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American Forces Press Service

Northcom Strives to Promote Safe, Secure Arctic

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo., Dec. 17, 2012 – The Arctic, the northernmost part of the Earth, is one of the last frontiers -- a region so isolated and impenetrable that few humans have ever experienced its unforgiving conditions and austere beauty.

But with increased melting of the Arctic ice cap, officials at U.S. Northern Command recognize new opportunities opening up for the international community, but also the related safety and security challenges.

The Arctic ice shelf shrank to its lowest size in recorded history on Sept. 19, 2012, when it measured about 1.5 million square kilometers below the previous all-time low reported in the summer of 2007, Canadian Air Force Brig. Gen. A.D. "Al" Meinzinger told American Forces Press Service. Meinzinger is deputy director of North American Aerospace Defense Command's and Northcom's strategy, policy and plans directorate.

Although analysts' time estimates range from about five to 25 years, almost all envision a day when the Arctic has no discernible ice mass for at least part of the summer season.

"We recognize some fundamental changes occurring," Meinzinger said. "And from a security perspective, we recognize that with that change coming, human activity in the Arctic will be increasing."

Much of that activity will be a quest for the region's vast resources, from fish populations to oil and natural gas reserves to rare minerals within the Arctic seabed, Meinzinger said. He cited estimates that as much as one-quarter of the world's oil and gas reserves lie beneath Arctic waters, and commercial ventures are already under way to tap them.

And, just as Antarctica, the earth's southernmost continent, has become an eco-tourist destination, Meinzinger anticipates a similar development in the Arctic.

But the opening of the Arctic will have an economic impact that extends well beyond the region, Meinzinger said. For the first time in history, shipping companies will have new, shorter and commercially viable sea routes between Europe and Asia, at least for one or two months each summer. Some shippers already have begun transiting through the Bering Strait using two main Arctic routes: the northern sea route along the Russian coast and the northwest passage that runs along the Canadian coast.

Army Gen. Charles H. Jacoby Jr., who commands Northcom and NORAD, noted in congressional testimony earlier this year that sea traffic in the Arctic has increased more than 60 percent since 2008, and drilling started in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas this past spring.

As these activities unfold, they raise safety and security concerns for the United States, Canada and other Arctic nations, Jacoby said. "Security interests follow closely behind economic interests, and we will be participating in a number of venues to help lead that for the Department of Defense," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Jacoby recognized that Northcom could be called on to support civil authorities in an environmental-disaster response in the Arctic or to support search-and-rescue operations there.

DOD's unified defense plan identified Northcom as the department's advocate for Arctic capabilities in April 2011, reflecting the command's dual roles in defending the homeland and providing military support to civilian first responders, when requested. In Northcom's Arctic role, it is responsible for working with stakeholders across the U.S. military, the interagency, and the international community to promote safety and security in the region.

Jacoby and Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr. signed a report in March that identifies gaps in communication, domain awareness, infrastructure and presence. This analysis will help guide investments to prepare for the eventual opening of the Arctic, including infrastructure that Meinzinger said often takes four times longer and costs four times as much as similar projects in less isolated and demanding environments.

Northcom also is collaborating with the Navy, other DOD entities, the Department of Homeland Security and the Canadian government to enhance collective capabilities in the Arctic.

Last week, Jacoby joined Canadian Army Lt. Gen. Stuart Beare, commander of Canadian Joint Operations Command, to sign the Tri-Command Framework for Arctic Cooperation that promotes enhanced military cooperation to support safety, security and defense operations in the region.

"We have an opportunity, while we watch the Arctic begin to open up, to get ahead of potential security requirements," Jacoby told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The foundations of this effort already are taking shape. Before Shell Oil Company launched its well-drilling operation this past summer, company officials traveled here to discuss potential issues that could arise in the Arctic with Northcom, Coast Guard and other interagency officials.

They war-gamed scenarios and procedures Shell would take in the event of an oil spill or vessel collision, and ensured a common understanding of how the company would interact with government agencies should a contingency occur, Meinzinger said. He ran through the line diagram, beginning with local and state authorities, who, if overwhelmed, would ask for federal support. Northcom would have a role only if the lead federal agency requested specific help.

During this year's drilling season, the Coast Guard conducted an exercise in the region to ensure it was ready to respond, if needed. "This was great because we were able to monitor the activities and be in place in case an issue arose that needed to be managed," Meinzinger said. "That's important to us, because we expect this level of activity to continue," with other U.S. and Canadian oil companies planning similar operations.

Despite press coverage about the "militarization" of the Arctic and the rush for resources there, Meinzinger said he's encouraged by the cooperative spirit among the eight countries that ring the North Pole.

Most of the region's resources fall within specific countries' economic exclusion zones, reducing the likelihood of conflict, he noted. Meinzinger pointed to the peaceful settlement between Russia and Norway over a border dispute and nations' efforts to ensure the Arctic opens in a stable, secure manner.

"We have common interests," Meinzinger said. "The eight [Arctic] nations understand that this is a fragile environment, and we have a mutual interest in ensuring the Arctic opens in a peaceful manner and that conflict is not on anybody's priority list."

The Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum that promotes cooperation, coordination and interaction among Arctic states, established treaty agreements that lay a framework for collaborative search-and-rescue support and oil-spill prevention.

That cooperation has extended to the security sector as well. This past May, Jacoby traveled to Canada to represent the Defense Department at the first-ever Northern Chiefs of Defense conference in Goose Bay in Labrador. Senior representatives of all eight Arctic nations came together to discuss the safety and security challenges associated with the region, and ways they can work together to address them.

"As we look to the opening of the Arctic, General Jacoby's prime focus is on ensuring a peaceful opening of the region," and ensuring that Northcom is prepared to respond, if necessary, to a crisis or contingency, Meinzinger said.

"We need to anticipate the Arctic operations today so we are prepared for the Arctic operations of tomorrow," he said.

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