U.S. Navy plans to be more active in the Arctic

U.S. Navy Secretary Richard Spencer would like to send a ship through the Northwest Passage, in the Canadian Arctic, this summer. In this photo, the destroyer USS Benfold in the Philippine Sea in September 2016. (Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Deven Leigh Ellis/Handout via Reuters)
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.

A wake-up call

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.’”

Secretary of The Navy, Richard Spencer, on April 9, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Alex Edelman/Getty Images)

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, located in Alaska’s Andreanof Islands, 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 [in western Alaska] 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.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Premier in Arctic Canada to push Ottawa for more military and icebreakers in the North, CBC News

China: Russia, China step up talks over Arctic shipping, The Independent Barents Observer

Finland: Authorities in Arctic Finland plan zones for controversial rail line, Yle News

Norway: Norway rearming in Arctic to face new security landscape, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Russia, China step up talks over Arctic shipping, The Independent Barents Observer

United States: U.S. must pay attention to growing China-Russia alliance in Arctic: expert, Alaska Public Media

Liz Ruskin, Alaska Public Media

For more news from Alaska visit Alaska Public Media.

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