Climate Change Adds New Urgency To U.S. Navy's Arctic Strategy
NOEL KING, HOST:
All right. Looking much further north now to the Arctic. Today, a panel in the U.S. House will hear how climate change affects national security. The U.S. Navy is especially interested in this question because sea ice is shrinking, and that has brought more commercial activity to that region, a lot of it from U.S. rivals. Zachariah Hughes from Alaska Public Media has the story.
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ZACHARIAH HUGHES, BYLINE: On the flight deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, each takeoff shakes everything from your shoes to your teeth.
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HUGHES: The aircraft carrier's cruising through the Gulf of Alaska as part of Northern Edge, a large-scale training exercise that happens every two years.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We are catching anywhere from six to 25 aircraft on this recovery (ph).
HUGHES: The Roosevelt is the first aircraft carrier to take part in these exercises in a decade, where the general aim is to get Marines, seamen, soldiers, Coasties and airmen all working together toward the same mission.
DANIEL DWYER: It sounds easier said than done.
HUGHES: Rear Admiral Daniel Dwyer commands the nine ships in the Roosevelt strike group. The Navy always participates in Northern Edge, but climate change is adding a new urgency to the training. Dwyer says that is driven by more activity in Arctic waters.
DWYER: When you see the shrinking of the polar ice cap, opening of sea lanes, more traffic through those areas, then it's the Navy's responsibility to protect America from those approaches.
HUGHES: The Defense Department views the threat of military conflict in the Arctic as low, but it's alarmed by increasing activity from Russia and China. A recent report by the Government Accountability Office on the Navy's role in the Arctic notes that abundant natural resources like gas, minerals and fish stocks are becoming more accessible as the polar ice cap melts.
Speaking at this year's Coast Guard Academy commencement, National Security Adviser John Bolton says the military will play a part reasserting American influence over the Arctic.
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JOHN BOLTON: We want the High North to be a region of low tension, where no country seeks to coerce others through military buildup or economic exploitation.
HUGHES: Alaska already has substantial Army and Air Force assets, with the Coast Guard spread throughout the state as well. And the Navy runs submarine exercises beneath the sea ice off of Alaska's northern coast. But until last fall, no U.S. aircraft carrier had crossed above the Arctic Circle since 1991.
JOHN ALEXANDER: If you're going to be a neighbor, you have to be in the neighborhood.
HUGHES: Vice Admiral John Alexander commands the Navy's 3rd Fleet, which is responsible for the Northern Pacific, including the Bering Sea and Alaska Arctic. The military is candid that the warming climate is opening up transit routes that sea ice has long locked in.
ALEXANDER: We're going to have to ensure that there's free and open transit of those waters.
HUGHES: According to that same GAO report, though, most of the Navy's surface ships aren't designed to operate in icy water. However, Navy leaders say crews are trained to carry out their missions as well as any other nations.
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HUGHES: Back on his observation deck, Rear Admiral Dwyer says given what's currently expected of it, the Navy can operate just fine in the Arctic for the time being.
DWYER: Regardless of the conditions - day, night, good weather, bad weather, flat seas, heavy seas - it's the same procedure every time.
HUGHES: But even if you can operate in the Arctic, you still have to get there. According to the Coast Guard, Russia has more than 40 icebreakers, including three new gargantuan nuclear-powered vessels designed to ply sea lanes along the Northern Sea Route. The U.S. military, by contrast, has just two working icebreakers.
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HUGHES: But the Navy's attention is shifting north, and the Trump administration is expected to release a new Arctic strategy in June.
For NPR News, I'm Zachariah Hughes on the USS Theodore Roosevelt.
(SOUNDBITE OF WESS MEETS WEST'S "THE TRUTH ABOUT THE WIND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.