US doesn’t want to make Arctic contested battlespace, admiral says

by Tommy Grant

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The U.S. and its partners are not aiming to create a contested environment in the Arctic – despite an uptick in presence and exercises in the region.

“There’s no desire to over-militarize or create a theme of a contested battlespace in the Arctic,” Vice Adm. Douglas Perry, the commander of U.S. 2nd Fleet, said at the Navy League’s annual Sea-Air-Space conference Monday.

“Rather, the reverse is that we know that ‘speak softly and carry a big stick’ is an underlying need of free nations that value freedom in an area that will see more and more traffic and more and more competition for resources in the near future and throughout the future,” he added.

Perry, who is also the commander of NATO’s Joint Force Command Norfolk, also emphasized that sophisticated platforms, icebreakers, as well as the right tactics, techniques and procedures are paramount to keeping peace in the frigid north.

Vice Adm. Angus Topshee, commander of the Royal Canadian Navy, echoed similar sentiments Monday and said the Arctic represents a significant portion of Russia’s gross domestic product, population, and defense infrastructure. As a result, he said it is logical that the Russians would feel the need to defend themselves there.

“Yes, it could also be a base for offensive operations,” Topshee said. “But let’s not assume that until we see something more about what the actual intent is there, though the data lately is not great.”

Former 2nd Fleet Commander Vice Adm. Andrew “Woody” Lewis, who has since retired, previously stressed the importance of presence in the Arctic to prevent the region from becoming a contested environment.

According to Lewis, failure to maintain presence in the Arctic would “cede the space to the Russians or somebody else,” he said in August 2021 at the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space conference.

At the time, Lewis described the region as cooperative, but that would only continue if the U.S. continued to facilitate partnerships with others – including the Russians.

“But if we aren’t present there, and if we aren’t continuing to build those partnerships, it will be a contested space,” Lewis said.

Navy leaders have cited a need for a strong military presence in the Arctic as global warming opens more waters in the freezing-cold territory to navigation. In response, the service conducts exercises like Snow Crab to allow sailors to become more adept at operating in the Arctic.

The Navy released its “Blue Arctic” strategy for the region in 2021, urging the Navy to “operate more assertively” there. It also warned that Russia is reopening old bases in the Arctic and “reinvigorating” regional exercises.

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