Brave New Ocean: Opening Arctic Waterways Pose Challenges for US Navy

as melting polar ice uncovers a potential treasure trove of untapped resources in the north, can the us navy achieve the forward presence it deems necessary to uphold international norms?

A rapidly warming Arctic, accompanied by the record low levels of polar sea ice, is among the most prominent physical effects of climate change. This trend is expected continue, opening new and previously unnavigable waterways to the global community. As a result, lucrative economic opportunities stand poised to drive intense competition for resources and competing territorial claims. Experts believe that the Arctic seabed holds nearly a quarter of the planet’s untapped oil and gas resources and that open channels in the North could significantly reduce transit times for the commercial shipping industry. At the same time, the economic benefit promised by increased activity in this extreme environment carries with it significant risk for accidents, aggression and geopolitical miscalculation.

In A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, the United States Navy commits itself to upholding “the secure environment necessary for an open economic system based on the free flow of goods” and cites forward presence as a critical component of its operating model. However, as the effects of climate change in the Arctic increase the strategic need for US naval leadership, they simultaneously pose serious challenges to the Navy’s ability to operate effectively in this region.

In the near-term, the US Navy will likely find itself strained to deliver meaningful forward presence in the Arctic due to current technological, logistical and financial limitations. Although the United States’ submarine fleet continues its decades-long practice of operating in waters beneath the polar ice, these military missions aren’t appropriate to foster geopolitical stability or enforce international economic norms. Instead, this task requires a robust and visible surface presence. According to retired Admiral David Titley: “Virtual presence is physical absence. It’s all well and good to say you have interests in the Arctic, but if you can only be on the surface where there is little or no danger of ice, then your presence is very restricted.”

Titley highlights a key limiting factor on the Navy’s operating model: sea ice. Whereas the US surface force enjoys nearly unrestricted freedom of navigation around the globe, this capability is somewhat diminished by icy conditions in the newly-opening seaways of the Arctic. No surface ship in the fleet has undergone an expensive hardening process recommended by the Center for Naval Analyses and crews lack comprehensive training in Arctic operations. As a result, ships are limited to open-water operations conducted only during the warmer months – and even these can be constrained by unpredictable weather, shifting ice floes, and complex logistics. Icebreakers, heavy vessels designed to smash routes through sea ice, can potentially alleviate these issues; but with only two of these specialized ships in its inventory, US capacity for icebreaking support to the military is severely limited.

This wouldn’t be as much of an issue if other Arctic nations were also facing similar limitations. Russia, however, maintains a fleet of over 40 icebreakers – including multiple nuclear-powered vessels – with a reported 14 under construction. In the words of Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan: “The highways of the Arctic are icebreakers. Right now the Russians have superhighways and we have dirt roads with potholes.” Russia’s icebreakers afford its Northern Fleet freedom of maneuver in the region and the buildup could be viewed in terms of Russia’s recently updated military doctrine and increasingly provocative foreign policy. Suffice it to say that, to some, Russia appears more interested in claiming territory and resources than upholding international maritime norms. Climate change, then, has pushed the US Navy toward a strategic inflection point in the Arctic: in a place where American naval presence may be most urgent, the organization finds itself at risk of not being able to provide it.

To address challenges in the Arctic, the Navy chartered Task Force Climate Change in 2009 to make recommendations for adapting to and mitigating the risks associated with the changing environment. Its first major output was the U.S. Navy Arctic Roadmap, a time-phased approach to accomplishing strategic end-states through 2030. Additionally, Congress has earmarked nearly $1 billion to build a new icebreaker as a joint-venture between the Navy and Coast Guard, a project that may take 3-10 years. While this is a promising start, I would recommend two additional steps. First, close the icebreaker gap in the near-term by contracting with proven shipbuilders, such as Finland’s Arctia, to both build new vessels and lend expertise to homegrown projects. Second, the United States should ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Of the five Arctic nations, the US is the only country that hasn’t adopted the treaty; Congress claims that it cedes too much authority to international arbitration. The treaty would strengthen America’s ability to credibly enforce territorial sovereignty in expanding Arctic waters and deter other nations from disregarding UNCLOS rulings, similar to last summer’s scenario in the South China Sea (800 words).



Cardin, Ben. “The South China Sea is the Reason the United States Must Ratify UNCLOS,” Foreign Policy. 13 July 2016.

De Luce, Dan; Johnson, Keith. “U.S. Falls Behind in Arctic Great Game,” Foreign Policy. 24 May 2016.

Harvey, Fiona. “Arctic Sea Ice Fell to Record Low in May,” The Guardian. 08 June 2016.

Judson, Jen. “The Icebreaker Gap,” Politico. 01 September 2015.

Kuertsen, Andreas. “Icebreakers and US Power: Separating Fact from Fiction,” War on the Rocks. 11 October 2016.

Kurek, Laura. “The Race for the Arctic,” The Wilson Quarterly. 20 July 2015.

Roughhead, Gary. “Getting Serious About the Arctic: US Interests in the North,” Harvard International Review. 14 April 2015.

A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower. Department of the Navy. March 2015.

U.S. Navy Arctic Roadmap 2014-2030. Task Force Climate Change, Department of the Navy. February 2014.



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7 thoughts on “Brave New Ocean: Opening Arctic Waterways Pose Challenges for US Navy

  1. The forty Russian icebreakers that you describe in this post are awesome! I was completely unaware of this side effect of climate change, i.e. the increase in sea ice, and how it directly (and negatively) affects the U.S. Navy’s productivity.

    What advantage / techniques has the Russian government employed to overcome obstacles that prevent the U.S. Navy from having their ships undergo the hardening process? Additionally,
    I wonder about this line: “foster[ing] geopolitical stability or enforc[ing] international economic norms… requires a robust and visible surface presence.” In what ways can media be employed to help with increasing visibility? I am specifically curious how media can play a role if the ratification of UNCLOS occurs — and whether there are “visibility” workarounds for the Navy, given the likely delays in signing such an important / difficult treaty.

  2. Chad, I find this a very interesting perspective that I am largely in agreement with. The “icebreaker crisis” has long been simmering just beneath the surface, and I’ve noted articles pointing out the large gap between US and Russian icebreaking capabilities for years; e.g. [1]. The Russian government has for nearly a decade been making particularly aggressive moves to “claim” portions of the Arctic in order to secure access to its rich oil and gas reserves, such as the notorious 2007 incident in which a Russian submarine dropped flags and pennants on the Arctic Ocean floor [2].

    I agree that a new program of icebreaker construction needs to be undertaken to close this gap and bring American icebreaker capabilities up to parity. I’m not sure I agree that UNCLOS will contribute substantially to the resolution of territorial claims in this area. As we have seen in the case of China, they have basically ignored the UN panel ruling against them on UNCLOS in the Philippines dispute and, indeed, have essentially strengthened their claims with the cooperation of Duterte [3]. Further, Denmark and Russia have both ratified UNCLOS but maintain conflicting claims to different parts of the Arctic Ocean [4]. I’m not sure exactly what the best regulatory solution might be, but I think it would need to be something with more teeth or a better enforcement mechanism than UNCLOS.

    [1] Thompson, Kalee. “Where Are America’s Badly Needed Icebreakers?” Popular Mechanics. December 7, 2012. Retrieved 6 November 2016.
    [2] “Russia Plants Flag on Arctic Floor” CNN. August 4, 2007. Retrieved 6 November 2016.
    [3] Wong, Chun Han. “Philippines’ Duterte Not Planning To Raise South China Sea Disputes in China Visit”. Wall Street Journal. October 19, 2016. Retrieved 6 November 2016.
    [4] “The Arctic: Frozen Conflict”. The Economist. December 20, 2014. Retrieved 6 November 2016.

  3. Thank you for this post. I had never appreciated the second order effect of receding and thinning ice layers opening up new pathways. I would be interested in better understanding the laws regarding access to any untapped oil reserves that open up as a result. Given Russia’s advantage in ice breakers resulting in their ability to win a race to such reserves, it makes sense that proactively ratifying an existing treaty that delineates sovereignty would be in the United States’ best interest if the alternative is attempting to remove an entrenched Russian drilling operation from waters we claim to be ours.

    The discussion seems like an important precursor to the world’s future discussion around gas hydrates/clathrates. Much of the world’s hydrates reserves lie on the ocean floor outside of maritime boundaries, formally “the common heritage of mankind.” The vast majority, if not all hydrates are currently inaccessible with today’s technology, so the precedent set by Arctic oil reserves could have implications on the speed with which the United States must build hydrate farming capabilities. It is unclear how big the potential recoverable reserve of methane clathrates is, but some reports claim it could be an economically viable source of carbon-based fuel in the future. If Russia is able to claim Arctic oil deposits simply due to their “first to market” ability given their technological advantage, it could pull the trigger of the starting gun of a global race to build methane clathrate recovery capabilities.

  4. I found your points regarding the increased competition for resources in the Arctic in tandem with Russia’s increased production of icebreakers very interesting. In fact, Russia recently presented a revised claim of this Arctic territory to the United Nations where it sought “the seabed beyond the 200-mile zone along the entire Russian polar sector including the zone under the North Pole.”[1] Here Russia cited the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which, by your argument, could present an interesting conundrum for the United States if it does indeed ratify the UNCLOS.[2] Currently, the Navy and Marine Corps team cannot field enough ships to fulfill its tasked mission properly. With only 31 amphibious assault ships, the Navy maintains seven fewer ships than is required to meet global operational requirements.[3] Furthermore, the current operational tempo of the Navy is unsustainable, and it cannot meet national security mandates with its current strategy.[4] I think your argument does have some merit, and we do need to figure out how to meet American naval power projection goals in the short-term, but the United States needs to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels and lead the transition to renewable energy supplemented by fission-based (and hopefully one day fusion-based) nuclear power. This movement would reduce global resource pressure and help calm international tensions as nations seek to attain dominance over finite resources.

    [1] Andrew E. Kramer, “Russia Presents Revised Claim of Arctic Territory to the United Nations,” New York Times, February 9, 2016, [], accessed November 6, 2016.
    [2] Ibid.
    [3] Christopher Harress, “US Navy Doesn’t Have Enough Ships to Send Marines to Crisis Zone, May Borrow Foreign Vessels: Report,” International Business Times, June 30, 2015 [http://, accessed November 6, 2016.
    [4] Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., “More Ships Can’t Save Overworked Navy; Basing Ships Abroad Can: CBSA,” Breaking Defense, November 18, 2015 [], accessed November 6, 2016.

  5. The importance of the Navy and Coast Guard’s role in the Arctic cannot be overstated. As someone who spent one year studying sea ice and conducted arctic operations, I agree that building more robust fleet of ice breakers is a step in the right direction. Additionally, Ward makes an excellent point about reducing the reliance on fossil fuels. However, I am skeptical about the cost associated with a larger nuclear surface fleet. Although nuclear power has many advantages, it is incredibly expensive and should be carefully considered if the goal is more ships and broader presence.

    1. Pat and Ward – thanks for the comments! Pretty ironic (in a fatalistic sense) that we’re using the fossil fuel-induced melting of polar ice as a way to get at EVEN MORE fossil fuels…

  6. Section I: I was grateful for the opportunity to share my post in class today. After class, Fangfang gave me some outstanding feedback on a key issue that warrants additional attention, clarification, and (I hope) debate. After following up with her, we agreed to post our conversation here.

    FANGFANG: Thanks for your sharing during TOM session on climate change to US navy task force. Really appreciate that. However, there is one comment you mentioned about what China is doing in South China sea that makes me a little bit uncomfortable. When you say while US, Russia and other countries are negotiating on resources in Arctic region, China is “basically taking care of everything in South China Sea”. For me, the comment is more like a personal opinion. But I think a more specific and fact-based comment about What China is doing in South China Sea will trigger a more objective perception from other section mates on my country.

    To be honest, the sovereignty disputes of China with other SEA countries also trigger lots of debates within China. I am happy and curious to understand US perspective and is more than happy to offer some “the other side of story” if you are interested as well. The intention for me to bring up this feedback is really to have a transparent communication and don’t hide feelings. Please do let me know your perspective and feel 100% comfortable to tell me about your thoughts.

    CHAD: Thanks for reaching out! I actually tried to be sensitive to that exact point, but it appears it didn’t come out exactly right and I appreciate you letting me know. This is an extremely nuanced issue and really tough to capture in the two minutes I had – especially when it wasn’t the main focus of my post.

    What I really wanted to get across was the potential for international dispute in large, resource-rich maritime areas where multiple countries have competing claims. I think it’s correct to say that the US took on the role of guarantor of freedom of the seas after WWII more from a self-interested, practical standpoint – not from any kind of position of moral superiority. I was hoping to highlight the fact that climate change is just one of many factors putting strain on that position and perhaps even challenging its continued utility.

    I’d even go so far as to say it’s inherently hypocritical that the US is attempting to enforce a standard (UNCLOS) which we ourselves haven’t even fully ratified. Given that and other factors at play here, I tend to believe that China’s actions in SCS are rational and justifiable. I just worry that the “fundamental tension” here (thanks, Michael Michael!) holds the potential for dangerous miscalculations from both sides.

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