The Pentagon on Friday unveiled a new strategy to defend the Arctic region from security threats as Russia builds up cold-weather forces in the region and China prepares to claim resources.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said during a speech in Canada that melting northern polar ice is opening new sea routes and that is increasing the risk of a future conflict and competition for energy resources,
The comments at an Arctic security conference come as Russia is preparing to deploy two Arctic brigades and bolstering military bases in the region.
China meanwhile also is seeking access to new oil and gas resources that are becoming more accessible in the polar region.
Hagel, in a speech to an international security forum, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, said "the Arctic region is peaceful, stable, and free of conflict."
"Our goal is to help assure it stays that way," he said. "Ultimately we envision a secure and stable Arctic where all nations' interests are safeguarded and where all nations work together; they work together to address problems and resolve differences."
Hagel outlined an eight-point plan for U.S. security objectives in the polar region.
The main goal is to "remain prepared to detect, deter, prevent, and defeat threats to our homeland," he said, adding that "we will continue to exercise U.S. sovereignty in and around Alaska."
Another goal is to ensure that as northern sea routes open in the future the United States is prepared to maintain freedom of navigation.
Melting polar ice has opened a northern sea route to shipping, mostly by commercial freighters. Ships transits along the route that stretches to both the northern Atlantic and Pacific oceans are expected to increase tenfold this year compared to last year, Hagel said.
Also, at least one-fourth of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas resources is said to be located in the largely frozen Arctic Ocean. The ocean includes both international waters and ice and areas that are part of 200-mile economic exclusion zones of several states.
Warmer global temperatures in recent years have created more open passages that early 20th century explorers had called the Northwest Passage for trade between east and west.
Hagel said growing access to the Arctic has created "a flood of interest in energy exploration [that] has the potential to heighten tensions."
The U.S. military has been operating in the Arctic for decades. Currently more than 22,000 troops and 5,000 guardsmen and reservists are based in Alaska. Pentagon Arctic capabilities include ski-equipped C-130s and nuclear submarines.
Hagel urged international states interested in the Arctic to cooperate and work together for a "peaceful and secure region."
"Throughout human history, mankind has raced to discover the next frontier," he said. "And time after time, discovery was swiftly followed by conflict.
We cannot erase this history, but we can assure that history does not repeat itself in the Arctic."
Russia since 2011 has launched a significant military buildup in the northern polar region and U.S. intelligence agencies are closely monitoring the military activities and the buildup of forces.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced last year that Moscow’s naval forces would add 51 warships and 16 submarines to its forces by 2020. The buildup is needed to protect "national economic interests, in particular in such regions as the Arctic," Putin said.
Russia announced in July that it would deploy two Arctic brigades of troops by 2015 and in September launched the first military training school for Arctic military operations. The training will prepare troops to fight in extremely low temperatures and winter darkness.
Military equipment for the training includes the use of snowmobiles, off-road vehicles, and tracked armored and utility vehicles.
Other military developments include the establishment of new military bases on Russia’s northern coast and construction of what is expected to be the world’s largest nuclear-powered ice-breaking ship. Moscow also plans special military patrol aircraft for the region.
MiG-31 jets are set for deployment at a base on the island of Novaya Zemlaya, near the Barents Sea, by the end of the year.
The Russians, according to U.S. officials, view the United States as a challenger for resources in the region. "The clash for the Arctic and its natural resources and capabilities is escalating," retired Gen. Leonid Ivashov said in June 2012.
Meanwhile, China signaled its stake in the northern sea route in August 2012 when its icebreaker, the Xue Long, completed a 10,000-mile journey from Qingdao to Iceland across the polar route.
A U.S. official said China has a growing interest in the Arctic and is seeking a polar route. Beijing is increasing support for Arctic initiatives and recently funded an Artic Institute at the China Ocean University.
The Chinese also have leased space at North Korea’s Chingjin port as a foothold for access to the Artic.
China also is investing in ice-breaking ships.
The Chinese could use the northern route to shorten the shipping route for goods from China to Europe by avoiding the much longer route through the Suez Canal, Indian Ocean, and Southeast Asia.
A Chinese military think tank published a report in 2011 that outlined China’s naval expansion to increase its area of operations to include the Arctic, as well as the Indian Ocean.
The report said Chinese military forces "should be able to operate effectively in the area roughly between 55th parallel of north latitude and 35th parallel of south latitude and between 50 degree east longitude and 165 degree east longitude, as well as in near-earth space."
"Only then can we reliably protect our country's territorial sovereignty and our rights and interests in our exclusive economic zone, maintain stability within our country, and have the capability to remove the threat of separation," the report said.
"At the same time, we can consolidate the existing security border to the north, and can, to a certain degree, support our country's position on rights and interests in the Arctic."
Alarmed by recent Russian military moves in the Arctic, several Nordic states are taking steps to bolster military capabilities in the region.
Norway added $355 million to its defense budget for "high north" military activities and announced it is creating a special military unit for the Arctic while moving substantial forces northward.
Denmark also is increasing its military presence in the Arctic and set up a Joint Arctic Command in Greenland.
Sweden and Finland also are focusing defense policies on the Arctic.
Senior defense officials who briefed reporters sought to play down Russia’s growing claims and military activities in the Arctic.
Asked about U.S. interaction with Russia’s military on the Arctic, one official said "based on current postures, we don't have a lot of direct interaction with the Russian navy on—in the Arctic."
A second official said the new Pentagon strategy foresees a "relatively low level of the military threat in the Arctic."
"And that we don't see that changing in the near term," the official said.
As for working with Russia’s navy "we're looking for a cooperative partnership with Russia," the official said.
"The strategy also does recognize national security interests of the United States in the Arctic, and that does include strategic deterrence, maritime presence, and ensuring freedom of the seas," the official said.
Military and intelligence officials in Sweden have said Russian military activities and activities in the Artic are a security concern.
Jakob Scharf, chief of Denmark’s Police Security and Intelligence Service, has identified the Arctic as a growing espionage target.
"There is a significant increased focus on the Arctic from a number of countries, and this is because the climate changes and the development in the Arctic region, such as for example rare earths, rare metals and natural resources," Scharf told the Danish news outlet Berlingske Online.
Norway’s intelligence service also said foreign spy agencies have stepped up spying in Scandinavia that is focused on the Arctic.
"I can confirm that we, like our Danish sister organization, see greater intelligence-gathering activity in this area," said Martin Bernsen, spokesman for the Norwegian Police Security Service. "We see individual countries actively trying to consolidate their position in the Arctic." He was quoted in the Norwegian news outlet Aftenposten.no in October 2012.
According to U.S. officials, Chinese intelligence is stepping up spying activities directed at the Arctic from officers based at the Chinese embassy in Reykjavik, Iceland.
The eight countries that make up the Arctic Council—Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States—recently admitted China as an observer despite opposition from many of the European members.
The Chinese were given the observer status at the behind-the-scenes urging of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as part of the Obama administration’s conciliatory policies toward Beijing.
If China gains full membership, Beijing is expected to seek to use its access to influence international claims on energy deposits, according to observers.
China’s military also runs the Chinese Institute for Polar Research (CIPR), based in Shanghai. The Institute is part of the PLA scientific intelligence group that conducts maritime research and also runs PLA Navy spy ships.
According to the Paris-based Intelligence Online news outlet, China has three polar stations in Antarctica and one station in the Arctic—the Huanghe Zhan research station in Ny Alesund, on the island of Spitzbergen on the international archipelago of Svalbard, administered by Norway.
"Mirroring China's space policy, China's military wants to consolidate its presence at the polar ice caps to make sure its voice is heard during negotiations into the new maritime routes between the U.S, Western Europe, and Asia that are opening up because of global warming," the newsletter said.