Department of Defense Prepares For More Arctic Activity

Shell may be abandoning their plans for drilling in Alaska’s Arctic waters in 2014, but vessel traffic, tourism and other activity will continue to advance. As part of our ongoing look at future plans for port development and military oversight of Arctic safety and security, APRN’s Lori Townsend recently spoke with Daniel Chiu the undersecretary for strategy at the Department of Defense. Chiu says the Pentagon expects large increases in defense activity is likely decades out, but he says DOD is closely following climate science to ensure they have the lead time to adjust if necessary.

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Dr. Daniel Chiu – Thank you very much for asking me to speak with you about our DOD Arctic strategy. Pleased to talk to you about it, it’s something we’ve been working on in my office, the strategy office in the office of the Secretary of Defense for some time now. In support of the work you’ve seen come out from the White House earlier this year, when the President released the national strategy for the Arctic region. As you know the President feels very strongly, particularly with the effects of climate change that we need to pay attention to the arctic and to development and changes in the arctic and insure security, safety and prosperity and especially cooperation in that region as we’ve seen over the past many years.

In support of that, Secretary of Defense Hagel was pleased to roll out the DOD part of the strategy in Halifax. In particular how the DOD will be supporting the national strategy for the Arctic region and how we will be contributing from a defense perspective to supporting security, safety, prosperity and cooperation in the region as well. Something we believe we’re heavily engaged in already.

So to those ends, frankly we see a lot of the changes, although some of the reasons require our attention as a nation, a lot of the changes provide us with some opportunities to continue to work with others as we have in the past on cooperation, collaboration particularly in the safety and security realms. But also on ensuring that environmental conditions in the Arctic are not only protected but well respected as we continue to monitor changes in that area. As you know one of the things that’s important as we think about not only climate change but the Arctic in particular in the context of climate change, is the time frame issue here. I think it’s important for all of us to remember that although we do see already a lot of changes. Clearly the rate of human activity in the Arctic is rising at unprecedented levels and certainly attention and discussion on the Arctic is greater than it has been for many, many years, that changes in the Arctic come over time. And this time is measured not so much in minutes, hours and days but really in terms of years and frankly decades in many respects.

And as such, for the DOD, we’re really trying to think what our near, mid and long term both objects and needs are in the region. The near being roughly now the next couple of years, the mid-term being in the 5 to 10 year time frame, the long term being in the 10, 20, 30 year time frame.  That’s at least how we like to do our strategic planning.

Right now, our assessment, is in the near term, from a needs perspective and a challenges perspective, we actually assess ourselves as being in a good place. For the most part, Arctic nations and others who are active in the Arctic have been not only quite collaborative and cooperative, but have been working to solve in very constructive manners for the most part in the region. And we’ve seen that happen between a number of countries operating in the Arctic.

In the medium to long term, we start to see increasing uncertainty. And as you can imagine that’s tied very closely to exactly what the trajectory of climate change and the effects of climate change will be on the Arctic. We follow the science as closely as possible. We work very closely with, in particular, the Navy’s Office of Oceanography on that, to insure we have the best data we can for making those projections. But I think as you know, those projections, even the best informed ones, have a great amount of variability in them. As such, the way we’re trying to address that is to insure that we’re monitoring the situation in the out years, as closely as possible and simply insure that we have enough lead time to make changes to our planning assumptions should those changes become necessary.

Right now, the scientists are telling us, that their best guess is the kind of changes that would necessitate reassessment of our planning assumptions are in the decades time frame. We’re preparing for that, but we’re keeping that in consideration as we think about, particularly the budget and while we think about budget bills, we’re remembering that, while we need to maintain focus on this, we need  to put it in that decades out, time frame. So we’re doing that and we’re doing that through a process that we have internal to the department of defense that generates for example, our requirements for our budgetary outlooks. And we’re doing that in close conjunction in this case with Northern Command. They have been named the Arctic capability advocate. And that’s just a fancy term for saying they will be the lead for determining as conditions change, should we need to change for the Arctic. They were named as such in particular of course, because they are the only command that we have that has homeland arctic territory, that of course being where you are in Alaska. But they are obviously doing this in close conjunction with other combatant commands, especially UCOM, given the global breadth of the arctic. That’s roughly where we are and the reason why we’re here talking to you.

Thanks for that opening statement. In that backdrop you were just describing, that lead time needed to make changes. There’s a lot of political jockeying around arctic resources, Canada is building up its Arctic military, Russia and Canada are staking overlapping claims in the Arctic. How do you see this unfolding over the next decade and what is the U.S. military’s role in insuring there’s no escalation of tensions over territory and sovereignty?

Dr. Chiu – Right, that’s a great question. Let me divide it into two aspects. One is in terms of Arctic capabilities and resourcing those Arctic capabilities and the other one is Arctic claims. On the capabilities piece, Canada is paying a lot of attention to the Arctic and they are also thinking very hard about how to invest those resources over time and again, the time frame is a very important issue to consider here as we are doing as well. And I think they would, as we do, try to tie that to conditions as much as possible. And by that I don’t just mean environmental conditions, I do mean the conditions that you are alluding to, the competing claims, the political/military so to speak conditions in the region. So in the meantime, we think it’s absolutely critical to manage the resolution of any competing claims in the arctic. But as you, I think have implied, and as we would note, these are largely not defense issues. This is largely about using existing mechanisms to resolve these disputes. They are in place and to a large extent those with competing claims are adherents to those processes and we strongly encourage that. So from a DOD perspective, our view would be to continue to support these and as these ideally get resolved, reconsider what capability requirements are needed at that point.

And then continue to foster the types of collaboration and cooperation that we already conduct obviously with Canada and with many other nations as well to again, foster that more cooperative approach to resolving these claims and that would be a roundabout way to get to the end of your question, which would be how DOD believes we can play a role in trying to manage these diplomatic competition so it does not reach any kind, does not escalate into anything more intense than that.

Conditions are changing rapidly in the Arctic and there’s growing international interest. It takes at least a decade, if congress gave the green light today, for funding for ice breakers, for an Arctic port, we’re still at least a decade away from having that work done. Security is largely unmonitored in this region, how concerning is that?

Dr. Chiu – So, two points that are important and one is the lead time and we’re very cognizant of that. Both because of the types of capabilities we’re talking about, for example the icebreaker question, or because of the nature of the environment there, building infrastructure in an Arctic environment takes much longer, much more difficult than almost any other environment. You’re absolutely correct to say there is a long lead time. That is absolutely why I’ve mentioned a few times, the need to really monitor the situation as closely as possible. Monitor primarily at this point from an environmental perspective which is why I mentioned we’re working closely with the Navy’s oceanography department to insure that we understand the broad environmental conditions which might either accelerate or quite frankly, given the science we’ve seen, potentially decelerate, at least in some time frames, some of the human activity going on there.

But do we absolutely have to monitor the security situation there as well? Yes, we do. Again, this crosses political, military, diplomatic and hard security realms. We do have to pay attention to that. I think we have historically and we will continually. But we are also really emphasizing and the point of this strategy is to highlight our opportunity, at this point, not to just monitor and react but really to be involved in shaping the outcome of this in a proactive manner so we can preserve, the more cooperative angles/aspects of our interactions in the Arctic and make that the predominant theme going forward.

Kotzebue is strategically the best location for a deep-water port, but Port Clarence appears to be emerging as the likely choice. Is the Pentagon weighing in on where it should be and where on the Alaskan coast do you think it should be located?

Dr. Chiu – So currently our work on this has largely been in support of the work the CG has been doing and we’ll continue to do that. From a defense, Navy, broader joint service perspective, we have not assessed a need for that kind of an installation at this time. So we’ll continue to work with the CG and work closely with DHS as they make their decisions about this kind of infrastructure. But at this point, this is not a DOD initiative so we don’t have any specifics on any DOD requirements, frankly because we don’t have those requirements on those near-term time frames. As we get further out, this is something we would take into consideration and you’re right, we’d have to do that kind of comparative analysis to make sure we have the capabilities we need.

What should Alaskans expect to see for military presence in the next five to ten years? How will the DOD ramp up to address traffic, territory and security concerns in the Arctic?

Dr. Chiu – Currently, certainly in the next five years or so, I don’t anticipate any major changes in presence. From a security standpoint, we don’t see any major threats in the region in this time frame that require military presence. On the safety piece and particular on environmental safety and human safety issues. We certainly will insure that we can support our colleagues in the CG for example as effectively as possible and as necessary. We work very closely with them on these issues. If there are changes necessitated, because of increased human activity in the region, we’ll certainly consider that in conjunction with the CG and with the support of CG, but we’d have to array that against the broad range of things that DOD will do. Again, though I would caution you and listeners to put this in perspective. Although we do see a lot of additional activity, everything from tourism to intraregional commerce and exploration, we do have to put that into context.

Certainly more people, but this is not a vast opening of the Arctic. The Arctic remains a very harsh environment and its important as people use vague terms like vague terms, or misunderstood terms like ice free, we are not in any near term time frame, anticipating a rush of people to the region. So we will monitor this, able to support as necessary but in the near term we don’t see any big changes in the area.

Failure of the U.S. being signed on to the Law of the Sea Treaty. Does this impact the strategy militarily to not be signed on?

Dr. Chiu – On the one hand no, at an operational level, we continue to operate and collaborate consistent with the norms laid out in the law of the sea treaty on a day to day basis. So it’s not hampered or changed the way we behave on day to day basis and that’s allowed us to generate the kind of collaboration and cooperation we’ve seen in the arctic to date.

That said, on a broader, political level, the one concern I have about not being part of the structure associated with the Law of the Sea Treaty is that there will be a lot of forums and discussions which we may not be able to participate in as effectively as we’d like to if we’re not signatories to it. So the competing claims you mentioned before, of course we would like to be resolved in a manner consistent with the Law of the Sea and theoretically may be done through the mechanisms that the law of the sea has already prescribed. Not being signatories creates constraints in our ability to be able to participate in that at a diplomatic level. I would defer to my friends in the state department but suggest that this is at least less than optimal. On a day-by-day basis for DOD, the type of cooperation we have with other militaries, the types of support with the CG, the types of operations we need to do to protect our homeland and our interests, we’re find on that front.

What sort of future does the missile defense system that is partly based in Alaska facing?

We’re currently doing a review on that as part of the quadrennial defense review. We are of course, extremely concerned about growing ballistic challenges. While not technically an Arctic issue, you can understand why it has implications there as well, both from an early warning perspective and a missile defense perspective. And we’re trying to find the appropriate solution in terms of managing that problem from a defensive standpoint, but frankly insuring that we have the right capabilities to deter and dissuade the use of those weapons in the first place and not rely on just on defenses.

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Lori Townsend is the News Director for the Alaska Public Radio Network. She got her start in broadcasting at the age of 11 as the park announcer of the fast pitch baseball games in Deer Park, Wisconsin. She has worked in print and broadcast journalism for more than 24 years. She was the co-founder and former Editor of Northern Aspects, a magazine featuring northern Wisconsin writers and artists. She worked for 7 years at tribal station WOJB on the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibway Reservation in Wisconsin, first as an on-air programmer and special projects producer and eventually News Director. In 1997 she co-hosted a continuing Saturday afternoon public affairs talk program on station KSTP in St. Paul, Minnesota. Radio brought her to Alaska where she worked as a broadcast trainer for Native fellowship students at Koahnic Broadcasting. Following her work there, she helped co-found the non-profit broadcast company Native Voice Communications. NVC created the award-winning Independent Native News as well as producing many other documentaries and productions. Townsend was NVC’s technical trainer and assistant producer of INN. Through her freelance work, she has produced news and feature stories nationally and internationally for Independent Native News, National Native News, NPR , Pacifica, Monitor Radio, Radio Netherlands and AIROS. Her print work and interviews have been published in News from Indian Country, Yakama Nation Review and other publications. Ms. Townsend has also worked as a broadcast trainer for the Native American Journalist’s Association and with NPR’s Doug Mitchell and as a freelance editor. Townsend is the recipient of numerous awards for her work from the Alaska Press Club, the Native American Journalists Association and a gold and a silver reel award from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. Townsend was the recipient of a Fellowship at the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting in Rhode Island as well as a fellowship at the Knight Digital Media Center in Berkeley. She is an avid reader, a rabid gardener and counts water skiing, training horses, diving and a welding certification among her past and current interests. ltownsend (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  |  907.550.8452 | About Lori