U.S. Army Arctic Strategy – 2021

The U.S. Army has announced the new Army Arctic strategy. On March 16, 2021 it released a document entitled Regaining Arctic Dominance. The strategy outlines how the Army will generate, train, organize, and equip its forces to secure U.S. national interests and maintain regional stability. The Arctic region is gaining a lot of attention from several nations – to include Russia and China.

The Arctic is an important region that contains natural resources, key shipping lanes, is key to protecting the homeland, and is a platform for projecting global power. The region encompasses activities to include resource extraction, trade, shipping, scientific operations and expeditions, and national defense.

The Army needs to be able to project forces into the Arctic region so it can respond in competition, crisis, and / or conflict situations. The region is vast and is an area where air and naval travel is critical because of the harsh environment and logistical challenges.

The Arctic Region. There are eight nations that border on the Arctic region. These are the United States (Alaska), Canada, Russia, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark (Greenland). The United States has strong defense relationships with six of the seven other Arctic nations. The diminishment of the Arctic sea ice has prompted many of these nations to take a renewed interest in the Arctic – especially with the increased human activity that the melting ice cap has allowed. With climate change access to rich natural resources has improved – especially for oil deposits, rare earth minerals, and fishing grounds. The two seasonal waterways, the Northern Sea Route and Northwest Passage, are experiencing increased navigation due to the receding polar ice pack. This is also raising the possibility of future sovereignty and shipping disputes among the countries bordering the Arctic Ocean.

Competition in the Arctic. In this era of great power competition the U.S. is being confronted by both Russia and China in many areas of the world – and this includes the Arctic region. The recent activities of Russia and China in the past several years in the Arctic have been increasingly concerning. Both nations are seeking to use military, diplomatic, and economic power to gain greater access to the region – at the expense of United States interests. A troubling concern is the effort by both nations to announce ever-increasing claims on northern territories and waterways. Equally troubling is the apparent attempts by both Russia and China to de-legitimize the sovereignty of territories and dis-establishing the ‘rules-based order’ currently in place.

Key Waterways. There have always been shipping lanes used for military and commercial vessels in this region. With climate change, the sea lanes in the Arctic are becoming open for longer periods of time and new sea lanes are becoming available. The waterways of the Arctic are important from an economic standpoint. China can significantly reduce travel time for shipping by using the Arctic instead of transiting the Pacific, Indian Ocean, and Suez Canal. From a military standpoint the United States and Russia can move naval ships between two primary theaters of engagement – the Indo-Pacific and Europe. This northern waterway route is becoming more important as an avenue for great power competition and aggression.

Russia. Russia is re-establishing some of its military capabilities and increasing its exploration for natural resources. It has increased its military presence to include conducting military exercises and establishing new military bases. It recently conducted a series of parachute jumps in the region with its special operations forces. Many national security observers believe that Russia maintains the largest military presence above the Arctic Circle. Russia has increased its attempts to constrain freedom of navigation (maritime traffic) and overflights of aircraft in violation of international law.

China. China is increasing its presence to ensure that it has access to key shipping lanes and natural resources. The use of the ‘northern shipping route’ ties into its ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative. It also is attempting to inject itself into the ‘governing’ of the Arctic region; upsetting the current regime of ‘rules’ that currently govern the Arctic region. China is advancing its claim to the Arctic with the notion that it is a “Near Arctic State”. It currently is a member of the Arctic Council Observers States along with twelve other non-Arctic states. The Arctic Council, created in 1996, is the leading international forum for addressing issues relating to the Arctic. China has conducted a range of economic and research activities that are likely tied to strengthening the country’s military capabilities in the Arctic Ocean and region in the future. It is currently embarked on an effort to design and build a nuclear-powered science icebreaker.

Photo: Radar system at Thule Air Base, Greenland, one of several that scan the skies for foreign military rockets, missiles, and aircraft. Photo by JoAnne Castagna, U.S. Army.

Strategy Objectives. The Army has developed some objectives and plans that will allow it to ‘regain’ Arctic dominance:

  • Establish a two-star headquarters with specifically trained and equipped combat brigades
  • Improve material readiness of Arctic-capable units
  • Improve individual and collective training in mountainous and high-altitude environments
  • Improve quality of life for Soldiers, civilians, and families living and working in the Arctic region

In this new era of great power competition the United States has to be able to project power into the Arctic region. This power projection by the Air Force, Navy, and Armor will ensure that Russia and China do not interfere with navigation, sovereignty rights, or the ability of the US to defend the homeland or project power from the Arctic region. The US Army has an important role to play in this region. The Army’s new Arctic strategy will allow it to regain its ability to protect US interests in the region.

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Photo: High Altitude Lowe Opening (HALO) parachute jump during winter warfare training in Sweden, February 2018. Photo by Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR).

Maps. Central Intelligence Agency.

References:

“Army Announces release of Arctic Strategy”, U.S. Army Pubic Affairs, March 16, 2021

Regaining Arctic Dominance: The U.S. Army in the Arctic
Headquarters, Department of the Army, January 19, 2021, PDF, 54 pages.

Report to Congress: Department of Defense Arctic Strategy, Department of Defense, June 2019, PDF, 19 pages.

Arctic Strategy, Department of the Air Force, July 2020, PDF, 20 pages.

Arctic Strategic Outlook, United States Coast Guard, April 2019, PDF, 48 pages.

Changes in the Arctic: Background and Issues for Congress, Congressional Research Service, CRS R41153, February 2021, PDF, 140 Pages.


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