When travel brochures feature Arctic expeditions, adventure seekers may think of a once-unreachable fantasyland rich with wildlife and a pristine frozen tundra stretching as far as the eye can see.
Coast Guard Capt. Ed Westfall, chief of U.S. European Command’s Arctic strategy branch, thinks more of the second- and third-order effects of the melting polar icecap, in terms of not just tourism, but also its effect on maritime traffic, fishing, and oil and gas exploration.
Although analysts’ forecasts range from about five to 25 years, almost all envision a day when the Arctic has no significant ice coverage for at least part of the summer.
“The conditions in the Arctic are changing, and we are already seeing increased human activity indicative of that easier access,” Westfall said during a phone interview from the EUCOM headquarters in Stuttgart.
The United States, along with the seven other nations whose territories ring the Arctic Circle, recognizes the commercial, energy and security implications, he said.
As members of the Arctic Council, all have committed to ensuring the Arctic remains peaceful and stable. But they also know more human activity raises the risk of mishaps ranging from shipwrecks to oil spills that could exceed their respective civil authorities’ response capabilities, Westfall noted.
“Often the military forces end up having the actual capabilities needed in terms of range and the hardiness of equipment to support the civil authorities in what they are trying to do,” he said.
The Defense Department, in support of the National Strategy for the Arctic Region, works closely with other federal agencies and the U.S. Arctic partners to ensure they are ready to provide that support if needed in the event of a crisis.
“The Arctic is an incredibly harsh environment, and everybody who operates there faces common challenges,” Westfall said. “Because the infrastructure is so sparse and the distances so vast, the resources that any individual nation is going to have [available to support a contingency] are likely to be limited.
“So it instantly becomes a team sport,” he said. “You are going to be calling upon all your neighbors and anyone who happens to be around to help support whatever is going on.”
DOD modified its Unified Command Plan in 2011, in part to reflect the growing importance of the Arctic. The plan assigned U.S. Northern Command responsibility for overseeing the Arctic frontiers in Alaska and Canada. EUCOM focused its attention on the six Arctic nations within its theater. With that charter, the two commands collaborate closely with their Arctic partners to ensure they’re ready to respond to a crisis in the Arctic.
Their senior officers sit down together to discuss the issues involved through the annual Arctic Security Forces Roundtable that the U.S. and Norway co-sponsor. “It’s an opportunity to share ideas, focusing on communications among security forces, domain awareness and just knowing what is going on in the Arctic with the increase in traffic,” Westfall said.
The partners also regularly test their response capabilities through tabletop exercises, and field and maritime drills based on disaster scenarios.
In early September, for example, U.S. military forces joined participants from Denmark, Iceland, Canada and Norway during SAREX Greenland Sea 2013, a Danish-led search-and-rescue exercise centered on a notional cruise ship disaster between Iceland and northeastern Greenland that required a massive rescue.
The U.S. sent two New York Air National Guard aircraft and crews that regularly support scientific research missions in both the Arctic and Antarctica. In addition, U.S. Coast Guard members served as observers and subject-matter experts in command centers the Danish government operates in Greenland. Westfall was an observer aboard the Danish exercise control ship HDMS Vaedderen.
In the coming year, EUCOM and NORCOM plan to co-sponsor a multilateral tabletop exercise called Arctic Zephyr that will focus on search-and-rescue issues in the Arctic, Westfall reported. Other Arctic partners have indicated that they hope to host additional multinational exercises as well, he said.
Westfall said he anticipates that exercises will increasingly incorporate scenarios involving environmental disasters such as oil spills to reflect other pressing concerns in the region. He noted a maritime oil pollution and response agreement was signed this past spring under the auspices of the Arctic Council.
“That’s definite an area for growth in terms of exercising what this would mean among the different states, and how they would work together to respond,” he said.
This multilateral training is invaluable to U.S. forces that are relative newcomers to the Arctic, Westfall emphasized. “We recognize that we have a lot to learn from others that already do a lot of operating up there,” he said.
As non-Arctic nations increase their presence in the Arctic, Westfall said, the U.S. will welcome them as partners in keeping the region safe, secure and stable. “From the U.S. and DOD perspective, we welcome increased interest in the Arctic from any country that is assuming responsibilities consistent with their economic and national capabilities,” he said. “We welcome the positive benefits from that cooperation in the Arctic.”
Meanwhile, U.S. and partner nations are building on the foundation already laid as they learn about each other’s capabilities and how they can work together, if required, in a crisis response.
Training now for the “what-ifs” helps to establish important relationships while building a spirit of cooperation and confidence among the Arctic partners, Westfall said. “And that is going to matter if something bad happens,” he added.
“Responding to contingencies in the Arctic is a team sport,” Westfall said. “It is a lot easier to work together … in a mass disaster response when you already know each other and have had an opportunity to form those relationships to make it successful.”