NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE L ast week, the United States Navy sent ships into the Barents Sea for the first time since 2010. The U.S. Naval Forces Europe announced that the exercise was intended “to assert freedom of navigation and demonstrate seamless integration among allies.” This was a good first step. But four ships operating in an ice-free Barents Sea will not reverse the decades of neglect and lack of investment in the types of ships necessary for the United States to protect its interests and those of its allies in the Arctic region. Currently, its lack of investment in icebreakers and other types of ships that can operate consistently and safely in ice-laden seas is freezing the U.S. out of conversations about the Arctic Ocean. This lack of investment has translated into U.S. diplomatic and military reluctance to push back against Russia’s expanded maritime Arctic claims. As a result, the historic principle of mare liberum (freedom of the seas) — a bedrock of international norms since the Dutch jurist Grotius conceived it — may yield to a maritime “Iron Curtain,” as Russia restricts who and what can travel through its near waters. To reverse this trend, the U.S. must immediately begin conducting consistent Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the high north.
Since 1983, U.S. policy has been to exercise U.S. ships to assert its navigation rights and freedoms in a manner consistent with the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), even though the U.S. is not a signatory to the convention. Since that time, according to a Department of Defense website, the United States Navy has conducted well over 400 FONOPs, countering the excessive maritime claims of some 60 nations. The reasons stated for these FONOPs have ranged from rejection of requirements that foreign warships not enter a territorial sea without prior authorization, to rejecting baselines not drawn in accordance with current laws and norms and attempts to restrict transit or innocent passage through international straits. More recently the U.S. Navy has used FONOPs to push back on new attempts to limit foreign vessels from entering exclusive economic zones, or attempts by China to create artificial islands and then use these illegal constructs to serve as justification for territorial sea claims. As might be expected, a large proportion of FONOPs have been conducted against authoritarian nations, such as China and Iran, which reject a free sea, or freedom generally.
Unfortunately, until the recent exercise in the Barents Sea — which some experts have described as a Passing Exercise (PASSEX) that did not seek to reject an expansive maritime claim rather than a FONOP — no FONOPs have been conducted against Russia since the 1980s. That is true despite the fact that Russia has advanced territorial sea claims over the Arctic Ocean, and attempted to activate Article 234 of UNCLOS, which permits coastal states to exercise extraordinary precautionary management over ice-covered waters.
This route, the northern sea route, promises to cut weeks off passage between Asia and Europe. It opened in August last year and has remained open longer on average over the past decade, allowing millions of tons of cargo to flow along the shorter route. One emerging cargo of great importance to Putin’s Russia is the liquified natural gas (LNG) being produced at a large plant on the Yamal Peninsula. Cash-strapped Russia is very interested in shipping LNG to China’s burgeoning energy market.
Of course, more is involved than just a shipping route. Warming in the region has opened the Arctic Ocean to oil, natural gas, and mineral-resource extraction from the sea floor. The Arctic Ocean also possesses military value, as armed vessels and aircraft operating in the region have shorter routes to vital targets in Europe and North America. Russia, through its various claims, is attempting to cast a wide net of sovereignty over all valuable attributes of the region. The U.S. position on the Russian case is critical, as all nations that have Arctic borders (the United States, Canada, Denmark, Norway, and Russia) could financially and strategically benefit from the environmental phenomenon.
From a force-structure standpoint, the United States is not positioned to assert influence as much as the other Arctic powers. Denmark possessed three operating icebreakers at one time, but has since laid them up and offered them for sale. Norway possesses two ships — an icebreaker, and a heavy offshore-patrol vessel — that can operate in the Arctic Ocean. Canada has two heavy icebreakers and five medium icebreakers with an additional heavy icebreaker under construction. Canada also has a substantial Coast Guard and naval fleet with vessels designed with stronger frames and thicker steel hulls to operate in ice-laden seas. With 40 icebreakers, Russia tops all Arctic powers. Russian leader Vladimir Putin plans to refresh Russia’s northern fleet with nine new nuclear powered icebreakers by 2035, some of which will be armed with guns and missiles designed to operate in Arctic conditions. These icebreakers will allow Russia to open the Great Northern Route earlier and keep it open later into the year, facilitating cargo shipments. Additionally, many ship designs within the Russian navy’s northern fleet are rated as ice-hardened due to the normal conditions that they operate under.
The United States is not quite as well-prepared. It has three icebreakers operated by the Coast Guard; only two, one heavy and one medium, are operable. It has a program in place to build three new heavy icebreakers and the potential to build three more. In addition, the Coast Guard has a new class of national-security cutters that, due to their thicker steel hulls and narrower frame spacing, are rated to operate in ice-laden seas. The U.S. Navy has built no surface ships since World War II that are ice-hardened and rated as being safe to sail in the high north. In addition, the U.S. has no naval bases that can support operations in the Arctic. Thus, the U.S. has not only failed to conduct FONOPs in the Arctic since the Reagan administration, but also couldn’t do so even if it wanted. In 2018, there was some thought given to conducting a FONOP with the Coast Guard’s one working icebreaker, but its poor material condition suggested a risk that another Arctic power, perhaps even Russia, might have to be called upon to render assistance should the U.S. ship break down. In 2019, the secretary of the Navy publicly stated that the Navy would conduct a FONOP in the high north. But that exercise never happened. Moreover, the population of U.S. Navy submarines rated as capable of surfacing through Arctic ice will decline precipitously in the years ahead as the Los Angeles class (improved) ships retire from the fleet.As the new Virginia class ship’s sails lack the reinforced designs of their predecessors, the Navy will soon be restricted to operating only its three Seawolf class and dwindling numbers of Los Angeles submarines for operations under thick Arctic ice.
As the world’s oceans warm, the Arctic Ocean’s strategic and commercial value will increase dramatically as shipping routes open, its natural resources become more available for commercial development, and naval maneuvering begins in the inevitable cycle of the flag following trade. If the United States is to defend its interests above the Arctic Circle, then it will need to begin operating there consistently. To do that, it will need to make significant investments in its Navy and Coast Guard fleets in terms of icebreakers, ice-hardened surface warships, and new reinforced submarines that can surface through ice as their predecessors do. It will also have to begin conducting regular Freedom of Navigation Operations along the great northern route.
Russia has a head start in this new competition, and has made illegal claims — backed by coercion from armed nuclear icebreakers — that must be disputed through consistent Freedom of Navigation exercises. Again, according to the Department of Defense’s own figures, between 1991 and 2018 the United States conducted over 40 FONOPs against China’s excessive territorial sea claims while conducting none against the growing Russian threat to a free sea in the Arctic. The U.S. must increase its pace, building new icebreakers, ice-hardened ships and submarines, and new support bases in the Arctic if it is to catch up in this new race.
Editor’s Note: This article has been emended since its initial publication.