In 2019, 10 Russian submarines plied the waters of the Arctic and the Barents Sea — egresses to the Atlantic Ocean where they “exercise their ability to hold Europe and the continental United States at risk with land-attack missiles,” said Adm. Robert Burke, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa and Allied Joint Command Naples.
And China, 900 nautical miles south of the Arctic Circle, has made it no secret that it wants to tap into what it calls “the Polar Silk Road’s” natural resources, along with investment opportunities and commercial traffic potential as the polar ice caps melt. It has even declared itself a “near-Arctic state.”
To deal with “increasingly aggressive intentions” by Russia and exploitation of the environmental resources by others in the fragile, remote Arctic, the U.S. is forging strong partnerships with regional and allied partners and matching adversaries’ presence in the region, Burke said Tuesday during a virtual presentation hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the U.S. Naval Institute.
This includes increased exercises with nations like Norway and Denmark and learning from the naval services of the nations that border the North Atlantic and Barents Sea, Burke said.
“My first big trip in command was to the ‘High North’ to meet with leadership of countries like Denmark, the Faroe Islands, which is (sic) part of Denmark, and then, Iceland,” Burke said.
According to Burke, the U.S. Navy had a continuous presence of surface ships in the Arctic from May through November, deploying ships from Rota, Spain, to above the Arctic Circle and participating in exercises including Dynamic Mongoose, an exercise in which surface vessels and submarines play cat and mouse war games.
The Navy has also been working on how to “better operate in the challenging region,” learning from the navies of the Danes and Norwegians who operate their ships in “marginal ice” and know how to read ice-choked waterways.
“Our [guided missile destroyer commanding officers] are going into the fjords and marginal ice, learning how to mitigate that risk intelligently,” Burke said.
Burke said Russia’s “aggressive actions have led a lot of countries … especially the former Warsaw Pact allies, to be on edge.”
Examples include placing Kalibr-class cruise missiles on one of their icebreakers, installing coastal defense cruise missile sites at “choke points along their northern flank,” and claiming excessive “territorial waters and — at least at one point — exclusive economic-zones along the Northern Sea Route, which are not internal waters,” he said.
“I think [Russia’s] militarization of the Arctic on their northern coasts is the most concerning,” Burke said.
Burke added that Russian power projection isn’t limited to the Arctic. Russian forces continue to conduct “dangerous and unsafe intercepts” of U.S. and NATO aircraft, and they are “weaponizing the Mediterranean.” Russia also held a parade featuring Iskander missile systems in Kaliningrad that threaten Baltic nations.
But while Russia has stepped up its presence around the globe, the U.S. has not been slacking, he said.
During the presentation, Burke showed a slide of that first trip to Iceland showing a dozen U.S. P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft were being serviced on the tarmac at Keflavik.
“They were busy, very busy. And it wasn’t an exercise,” he said.
To handle the load, the U.S. maritime patrol aircraft and surface ships work alongside partners from the United Kingdom, France, Canada, Norway, Denmark and more, allowing “us to do quite well quite well against sixth-generation Russian submarines,” he said.
Responding to a question on whether the Navy needs to have icebreakers or hardened vessels as it increases its Arctic presence, Burke said he would leave the question “up to the force providers,” adding that ship drivers are getting good at maneuvering in the challenging Arctic environment.
He said also that icebreaking is the U.S. Coast Guard‘s “core business … today, anway,” and the Navy and Coast Guard work together in many areas worldwide.
“We’ve got great partners in the U.S. Coast Guard. … You know, if it stays in their core mission or we do some sort of shared thing, it’s going to work great,” Burke said.
Currently, the Coast Guard heavy icebreaker Polar Star is on deployment to the Arctic, breaking ice in the Chukchi Sea.
On Christmas Day 2020, the ship became the first U.S. surface vessel to sail north beyond 72 degrees latitude in winter, according to the Coast Guard.
“Our ice pilots expertly navigated the Polar Star through sea ice up to four-feet thick and, in doing so, serve as pioneers to the country’s future of Arctic explorations,” Polar Star commanding officer Capt. Bill Woitrya said in a release.
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