Is Climate Change is Driving US Freedom of Navigation Operations in the Arctic?

By Madison Pravecek

Despite Trump’s refusal to address climate change in his SOTU address, he spent quite a bit of time discussing how the United States should prioritize strength and security. However, rather than being diametrically opposed, national security and climate change are tightly bound. The Arctic is experiencing increased geopolitical attention due to the economic and military opportunities presented by its probable ice-free future. Russia, Norway, and China have been bolstering their Arctic ships, bases, and armies in the past months. The United States military has responded by scaling up its operations in the Arctic, and is now planning to conduct the first-ever Arctic freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) according to Navy Secretary Richard Spencer.

Until recently, the northern US border was secured by a continent-size piece of ice; however, as climate change opens up the Arctic to further exploitation and access, geopolitical uncertainties over regional dominance will arise and regional tensions will heighten. As such, the United States is gearing up to increase military presence in the Arctic. The use of a FONOP is a tool the U.S. can use to signal readiness to engage in the region. FONOPs have been used by the U.S. around the world to assert the rights of American ships to operate freely in disputed territories and to discourage illegitimate/excessive claims (examples of this can be seen throughout the South China Sea.)

While it is important for the US to be prepared to deal with climate-driven security issues, a FONOP could be interpreted as an aggressive use of force in the Arctic where so much is currently unknown and changing. In the past year NATO conducted its largest Arctic military exercise, Russia has re-opened bases on the Kola peninsula, and China has ordered a fleet of “Snow Dragon” icebreakers. Unnecessarily hostile shows of U.S. force could foster a rising sense of competition, rather than collaboration in the Arctic. Rather than conducting a showy FONOP, U.S. Arctic security could be better bolstered by investment in our severely lacking icebreaker fleet, Arctic telecoms systems, and Arctic-based infrastructure.

Why This Matters? It has been predicted that by 2035 the Arctic will be completely free of ice in the summer; when the Arctic melts (becoming just another ocean,) geopolitical tensions will rise as Arctic nations struggle for dominance of the region. While the United States has a vested interest in asserting its right to operate its military freely in the Arctic and ensure freedom of movement for commercial vessels, a FONOP may be an aggressive display. Any military action taken in the Arctic needs to be strategic and well-thought out.

 

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