Most people view the world map as if they’re eyes are aligned on the equator. Those that study, work in and potentially fight in the Arctic take a different view. They turn the globe on its end and look straight down at the North Pole and the Arctic Circle. That view reveals how physically close the eight nations that border the Arctic are and how tangled and interrelated the concerns of those nations and others with interest in the Arctic are.
The Command and General Staff College’s Cultural and Area Studies Office hosted a panel discussion on this topic on Oct. 28, linking four experts from around the globe with students, faculty, and staff at Fort Leavenworth and audience members who attended in person, via video teleconference, and through Facebook Live.
The event was a technology trifecta with panel members participating via Blackboard Collaborate, as audience members participated live (following COVID protocols), via video teleconference, and through Facebook Live around the globe, asking questions and making comments. The Facebook video generated more than 3,000 views.
Brig. Gen. Donn H. Hill, Deputy Commanding General for Education, Combined Arms Center, and Provost of the Army University, introduced the panel and related his own experience commanding a Stryker brigade in Alaska. He spoke about the strategic importance of the Arctic and quoted Gen. Billy Mitchell who in a 1935 address to Congress said, “I believe that in the future, whoever holds Alaska will hold the world. I think it is the most important strategic place in the world."
Hill introduced the panelists—Canadian Brig. Gen. Louis Lapointe, deputy commanding general, U.S. Army Alaska; Capt. (U.S. Coast Guard) Tom D’Arcy U.S. European Command Strategic Division Arctic Branch Chief; Dr. Rebecca Pincus, assistant professor U.S. Naval War College, and Mr. Michael Forsyth, Department of Joint, interagency and Multinational Operations, CGSC. Dr. Mahir J. Ibrahimov, Director of the Cultural and Area Studies Office acted as moderator for the event.
Lapointe, talking from Alaska, was the first panel member to present. He explained how U.S. Army Alaska looks at the world from the top. He said Russia is the number one power in the Arctic. Although Russia cooperates through the Arctic Council it also makes frequent incursions in foreign air space in the region.
Lapointe said what he tells junior and senior leaders arriving in Alaska is “they don’t know yet that the brigades and units in Alaska have a strategic role. Russia is looking at them,” he said.
“We [the Army] need to be there. We’re the only people who can put boots on the ground on a permanent basis and there’s value in investing in the Arctic. The Bering Strait will be the Gibraltar in 50 years, will be the Strait of Hormuz in 50 years. We have to define what we want it to be.’
D’Arcy, speaking from U.S. European Command Headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany followed. He highlighted U.S. strategy in the artic and talked about some of the competitors in the Arctic including Russia and China. The Arctic is a significant area of U.S. National Security Interest, said D’Arcy. He said there will be increased Coast Guard and defense activity in the Arctic as climate change continues to open previously unreachable areas.
“The United States' greatest strategic advantage in the Arctic is our strong relationship with Arctic allies and partners,” said D’Arcy. “This is something our competitors do not possess. Our network of relationships and capabilities serve as a deterrent helping to deter malign activities in the region.”
In addition to the Arctic Council, the Arctic Coast Guard Forum is also a key governance organization. Iceland currently heads both forums but Russia takes over the rotating chairmanship of both organizations in 2021.
Pincus said defining the Arctic is key. While the Arctic Circle is well defined, the U.S. includes the Bering Sea in its definition of the Arctic while other nations do not.
Arctic sea ice is diminishing in three dimensions – space, depth, and time, she said. That increases access to the region. It’s happening faster than expected and by 2075 the Barents Sea off of Norway may be free of ice in the winter. The Arctic itself may be free of ice in the summer sometime between 2035 and 2040, said Pincus.
Pincus said the both Russia (Northeast Passage) and Canada (Northwest Passage) claim the passages as internal waters but the U.S. and other countries do not recognize those claims, saying they are international waterways usable by all nations.
Forsythe completed the opening comments. He noted the changes in the Arctic are opening up economic opportunities. Along with increased economic opportunity comes an increase in military activity (especially by Russia) to protect those opportunities. He highlighted five key areas for the U.S. – the U.S. must sustain credible forces in the region, exercise frequently, regain Arctic skills across the force, modernize forces in the Arctic, and commanders need authority to negotiate with Russian counterparts to reduce tensions.
Following the panelists’ presentations, they took questions from the audience. Questions came from the small live audience as well as through Facebook Live and video teleconference. Both media were used to transmit the event to a world-wide audience.
The full panel discussion is available on the CGSC Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/USACGSC/videos/1059935994429821/ or on Youtube https://youtu.be/tc1sDwkYhMg