WASHINGTON Feb 27 The U.S. Navy is mapping out
how to expand its presence in the Arctic beginning around 2020,
given signs that the region's once permanent ice cover is
melting faster than expected, which is likely to trigger more
traffic, fishing and resource mining.
"The Arctic is all about operating forward and being ready.
We don't think we're going to have to do war-fighting up there,
but we have to be ready," said Rear Admiral Jonathan White, the
Navy's top oceanographer and navigator, and director of the
Navy's climate change task force.
"We don't want to have a demand for the Navy to operate up
there, and have to say, 'Sorry, we can't go,'" he said.
The Navy this week released an "aggressive" update to its
2009 Arctic road map after a detailed analysis of data from a
variety of sources showed that seasonal ice is disappearing
faster than had been expected even three years ago.
The document said the Bering Strait was expected to see open
conditions about 160 days a year by 2020, with the deep ocean
routes of the Transpolar transit route forecast to be open for
up to 45 days annually by 2025.
The document includes dozens of specific tasks and deadlines
for Navy offices, including calling for better research on
rising sea levels and the ability to predict sea ice thickness,
assessment of satellite communications and surveillance needs,
and evaluation of existing ports, airfields and hangars.
It also puts a big focus on cooperation with other Arctic
nations and with the U.S. Coast Guard, which is grappling with
the need to build a new $1 billion ice-breaking ship.
The Navy is conducting a submarine exercise in the Arctic
next month, and plans to participate in a joint training
exercise with the Norwegian and Russian military this summer.
White said the Navy's new road map was aimed at answering
"the billion dollar question" of how much it would cost to
prepare for an increased naval presence in the Arctic, and
trying to determine what investments were needed when.
"We're trying to use this road map to really be able to
answer that question," White said, noting that early
smaller-scale investments could help avert bigger bills in the
He said efforts were under way now in the Navy to identify
specific requirements for weather-hardened ships and other
equipment, land-based infrastructure, and better bandwidth for
satellite and shore-based communications capabilities.
The Office of Naval Research and the Pentagon's Defense
Advanced Research Projects Agency are already funding numerous
Arctic-focused projects with industry, White said, predicting
increased public-private projects in recent years.
He said he realized U.S. military budgets are under
pressure, but hoped the plan would help undergird Arctic-related
budget requests in coming years by showing lawmakers that the
Navy had carefully studied and evaluated its options.
"As far as I'm concerned, the Navy and Coast Guard's area of
responsibility is growing," White said. "We're growing a new
ocean, so our budget should be growing in line with that."
The Navy has long operated submarines in the region, and
flies surveillance and unmanned aircraft as needed, but by 2020
it plans to boost the number of personnel trained for Arctic
operations. By 2030, as the Arctic Ocean becomes increasingly
ice-free, the Navy said it would have the training and personnel
to respond to crises and national security emergencies.
The Navy's updated road map noted that the Arctic has
significant oil, gas and mineral resources, including some rare
earth minerals now supplied mainly by China, and estimated
hydrocarbon resources of over $1 trillion.
Those resources are attractive to big multinational
corporations and other countries, but they face big financial,
technical and environmental risks due to the harshness of the
environment, and the unpredictable weather, White said.
"If we do start to see a rush, and people try to get up
there too fast, we run the risk of catastrophes," he said,
urging a more gradual, measured move into the region by the
private sector. "Search and rescue in the cold ice-covered water
of the Arctic is not somewhere we want to go."
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Ken Wills)