As countries jockey for power over the melting Arctic, the United States wants to plant itself in the region with a strategic port meant for Navy destroyers and massive icebreakers.
The request is part of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act that authorizes military spending by the Department of Defense, and can be seen as a reply to Russia’s desire for polar supremacy.
A tactical port would “show the commitment of the United States to this emerging strategic choke point of future great power competition,” the bill says.
The bill instructs the defense secretary to work with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Coast Guard, and the Maritime Administration to suggest potential port sites to Congress, perhaps in Alaska, reported Defense News on Friday. One or more of these locations must be designated as “Department of Defense Strategic Arctic Ports” within 90 days, it adds.
“I would look at this as [a signal that] we need to be ready for a fundamentally changed Arctic in the years to come,” said David Titley, a retired Navy rear admiral and founding director of the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at Pennsylvania State University.
The bill characterizes Russia and China as long-term competitors for Arctic resources. In recent years, Russia has been demonstrating its presence in the region with combat exercises and the fortification of icy military bases, while China—which considers itself a “near Arctic state”—has announced plans for a “Polar Silk Road” of new shipping lanes that are opened by melting sea ice.
Historians such as Mara Olivia of the University of Reading have warned that climate change is “redrawing the Arctic geopolitical map.” This includes shipping routes, but also keyholes to a fifth of the world’s natural gas, billions of barrels of oil, and caches of rare earth minerals.
An Arctic port would also be a response to Russia’s new Severny Klever or “Northern Clover” base, located within a shipping route on Kotelny Island. The bill outlines the military’s lack of icebreakers (it has a single functioning ship, noted Defense News) when compared to Russia’s 40 and counting.
The U.S. has long recognized climate change as a security threat, so neither the House or Senate version of the bill contain anything “earth-shattering,” said Titley.
But the proposal, which mentions “decreases in sea ice coverage” (still not explicitly stating “climate change”), defies President Trump’s refusal to acknowledge climate change as a national security issue.
The crisis was stated to “respect no international boundaries” in a 1991 National Security Strategy from the administration of President George H.W. Bush, and President Obama once declared that it “will impact how our military defends our country.”
Under Trump, the intelligence community has continued this thread. Last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at a meeting of the Arctic Council that “the region has become an arena for power and for competition.”
“I do know that ceilings are going to open up,” said Titley. “The ice will continue to melt and human activity is going to increase and the United States is an Arctic nation.”
The defense bill is slated for a vote on the Senate floor this week.