Panel discusses Arctic geopolitical issues

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Harry Sarles | Army University Public Affairs

Most people view the world map as if their eyes are aligned on the equator, but those who study, work in and potentially fight in the Arctic take a different view. They turn the globe on its end and look straight down at the North Pole and the Arctic Circle. That view reveals how physically close the eight nations that border the Arctic are and how tangled and inter-related the concerns of those nations and others with interest in the Arctic are.


The Command and General Staff College’s Cultural and Area Studies Office hosted a panel discussion on this topic on Oct. 28 linking four experts from around the globe with students, faculty and staff at Fort Leavenworth and others via videoteleconference and Facebook.

Michael Forsyth, Department of Joint, Interagency and Multinational Operations, Command and General Staff College, talks about Chinese interest in the Arctic and the five things the U.S. must do to maintain a viable posture in the Arctic during the Cultural and Area Studies Office-hosted “Geopolitics and Great Power Competition in the Arctic” panel Oct. 28 in Arnold Conference Room. Dr. Mahir J. Ibrahimov, right, director of the Cultural and Area Studies Office, moderated the event. Army University photo by Jim Shea


Brig. Gen. Donn Hill, deputy commanding general for Education, Combined Arms Center, and Army University provost, introduced the panel and related his own experience commanding a Stryker brigade in Alaska. He spoke about the strategic importance of the Arctic and quoted Gen. Billy Mitchell, who in a 1935 address to Congress said, “I believe that in the future, whoever holds Alaska will hold the world. I think it is the most important strategic place in the world.”


Hill introduced the panelists — Canadian Brig. Gen. Louis Lapointe, deputy commanding general, U.S. Army Alaska; U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Tom D’Arcy, U.S. European Command Strategic Division Arctic branch chief; Dr. Rebecca Pincus, assistant professor U.S. Naval War College; and Michael Forsyth, Department of Joint, Interagency and Multinational Operations, CGSC. Dr. Mahir Ibrahimov, director of the Cultural and Area Studies Office, moderated the event.


Lapointe, conferencing in from Alaska, was the first panel member to present. He explained how U.S. Army Alaska looks at the world from the top. He said Russia is the No. 1 power in the Arctic. Although Russia cooperates through the Arctic Council, it also makes frequent incursions into foreign air space in the region.


Lapointe said what he tells junior and senior leaders arriving in Alaska is “they don’t know yet that the brigades and units in Alaska have a strategic role. Russia is looking at them,” he said.
“We (the Army) need to be there. We’re the only people who can put boots on the ground on a permanent basis and there’s value in investing in the Arctic. The Bering Strait will be the Gibraltar in 50 years, will be the Strait of Hormuz in 50 years. We have to define what we want it to be.’


D’Arcy, conferencing in from U.S. European Command Headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, followed. He highlighted U.S. strategy in the artic and talked about some of the competitors in the Arctic including Russia and China. The Arctic is a significant area of U.S. national security interest, D’Arcy said. He said there will be increased Coast Guard and defense activity in the Arctic as climate change continues to open previously unreachable areas.


“The United States greatest strategic advantage in the Arctic is our strong relationship with Arctic allies and partners,” D’Arcy said. “This is something our competitors do not possess. Our network of relationships and capabilities serve as a deterrent helping to deter malign activities in the region.”


In addition to the Arctic Council, the Arctic Coast Guard Forum is a key governance organization. Iceland currently heads both forums, but Russia will take over the rotating chairmanship of both organizations in 2021.

Maj. Scott Roett, School of Advanced Military Studies student, asks a question during the Command and General Staff College’s Cultural and Area Studies Office-hosted “Geopolitics and Great Power Competition in the Arctic” panel Oct. 28 at the Lewis and Clark Center. Army University photo by Jim Shea


Pincus said defining the Arctic is key. While the Arctic Circle is well defined, the U.S. includes the Bering Sea in its definition of the Arctic while other nations do not.


Arctic sea ice is diminishing in three dimensions — space, depth and time, she said, increasing access to the region. It’s happening faster than expected and by 2075 the Barents Sea off of Norway may be free of ice in the winter. The Arctic itself may be free of ice in the summer sometime between 2035 and 2040, Pincus said.


Pincus said both Russia (Northeast Passage) and Canada (Northwest Passage) claim the passages as internal waters, but the United States and other countries do not recognize those claims saying they are international waterways usable by all nations.


Forsyth completed the presentation portion. He noted the changes in the Arctic are opening up economic opportunities. Along with increased economic opportunity comes an increase in military activity, especially by Russia, to protect those opportunities. He highlighted five key areas for the United States — sustaining credible forces in the region, exercising frequently, regaining Arctic skills across the force, modernizing forces in the Arctic, and giving commanders authority to negotiate with Russian counterparts to reduce tensions.


Following the panelists’ presentations, they took questions from the audience. Questions came from the small live audience as well as through Facebook and videoteleconference.


The full panel discussion is available on the CGSC Facebook page and on Youtube.

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