New U.S. Senate defense bill requires Arctic strategic ports, attention on Russia and China

The legislation directs defense agencies to designate one or more Arctic strategic ports within six months.

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The guided-missile cruiser USS Normandy (CG 60) navigates through an ice field in Arctic waters north of Iceland on June 12, 2007. The Senate version of the latest National Defense Authorization Act calls for the establishment of one or more U.S. Arctic strategic ports. (Lt. J.G. Ryan Birkelbach / U.S. Navy)

Last week, the U.S. Senate passed its sprawling National Defense Authorization Act, appropriating $750 billion in national defense spending for 2020. The legislation included requirements to locate and designate one or more U.S. strategic ports in Arctic and to evaluate growing Russian and Chinese influences in the region.

Six months after the NDAA is enacted, the Department of Defense  and other partners must submit a report evaluating potential sites “for one or more” strategic ports in the Arctic. These partners include the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Commanding General of the United States Army Corps of Engineers, the Commandant of the Coast Guard, and the Administrator of the Maritime Administration.

Currently, the strategic ports nearest to the Arctic are found in Anchorage and Tacoma —located some 1,500 and 2,400 nautical miles away.

A strategic port would need to accommodate “at least one of each of type of Navy or Coast Guard vessel,” including a Navy Arleigh Burke class destroyer as well as a Coast Guard national security cutter and heavy icebreaker. The port would also need to include infrastructure for other military and civilian uses.

Three months after that report, the DoD and others must designate one or more ports as “Department of Defense Strategic Arctic Ports.”

This NDAA does not, however, authorize funds to construct one or more such ports.

The legislation also requires the Department of Defense to submit a plan by March 1, 2020  to implement its newly updated Arctic strategy.

This joint force plan with the Army, Navy and Air Force will focus on implementing the new strategy as well as the December 2016 report to Congress on the strategy to protect United States national security interests in the Arctic region.

This plan must also include a report on the “current and projected Arctic capabilities” of Russia and China, as well as an analysis of U.S. capabilities to respond to geopolitical threats in circumpolar north.

The amendment to evaluate Russian and Chinese activity in the Arctic was introduced by Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican. Murkowski highlighted rapidly changing geopolitics in the Arctic, as well as the need for the United States and its allies to understand and respond to Russian and Chinese activity in the Arctic.

“I’ve been pressing the Defense Department to articulate its strategy for defending U.S. interests in the Arctic for years,” Murkowski said in a statement. “We are beginning to see the Pentagon take our Arctic role seriously, but we need to know what it is that we are up against with both Russia and China increasing their interest and activity in the region.”

The House released its version of the bill in mid-June. Differences between the House and Senate versions of the legislation will be ironed out in a conference committee. But this negotiation may be complicated by recent efforts to include an amendment on Iran that would limit President Donald Trump’s ability to authorize military action without Congressional approval.