President Barack Obama’s recent trip to Alaska helped draw attention to global climate change — and to the national-security tensions that could result from a warming Arctic region.
Surveyors believe that the seabed under Arctic waters could contain hundreds of billions of barrels of untapped oil. As the North Pole becomes more accessible, and so more valuable, Arctic countries — each with its own and in some cases overlapping territorial claims — are getting ready for some serious competition.
The United States and Russia are geopolitical rivals and uneasy Arctic neighbors. More and more Russian and U.S. military forces are deploying on and under the Arctic Ocean.
These different approaches are the results of military policies and priorities going back decades. Moscow chose to invest in icebreakers to work along its vast Arctic frontier, while Washington spent its money on submarines and warplanes that are equally useful outside the polar regions.
While Obama was in Alaska, the White House announced that the administration would push for more and better icebreakers. After decades of neglect, the U.S. Coast Guard, which operates all U.S. icebreakers, possesses just three of the tough, ice-shattering vessels, and American companies own another two. These five ships must divide their time between the north and south poles, plowing paths through sea ice so other vessels can safely navigate frigid waters.
“The administration will propose,” the White House explained on its official website, “to accelerate acquisition of a replacement heavy icebreaker to 2020 from 2022, begin planning for construction of additional icebreakers and call on Congress to work with the administration to provide sufficient resources to fund these critical investments.”
But even after adding a few icebreakers, Washington will still be far behind Moscow in this category of Arctic weaponry. The Russian government owns 22 icebreakers; Russian industry possesses another 19 of the specialized vessels. Moscow has another 11 icebreakers under construction or in planning.
To be fair, Russia’s Arctic coastline is many hundreds of miles longer than that of the United States. In theory, Russia’s icebreakers are spread out over a wider area during routine, peacetime operations. In wartime, however, the Kremlin could quickly concentrate its icebreakers, which could carve channels for Russian warships far more quickly than the Pentagon could do for its own ships.
But the United States’ Arctic strategy depends less on surface ships than Russia’s strategy does. Instead, the U.S. military is betting on submarines to exert its influence in the far north.
“The submarine is the best platform to operate in the Arctic,” Commander Jeff Bierley, skipper of the U.S. Navy submarine Seawolf, told Reuters, ”because it can spend the majority of its time under the ice.”
The U.S. fleet operates 41 nuclear-powered attack subs with equipment for sailing under — and punching through — Arctic ice. Russia’s ice-capable attack-submarine force numbers just 25 vessels.
These U.S. subs likely deploy more regularly than Russia’s do. Amid economic volatility, the Kremlin has struggled to consistently fund naval deployments. Meanwhile, every two years the U.S. Navy sends a pair of attack subs into the Arctic Circle on a training and scientific mission. In the years between these ice experiments, Seawolf-class subs based in Washington state sail through the Bering Strait and under the ice cap, crossing over the top of the world and traveling from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic and then back.
The Navy designed Seawolf and her two sister ships specifically for Arctic operations. The vessels have ice-scanning sonar and equipment to help the subs force their way through the ice cap to reach the surface during emergencies.
On the ice, the two countries are at near-parity. The U.S. Army oversees three combat brigades in Alaska, each composed of roughly 3,000 soldiers. One brigade features paratroopers, another is in Stryker armored vehicles and a third is made up of reconnaissance troops.
The paratroopers regularly practice parachuting onto the Arctic ice. During one February 2015 training exercise, called Spartan Pegasus, two C-17 and two C-130 transport planes based in Alaska dropped 180 paratroopers plus two vehicles and supplies onto a training range north of the Arctic Circle, where temperatures hover around 20 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.
“The purpose of Spartan Pegasus,” the Army stated on its website, “was to validate soldier mobility across frozen terrain, a key fundamental of U.S. Army Alaska’s capacity as the Army’s northernmost command.”
The Strykers are less mobile. A C-17 — the U.S. Air Force keeps eight of the four-engine cargo planes in Alaska — can carry several Strykers, which weigh roughly 25 tons each, but the Air Force doesn’t often practice landings on Arctic runways. The Canadian air force does, however. It staged its own C-17s landings and take-offs from Arctic villages in temperatures as low as minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
So in theory the U.S. Air Force could move the Army’s Alaska-based Stryker brigade to Arctic battlegrounds. A C-17 can also drop Strykers via parachute, though the Air Force has only done this in tests.
The Russian army’s Arctic command is smaller. It controls just two brigades with armored vehicles. But combat units from outside the command regularly head north for training, in particular, paratroopers and the transport planes that ferry them. One Arctic exercise in March reportedly involved 80,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen plus more than 200 aircraft. An official photo from the war game depicts an An-72 transport plane and white-clad infantry on an airfield carved in the snow.
Russia has proved it can patrol the airspace over the Arctic. The U.S. Air Force, however, holds the northern advantage. In addition to C-17 and C-130 transports, the American air arm maintains E-3 radar planes and three fighter squadrons in Alaska — two with 20 high-tech F-22 stealth fighters each and one with 18 older F-16s.
In coming years, up to two squadrons of new F-35 stealth fighters will join the F-16s at Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks, Alaska, which will increase the Alaskan fighter fleet by at least a third. In February, the Air Force wrapped up cold-weather testing of the F-35 that proved the new radar-evading warplane can function in the Arctic climate.
“We’re pushing the F-35 to its environmental limits,” said Billie Flynn, an F-35 test pilot, “ranging from 120 degrees Fahrenheit to negative 40 degrees, and every possible weather condition in between.”
In a kind of literal Cold War, Russian forces will continue to dominate the surface of the Arctic Ocean while the American military preserves its edge below and above the ice. Meanwhile, both countries are training thousands of ground troops for Arctic ops — just in case the Cold War turns hot in the thawing polar region.
David Axe is the editor of War Is Boring and a regular contributor to the Daily Beast. He has written for Danger Room, Wired and Popular Science. His most recent graphic novel is Army of God: Joseph Kony’s War in Central Africa.