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Navy Secretary: US Weighing Patrols Near Russian Arctic Bases

“It’s sort of the same situation in the South China Sea that, when we look at freedom of navigation operations and the ability to operate in international waters, the United States claims the right to be able to do that,” SecNav Kenneth Braithwaite said.

By   PAUL MCLEARYon January 05, 2021 at 7:44 PM

USS Connecticut, USS Hartford, and HMS Trenchant during the multinational maritime Ice Exercise (ICEX) in the Arctic.

WASHINGTON: The Navy will start regularly sailing near Russian land claims in the increasingly ice-free Arctic, challenging Moscow’s push in the High North, Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite said today.

“You will see the Navy operating again in a more permanent manner above the Arctic Circle,” Braithwaite told reporters in what is likely his last interview before the Biden administration takes over on Jan. 20. 

The secretary was rolling out the Navy’s new Arctic Strategy paper, which followed last month’s release of a “Tri-Service” strategy last month along with the Marines and Coast Guard, which promised that US ships will “adopt a more assertive posture in our day-to-day operations” around the globe as a check against Chinese and Russian adventurism.

During a phone conference with reporters today, Braithwaite said the US will have to “operate more assertively” in the Arctic in the coming years to challenge both Russian, and to a lesser extent, Chinese claims in the High North.

I asked Braithwaite if the US should begin running Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) off of Russia’s northern coast in response. 

“It’s sort of the same situation in the South China Sea that when we look at freedom of navigation operations and the ability to operate in international waters, the United States claims the right to be able to do that,” he said.

“That takes us up into the Barents [Sea], and then takes us around the Barents and up towards the Kola Peninsula to be more present in that part of the world. Again, where sea lanes open up in the northern passage becomes navigable, the US Navy is going to guarantee that freedom of navigation exists for our partners.”

The Kola Peninsula is a heavily militarized zone jutting into the Arctic that houses the powerful Northern Fleet, which includes Russia’s formidable submarine force. The Russians push out of Kola into the Barents and then into the North Atlantic, making the waters around it critical for Moscow’s power projection.

Comparing Beijing’s illegal claims in the South China Sea with more recent Russian moves in the north, Braithwaite added, “we see some of those near peer competitors believe that certain bodies of water belong to them. Well, the international community recognizes that those are international waters we’re gonna operate there. And so that’s the more assertive role that we’re talking about. That’s the more bold posturing that we feel is our right, and our responsibility, frankly, as the predominant naval force in the world.”

As for the Russians, “Russia is investing heavily to enhance its Arctic defense and economic sectors, with a resultant multilayered militarization of its northern flank,” the report notes, accusing Moscow of running “escalatory and non-transparent” military operations “and unlawful regulation of maritime traffic along the Northern Sea Route” which degrades security in the region.

The new strategy didn’t call for any specific actions or technologies that would make Arctic transits easier or more frequent, but the two documents, paired with Braithwaite’s comments, indicate that Navy leadership is looking lean forward in the region to the extent possible. 

It won’t be easy. With no deepwater ports in Alaska to repair and launch Navy ships, spotty satellite communications above the Arctic Circle, and only one operational Coast Guard icebreaker — to Russia’s 50 — it’s hard to see how the US might rush north.

For decades, the US has relied on nuclear submarines to quietly patrol under the ice of the Arctic, and Braithwaite suggested that’s not going to change, even if more surface ships head north. 

“Our strongest advantage in that region is our submarine force,” Braithwaite said. “That’s why you saw in the Future Naval Force Structure [report] such an emphasis put on building” up to 70 to 80 submarines in the coming years, almost doubling the 48 currently in the fleet.

Even with ice breaking up, surface ships will still struggle.

In July, the White House ordered the Coast Guard and Navy to come up with a plan for a new generation of potentially nuclear-powered icebreakers, which was delivered in August. “We have several options on the table,” Braithwaite said, adding “it is something that is front and center, that we are continuing to work on as I speak” though it is still far from clear if the US shipbuilding industry has the capacity to actually build a new fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers. 

While Russia can flood the zone with their breakers, China is also looking to enter the game, and they’re “building icebreakers at rates that we can’t match,” Braithwaite said. Leasing some ships from allies is one solution that has been floated, and the secretary confirmed the US is “looking at our allies and partners to be able to fill some of that gap” until the planned six domestically-built breakers can enter service.

Looking at China and Russia, the report follows previous Pentagon statements that both are surging their naval assets at rates faster than the US can match, but it does not offer any real way to meet the challenge.

The Arctic paper warns that “China is investing in ship building – polar-capable cargo vessels, liquefied natural gas tankers, and nuclear-powered icebreakers – as well as port infrastructure to improve access in the Arctic. China’s investments, global fishing fleet, and scientific, economic, and academic linkages to the people and institutions of Arctic nations, including joint ventures with Russia, will likely continue to rise in the decades ahead.”

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