Prior to last week’s grounding of the Ever Given in the Suez Canal, it’s unlikely Egypt’s passage between worlds was on many Americans’ minds. But as pundits extolled the crucial role of the canal, they missed an important fact: In just a few decades, this marvel of engineering could be rendered obsolete. As Russia’s energy minister points out, the Northern Sea Route is expected to be entirely ice free in less than 30 years, cutting transits between Northwest Europe and the Far East by 40%.
That’s not the only reason the Arctic is destined for the global stage. An alternative to the Panama Canal is also emerging. Snaking through the waters above Canada, the Northwest Passage will likewise transit the Bering Strait on its way to the East Coast. Even the land beneath the Arctic seas will be hotly contested, containing an estimated one-fifth of the world’s hydrocarbon reserves.
As the governor of Alaska — our nation’s only Arctic state — the importance of this region is not lost on me, but how will America defend the Arctic? Already, China and Russia have staked claims in the region and begun building Arctic fleets and infrastructure. Just days ago, Russia broke the Arctic ice with three nuclear submarines, while Russian LNG tankers made a winter journey along our coastline for the first time earlier this year. For its part, China is preparing to lay claim to what it calls the “Polar Silk Road.”
America must immediately turn its focus to the Arctic. As Russian nuclear heavy icebreakers take to the water and Cold War installations reopen, the Coast Guard continues to operate a single, barely functional icebreaker that is not set to be replaced until 2024. Even China, who has declared itself a “near-Arctic” nation, operates more ice-hardened ships.
The need to protect the Arctic from foreign exploitation and aggression is not simply a future concern. Several months ago, Russian warships ordered Alaska fishing crews out of America’s exclusive economic zone in the Bering Sea. In violation of international agreements, Russian officials have made it clear that the Northern Sea Route is theirs to control. Likewise, China has a long history of making outlandish territorial claims in the South China Sea, and violating treaties at will.
These threats are compounded by the fact that access to the Arctic is gated by the Bering Strait, a single, 55-mile stretch of water shared by Russia and Alaska. Should America continue to ignore the Arctic, Russia will gladly become its custodian.
The good news is that some progress is finally being made. The Army has begun to recruit soldiers who prefer cold-weather conditions and several additional KC-135 Stratotankers are on their way to Eielson Air Force Base. But it’s not enough.
If America is truly going to play a role in the future of the Arctic, a deep-water port near the Bering Strait will be critical. Presently, our nation’s single operational icebreaker operates from Seattle, some 2,800 miles away. America is in desperate need of an Arctic-accessible port and a true fleet of ice-hardened vessels. That means expediting plans to fund and build a deep-water port near Nome, Alaska and prioritizing modern icebreakers.
A century ago, Gen. Billy Mitchell told Congress that Alaska would one day stand at the crossroads of the world. As our planet evolves and trade patterns shift, Mitchell’s statement becomes more prescient with each passing day.
Will America and Alaska be ready?
Mike Dunleavy is the 12th Governor of Alaska.