Missile launchers illuminated under the glowing green fingers of the northern lights, white-and-gray camo with fur-lined hoods, Green Berets perched two to a snowmobile—these were the scenes from Arctic Edge in 2022, a biannual joint training exercise first convened in 2018 to train troops to operate in the marginal conditions north of the Arctic Circle.
“[These exercises] bring us all together as a joint, combined, and allied force to think about how we can defend the Arctic, how we can work together to not just survive up here, but thrive and be able to protect our homeland,” the commander of the military’s Alaskan Command, Lt. Gen. David Krumm, said after the 2022 exercise.
In recent years, the U.S. military has highlighted exercises like this to underscore the importance of the Arctic, trumpeting its commitment to protecting U.S. security interests there.
The military “must be able to … shape the security environment” in the region, states the Pentagon’s 2019 congressional report on Arctic strategy.
“U.S. Naval forces must operate more assertively across the Arctic Region,” proclaims the Navy’s “Strategic Blueprint for the Arctic,” released in 2021.
The Army published its strategy for “regaining Arctic dominance” the same year.
But while these and other recent policies highlight the region’s critical importance, along with the military’s growing interest in it as climate change reshapes the polar environment, experts argue the United States has done little to commit the targeted, long-term investment or build up the capacity needed to lead in the Arctic.
“We don’t have the capability to sustain forces up there,” says Ryan Burke, the research director of the Homeland Defense Institute at U.S. Northern Command, as well as an affiliate professor at University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Center for Arctic Security and Resilience and the co-director of Project 6633 at West Point’s Modern War Institute. “We don’t have the infrastructure, we don’t have the know-how, we don’t have the institutional knowledge. We don’t have any of what we need to be present, let alone to actually dominate the damn thing.”
As interest in the region grows, the military has begun to make some changes. In December, Finland, which joined NATO this year, gave the U.S. military access to 15 Finnish bases and the ability to store weapons and equipment in the country; Sweden, which has applied to join NATO, also gave the U.S. access to 17 bases. The agreements follow a similar pact with Norway the previous year. In 2022, Eielson Air Force Base, just over 100 miles south of the Arctic Circle, stood up a full complement of F-35s. Marine units now rotate through cold-weather training with their Norwegian counterparts, and during the past several years, U.S. forces have participated in trainings like Arctic Edge or Arctic Challenge, a Nordic-led joint military exercise.
But much of the necessary communication systems, general infrastructure, and, critically, sustained presence and training needed to understand and operate in such a complex environment has yet to materialize. The lofty visions promised in recent strategies don’t always match the realities on the ground.
“The Army is a land force,” Burke says of the Army’s promise to “dominate” the region. “The Arctic is principally a maritime domain.”
As for the maritime side of things, the U.S. military has just two functional polar icebreakers. Plans to bring on additional ships have been repeatedly delayed. The operational capacity of the U.S. military to regulate economic interests or respond to a large-scale event, such as an oil spill or a mass casualty scenario, isn’t assured.
“The Army has a strategy, the Navy has a strategy, the Air Force has a strategy,” Burke says. “Congratulations. We can’t do any of it.”
‘You Need Lots of Other Things’
Sixty years ago, at the height of the Cold War, the U.S. icebreaker fleet was quadruple the size it is today. The Navy and the Coast Guard operated seven heavily armed Wind Class diesel-electric ships between them, along with the Coast Guard cutter Glacier, a larger heavy icebreaker operated first by the Navy and then by the Coast Guard.
“During the Cold War, the Arctic was probably more important militarily than ever before in history,” says Scott Savitz, a senior engineer at RAND who worked on a recent report assessing U.S. military arctic capabilities. “It was the literal high ground. There was recognition that if missiles were going to be flying between North America and the Soviet Union, most of them would be going that way.”
In the 1970s, as the Coast Guard decommissioned the Wind Class cutters after decades in service, the service brought two new heavy icebreakers online: the Polar Sea and the Polar Star.
The Sea and the Star were joined by the Healy, a medium-class icebreaker, in 1999. (Full disclosure: I served on the Healy as a Coast Guard officer from 2009 to 2011.) Today, only the Polar Star—more than 45 years old—and the Healy are operational. The Polar Sea has been out of service since 2010, slowly cannibalized for parts.
Compare that with Russia’s icebreaker fleet: More than 45 military ships and counting—three additional ships are under construction, and Vladimir Putin has said the country plans to have 13 new icebreakers online by 2035. Even China, a thousand miles from the Arctic Circle, just laid the hull for its third icebreaker.
For years, the Coast Guard and Navy have been jointly developing a new class of icebreakers: polar security cutters, heavy icebreakers, the largest the United States has ever commissioned. The plan is for just three new ships—to be followed, at some undefined point in the future, by three additional medium icebreakers—but the program has been repeatedly delayed and plagued by design issues. A GAO report last summer found the Polar Security Cutter program was still at risk of a “costly rework and further delays.”
And while comparisons of the United States’ paltry icebreaker fleet to Russia’s and China’s are useful shorthand for the state of the country’s Arctic investment, the reality of the U.S. security landscape in the Arctic is far more complex.
“Polar icebreakers are necessary, but not sufficient,” Savitz says. “You need lots of other things.”
Chief among them are building up the capacity for domain awareness and operational readiness: the costly infrastructure—things like communications systems, equipment, and assets, along with the ability to maintain them—that helps the military understand what is happening in the environment, and the sustained presence of people who can monitor that information and respond if necessary. For the most part, the United States has neither.
The most recent Pentagon Arctic strategy was released in 2019. It emphasizes that Arctic security is U.S. security, and it focuses on three lines of efforts in the region: improving domain awareness, increasing operations, and bolstering rules-based order. But while it nods to things like cold weather training and joint exercises, it does little to pinpoint specific or significant fiscal or resource commitments.
“I think a lot of people have done a good job laying out what needs to happen to improve U.S. access and presence in the Arctic,” says Abbie Tingstad, a research professor at the Center for Arctic Study and Policy at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, as well as the lead author on the recent RAND study, conducted while she was with RAND. “Now it just costs money and time and getting organized.”
In 2022, the department stood up an Arctic Strategy and Global Resilience Office to guide U.S. security strategy in the region and help coordinate the three combatant commands that have responsibility over the region: U.S. Northern Command, U.S. European Command, and U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.
A national strategy for the Arctic, released by the White House in 2022, highlights security as its first strategic pillar for the region, pointing specifically to the need to “develop capabilities for expanded Arctic activity.”
Defense Department officials say an updated version of its Arctic strategy will be released early this year.
“This was one of those areas where we could have gotten out in front of it,” says Cameron Carlson, the assistant director of the Center for Arctic Security and Resilience and dean of the College of Business and Security Management at University of Alaska Fairbanks. “And I think every year that slips, we—especially on the DOD side—we end up taking a step farther and farther back from it because we really haven’t defined what our true Arctic interests are, what our stake will be here for the long term.”
‘Everything Breaks in the Arctic’
There are many reasons for the gulf that exists between platitudes in policy and priorities in practice, but a primary one is just the sheer complexity of operating in the Arctic. Maintaining equipment and conducting operations in such an extremely cold environment require unique standards and approaches.
“Everything breaks in the Arctic,” Savitz says. “Fuels gel, lubricants don’t. The batteries fail, the materials shatter and snap, everything is iced over. And it’s extremely hard on humans.”
For instance, in the Pentagon’s announcement of its Arctic strategy office, Iris Ferguson, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Arctic and global resilience, pointed out that much of the military’s infrastructure in the far north is built on permafrost, which is melting as the planet warms.
“We’re working to mitigate that,” Ferguson said at the time.
The harsh environment makes continued maintenance paramount—a challenge in budget cycles that tend to favor shiny new toys. And the region’s exceptional parameters mean equipment designed for the Arctic might not be particularly useful elsewhere—another tough fiscal sell.
Take the Navy’s surface fleet, for example. U.S. naval submarines have, for decades, operated in the Arctic—but primarily out of sight, intentionally. The Navy’s Arctic strategy promises an “enhanced presence” in the Arctic, pledging to “provide our Sailors, Marines, and Civilians with the education, training, and equipment necessary to preserve peace and respond to crises in the region.”
That’s a complicated promise.
“If you create a surface fleet that is specific to that region … that will become a heavier ship,” Carlson says. “And heavier ships don’t move as fast. They’re not as agile. They’re not as fuel efficient.”
So instead, the Navy’s strategy points to partnerships with the Coast Guard, which has more institutional knowledge about Arctic operations as well as the military’s only icebreakers.
“The Coast Guard has been the most active of any of the services in trying to maintain Arctic capabilities and build capacity,” Savitz says.
In part, that’s because of the nature of Arctic security: It’s more about competition than it is about conflict. The Coast Guard is used to a mission set that focuses on enforcing laws and regulations, and responding when things go wrong.
For the other military branches, being told to wait around “in a place that is remote, and where it’s really hard to operate, and where you’re likely going to have various systems fail, when there’s intense attention on other parts of the world, or flare-ups, or crises” isn’t popular, Savitz says. “Part of the problem is that there is such a strong nondefense component of security up there.”
But the Coast Guard, as the only military branch housed in the Department of Homeland Security, is always strapped for cash, and the need for U.S. presence and response in the Arctic is only growing, analysts argue. A shrinking ice cap and increasing ship traffic raise questions about regulating things like fisheries and access to other resources, or enforcing international standards. And then there’s the issue of what happens if things go wrong—like an environmental catastrophe or a search-and-rescue disaster.
“The intersection of climate change and, say, economic factors, or the intersection of changing demographics—all of those combinations also then create these situations where I think these black swan-type events may become a little bit more frequent,” Tingstad says. “The U.S. as a whole has such global priorities—something has to get racked and stacked, and that’s certainly understandable. But from an Arctic perspective, of course, the concern is that it’s low probability. It feels low probability until it actually happens.”
Other Arctic nations, particularly Russia, which has a substantial military and economic presence in the region, may be better poised to respond—and its day-to-day operations there raise questions about whose values and interests are prioritized in the Arctic.
“Presence equals influence, and influence often translates to power,” Burke says. “The point being is that if we collectively want to be influential, and have any sort of power position in the Arctic whatsoever, we actually need to be there.”
Editor’s note: Following reader feedback, The War Horse updated this article to include additional context about recent pacts between the U.S. military and several Nordic countries regarding base access.
This War Horse investigation was reported by Sonner Kehrt, edited by Kelly Kennedy, fact-checked by Jess Rohan, and copy-edited by Mitchell Hansen-Dewar. Abbie Bennett wrote the headlines.