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Noting Alaska's role, Hagel unveils first U.S. Arctic strategy

Posted: December 4, 2013 - 9:56pm

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel unveiled the department’s first-ever Arctic Strategy during a Nov. 22 speech in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The members of Alaska’s congressional delegation often note that the U.S. is an Arctic nation because of this state, and Hagel said the roughly 22,000 active military members in Alaska represent the Defense Department’s understanding of the importance of properly managing the region.

Climate change and the shrinking of Arctic sea ice will open new commercial opportunities and that the country will need to respond to the risks and challenges that increased activity in the region will raise, Hagel said.

“Migrating fish stocks will draw fisherman to new areas, challenging existing management plans,” Hagel said. “And there will be more potential for tapping what may be as much as a quarter of the planet’s undiscovered oil and gas. A flood of interest in energy exploration has the potential to heighten tensions over other issues, even though most projected oil and gas reserves in the region are located within undisputed exclusive economic zones.”

Circumpolar ship traffic is expected to have increased ten-fold this year over 2012, he said.

In the Arctic Strategy report, the Defense Department states that it will support a “whole-of-government” approach to security and stewardship of the Arctic. It names the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, which operates the U.S. Coast Guard, as primary partners to achieve a multi-point Arctic objective.

At a November presentation to the Institute of the North, Alaska director for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management James Kendall said the Interior Department agency has lease sales planned for the Chukchi Sea in 2016 and for the Beaufort Sea in 2017. In total, more than 125 million acres in the Alaska Outer Continental Shelf, or OCS, region are expected to go up for bid by 2017 as part of BOEM’s five-year lease sale plan.

Sen. Mark Begich said in a release responding to the report that he is pleased the Defense Department acknowledges the importance of the Arctic to the country, and that more attention should be put on equipping the Coast Guard to operate in the far north.

“I urge Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to swiftly assess the need for greater icebreaking capacity in the Arctic — an issue I have championed,” Begich said. “I am sponsoring an amendment to the National Defense Authorization bill to authorize up to four additional icebreakers, which are necessary because of increased shipping traffic and development.”

Begich said in a Dec. 2 teleconference with media members that he expects the annual defense bill to move through Congress before its holiday recess.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski said in a release that future Defense involvement in the Arctic would help it remain a peaceful international region.

“I welcome the Department of Defense’s increased attention to, and engagement in, the Arctic. All components of the U.S. government need to be involved to make the Arctic a national priority and our armed forces play a vital role toward that end,” Murkowski said.

The Defense Department says it will look to the other members of the eight-nation Arctic Council to better understand the Arctic environment as it evolves as well as to develop cooperative strategies to international challenges.

The U.S. is set to chair the Arctic Council in 2015; Canada currently occupies that role.

“The Arctic is a region of established nation-states. Engagement and cooperation with Canada and the other Arctic nations — Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Sweden is a cornerstone of our strategy. Arctic nations have publicly committed to work within a common framework of international law and diplomatic engagement,” Hagel remarked in his speech.

Part of the Defense Department’s ongoing activity in the Arctic will be to evaluate its infrastructure in the region, according to the report. The Army Corps of Engineers Alaska District is in the midst of drafting a report with a recommended location and general requirements for a deep-draft port in Western Alaska to support Arctic operations.

In February, the Corps of Engineers release a study that narrowed possible port development from an initial 14 studied to several locations on the Seward Peninsula. The study focused on the sites around Nome because of their proximity to deep water and already developed landside infrastructure.

Project manager for the Corps of Engineers Lorraine Cordova told the Institute of the North gathering that a draft version of the report should be available for public review in March. From there she said it would likely move to Washington, D.C. for approval by Corps of Engineers leadership in December 2014 and on to Congress for budgeting in 2015.

“It looks like the (Arctic port) project is something the president could actually budget,” Cordova said.

Fiscal restraints were mentioned both by Hagel in his speech and in the report itself as impediments to Arctic Defense activity.

Between automatic sequestration budget cuts and a 2012 directive by President Obama to trim military spending by nearly $500 billion, the Defense Department has been directed to cut approximately $1 trillion from its budget by 2023.

“DOD’s Arctic Strategy is a long-term endeavor — and our efforts to implement it will unfold over years and decades, not months and days. Even as we grapple at home with near-term challenges, including steep, deep, and abrupt defense budget reductions and continued budget uncertainty, this kind of long-range thinking is vital to our future,” Hagel said.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at elwood.brehmer@alaskajournal.com.

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