As ice gives way to navigable ocean, the U.S. Coast Guard has estimated that there has been a 300-percent increase in human activity in the Arctic, requiring a new era of public-private partnership. These changing conditions raise the strategic stakes and offer unprecedented new opportunities and challenges for U.S. interests.
On the one hand, melting sea ice will create cheaper, faster shipping lanes between the world's major markets and unlock Arctic energy development, creating a race for 22 percent of the world's undiscovered resources — many of which lie within U.S. waters. On the other hand, increased sea traffic, overlapping territorial claims, and competing economic interests raise important questions about sovereignty, freedom of navigation, and lawful resource development, necessitating stronger regulations and closer international cooperation.
The nations most affected by these dramatic changes have recognized the growing importance of the Arctic and are investing in their communities, economies, and defense.
Russia has staked its claim as the undisputed leader in the Arctic, going so far as to plant a titanium flag on the North Pole. This has been accompanied by aggressive investment, including ambitious new Arctic airfields, bases, and energy infrastructure from which it can project power on regional choke points. Russia continues to modernize its nuclear submarines and add new icebreakers to its current fleet of over 40, including the recent launch of the world's largest and most powerful nuclear icebreaker — designed for military purposes.
Many of our NATO allies — five of which are Arctic nations — have followed suit. Denmark and Greenland have agreed to develop large deposits of rare earth materials and uranium, while Norway has ramped up production of liquefied natural gas (LNG) in the High North. Citing its "unpredictable neighbor to the east," Norway increased its defense budget by 9.8 percent in 2016 in order to protect its investments in the Arctic, announcing plans for $19.8 billion in additional defense spending over the next 20 years, prioritizing investment in Arctic capabilities and platforms such as the F-35 fighter aircraft and new submarines. Close NATO partners Sweden and Finland have also increased defense spending, and while it has no standing army, Iceland agreed in June to allow U.S. forces to be stationed there for the first time since 2006.
Conversely, the U.S. has witnessed a worrying decline in its own capability and investment. The U.S. once led the way in Arctic development, constructing the Distant Early Warning (DEW) radar network and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Today tells a different story. The U.S. has just two functioning icebreakers, down from the eight it once maintained. Recognizing the significant capability gaps in the Arctic, the White House unveiled its Arctic strategy, creating the Arctic Executive Steering Committee to realign U.S. focus. However, the U.S. government cannot afford to go it alone; as before, the government will depend on the partnership of local communities, our allies, and private infrastructure investment.
The Department of Interior's review of its five-year oil and gas leasing program – which proposes two new lease sales in the Arctic – could not come at a more crucial time. Private investment and U.S. presence in the Arctic have been underpinned by the oil and gas industry, and it is important to keep all options on the table in the rapidly-changing context of the Arctic. It seems odd then, that just as the world's attention turns to the region, there is a vocal minority in the U.S. urging the administration to foreclose the possibility of future Arctic development, turning its back on the region at precisely the moment when we need to be working with our allies and partners to expand our capabilities.
As two former Commanders of NATO militaries, let us be clear: removing Arctic lease sales will only further signal a strategic withdrawal from the region. This decision will have a profound effect on our ability to project presence and maintain U.S. interests in the Arctic. Energy and natural resources have long provided the lifeblood for economic investment and growth, buoying the local economy, supporting communities on the North Slope, and providing a foundation for continued military investment. With a resurgent Russia and complicated border issues that require intricate diplomacy, it is time for the U.S. to resume its place as a global leader in the Arctic and back its claims with action.