Russia and America prep forces for Arctic war

October 5, 2015
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Sailors aboard the USS “Seawolf” remove ice from the hull after surfacing at the North Pole in the Arctic Ocean, July 30, 2015. U.S. NAVY/Handout

President Barack Obama’s recent trip to Alaska helped draw attention to global climate change — and to the national-security tensions that could result from a warming Arctic region.

Surveyors believe that the seabed under Arctic waters could contain hundreds of billions of barrels of untapped oil. As the North Pole becomes more accessible, and so more valuable, Arctic countries — each with its own and in some cases overlapping territorial claims — are getting ready for some serious competition.

The United States and Russia are geopolitical rivals and uneasy Arctic neighbors. More and more Russian and U.S.  military forces are deploying on and under the Arctic Ocean.

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The submarine USS “Seawolf” surfaces through Arctic ice at the North Pole, July 30, 2015. U.S. NAVY/Handout

But Washington and Moscow are approaching their Arctic build-ups quite differently. The Kremlin holds the advantage on the ocean’s surface; the Pentagon dominates beneath the waves. Though Russia and the United States both train Arctic ground troops, Washington is also building a northern strike force of high-tech stealth warplanes.

These different approaches are the results of military policies and priorities going back decades. Moscow chose to invest in icebreakers to work along its vast Arctic frontier, while Washington spent its money on submarines and warplanes that are equally useful outside the polar regions.

While Obama was in Alaska, the White House announced that the administration would push for more and better icebreakers. After decades of neglect, the U.S. Coast Guard, which operates all U.S. icebreakers, possesses just three of the tough, ice-shattering vessels, and American companies own another two. These five ships must divide their time between the north and south poles, plowing paths through sea ice so other vessels can safely navigate frigid waters.

“The administration will propose,” the White House explained on its official website, “to accelerate acquisition of a replacement heavy icebreaker to 2020 from 2022, begin planning for construction of additional icebreakers and call on Congress to work with the administration to provide sufficient resources to fund these critical investments.”

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Army paratroopers with Alaska’s 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, snowshoe across the drop zone during Exercise Spartan Pegasus at Deadhorse, Alaska, Feb. 24, 2015. U.S. ARMY/Staff Sergeant Daniel Love​

But even after adding a few icebreakers, Washington will still be far behind Moscow in this category of Arctic weaponry. The Russian government owns 22 icebreakers; Russian industry possesses another 19 of the specialized vessels. Moscow has another 11 icebreakers under construction or in planning.

To be fair, Russia’s Arctic coastline is many hundreds of miles longer than that of the United States. In theory, Russia’s icebreakers are spread out over a wider area during routine, peacetime operations. In wartime, however, the Kremlin could quickly concentrate its icebreakers, which could carve channels for Russian warships far more quickly than the Pentagon could do for its own ships.

But the United States’ Arctic strategy depends less on surface ships than Russia’s strategy does. Instead, the U.S. military is betting on submarines to exert its influence in the far north.

“The submarine is the best platform to operate in the Arctic,” Commander Jeff Bierley, skipper of the U.S. Navy submarine Seawolf, told Reuters, “because it can spend the majority of its time under the ice.”

The U.S. fleet operates 41 nuclear-powered attack subs with equipment for sailing under — and punching through — Arctic ice. Russia’s ice-capable attack-submarine force numbers just 25 vessels.

These U.S. subs likely deploy more regularly than Russia’s do. Amid economic volatility, the Kremlin has struggled to consistently fund naval deployments. Meanwhile, every two years the U.S. Navy sends a pair of attack subs into the Arctic Circle on a training and scientific mission. In the years between these ice experiments, Seawolf-class subs based in Washington state sail through the Bering Strait and under the ice cap, crossing over the top of the world and traveling from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic and then back.

The Navy designed Seawolf and her two sister ships specifically for Arctic operations. The vessels have ice-scanning sonar and equipment to help the subs force their way through the ice cap to reach the surface during emergencies.

On the ice, the two countries are at near-parity. The U.S. Army oversees three combat brigades in Alaska, each composed of roughly 3,000 soldiers. One brigade features paratroopers, another is in Stryker armored vehicles and a third is made up of reconnaissance troops.

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A U.S. Army paratrooper with Alaska’s 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, leaps from a C-130 Hercules aircraft during Exercise Spartan Pegasus at Deadhorse, Alaska, Feb. 24, 2015. U.S. ARMY/Sergeant First Class Jeffrey Smith

The paratroopers regularly practice parachuting onto the Arctic ice. During one February 2015 training exercise, called Spartan Pegasus, two C-17 and two C-130 transport planes based in Alaska dropped 180 paratroopers plus two vehicles and supplies onto a training range north of the Arctic Circle, where temperatures hover around 20 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

“The purpose of Spartan Pegasus,” the Army stated on its website, “was to validate soldier mobility across frozen terrain, a key fundamental of U.S. Army Alaska’s capacity as the Army’s northernmost command.”

The Strykers are less mobile. A C-17 — the U.S. Air Force keeps eight of the four-engine cargo planes in Alaska — can carry several Strykers, which weigh roughly 25 tons each, but the Air Force doesn’t often practice landings on Arctic runways. The Canadian air force does, however. It staged its own C-17s landings and take-offs from Arctic villages in temperatures as low as minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

So in theory the U.S. Air Force could move the Army’s Alaska-based Stryker brigade to Arctic battlegrounds. A C-17 can also drop Strykers via parachute, though the Air Force has only done this in tests.

The Russian army’s Arctic command is smaller. It controls just two brigades with armored vehicles. But combat units from outside the command regularly head north for training, in particular, paratroopers and the transport planes that ferry them. One Arctic exercise in March reportedly involved 80,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen plus more than 200 aircraft. An official photo from the war game depicts an An-72 transport plane and white-clad infantry on an airfield carved in the snow.

Russia has proved it can patrol the airspace over the Arctic. The U.S. Air Force, however, holds the northern advantage. In addition to C-17 and C-130 transports, the American air arm maintains E-3 radar planes and three fighter squadrons in Alaska — two with 20 high-tech F-22 stealth fighters each and one with 18 older F-16s.

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An F-35 Lightning II endures freezing temperatures in the 96th Test Wing’s McKinley Climatic Laboratory at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, January 27, 2015. U.S. AIR FORCE/Samuel King Jr.)

In coming years, up to two squadrons of new F-35 stealth fighters will join the F-16s at Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks, Alaska, which will increase the Alaskan fighter fleet by at least a third. In February, the Air Force wrapped up cold-weather testing of the F-35 that proved the new radar-evading warplane can function in the Arctic climate.

“We’re pushing the F-35 to its environmental limits,” said Billie Flynn, an F-35 test pilot, “ranging from 120 degrees Fahrenheit to negative 40 degrees, and every possible weather condition in between.”

In a kind of literal Cold War, Russian forces will continue to dominate the surface of the Arctic Ocean while the American military preserves its edge below and above the ice. Meanwhile, both countries are training thousands of ground troops for Arctic ops — just in case the Cold War turns hot in the thawing polar region.

13 comments

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This is an interesting military comparison, but lets hope that the USA and Russia can develop diplomatic ties. Also, don’t forget Canada, which also has major borders with the Arctic sea.
We want development to be encouraged and peaceful.

Perhaps a general profit-sharing plan might be instituted, so that anyone profitting from Arctic natural resources would contribute those profits to some sort of international slush-fund?

Posted by jwillx | Report as abusive

Russia has never attacked America, doesn’t want to. We should just be friends with them and save trillions of dollars. The real enemy is religion.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

We should be okay for now, the thing to watch for is when the State dept. announces any plans to bring freedo or democracy to penguins or polar bears.

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

Shock and awe among the ice bergs. Who can win the coldest water in a chest-thumping match. This is the kind of women do not do.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Maybe we (the US) can convince our trusty sidekick Britain to join the fun. Just use the “avenge the Titanic” slogan and we’re golden.

Posted by blah77 | Report as abusive

Join the navy, son. Spend your days in a tube under the frozen sea, with a bunch of men who smell like feet and arse. No women, no swimmin’, no fun. Protecting a place that no one cares about and never will. Yay!!!

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

The wet snow makes harder snowballs.

Posted by AlphaBob | Report as abusive

Let’s pray we don’t have any conflicts in the attic while we are stuck with our current weak, inept, Incompeteny, failed Presudent. Putin has played Obama for a fool in Crimea, and Eastern Ukrsine. In Syria he has castrated and humiliated our hapless Presudent for the world to see. Obama is a loser. We can’t afford any conflicts while we are stuck with him.

Posted by valwayne | Report as abusive

Let’s pray we don’t have any conflicts in the attic while we are stuck with our current weak, inept, Incompeteny, failed Presudent. Putin has played Obama for a fool in Crimea, and Eastern Ukrsine. In Syria he has castrated and humiliated our hapless Presudent for the world to see. Obama is a loser. We can’t afford any conflicts while we are stuck with him.

Posted by valwayne | Report as abusive

Do people reallly get paid to write articles like this? Sounds like a rejected treatment for a Bond movie.

Posted by Smitty60 | Report as abusive

Anglo Saxon elites see Slavs as sub-human. they will burn the earth to a cinder before they ever accept them as their cultural, political or moral equals.

Posted by jesus_gunn | Report as abusive

I totally agree with just below article. America can incur the hugh costs of war with Russia (who might have Iran, NK, and Venezuela as allies) over Arctic resources or share as Iran and Qatar successfully do at the South Pars oil field.

Do we need more vets homeless with inadequate medical care? By the way one vet froze to death this winter probably no one to care.

Empty nester? Offer your home to otherwise homeless vets. You may find you get more than you give. They served us, consider serving them.

As American citizen you can demand sharing Arctic energy with Russia rather than war and its hugh costs. The choice is yours.

Posted by Lyn4U | Report as abusive

Yes, just as Solidar mentioned below, religion has taken center stage as the real international enemy.

Posted by cisco999 | Report as abusive