America’s Arctic Adventure

USS Theodore Roosevelt transits through the Gulf of Alaska in May.

American officials are making noises about carrying out a freedom of navigation operation in the Russian-controlled Northern Sea Route. Any such action will only serve to provoke Russia and backfire against America.

From the dark of orbital space, satellites are sending back images of massive smoke clouds rising from the Arctic region. The smoke – the result of more than 100 forest fires that have raged across Siberia, Greenland, and Alaska – will rain black particulate matter on Arctic ice and hasten its melting.

The fires, which have released some 100 megatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere over the last two months, are the result of an unprecedented heat wave across the region. In Siberia, average temperatures in June were nearly 10 degrees higher than the long-term average between 1981-2010, according to a scientist with the World Meteorological Organization. Meanwhile, at sea, Arctic ice is melting so fast, some fear that by September, it could match the all-time low of 2012.

Sometime in this unrelenting summer, the United States Navy plans to make its presence felt in the northern seas by despatching surface warships into the Arctic. Earlier this month, US senator Dan Sullivan indicated that the navy was considering a “freedom of navigation” or “innocent passage” voyage through the Arctic with “a couple of destroyers”.

The move has been prompted by Russia’s decision to introduce stringent new rules for ships plying the Northern Sea Route (NSR). Under the new rules, which were announced in March, ships have to send comprehensive data about their voyages to Russian authorities before they enter the NSR. Russian maritime pilots will also have to guide any ships plying the waters.

Challenging Canada and Russia

There are two Arctic shipping routes that connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. One is the Northern Sea Route, which hugs the Russian coast, and enjoys considerable supporting infrastructure, including ports and search and rescue services. The other is the Northwest Passage, which runs along the coasts of Canada and Alaska. The transpolar route through the heart of the Arctic Ocean will not be viable for surface ships until later in the century, when the ice recedes further.

The Unites States considers both the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage to be “international straits” while Russia and Canada hold their respective routes to be “internal waters”. Under a 1988 deal, the US agreed to ask for permission before going through the Northwest Passage and the Canadians promised to grant it.

The agreement worked smoothly for decades since few vessels ever traversed the passage. But with the ice melting and commercial liners – including Chinese ones – eyeing the route, American concern has grown.

“If the possibility exists to go all the way around the Northwest Passage, I’d actually give that a shot. It’s freedom of navigation,” US Navy secretary Richard Spencer said in May.

Any such operation will undoubtedly create acrimony between the US and Canada, but as neighbours and close NATO allies, they will likely manage the fallout.

However, if the United States were to try something similar in the Russian-controlled Northern Sea Route, the consequences could be far more serious. In the 1960s, the Soviets aggressively blocked US Coast Guard ships trying to ply the Northern Sea Route. The US has not tried anything like a freedom of navigation operation in the NSR since, but any such move is likely to result in a spike in tensions and an embarrassment for the Americans.

Hazards Abound

Russians are not the only challenge facing a US Navy freedom of navigation operation. Even if the patrol were to be carried out in the late summer and fall, when sea ice is at a minimum, it will likely require the assistance of icebreakers. The US Coast Guard currently has just two such icebreakers, and both are trouble-prone.

The US Navy may also lack sufficiently detailed hydrographic maps of the waters around the NSR, which could make sailing treacherous.

These problems are symptomatic of a more fundamental issue for the United States: it is a latecomer to the Arctic. While the US Navy has deep experience in plying beneath the Arctic Ocean with its submarines, it is yet to build its capabilities on the surface, where melting ice is changing the rules of the game.