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Will US navy Arctic roadmap increase tension?

Expert comment: In October 2009, the U.S. Navy (USN) released a new roadmap for its activities relating to the Arctic for the next five years. The document stipulates a number of initiatives and actions that are designed to increase the USN’s knowledge about the arctic and capability to operate in arctic conditions. The publication of this roadmap has led to speculations about a military build-up and the potential for conflict in this area. Does this signify the beginning of an arms race in the Arctic?

By Amund Lundesgaard, Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies (15 December 2009)


This roadmap is an overview of the “action items, objectives and desired effects for the Arctic region from FY 10-14 [fiscal year 2010-2014].” It outlines strategic, operational, research and other initiatives that the Chief of Naval Operations considers necessary to have a responsible and sustainable presence in the Arctic. However, it does not contain any specific plans to increase the U.S. military presence significantly. Generally, the roadmap promotes cooperation, although speculations have versed that it can lead to conflicts.


First of all, the build up of military forces in the Arctic is not synonymous with conflict. The area has not seen much surface activity because of the ice. The activity has been under water and in the air; however, if the arctic becomes ice free during summer, it is natural that the navies and coast guards take an interest in this new domain. There are a number of factors that determines the potential for arms race and armed conflict. The build up of military capabilities is necessary to start an arms race and an armed conflict, but it is not a sufficient factor in and by itself.


Looking at other conflict-inducing factors, the potential for arms race and armed conflict in the arctic is rather limited. Most of the known resources are already distributed between the arctic countries. Furthermore, the US Geological Survey 2008 report on undiscovered Arctic petroleum resources indicates that most of the undiscovered resources are in undisputed areas. The conflict potential in the Arctic is thus quite limited, which was underscored at the Ilulissat conference in 2008. There, the states surrounding the Arctic Ocean (Canada, Denmark, Norway Russia and the United States) agreed to resolve any differences in United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) and other international forums. The arctic states most likely have a common interest in subjecting to UNCLOS rather than a specific regulatory regime, and so far, this agreement has been complied with, as claims have been submitted to the UNCLOS.


Turning to the U.S. Navy Arctic Roadmap more specifically, the document emphasises cooperation and the peaceful resolution of differences. For example, the document advocates U.S. accession to UNCLOS, which signifies a rather cooperative USN stance on the Arctic. With the previous points in mind, it is likely that the document is a result of the possibilities and challenges that come with an opening of the Arctic, and not necessarily the start of an arms race.

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