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America, Allies, & The Arctic: NORTHCOM Commander Talks Polar Strategy – EXCLUSIVE

Posted by Robbin Laird on

In an exclusive interview in advance of Wednesday’s new US-Canadian agreement on Artic cooperation, Gen. Charles Jacoby — the Army four-star who leads both the US-Canadian NORAD and US Northern Command — spoke to AOL regulars Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake about the national security aspects of US policy at the top of the world, where global climate change is creating new opportunities for trade, for energy exploration, and for conflict. What follows is Laird and Timperlake’s analysis and extensive excerpts from the interview.

For most Americans — to the extent they even think about the Arctic — the Far North is either an ecological preserve or a energy exploration zone, in either case with security and defense concerns distant considerations. But the Far North is changing fast, and the new reality is that managing security in the Arctic is a sine qua non for resource development, aviation, seaborne trade, and environmental protection.

Climate change is creating a new Arctic environment and with it a new strategic situation. New transportation routes, new resources, new security challenges, and new defense dynamics are inevitable — and very little of this is at America’s discretion. Global dynamics, indeed globalization itself, is pushing the Arctic onto the center stage. The US really faces one of two choices: ignore the Arctic and fail to protect its interests, or shape an effective approach that rolls out resources appropriately over time and in concert with allies.

The opening of the Arctic changes the global dynamic in three main ways:

First, new transportation routes already are opening up and over time, direct routes between the Atlantic and the Pacific will be possible. The Northern Sea Route along the arctic coast of Russia eventually will reduce a maritime journey between East Asia and Western Europe from 21,000 km using the Suez Canal to 12,800 km, cutting transit time by 10-15 days. Northern Europe in particular will take on an increasingly important role as it becomes connected with the Pacific in a new way.

Second, Russia in Asia and Russia in Europe become connected, upending the naval balance in the Pacific. With the Northern Sea Route, Moscow’s Pacific fleet can easily reinforce those in the Atlantic and vice versa, overcoming the two-front problem that has bedeviled Russian strategy as far back as its devastating defeat in the Tsushima Straits back in 1905. Russia will be able to shape a strategic reality at the top of the world and leverage that position for power projection southward.

Third, there are significant resources at stake: oil, gas and rare earth minerals, to name a few. The Arctic Five — Russia, the US, Canada, Norway and Denmark — are the major claimants to the known resources. But others are eagerly involved in staking claims to what is not claimed and pouching on what is.

Most ominiously, an increasingly assertive China has clearly marked the Arctic as a domain of strategic significance by their land grab for rare earth minerals in Greenland, their building of new icebreakers, and their focus on the strategic impact of the new transportation routes for commercial and military purposes. Much as the recent Chinese e-passports lay claim to resources in the South China Sea and India, their activities in the Arctic are clear indications of intent.

For Gen. Jacoby, the key to success is having a clear idea about the way ahead and investing in key capabilities. In addition, working closely with allies, above all the Canadians, is crucial to Arctic security that is both effective and cost-effective.

First, he said, we need to identify what we’re missing that is needed to meet the requirements for Arctic security and defense.

“Earlier this year, [U.S. Coast Guard Commandant] Admiral Papp and I identified four key capability gaps in the Arctic. Those are communications, domain awareness, infrastructure and presence,” Jacoby told me. “We need to focus our investments in enhancing capabilities in each of those areas over time.”

Second, because of the difficulty building up infrastructure in the region, there is a need to have a coordinated inter-governmental approach, including the state of Alaska, to build out infrastructure over time.

“The Arctic is a challenging environment in which to work and for which to plan. A key element is to shape a flexible, agile and responsive approach with our mission partners. Instead of having separate bases and facilitates in the region, we are looking to have a consolidated approach,” Jacoby went on.

“We simply cannot afford to have unnecessarily redundant facilities in the Arctic region. The different stakeholders need to work together to share in building these capabilities. We need an inclusive approach to this challenge, and in this case, an opportunity as well,” the general said. “We are using our exercise programs to explore those capabilities gaps and look for high-payoff investments that we can make. We are working with our components, especially the Navy and Air Force, to help build to those capabilities. And because we are taking an allied and whole-of-government approach, capabilities can be leveraged not just from the services, but from other agencies, from the commercial sector, or from allies like Canada.”

“One of the things we’re doing as part of our Arctic campaign plan is we’re forming an Arctic board with the University of Alaska at Fairbanks to bring together all of the stakeholders to talk about this,” Jacoby said.

Third, the infrastructure required will need a mix of land-based, sea-based, and even space-based assets.

“A key element is to shape forward operating bases in Alaska and the Arctic. There are going to be several stakeholders in the area. We need to be willing and looking at ways to share amongst all stakeholders. Shore-based facilities might need to be complemented with offshore facilities,” Jacoby said. “[But] even in the warm season — in fact, especially in the warm season — hardened ships, whether they’re icebreakers or hardened Arctic-capable ships, are going to be required to do our most basic missions of safety, security and defense. You won╒t be able to do it completely from shore-based facilities.”

In space, Jacoby went on, “for example, we will need better satellite coverage of the region. But it doesn’t have to be a DoD satellite, or even an American satellite.”

Working with partners is crucial across the public-private divide as well. Commercial partners need both economic growth and environmental security, and the firms involved in both will need new capabilities to do their jobs — capabilities which can be shared with the US military and security agencies. “There are investments that all the stakeholders can make, whether they are the U.S. government, Canada, the State of Alaska, or commercial enterprises,” Jacoby said.

Gen. Jacoby emphasized that we have time to prepare wisely, not time to dither foolishly. “Three or four NORAD commanders from now, the Secretary of Defense or the Canadian Minister of Defense is going to ask, who is coming back and forth through the Bering Straits, what are they doing in the Arctic, what are their capabilities, and does that represent a threat?” Jacoby asked. “We can wait and surge capabilities to respond and spend enormous amounts of money in a crisis, or we can try to shape the capabilities we need over time to be prepared to answer those questions.”

What do you think?