr. Anderson acknowledged the limitations but added the risk of war in the Arctic currently is low. Great-power competition in the region is increasing, bringing with it strategic tensions. “We are certainly in a competition,” he said.
Russia is building bases and deploying forces in the Arctic that could be used to threaten access to resource-rich region, while China is seeking to become an Arctic power despite not holding any territory in the region, Mr. Anderson said.
“There is also a distinct risk that China may repeat the predatory economic behavior in the Arctic that it has exhibited in other regions to further its strategic ambitions,” Mr. Anderson said.
Gen. O’Shaughnessy said one requirement is better communications in the Arctic. Currently, satellite-based communications in the upper latitudes of Alaska make for limited military and civilian communications.
The closest port near the Arctic capable of handling U.S. destroyers or heavy icebreakers is 1,500 miles from the Arctic Circle.
Sen. Angus King, Maine independent, noted that China has declared it is a “near polar” nation and wants to extend its military capabilities into the Far North.
“I’m declaring Maine a near-Caribbean nation,” Mr. King joked.