Friday, November 15, 2013

Northern Lights

The Arctic is quickly become a region of geostrategic significance in world affairs. Arctic sea ice is melting rapidly, opening the sea to both oil and gas exploration and merchant shipping. The USGS estimates that 90 billion barrels of oil and 1,669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas lie undiscovered beneath the water. Shorter shipping distances are causing the once frozen waters to foam in the wake of the merchantmen that now ply them. Wherever merchant ships sail and oil rigs drill, navies follow close behind.    

The resources and shipping lanes of the Arctic

Eight nations claim EEZ rights to arctic waters and while most desire to use the newly unfrozen sea for economic development, Russia, and its Taekwondo wielding black-belt prime minister, seem bent on ruining everyone's fun. A new Cold War is brewing in the North and the Russian bear is learning to swim.

Russia plans on spending $63 billion by 2020 to improve its Arctic forces. This includes beefing up traditional land forces and deploying an Arctic squadron of ice breaking ships by 2014. Key to the Russian plan seems to be the $1.2 billion nuclear powered ice breaker, The Arctic.

But Russia is not waiting for its future plans to come into effect before flexing its muscle. According to Warships magazine, the Russians recently sent the battle-cruiser Peter the Great and ten support ships on a cruise through the sea along the Northern Sea Route (the Northeast passage). This new assertiveness comes on top of the Russian seizure of the Greenpeace vessel Arctic Sunrise and the imprisonment of the crew on trumped up charges of piracy.

Russian battle-cruiser Peter the Great
While Russian antagonism in the far north is increasing, and the Russians are retooling their fleet for Arctic operations, they still have a long way to go to meet US capabilities in the region.

Earlier this fall, the US submarine, Seawolf, traveled unseen from port in Washington state to Haakonsvern naval base in Norway via the North Pole. The Seawolf, one of the newest subs in the navy, was most likely packed with sensitive intelligence collection equipment, gathering data that will prove useful in any future Arctic naval conflict. This mission follows on one conducted by the Seawolf's sister sub, Connecticut in 2011.

USS Connecticut under Arctic ice in 2011
The ability of US subs to operate for long periods under the Arctic ice is a major advantage the US has over its Russian counterparts. While Russian nuclear subs are capable of Arctic operations and did, during the Cold War, conduct many Arctic operations, it appears the Kremlin may no longer wish to spend the billions it cost to build nukes, opting instead to build cheaper diesel-electric boats.  

While quieter, diesel-electric subs cannot stay submerged underwater, or ice for that matter, for extended periods of time. They are also slower and smaller than their nuclear brethren. For a nation determined to achieve naval dominance in the Arctic, diesel-electric submarines are not the way to power.

US nuclear powered submarines appear to be able to keep Russian ambitions in check right now, however, in the future, if the US cuts sub deployments and Russia continues its Arctic buildup, the situation may change. As the long Arctic night begins, we must keep a watchful eye on the North.

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