As Russia Invests in the Arctic, America Falls Behind

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Even though the U.S. is one of eight Arctic nations, America has not adequately invested in the region and, as a result, has not yet fully embraced its status as an Arctic power.

The opposite can be said of Russia, an Arctic nation that has invested heavily in the region. Russia recently installed a fiber optic cable nicknamed the “Polar Express” in Russia’s Arctic territory. Fiber optic cables are necessary to maintain and expand connectivity, an increasingly vital part of life in the 21st century.

The cable will span 7,860 miles from the rural, northern village of Teriberka to the port city of Vladivostok in the far east and will be completed by 2026. Its intended function is to improve connections in Russia’s far north where about 2.5 million Russians live, accounting for nearly half of the population living in the Arctic.

This state-funded project is estimated to cost around $889 million and fits well into Russia’s Northern Sea Route Development Plan released in 2018. The Northern Sea Route Development Plan aims to significantly increase Russian economic development in the Arctic by 2035.

Another recent example of Russian economic investment in the Arctic is their oil drilling initiative. Russia recently cast the Bavenit, one of Russia’s most advanced vessels, on Aug. 22 to drill the first wells ever in the underutilized Laptev Sea.

Russia has also invested heavily in military infrastructure in the Arctic region. Russia’s Federal Security Service and its subordinate coast guard have added patrol vessels. They have also built Arctic bases, including a coast guard base in Murmansk that was opened in Dec. 2018.

Russia also aims to test its Poseidon nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed torpedo in the Arctic. Russia’s Northern Fleet is building newly refitted submarines, including the Belgorod nuclear-powered submarine launched in April 2019.

Nuclear submarines are not the only notable naval investment Moscow has made. Russia has access to more than 40 ice-breaking ships. America only has access to two, the Polar Star and the Healy.

Unfortunately, the Polar Star is far past its 30-year lifespan and makes only one annual trip to Antarctica to resupply the McMurdo Station. The Healy was recently restored after experiencing an electrical fire in August 2020.

The U.S. does not have any working icebreakers in U.S. Arctic waters north of Alaska. Above the Arctic Circle, Alaska is underutilized and rich with natural resources, including natural gas and oil. While ice in the Arctic Ocean is melting, therefore, making ship navigation easier, ships without ice-breaking hulls cannot access many parts of the Arctic.

There is, however, some reason for optimism. Under the Trump administration, Congress allocated $1.2 billion for a new ice-breaking fleet as part of the Coast Guard’s Polar Security Cutter program. Under this program, six new icebreakers will be constructed, with the first scheduled to begin sea trials by 2024.

In addition, the Biden administration has followed up on this initial investment by directing $170 million of a $1 billion budget toward the construction of vessels as part of the Polar Security Cutter program. This trend of investing in vessels must continue to keep up with the reality of a changing Arctic.

The U.S. also needs to invest in communications technology. The remoteness, harsh climate, and unique difficulties for satellite communications presented by the Arctic make this an area ripe for needed further investment.

Recently, the U.S. Air Force has focused on bringing higher speed and reliable communications access to both military and civilian populations as laid out in its Arctic Strategy. This mission involves an investment of $50 million toward testing polar satellites in low-Earth orbit. Communication services will be leased to private companies allowing them to provide coverage to those living in remote areas of the Arctic.

Unfortunately, the Arctic hasn’t been enough of a factor for U.S. investments and strategic thinking. Physical changes in the region and Russia’s investments in its own Arctic area should be a warning sign that the U.S. needs to awaken from its slumber.

The U.S. should invest in the infrastructure necessary to meet future security challenges and improve the lives of those living in the region. America cannot afford to fall behind in the Arctic.

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