Navy plans to be more active in the Arctic

Northern Edge military exercise in the Gulf of Alaska. (2016 photo: U.S. Navy)

The U.S. Navy is increasing its presence in the Arctic, and Navy Secretary Richard Spencer said he’d like to send a ship through the Northwest Passage this summer.

“We’re still exploring to see if we could do a full passage. There’s still ice up there in some places,” Spencer told a U.S. Senate Appropriations subcommittee this week.

If the voyage happens, it would be a freedom-of-navigation exercise. That’s a way the U.S. asserts itself and its maritime rights in an area. Spencer said he wants to do more of them in the Arctic.

As sea ice shrinks, countries are sending more and more ships through waters not previously considered navigable. The U.S. is particularly concerned about Russian and Chinese ambitions in the Far North.

Spencer said his wake-up call came at his first Arctic Council meeting, shortly after he became secretary of the Navy in 2017.

“It truly was an eye-opener for me,” Spencer said, “because sitting across the table was our Russian counterpart, talking about the 10,000 spetsnaz (special operations troops) he has up there, and the runways that he’s bringing back to life for ‘search and rescue.'”

The secretary made air quotes with his fingers, suggesting he doesn’t believe the build up is just for civilian purposes.

The U.S. Navy added Arctic exercises in 2018 and 2019 and is planning more. Spencer said the Navy and Marines are considering using Adak for an exercise in September.

The U.S. has no deepwater ports in the Arctic, and Spencer isn’t asking for any, at least not now.

“While we do not have a requirement for a port, yes, having a deepwater port such as Nome would be an advantage in the area.”

At the hearing, Spencer, covered a range of topics, from building new submarines to improving childcare for Navy families. He didn’t mention the Arctic in his written remarks but readily discussed it in response to questions from Sen. Lisa Murkowski.