Initiative tackles new defense, security challenges of warming Arctic

A 25-foot harbor patrol boat passes by the 399-foot U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star on March 10, 2010, as it sits moored at a dock in Seattle. The Polar Star is the United States' last vessel capable of breaking through the heaviest ice of the Arctic Circle. The Coast Guard is planning for a new heavy icebreaker, part of U.S. preparations for a warming Arctic opening to new marine traffic. (Elaine Thompson/AP File Photo)
A 25-foot harbor patrol boat passes by the 399-foot U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star on March 10, 2010, as it sits moored at a dock in Seattle. The Polar Star is the United States' last vessel capable of breaking through the heaviest ice of the Arctic Circle. The Coast Guard is planning for a new heavy icebreaker, part of U.S. preparations for a warming Arctic opening to new marine traffic. (Elaine Thompson/AP File Photo)

Newport — A first-of-its-kind initiative to take a multinational approach to security and defense challenges in the Arctic kicked off Tuesday at the Naval War College.

Representatives from the U.S., Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Norway gathered here for the Newport Scholars Arctic Initiative. Sweden also is participating but didn't send anyone to the three-day event.

"No one person, no one navy, or no one nation has all the knowledge and all the capability to fully anticipate and adapt to an opening Arctic," said Walter Berbrick, who is co-leading the initiative and is the director of the Arctic Studies Group at the Naval War College.

A rapidly warming Arctic climate is making way for increased maritime traffic and human activity in previously inaccessible areas. Berbrick called the region a "thawing mystery waiting to be unlocked." Participants in the Arctic initiative will change that by spending the next year researching plausible maritime strategy options for the region and later presenting them to national security leaders, "giving a more complete and accurate picture of the changes taking place on, below and above this new ocean, and a better understanding of how we can apply and integrate seapower into it," Berbrick said.

Russia, an Arctic nation, was notably absent from the event, given current Department of Defense policy that restricts U.S. military cooperation with Russia "with exception of safety and operational deconfliction," Berbrick said. He's hoping Russia will be able to participate down the line, and that the "deep freeze" in military cooperation between the U.S. and Russia is a "stark reminder that our actions on the world stage do not happen in a vacuum."

News reports have detailed Russia's military buildup in the Arctic, with some speculating that it could lead to a conflict between the U.S. and Russia, but Berbrick said that a miscalculation or a mistake "are the most likely catalysts to the confrontation in the Arctic."

"We want to lock in as fast as we can further confidence-building measures to prevent conflict, accidents and miscalculation in the region," he continued. "And this Newport Arctic Initiative is a critical first step."

The co-leaders of the initiative, Berbrick and retired Rear Adm. Lars Saunes, who retired as head of the Royal Norwegian Navy last year, said China's efforts to gain influence in the region pose the biggest threat to a free and open Arctic.

The Coast Guard Academy in New London has taken an interest in the region. In 2014, the academy established a think tank called the Center for Arctic Study and Policy to help inform Coast Guard strategy and policy in the Arctic. Cara Condit, executive director of the center, is participating in the Arctic initiative, which she said will build upon the Coast Guard's relationship with the Naval War College and its involvement in the Arctic Coast Guard Forum, formally established at the academy in 2015 as a way for the coast guards of the eight Arctic nations to work out how to operate collectively in the region.

Three cadets, who are graduating from the academy this spring, have been looking at a lot of these similar issues through research projects supervised by Rebecca Pincus, who leads research for the Center for Arctic Study and Policy. The cadets traveled to Iceland to participate in "Arctic Guardian," the first of its kind search and rescue exercise in the Arctic put on by the Arctic Coast Guard Forum.

Pincus, who will join the strategic and operational research department at the Naval War College in June, also is pushing for a cadet exchange within the Coast Guard forum so they can see more of these kinds of exercises and meet their counterparts. Cadets also have participated in war games with the Norwegian Naval Academy, and there's a project between the two academies to talk about some of the same issues that will be discussed through the Arctic forum.

The Coast Guard has only two operational ice breakers, one heavy and one medium. Graduating cadets showed great interest this year in being assigned to one of those icebreakers. Pincus guessed the spike in interest was due to the Arctic becoming a high-profile area, and the Coast Guard's plan for a new heavy icebreaker and cadets wanting to get themselves lined up for that.

j.bergman@theday.com

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