The United States is racing to keep pace with increased activity in the once-sleepy Arctic frontier, but it is far from taking the lead.
Nations across the world are hurrying to stake claims to resources in the Arctic, which might be home to 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its untapped natural gas. The area also includes emerging fisheries and mineral deposits, and both tourist and cargo traffic is increasing along the Northern Sea Route, one of two summertime shortcuts across the top of the Earth.
The United States, which takes over the two-year rotating chairmanship of the eight-nation Arctic Council in 2015, has not ignored the Arctic, but critics say it is lagging behind the seven other countries—Russia, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Canada, and Denmark, through the semiautonomous territory of Greenland.
“On par with the other Arctic nations, we are behind—behind in our thinking, behind in our vision,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said. “We lack basic infrastructure, basic funding commitments to be prepared for the level of activity expected in the Arctic.”
The Arctic is also creating a new front for U.S. security concerns. Earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin said expanding Russia’s military presence in the Arctic was a top priority for his nation’s armed forces. Russia this year began rehabilitating a Soviet-era base on the New Siberian Islands and has pledged to restore a number of Arctic military air bases that fell into neglect after the Soviet Union’s 1991 collapse.
The Obama administration is developing a plan to implement the strategy for the Arctic that the President Barack Obama unveiled seven months ago. Critics, however, say the United States needs to back the strategy papers with more precise plans and funding. With the country still paying for two wars, the idea of spending money in an area considered a low security threat makes the Arctic an even tougher sell.
Experts on Arctic policy say the United States needs helicopters, runways, port facilities and roads in the Arctic, not to mention better accommodations in small coastal towns that have a shortage of beds and would be ill-equipped to handle an influx of tourists from a disabled cruise ship. With few assets, the U.S. might be forced to borrow from the private sector.
But the funding battle often focuses on icebreakers. The Coast Guard has three: the medium-duty Healy, which is used mostly for scientific expeditions, and two heavy icebreakers, the Polar Sea and Polar Star, both of which were built in the 1970s and are past their 30-year service lives. The Polar Star recently got a $57 million overhaul and lawmakers from Washington and Alaska want Congress to rehabilitate the Polar Sea as well.
“A half-century after racing the Russians to the moon, the U.S. is barely suiting up in the international race to secure interests in the Arctic,” Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., wrote in a recent op-ed. “We are behind and falling farther back.”