September 2007 photo of summer ice breaking up in the Northwest Passage. Courtesy New York Times
The security concerns around the Arctic are quickly becoming hot topics in Washington but it was still a little jarring to hear Dr. Robert Huebert, a professor at the University of Calgary in Canada, speak so bluntly about the military implications of melting ice in one of the few truly placid regions remaining on the planet.
“We are already in an Arctic arms race,” said Huebert, during a panel discussion at the Center for National Policy on February 2. “We’re just not aware of it.”
Even more ominously, Huebert compared the current situation in the Arctic to Europe in 1935, implying that it is a powder keg ready to explode with dire implications for the entire world. “Everybody is preparing for the worst-case scenario,” Huebert says.
By “everybody,” Huebert is mainly referring to the nations ringing the Arctic—the United States, Canada, Russia, Norway, and Denmark. Norway and Denmark have focused their security efforts on the Arctic, Russia famously planted a flag on the North Pole seabed in 2007 and has been more assertive in its Arctic policy, the United States is increasing its presence in Alaska, and Canada, Huebert said, is “talking a lot, but not doing anything.”
China, Japan, and South Korea also have interests in the Arctic, though these nations do not border the region. China and Japan have their eyes on the Arctic’s resources while South Korea has recently emerged as the world’s leading developer of Arctic commercial vessels.
The Council on Foreign Relations’ Dr. Scott Borgerson, who moderated the panel, said the Arctic has been losing 1,000 kilometers in ice volume each year since 1995. The ocean could be ice free during the summer months at some point between 2016 and 2030 and this would open up many new shipping routes and increase the military significance of the region.
Gary Hart, the former Democratic senator from Colorado, echoed Huebert’s concern about security concerns in the Arctic. Hart compared the Northwest Passage, which could become a major shipping passage in the next decade or so, to some of the most militarized areas of the last 60 years. He likened the Passage to the Fulda Gap, which, during the Cold War, was a strategic corridor separating East and West Germany, and the Strait of Hormuz, a waterway between Iran and Oman, which today is a major choke point for the oil trade and a focus for the world’s military planners.
“Quite often geography symbolizes how we see our security,” said Hart.
One of the main issues surrounding the Northwest Passage and a strong point of contention between Canada and the U.S. is under whose jurisdiction does the waterway fall. Canada says it is their water, while the U.S. maintains that it is an international passage.
Still, United States Coast Guard Rear Admiral Gene Brooks, who has served in Alaska, said the Canadian and American militaries share intelligence in the Arctic and the forces have worked together seamlessly. The larger problem is simply getting the average American to realize that the U.S. is, indeed, an Arctic nation. This goes beyond military security, he said, and extends to issues of culture and economics.
“We need a national debate on what to do as an Arctic nation,” said Brooks.