The US Navy needs to rework its relationships with Iceland and Greenland, expert says

The Navy needs to be able to defend American interests in the Arctic and GIUK gap, Rebecca Pincus says.

By Melody Schreiber - June 4, 2020
The U.S. Navy amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima is pictured in 2018 docked in Faxa Bay, in Reykjavik, Iceland, as part of Exercise Trident Juncture 18. (Averi Coppa / U.S. Marine Corps)

Climate change is reshaping the Arctic Ocean, and U.S. and NATO forces need to change their strategies in response, says Rebecca Pincus, an assistant professor at the Naval War College.

In particular, the United States military should strengthen its presence and connections in the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom (GIUK) gap, Pincus argues that in a research article recently published by the RUSI Journal.

The Arctic is no longer a place to build military bases on the way to other places in the world, but a domain in itself that needs to be considered strategically, Pincus argued.

[American flags in the Barents Sea are the ‘new normal,’ a defense analyst says]

In addition to military operations, the U.S. Navy also protects commercial interests, she told ArcticToday. “One of the reasons we have a global Navy is because we need to ensure the free flow of commerce around the world.”

The Arctic Ocean’s importance is “primarily economic,” Pincus said.

As sea ice recedes and new seasonal Arctic shipping routes emerge, the transpolar route may become a faster option for international shippers. In addition, the Arctic contains natural resources that may open up for exploration in the coming decades.

“We need to start thinking about naval strategy in the GIUK gap and broader Arctic differently,” Pincus said. “Not completely replace the way we think about it now, not significantly increase the United States’ naval presence in the Arctic region. Just start thinking about it differently.”

Previously, U.S. military officials have thought longitudinally, Pincus said — looking at Greenland and Iceland as stops on the way to conflicts in Europe and beyond. Now, they need to think vertically, with the seas around Greenland and Iceland becoming increasingly important to U.S. and international interests.

[US and British naval ships enter the Barents Sea, tracked by Russia’s Northern Fleet]

In addition, U.S. exercises to improve cold-weather familiarity, like Trident Juncture, are military in nature. Monitoring commerce in the North also requires new ways of thinking, Pincus said.

“It’s a paradigmatic change,” Pincus said. “The way that we think about this geographic space is no longer adequate because the space itself is changing.”

The science around existing and forthcoming environmental changes in the North is unmistakable, Pincus said. “Arctic sea ice is in precipitous one-way decline, and there is a vanishingly small chance that that is going to be reversed.”

Knowing in advance that the Arctic Ocean is opening up, at least seasonally, and ship traffic is increasing, gives U.S. forces and NATO allies the opportunity to plan long-term for how these changes will affect their strategies.

“There’s this change coming in the future and we need to start thinking about it now, so we can adapt in the smartest, least costly manner,” Pincus said.

It may take 10 or 20 years before the Arctic sees more commercial traffic, she said, which provides an ideal lead time to begin changing direction in strategy.

“There are fast-moving things that come out with very little warning and you have to react fast, and that is hard,” Pincus said.

“But what’s happening in the Arctic is a slow-moving, entirely predictable change that we can anticipate and begin planning for now. And if we fail to do that, we have no one to blame but ourselves. This is not a surprise.”

The strategy should include building long-term, continuous relationships with Greenland and Iceland, Pincus said. A lesson in what not to do was the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iceland’s Keflavik base, only to return a few years later. “That pullout, which was done expressly against the wishes of Iceland, created a lot of fallout that could have been avoided if we had taken a longer view,” Pincus said.

Capt. Brian Sittlow, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, agreed that strengthening relationships with allies — from the United Kingdom and Norway to Denmark, Greenland and Iceland — is key for the U.S. presence in the Arctic.

Sittlow recently wrote in an opinion piece that climate change, globalization, and a mounting great-power competition are increasingly turning the region into a “geopolitical hot spot.”

The Arctic is a “wild card” geopolitically, Sittlow told ArcticToday, and U.S. strategy may need to change as the region changes.

Sittlow said he fully supported recommendations to bolster the U.S. naval presence in the North Atlantic. “But at the end of the day, it all boils down to, how thin can you spread the fleet?” he asked. “What’s more important, the South China Sea or the North Atlantic?… What’s more important, the Northern Sea Route or the Red Sea?”

The Navy has to make decisions about which areas and chokepoints to monitor, and the Arctic is often low on that list.

The changes in the Arctic, and its growing importance geopolitically, are “not lost on the U.S. Navy,” Sittlow said. “It’s just a matter of how you can spread the fleet in a way that covers all the bases all around the world.”

Other actions, Pincus and Sittlow said, could include sailing through the region in a show of force and interest.

Unlike some of the recent exercises the U.S. military has conducted, these exercises don’t have to involve a lot of resources or effort, Pincus pointed out. Trident Juncture, for example, was an expensive, complicated, high-intensity operation.

“You take Trident Juncture and it’s like a spike in a graph, and you sort of press that down and spread it across time,” Pincus said. “And that’s what our naval presence would look like. So instead of high-intensity, short-duration, it would be low-intensity, long-duration.”

Such an increase in U.S. presence would go a long way in showing U.S. allies and competitors that the United States is serious about its Arctic presence in the coming decades.

“This isn’t just a wartime calculus, it’s an all-of-the-time calculus,” Pincus said. “If it’s a really important economic area, then it’s important in war and peace.”