The latest U.S. national defense bill expands focus on Russia and China in the Arctic

The bill directs the Defense Department to report on Russian and Chinese activity and to identify one or more strategic Arctic ports.

By Melody Schreiber - December 19, 2019
The guided-missile destroyer USS Russell (front), the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (center), and the guided-missile destroyer USS John Finn sail in formation through the Gulf of Alaska. in May 2019. (Anthony J. Rivera / U.S. Navy)

The annual U.S. defense bill, which includes several key Arctic provisions, passed both the Senate and the House of Representatives this week, and it is now headed to the desk of U.S. President Donald J. Trump to be signed into law.

The National Defense Authorization Act provides $738 billion in defense funding for fiscal year 2020, which began on Oct. 1.

It contains several Arctic provisions — from analyzing the ways in which Russian and Chinese activities in the region should inform U.S. policies to locating one or more Arctic strategic ports to preparing for potential disasters in the region.

“There’s just a lot more stuff in here that’s Arctic-related, which is a sign of increased interest and attention,” said Rebecca Pincus, an assistant professor at the U.S. Naval War College.

Russia and China

The bill requires the defense department to submit reports on Russian and Chinese military activities in the region and how they might affect the United States and its allies.

Within six months of the bill becoming law, the secretary of defense must report on the two countries’ military activities in the Arctic, including where military infrastructure, equipment, and forces are stationed and any exercises or military activities that are happening. The report will also assess how such activities might “affect or threaten the interests of the United States and allies in the Arctic region” and what the appropriate response should be.

Although Russia controls a significant portion of the Arctic coastline and its military activity in the region has been followed closely, China is not an Arctic nation, and its Arctic activities have been focused largely on economic investments. However, in May, the Pentagon warned of Chinese economic development in the Arctic paving the way for a stronger military presence — including a growing submarine force.

“We’re not seeing a Chinese military presence in the region yet, but we’re seeing steps that might make that more likely in the future,” Pincus told ArcticToday.

But she was surprised the bill didn’t mention Russian-Chinese coordination in the region.

“They’re lumped together, right?” she asked. “A report on military activities of Russia and China in the Arctic.” Yet the report doesn’t make mention of how the interests of the two countries align, she pointed out.

The defense bill also directs independent researchers to examine the ways in which China may be using its economic investments in the Arctic to exert influence in the North.

A month and a half after the NDAA is signed into law, a federally-funded research and development center will begin an independent study of Chinese foreign investment in Arctic countries, the new law says. This report will focus on China’s efforts to build and finance infrastructure; lease and extract natural resources; purchase real estate; ship goods and construct ships; lay undersea cables; and conduct telecommunications.

The bill calls for researchers to look specifically at whether any existing or planned infrastructure investments are likely to result in a “regular presence of Chinese military vessels or the establishment of military bases” in the Arctic.

It also requests analysis on the extent to which Chinese research undertakings in the Arctic are a “front” for economic activities, “including illegal economic espionage, intelligence gathering, and support for future Chinese military activities in the region.”

In addition, the report would examine the legal and environmental repercussions of Chinese investment.

Pincus said the research and analysis is needed to “draw lines” around what types of investment are of concern, and what types would be normal and beneficial “in a region that badly needs a lot of investment.”

The defense bill also raises the possibility of creating an Arctic Development Bank, as well as exploring ways to regulate foreign direct investment in the region.

Strategic port(s)

The defense department will also be required to identify one or more strategic ports in the Arctic. Alaska lawmakers have emphasized the need for such ports as international traffic around the Bering Strait increases.

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

The port or ports would need to accommodate “at least one of each of type of Navy or Coast Guard vessel,” including a Navy Arleigh Burke class destroyer and a Coast Guard national security cutter and a heavy polar icebreaker.

The port would also need the accompanying infrastructure to support both military and civilian operations.

Notably, the bill does not include funding for creating or updating such a port.

“It’s sort of an incremental step forward, but it’s not at all clear that this will result in a new deep-water port in Alaska,” Pincus said. “Because there’s no funding tied to it, and it leaves it up to the discretion of the secretary who may designate one or more ports.”

Constructing a new port is a very expensive undertaking, Pincus said, and no federal agencies seem enthusiastic about paying for it.

“That’s something we’ve seen for a long time,” she said. “The money for building additional Arctic infrastructure, whether that’s shore-based infrastructure or even icebreakers, is a stumbling block because its costs are so much higher.”

Similarly, the updated defense strategy for the Arctic releaser this summer focused on the threats posed by Russia and China in the region, but committed no new resources or recommendations for responding to the threats.

The new bill also directs the Department of Defense to submit a report on the ways it may collaborate with the Coast Guard to prepare for a potential mass casualty event in the Arctic, and highlights the importance of prior planning and coordination between the two services before disaster strikes in the North.

No implementation plan or cold weather training

While the Senate’s version of the NDAA would have required the Department of Defense to submit an implementation plan for its updated Arctic strategy, that requirement is absent from the final bill.

The joint force implementation plan with the Army, Navy and Air Force was not supported by a similar provision in the House, and so it was stripped from this bill.

In conference between the Senate and the House, the secretary of defense was asked to submit an implementation plan for the strategy — but it was not required under this law, and no deadline was set.

Meanwhile, the House version of the bill included a focus on increasing and expanding cold weather training for the Army that did not appear in the final version of the defense bill.