The Modern War Institute at West Point published an article that suggests that NOAA ships can help provide presence in the Arctic and that this will contribute to the defense of the Homeland.
Looks like NOAA has about 16 active ships. None are very large and I don’t think any of them are ice rated.
Certainly, NOAA has business in the Arctic, understanding the oceans is an essential part of readiness for conflict, but I don’t see them as any sort of deterrant. On the other hand I don’t see Russia’s large number of icebreakers as adding significant additional threat to US or Canadian security. They simply need a lot of icebreakers to support their economic operations in the Arctic.
Which Arctic are we talking about?
For most of the world, the Arctic is the region North of the Arctic Circle. For some reason the US defines the Arctic as including the Bering Sea and the Aleutians. That does include some pretty cold territory but really, it is not the Arctic, and there is no reason the US Navy should not be operating surface ships there, but they don’t.
I am talking about the Arctic North of the Arctic circle.
What are the military threats to North America that might come across the Arctic Ocean?
While the Russian Arctic build-up threatens Norway, maybe Iceland, and perhaps Greenland, let’s consider only North America.
Much of the Russian build up in the Arctic is defensive, and this is understandable. They have a lot of assets in the Arctic. Much of their national income comes from the Russian Arctic.
There is absolutely no chance the Russians are going to attempt to land an army in the North American Arctic as an overland invasion. It would be too difficult to move and virtually impossibe to resupply. They would be under constant attack by US and Canadian Aircraft. As a Canadian Officer once noted, if Russia landed troops in the Canadian Arctic they would need to be rescued. The most we are likely to see from the Russian Army is Special Forces assaults on sensor and associated communication systems in the Arctic.
The largest portion of the Russian Naval fleet (30-35%) is based in the Arctic, but not because it is intended to operate exclusively in the Arctic. Much of it is based there because they don’t have better choices. The Northern Fleet has their only relatively unrestricted access to the Atlantic. Even Northern Fleet units have to transit the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) Gap (or the English Channel) to make it into the Atlantic Sea Lanes, The Baltic Fleet is surrounded by potential adversaries and would have to exit through the Danish Straits. The Black Sea Fleet is bottled up behind the Turkish straits and even after exit would have to cross the Mediterranean and through the Straits of Gibralter.
Russian Submarines do operate under the ice and may launch missiles or conduct commando raids in the Arctic.
The serious threats that could come across the Arctic Ocean will be in the air or in space–aircraft and ballistic and cruise missiles including the new hypersonics.
Coast Guard icebreakers could have a role in facilitating deployment and continuing support of sensor systems in the Arctic.
Gray Zone threats to Sovereignty
The more probable near term threats to the US come in the form of Gray Zone Ops that are intended to reshape the World’s view of normal. We have seen this with China’s Nine Dash Line and their attempts to recast rights associated with the Exclusive Economic Zone.
It appears Russia is trying to do the same. We have seen it in the Black Sea, and we are likely to see it in the Arctic.
The extent of Russia’s continental shelf is as yet undecided, but their claims are expansive.
Looks like China intends to do some resource extraction and fishing in the Arctic and they have not been particularly respectful of the rights of others.
The US Coast Guard will need to do fisheries protection inside the US Arctic EEZ and the Canadian CG inside theirs. There are probably going to be opportunities for cooperation and synergy between the two coast guards in the high North.
With the increase in traffic as ice melts, NOAA probably needs to do a lot of oceanographic research and survey work in the Arctic, but they are probably going to need to either build their own icebreakers or ride Coast Guard icebreakers to do it.