Editor’s note: In this article for Marine Corps University Journal, MWI Non-Resident Fellows Dr. Ryan Burke and Dr. Jahara Matisek identify weak US polar military capabilities relative to China and Russia and why an “American polar pivot” is needed in the Arctic and Antarctic to ensure US hegemony in the twenty-first century and beyond.
America is failing to compete in the polar regions of the Arctic and Antarctica. Russia and China turned their attention to the polar regions in 2007 and 2017, respectively, and followed through with strategic intent and resources. This strategic problem is not a new American phenomenon. In a US Naval War College lecture in 1948, Rear Adm. R.H. Cruzen contended that the United States should make “thoughtful consideration of the problems of polar warfare” and that “strategic thinking and our military and naval training” cannot be “confined to the tropic and temperate zones.” And yet, over seven decades after Rear Adm. Cruzen described the strategic importance of the polar regions, few resources have been dedicated toward building and sustaining American polar competitiveness, and the United States finds itself woefully behind militarily in the Arctic and Antarctic.
We contend that an “American polar pivot” can be made—through some increased investments in polar capabilities and minor changes in US Marine deployments and multinational exercises. Moreover, taking these steps would have a minimal impact on current US rebalancing efforts in Eastern Europe against Russia and in the Indo-Pacific region against China. If we accept the notion that American hegemony is based on the premise of defending the global commons, then the United States is seriously behind the power curve at the North and South Poles. For the United States to make serious strides—not just in policy memos like the 2019 DoD Arctic Strategy—political and military leadership must commit serious resources toward exploring the requirements of and preparing effectively for polar warfare.
An examination of the stakes at play in this polar contest, and the contours of the contest, reveals the rationale for the US military to pivot capabilities and resources toward defending the global commons in the polar regions. By acknowledging the geopolitical significance of the Arctic Circle and Antarctica, it becomes clear that there are various actions the United States must take to strengthen current alliances and create new ones. The investments required also become clear—in robust military assets, for example, able to operate in the harsh polar environment conditions for which few US military weapon systems are optimized.
There are important steps that US (and allied) military forces should be taking to develop a polar grand strategy that ensures China and Russia cannot exert their control and influence over the Arctic and Antarctic. Specifically, for the American polar pivot to “stick,” the United States must rethink its approach to each Pole, and seek new ways in which to assert power in each polar region through enhanced military capabilities and exercises, alliances, and basing decisions. This would decrease the likelihood of either Russia or China—or worst of all, joint efforts by the two US competitors—leveraging the polar regions’ resources and shipping lanes to create a new strategic order in the Arctic and Antarctic, with reverberations felt far beyond.
Read the authors’ article in the Marine Corps University Journal here.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or any organization or institution with which the authors are affiliated.
Image credit: Tech. Sgt. Jesse Huneycutt, US Air Force
From a military standpoint, if Russia and China were to team up for Arctic and Antarctic exploration, such a force of two on one (America) would be deemed formidable due to the sheer number of icebreakers Russia and China would together possess.
The USA should boost its Bilingual and Multilingual language capabilities in case of encounters with Russia and China's ships and fishing fleet.
Does this call for the need for more ships? If the need to patrol Arctic and Antarctic waters is required, then the Ship Count for the USCG NSCs, OPCs, and icebreakers can indeed increase. Arming them for offensive and defensive purposes would exercise better protection and control of these waters. The U.S. Navy should also have ice-strengthened hull ships specifically for Polar sailing and patrols. The American public commentators and bloggers have been promoting this idea for years.
Vitally are the U.S. State Department and U.S. Law Enforcement agencies ready with treaties and diplomacy. It would be cold dark solemn days if the CIA has to be recruited to spy on foreign bases and animal life in the Poles for fear of spy equipment strapped to say a Polar Bear or a penguin to wander into Western camps. Even the very remote possibility of terrorism at the Poles can be addressed if there is some form of security and constant watch.
The USA cannot and should not ignore the Poles and Polar Security. Currently, the USA has no effective light to medium armor that can deploy via C-17 or C-130 to act as cheap effective deterrents to enemy IFV with cannons or terrorism. The Mobile Protected Firepower and RCV and NGCV would help if those can be developed effectively and on schedule. No one wants American hostages or rescues happening in the Poles due to foreign threat forces, nor a total ramp-up of military activity to protect one of Nature's best environments. Specific subzero machines need to be developed as the USA can't really "make do" with what we have.
Any permanent presence would be limited in scope got logistical reasons.
Could a swarm of constantly maneuvering robotic sensors immediately fill a void performing a reconnaissance mission?