The United States strategic interest in the Arctic

Although the possible presence of oil, gas and other natural resources will not be a cause of conflict in the Arctic, the gradual retreat of its ice does nonetheless pose serious dangers. Above all, the United States regards large parts of the region as vital to its own national security, and would be seriously alarmed by the mere possibility of another country establishing or increasing its own presence there.

Most obviously, America has a strategic interest in maintaining the security of both its Alaskan coastline, which at its narrowest point lies just 57 miles across the Bering Strait from Russian territory, and of Canada's shores. Some commentators have claimed that these shores might eventually provide an enemy force with a possible route into the American mainland, but more important is the fact that they are the location not only of existing energy infrastructure but also of vital radar and communication links that are heavily used by the United States military. As George W. Bush's presidential directive of January 2009 summarized, the interests of the United States in the region include 'missile defense and early warning; deployment of sea and air systems for strategic sealift, strategic deterrence, maritime presence, and maritime security operations; and ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight'.

The strength of Washington's concern that these northern coasts are the weakest link of its national defences quickly emerged during the Cold War. In 1955, as part of a joint defence venture between the United States and Canada, construction began on a radar network, known as the Distant Early Warning Line, which stretched for 3,000 miles all the way from Alaska to Greenland. More sophisticated radar designs were soon developed, the most recent being the North Warning System, which monitors the coasts from Northwest Alaska to Newfoundland for any sign of foreign attack.

Since September 2001, Washington has also been concerned about terrorists moving into the American homeland through these soft, northern borders. Again, the January 2009 presidential document argued that 'the United States also has fundamental homeland security interests in preventing terrorist attacks and mitigating those criminal or hostile acts that could increase the United States' vulnerability to terrorism in the Arctic region'. It continued by saying that 'this requires the United States to assert a more active and influential national presence to protect its Arctic interests and to project sea power throughout the region'. Although these fears are probably baseless - it is likely to be many decades before climatic conditions make any such infiltration through the High North remotely possible - they do illustrate the strength of America's strategic concern about the area.

Washington is also concerned that in the event of any future war its own national security, or the security of its European allies, might still heavily depend upon the shipment of key supplies across the Atlantic. Although this is still far less important than it was in the two world wars, when long-range transport aircraft had still not been developed, it could still turn out to be economically crucial for a country that is likely to remain so dependent on importing oil and natural gas, and which is still the world's largest trading nation. But these Atlantic shipping lanes are vulnerable to attack from the north, and an enemy force would find places like Iceland, Greenland and Norway ideal bases where their fleets could be equipped, supplied, repaired and rested.

This was why, during the Cold War, American strategists made detailed proposals to establish an anti-submarine 'barrier', comprised of carefully coordinated ship movements, which would stretch across all the waters lying between Greenland, Iceland and the UK and detect any Soviet submarines that were leaving their bases in the Baltic and heading for the Atlantic. At the same time, Washington worked hard to build close alliances not just with Denmark, to gain a foothold on Greenland, but with Iceland and Norway. In 1951 an American military base was established at Keflavik, in south-west Iceland, and the following year the United States and Norway signed a secret agreement that would give the Strategic Air Command wartime access to the Norwegian air bases at Gardermoen and Sola. Three years later the United States finally obtained permission from Oslo to fly its bombers over the Norwegian mainland.27

Along with national prestige, this strategic interest lay behind Washington's drive to deploy atomic-powered submarines to the region. In the summer of 1958, the crew of the USS Skate broke new ground by crossing the North Pole underwater, surfacing sporadically in the course of their 10-day journey in the depths of the Arctic Ocean and earning a special bravery award from the United States Navy by doing so. Two years later, the Skate set out on a similar voyage and on this occasion became the first submarine to surface at the Pole, where on 17 March it scattered the ashes of a famous explorer, Hubert Wilkins. At the same time that Skate was making its first Arctic mission, another American submarine, Nautilus, also broke a new record by crossing the entire Arctic Ocean - nearly 2,000 miles from the Bering Strait to the Greenland Sea - completely submerged.

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