Arctic: Pentagon deepens military links with NATO bloc

By Donna Miles, American Forces Press Service, U.S. Department of Defense

WASHINGTON  (Nov. 14) – WHEN travel brochures feature Arctic expeditions, adventure-seekers think of a once-unreachable fantasyland rich with wildlife and a pristine frozen tundra stretching as far as the eye can see.

Coast Guard Capt. Ed Westfall, chief of U.S. European Command’s Arctic strategy branch, thinks more of the second- and third-order effects of the melting polar icecap, in terms of not just tourism, but also its effect on maritime traffic, fishing and oil and gas exploration.

Although analysts’ forecasts range from about five to 25 years, almost all envision a day when the Arctic has no significant ice coverage for at least part of the summer.

“The conditions in the Arctic are changing, and we are already seeing increased human activity indicative of that easier access,” Westfall said during a phone interview from the Eucom headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany.

The United States, along with the seven other nations whose territory rings the Arctic Circle, recognize the commercial, energy and security implications, he said.

The Defense Department, in support of the National Strategy for the Arctic Region, works closely with other federal agencies and the United States’ Arctic partners…

“The Arctic is an incredibly harsh environment, and everybody who operates there faces common challenges,” Westfall said. “Because the infrastructure is so sparse and the distances so vast, the resources that any individual nation is going to have [available to support a contingency] are likely to be limited.

The Defense Department modified its Unified Command Plan in 2011, in part to reflect the growing importance of the Arctic. The plan assigned U.S. Northern Command responsibility for overseeing the Arctic frontiers in Alaska and Canada. Eucom focused its attention on the six Arctic nations within its theater. With that charter, the two commands collaborate closely with their Arctic partners to ensure they’re ready to respond to a crisis in the Arctic.

Their senior officers sit down together discuss the issues involved through the annual Arctic Security Forces Roundtable that the United States and Norway co-sponsor…

The partners also regularly test their response capabilities through tabletop exercises and field and maritime drills…

In early September, for example, U.S. military forces joined participants from Denmark, Iceland, Canada, Russia and Norway during SAREX Greenland Sea 2013, a Danish-led search-and-rescue exercise centered on a notional cruise ship disaster between Iceland and northeastern Greenland that required a massive rescue.

The United States sent two New York Air National Guard aircraft and crews that regularly support scientific research missions in both the Arctic and Antarctica. In addition, U.S. Coast Guard members served as observers and subject-matter experts in command centers the Danish government operates in Greenland. Westfall was an observer aboard the Danish exercise control ship HDMS Vaedderen.

In the coming year, U.S. European Command and U.S. Northern Command plan to co-sponsor a multilateral tabletop exercise called Arctic Zephyr that will focus on search-and-rescue issues in the Arctic, Westfall reported. Other Arctic partners have indicated that they hope to host additional multinational exercises as well, he said.

Meanwhile, U.S. and partner nations are building on the foundation already laid as they learn about each other’s capabilities and how they can work together…

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