Partnerships are critical to the United States’ strategy for ensuring a stable and secure Arctic region, a senior defense official said today.

Esther McClure, the Defense Department’s director of Arctic and oceans policy, said the U.S. and its allies face global competitors that seek to rewrite rules that underpin global security as the Arctic quickly becomes a leading region of great power competition.  

“We are facing risks from an increasingly assertive, and even aggressive action by Russia and the People’s Republic of China,” McClure said during a panel discussion on security in the High North hosted by the Atlantic Council, a public policy think tank, in Washington.  

“That is the most likely and most dangerous risk at the same time,” she said in surveying the challenges in the Arctic, noting a lack of clarity about Russia and China’s intentions in the region.  

The U.S. has long recognized the Arctic as a linchpin to homeland defense. During the Cold War, the Arctic served as an avenue of approach for Soviet bombers and missiles in the event of an attack on the U.S.  

Competition in the Arctic has grown exponentially in recent decades, due in part to the thawing of once ice-choked sea lanes brought on by a warming climate, further opening avenues of approach.  

The warmer waters also provide access to rich energy and mineral deposits and create potential for disputes about fishing rights as migration patterns shift.  

Russia, which accounts for a broad swath of Arctic Ocean coastline has increasingly sought to extend its influence in the region. 

China too, has increasingly sought to extend its influence in the region, declaring itself to be a “near-Arctic” nation despite having no Arctic coastline.  

The U.S. revealed its National Strategy for the Arctic Region in 2013. That strategy articulated the link between the events in the region and U.S. national interests, and it outlined efforts to safeguard peace and security. 

The Defense Department has aligned its blueprint for the Arctic with the whole-of-government strategy for the region. The 2019 DOD Arctic Strategy outlines a desired end-state where “the Arctic is a secure and stable region in which U.S. national security interests are safeguarded, the U.S. homeland is defended and nations work cooperatively to address shared challenges.” 

A 2022 update of the National Arctic Strategy noted increasing strategic competition in the region that has been further exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.  

The updated strategy calls for advancing U.S. interests in the Arctic across four pillars including security, environmental protections, sustainable economic development and international cooperation and governance.  

DOD will release its updated Arctic Strategy in the coming months, McClure said. 

“I think you will see that our end-state, our strategic end-state, has changed much,” she said previewing the updated DOD roadmap. “We still want to preserve the Arctic as a secure and stable region where the homeland is defended, and our vital interests are safeguarded.” 

But, she said, DOD does have “real concern” about the erosion of guardrails by competitors in the Arctic as elsewhere.  

“We need to shore them up,” she said. “We also need to invest in frameworks for communication to reduce the risk of miscalculation.” 

Alliances remain key, McClure said, in accomplishing that strategy.  

“We fortunately have an alliance that is stronger and more unified than I have ever seen in my many decades of — first when I was in uniform in the Navy steaming with NATO allies and Partnership for Peace participants and then working in the Europe and the NATO office — I’ve never seen such cohesion,” she said.  

“That is our center of gravity,” she added. “But alliances, like gardens, do need tending. Alliance management is an entire line of effort all its own at the Pentagon as we seek to understand the different national perspectives each ally brings to the table and work to coordinate our actions.”

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