What the “Blue Arctic” Means for the US Military Presence in the Pacific – The Diplomat
Asia Defense | Security
Melting sea ice in the Arctic increases accessibility between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and alleviates a geographic disadvantage for the United States Navy.
The Blue Arctic, the concept that melting Arctic ice will eventually lead to navigable waters, has created a new arena for competition from the great powers. Once considered a peaceful domain such as space, the Arctic has become an essential front in the defense of the territory. Since 2020, the United States Navy, Army and Air Force have announced new Arctic strategies one after another. This is a strategic challenge for the United States, but at the same time a chance to address strategic vulnerabilities of the United States in collaboration with allies and like-minded countries, particularly Japan and the United Kingdom.
The United States released its new maritime strategy, “Advantage At Sea”, in 2020, identifying China as the most comprehensive and long-term threat. He emphasizes that prioritization is important to effectively mitigate risk; however, geographic and budgetary restrictions make it difficult to focus on China.
Unlike the People’s Liberation Army (PLAN) navy, which can focus on its Pacific front, the US Navy has two geographic fronts and much of its fleet is located on the Atlantic coast or in other places far from Asia. Given its multiple operations around the world, only a portion of the US Fleet, primarily the Pacific Fleet, could be available in a crisis or conflict to counter the Chinese Navy, numerically the largest navy in the world. Alfred Thayer Mahan once hypothesized that a two-ocean navy would weaken each fleet more than a hypothetical enemy. Just as the Russian Navy was defeated by the Japanese Lower Combined Fleet at the Battle of Tsushima (1905), even the largest navy in the world could be vulnerable when its scattered fleet countered adversaries with massive forces close to home.
The psychological split in the American strategic mind is also a problem. The US Navy has announced the reactivation of the Atlantic Fleet to focus on the again assertive Russian Navy, while declaring China a priority during the same period. Now, the United States realizes that it cannot operate everywhere, at all times, with the same efficiency, and that it needs prioritization, integrated forces, and interchangeability with its countries. allies and partners. However, setting separate strategic objectives, to counter China or Russia, will hamper the integration of US forces and interoperability with foreign navies as a combined force.
To mitigate these vulnerabilities, the Blue Arctic is key. Melting sea ice in the Arctic increases accessibility between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It opens up shorter maritime trade routes by reducing travel time and mitigates a geographic disadvantage for the US Navy, allowing rapid deployment to combine fleets in times of crisis or conflict.
The Blue Arctic can also help align the strategic attitude of a two-ocean navy. The opening of the Arctic will spill over the great competition of powers in the region and create a potential threat to the interests and prosperity of the United States. For example, Russia has expressed clear ambitions to control the Arctic by increasing its military presence with an icebreaker fleet, underground resources, an early warning system and military bases. China calls itself a “near arctic state” despite its location about 1,000 miles from the arctic, and regards the arctic region as a “polar silk road” which is a vital link in its initiative. Belt and Road. This fact indicates that the interests of bi-oceanic fleets that focus on China or Russia will merge in the Arctic region. This region requires the close combination of the two fleets. As Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday puts it, the Atlantic Fleet “has responsibilities as a component [command] for [U.S.] Northern Command and the Eastern Pacific extending to the Arctic. The Blue Arctic and the coordination of the fleets of the two oceans could also allow an efficient budget allocation as well as a deployment of forces.
To further develop this line of effort, the crucial factor is cooperation with Japan and UK. The US Arctic Strategy (2021) concludes that presence, partnership and a competent Arctic naval force are objectives for the security of national interests in the Arctic region. The coordination of bi-oceanic fleets in the Arctic can connect and promote partnership between countries in Europe and the Western Pacific. Since Japan and the UK are close to the entrances to the Arctic, they provide a great advantage to the US Navy. The Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) as well as the Royal Navy have the greatest interoperability with the US Navy and can cooperate as they once did during the Russo-Japanese War. For example, the United States and Japan play a leading role in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy (FOIP), and both promote more practical cooperation on behalf of FOIP, including defense partnerships with the UK and other European countries. FOIP’s strategic objectives, such as the promotion and establishment of the rule of law, freedom of navigation, free trade and the pursuit of economic prosperity, can be extended to the Arctic, and cooperation close, including joint exercises in this region, can strengthen the presence and partnership for peace.
As for Japan, Tokyo released its plan to build a new icebreaker in April 2021. It aims to conduct research in the arctic region for scientific purposes and will also contribute to the presence and partnership in this region. By co-hosting the Third Ministerial Meeting on Arctic Science with Iceland, Japan is also playing a key role in strengthening multilateral cooperation in the Arctic. In addition, the JMSDF could contribute to a capable arctic naval force, including the sustainability of U.S. forces, based on six decades of the Japan-U.S. Alliance and the contribution of its anti-submarine warfare capability during the cold War. Navigation by JMSDF ships such as training squadrons and joint exercises in the region is also expected to bolster U.S. objectives.
The melting ice in the Arctic will accelerate the geographic importance of these three maritime nations. Close coordination between the two sides of Eurasia will help achieve US goals in the Arctic region as well as alleviate the geographic vulnerability of the US Navy.