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U.S. Department of Defense releases nation's Arctic strategy

Yereth Rosen
Petty Officer 3rd Class Jesse Sanchez and Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan Matthews, both aviation maintenance technicians, prepare to deploy two of six sensors from an Air Station Kodiak HC-130 Hercules airplane north of Barrow, Alaska. The sensors gather data about the Arctic Ocean as they descend through the water column. They are deployed through a partnership between the U.S. Coast Guard and the University of Washington's Polar Science Center. July 16, 2013 Sara Mooers / USCG

As the Arctic climate continues to change, marine traffic and development grows and threats of man-made or natural disasters loom, the United States has a growing national-security interest in keeping the region peaceful and safe, according to the Department of Defense Arctic Strategy released Friday.

The eight-point DOD strategy, intended to complement the White House Arctic strategy issued in May, emphasizes opportunities for cooperation with other nations and with regional and local governments and entities, including the state of Alaska and groups representing indigenous residents of the Far North.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who introduced the strategy, said in a speech Friday at the Halifax National Security Forum in Canada that the disappearance of Arctic sea ice is bringing opportunities and hazards that his department and the rest of the government must manage.

Traffic volumes in the Northern Sea Route are expected to increase 10-fold this year over last year, Hagel said in the prepared text of his speech. There will be more tourism and commercial shipping, bringing increased accident risks, he said. Migrating fish stocks will draw fishermen north, too. New ambitions for “tapping what may be as much as a quarter of the planet’s undiscovered oil and gas” will likely heighten tensions over other issues, Hagel said.

The fate of the Arctic is linked to climate change around the world, with serious international repercussions, Hagel said. “Climate change does not directly cause conflict, but it can add to the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict,” he said.

Among the recommendations in the new Arctic strategy are calls for better scientific information and mapping, achieved through international cooperation, and beefed-up, Arctic-capable fleets and equipment for the U.S. military forces to use in the Far North.

The United States and other nations need to strike the right balance between initiative and aggression, the Defense Department's Arctic strategy said. While the nation needs to take proper steps to assert sovereignty, and while it needs Arctic policies that anticipate rapid changes and a myriad of difficulties to come, an overly aggressive stance -- on the part of the United States or any other country -- could seem belligerent and discourage international cooperation, the strategy said.

Hagel, in his speech, said the department’s Arctic strategy “is a long-term endeavor -- and our efforts to implement it will unfold over years and decades, not days and months."

Sen. Mark Begich said he was pleased to see the Defense Department “realize the importance of the Arctic region and the role it plays in our national security.” Begich, in a statement, said he is urging Hagel to assess the need for more icebreaking capacity in the Arctic, and the senator noted that he has co-sponsored legislation to authorize up to four more icebreakers. The Defense Department should also “frequently assess the need for greater Coast Guard presence in the Arctic,” Begich said.

Contact Yereth Rosen at yereth(at)alaskadispatch.com