The U.S. will assert its sovereignty in the Arctic, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned Friday, even as Russia, China and other nations stake claims and expand their use of the icy waters for military exercises and transit.
“Throughout human history, mankind has raced to discover the next frontier,” Hagel said, unveiling the new Arctic strategy. “And time after time, discovery was swiftly followed by conflict. We cannot erase this history. But we can assure that history does not repeat itself in the Arctic.”
Hagel’s comments came as the military finalized plans to expand operations in the vast waters of the Arctic, where melting ice caps are opening sea lanes and giving nations like Russia greater access to the oil and gas deposits.
But it will take money and resources for the U.S. to fill the wide gaps in satellite and communications coverage, add deep-water ports and buy more ships that can withstand the frigid waters or break through the ice.
Hagel acknowledged the budget pressures, but he said the U.S. must map out its long-range plans despite the ongoing “deep and abrupt” spending cuts.
President Barack Obama in May unveiled a U.S. strategy for the Arctic, asserting that nations must protect the region’s fragile environment and keep it free from conflict. At the same time, however, the U.S. wants to make sure it is not left behind as countries like Russia, China, Canada and Norway map out plans ranging from gas and oil exploration to research and military exercises.
U.S. officials estimate the Arctic holds 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves and 30 percent of undiscovered gas deposits. Until recently, however, areas that could reap hundreds of billions of dollars in revenues were frozen over and unreachable.
Experts now say the Arctic waters could see largely ice-free summers as early as 2030, and there could be ice-free conditions for as long as a month by the mid-2020s. Ice-free means that about 10 percent of the water is ice-covered.
In 2007, a Russian research ship placed a Russian flag on the bottom of the Arctic Ocean near the North Pole in a symbolic gesture. Just last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the Arctic was essential for his country’s economy and security.
China has also joined the jousting, sending its first icebreaker ship through the Arctic last year, even though China doesn’t abut Arctic territory.