Examining Arctic Opportunities and Capabilities: Does the U.S. have the Infrastructure, Ships and Equipment Required?

The Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, held an event on Aug. 18 to examine and assess numerous policy questions, including:

  • Can any Arctic policy be sustained without enduring U.S. capabilities?
  • Will change in the Arctic region encourage other countries to become more actively operational in the area?
  • Does the U.S. have the robust ability to be a presence in the Arctic?
  • How can the U.S. better operate side-by-side with Arctic allies?
  • Are Arctic Council observer nations already more capable of Arctic operations than the U.S.?


Jack Spencer, Vice President of the Heritage Foundation’s Economic Section, and Admiral Robert Papp, Special Representative for the Arctic at the U.S. Department of State, gave opening keynote remarks.


With the discussion moderated by James E. Dean, the featured speakers were:

  • H.E. Geir Haarde, Ambassador of Iceland to the U.S. and former Prime Minister
  • Isaac Edwards, Senior Council for Chairman Lisa Murkowski, U.S. Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources
  • Luke Coffey, Margaret Thatcher Fellow at the Heritage Center


In his opening statement, Spencer said the most important issues in the Arctic are the environment, economic development, and security. The first issue that comes to mind from those not living in the Arctic is security, he said. He added that if the U.S. does not come up with solutions to Arctic issues, others will, and perhaps the U.S. won’t be happy with their solutions.


In his keynote address, Adm. Papp said advocacy for icebreakers was a hoped for outcome of the upcoming GLACIER conference. (Held on Aug. 31 in Anchorage, Alaska.) He said the Arctic Council is a consensus-based organization, and Russia needs to be on board. Although he is excited about U.S. leadership, he is concerned about the nation’s long-term commitment to the region.


Papp said that in Alaska’s Arctic strategy, infrastructure development is the common theme. Icebreakers need to be built, and a deepwater port needs to be developed. The port of Nome is close to where an Arctic port needs to be, but it is very shallow.


Papp reflected on the history of Iqaluit (capital of Canada’s Nunavut territory) and northern shipping routes. Looking at maritime sea powers, Papp cited his studies of Venice, the world’s premier maritime power from the late 1300s to the early 1500s, and Singapore, which became the number one transshipment point in Asia.


Singapore is a small, vulnerable nation that maintains strong geo-strategic relations and partnerships with many countries. Singapore is a modern-day Venice because it understood what it needed to do for success.


Discussing Arctic sea routes, Papp said their use could save shippers 8-10 days in transit times. The Transpolar route, which would be the shortest, is predicted to open up within the next decade.


He highlighted that all the vectors for the different Arctic shipping routes end up at the same place: Iceland. Singapore is establishing a relationship with Iceland while it is developing its ports. But in DC, there is no focus on the long-term. In the meantime, nations like Singapore and Iceland are preparing for future prosperity.


Asked if Nome could put out a plan to deepen its port by an additional 28 feet, Adm. Papp said that this is an Army Corps of Engineers project. The challenge in that location is that bedrock is not far below the surface.


Starting the featured discussion, Haarde said that Iceland, unlike Alaska, has infrastructure that is superior to the U.S. While Iceland still needs 10-15 years to be at full capacity, he said, its infrastructure is probably why China is interested so strongly in the country; China wants to explore its own opportunities in the Arctic.


Haarde said commercial fishing needs to be managed in a sustainable way. He was disappointed that five Arctic countries agreed on an arrangement for polar fishing and did not include Iceland. Iceland would still like to be included.


Discussing search and rescue, Haarde said Iceland is ideally placed to be the hub for these missions. Ocean liners and cruise ships would pass by Iceland and would be at risk for accidents, making a search and rescue hub a good idea. He said Iceland is interested in pursuing this type of partnership with anyone interested.


Edwards said the infrastructure in Iceland, Norway, Finland and Sweden is something you don’t see in Canada, Greenland, and Alaska. With infrastructure, there are two different types of Arctics and the U.S. has a long way to go to get to the higher level.


Arctic policy needs to be institutionalized both within Congress and the administration so that it is a priority that lasts beyond the chairmanship of the Arctic Council, Edwards said.


He added that public-private partnerships involving the Army Corps of Engineers, other public entities, and private entities can be worthwhile during times of difficult budget situations. When the Corps looked at Nome’s deepwater port, it allowed local public entities to make the project happen. This now needs to include private partnerships.


Luke Coffey focused his comments on the security aspects because “you can’t discuss the future of the Arctic without discussing security.” He said Russia is controlled at the top by the Kremlin, and he suspects the Kremlin will use the Arctic Council to support its agenda.


Coffey said the foreign affairs ministers and the defense ministers in European countries will give two very different opinions about Russia.


He described the three areas of Russia’s Arctic security dynamic:

  1. President Vladimir Putin’s vision of Russia’s role in the world. Russia’s behavior today is not Cold War Russia, but rather imperial behavior. It is a 21st century Russia with 18th and 19th century ambitions. The Arctic is a way to rally the public way around the flag with very low risk and low cost. Half of Russia’s territory is in the Arctic, which means the Russians have a lot of leeway within their borders.
  2. Economic, in that a lot of undiscovered oil and gas is located in the Arctic. Russia is predicted to spend $3.1 billion in the Arctic region, 70 percent of which will be public financing. In 1974, Russia spent 76 percent of its budget on the Arctic.
  3. A Northern Sea Route in that Russia will gain quite a bit from increased transit. Fees are high from the use of icebreakers to travel the route from end to end.


Coffey said that overall, what the Russians do inside their borders is their prerogative and their own business. “But when you look at what they are doing outside of their borders in the Ukraine and other countries, you see the real interests, which is why the high north capabilities need to be watched.”


As an alliance, NATO is divided on the issue of the Arctic, Coffey said. And until this is resolved, NATO won’t be able to play an active role.


In the Arctic, sovereignty is security, which means that each Arctic nation should respect the others’ sovereignty. He said the U.S. and other Arctic nations are far away from being able to fulfill that requirement.


Raising future security challenges and how to best prepare for them, Coffey said there shouldn’t be any concerns as long as Russia continues to develop its military within its borders. If the development extends outside the borders, then there’s a concern.


Lastly, Coffey mentioned Norway, which has a great track record working with Russia across their shared border. These countries have solved their problems in the past with “good old fashioned bilateral work.”


Harde added that Arctic issues need to be kept separate from other international issues to see if cooperation is possible. It is also important to listen to the perspective of other countries.