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Polar pivot? Probably not: Experts say chill out about the Arctic

Mar. 8, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Marines and Norwegians firing mounted .50 cal mach
Members of 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines, fire machine guns on a range in Norway prior to the start of Exercise Cold Response 2014, a 16-nation exercise above the Arctic Circle. Experts say that military-to-military engagements in that part of the world are highly unlikely, despite new sea routes opening around the North Pole. (Master Sgt. Chad McMeen/Marines)
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About 440 North Carolina-based Marines will move prepositioned equipment out of caves in Norway to take part in Exercise Cold Response 2014, the sixth iteration of a frigid training event since 2006, signaling a continued strategic shift to the Arctic region as melting ice caps give way to new shipping lanes.

Marines aren’t the only service members preparing for missions in the Arctic. The Navy released a 16-year road map for the region in late February, which stated the service is prepared to be forward-deployed to protect U.S. maritime access and national security interests. And about 40 Army paratroopers conducted their first airborne operation north of the Arctic Circle on Feb. 25, braving wind-chill temperatures of 35 degrees below zero.

The Defense Department projected that human activity in the region would increase in coming years — from oil, gas and mineral exploration to fishing, shipping and tourism — when officials announced the national security strategy for the region in November. And there are other superpowers eying the region, too. Russia announced a plan to make the region a priority a month after the U.S. did, and China is looking to tap into the billions of tons of fossil fuels in the region.

Experts acknowledge that it’s important for the U.S. military to prepare for the unknown, but stress that military-to-military conflict there is highly unlikely.

“The U.S. government is starting to have more of a recognition that there are a lot of interests in the Arctic, and we’re a key player in that,” said Brian Slattery, a research assistant in defense studies for The Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank. “The primary focus is driven by economics.”

Retired Air Force Col. Carl Baker, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the competition for resources in the region is likely to play a far bigger role than new sea lanes due to a complete lack of port or base infrastructure in the Arctic Ocean.

“There’s nothing up there,” Baker said. “It’s kind of baffling to me as to why people are that enamored by the idea because there has to — at some point — be a place to stop.”

Instead, Baker said he foresees the interest being based more around commercialization rather than militarization of the area. China sees an opportunity to exploit resources in the area, he said, with questions already raised about why officials there have purchased land and access points in Greenland.

If the shipping lanes do prove to increase ship traffic through the icy waters, however, the U.S. military could be called on to respond to help if one got stranded or stuck — like the team of researchers in Antarctica earlier this year, Slattery said. They might also be called on to deal with cold weather disaster responses, like oil spills, he added.

For now though, the Coast Guard is probably best equipped to deal with issues like that, he said, since they have the polar icebreaker fleet. But with combat missions over in Iraq, and winding down in Afghanistan, it gives way for Marines to have more robust training in all parts of the world, including the Arctic.

During Exercise Cold Response, the Marines will move more than 3,000 pieces of equipment out of three climate-controlled equipment caves in central Norway, the most for any operation thus far, said Capt. Eric Flanagan, a Marine spokesman at the Pentagon. When the training is completed, the equipment will be serviced and returned to the caves, he said.

The Marine Corps stores vehicles, generators and engineering equipment there in partnership with Norway. The Corps also has three munitions caves there. It’s called the Marine Corps Prepositioning Program-Norway, and it dates back to the Cold War.

The Marine Corps tapped into the stash in 2003 during Operation Iraqi Freedom. And two Europe-based rotational units — Black Sea Rotational Force and Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response — have also used some of the equipment, Flanagan said.

But since any kind of land invasion in the Arctic is highly unlikely, Baker said it could probably be better served if it was staged in southern Europe.

“I think if you want to look for a place to save yourself a few bucks, that would be it,” Baker said.

Members of Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines, will team with Marines with Ragnarok Company, 2nd Supply Battalion, to conduct the exercise. The companies, both based out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., will join up with 15,000 troops for 11 days beginning March 10. Participating countries include Norway, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, The Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

Not a part of NATO, and conspicuously absent from the exercise, Russia and China still no doubt have their eyes on the Arctic.

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