National Homeland Defense Foundation Conference

by Nadav Morag, Ph.D., CTU University Dean of Security Studies

The theme for this year’s National Homeland Defense Foundation conference focused on security in the arctic region.  This is an area that most Americans think very little about despite the fact that the United States is an arctic nation and has been one since Secretary of State William H. Seward organized the purchase of Alaska from the Russian Empire in 1867 (a sale that Russians of subsequent generations have certainly lived to regret!).   

During the Cold War (roughly 1946 to 1991), the arctic was an extremely critical area for three reasons: 1) It was a major location for underwater and air eavesdropping (i.e., spying) operations carried out by the United States and its allies on the one hand and the Soviet Union on the other.  2) The quickest direct air route from the Soviet Union to the United States and vice versa was over the artic.  This meant that US and Soviet ICBMs (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles) carrying nuclear warheads were programmed to fly over the artic on their way to hit nuclear installations or cities in enemy territory.  3) Because of Reason #2, and especially in the period when military satellites were not as common as they are now, the United States deployed an array of radar stations along the arctic coast in Canada and Alaska, known as the DEW (Distant Early Warning Line) and these were critical in providing warning to the United States in the event of a Soviet nuclear launch (the Soviets also had similar systems in their far north).

Consequently, interest in the arctic, at least among policymakers and the military, is not new.  What is comparatively newer is that climate change has led to the melting of the polar ice cap so that there is both less ice (both in terms of how deep it is as well as how large the ice cap is) and the ice on the fringes of the polar ice cap melts earlier and freezes later than had been the case in the past.  This translates into greater opportunities for navigation in the Arctic Sea and the various waterways to its south.  The Cold War is over, but the United States and Russia are still geopolitical rivals, albeit at a much reduced level of rivalry.  Moreover, there are other nations with claims to the arctic that border the region and these are: Norway, Denmark (Denmark owns the territory of Greenland, which borders the arctic) and Canada.  The latter has had several border disputes with the United States with respect to issues such as the maritime border between Alaska and Canada as well as whether certain waterways in Canada’s far north (known as the Northwest Passage) are Canadian territorial waters or are international waters in which US ships can freely navigate without requesting Canadian permission.  To make matters more complicated, the thawing of the arctic has led to significant interests in the potential resources in the arctic, chiefly energy (in the form of oil and gas reserves below the seabed) and protein (in the form of potentially large reserves of fish) and also to significant concerns about the possible damage to the environment that will result from the exploitation of these resources.  Resource-hungry nations such as China, Japan and South Korea are also evidencing a high degree of interest in the arctic and certainly will not accept it being viewed as a US-Russian-Canadian-Norwegian-Danish lake. 

All of this means that the arctic will continue to be of great importance to homeland defense and that while the nature of the struggle over the arctic has changed, the arctic will, for those nations on its fringes as well as those outside the region, continue to be a center of global interest and rivalry.