China recently sent a 19,000 ton cargo ship through the ice free Northeast Passage (along the north coast of Russia) to confirm what satellite images have shown, that there is an ice free route for four months a year from Alaska to Norway. Research has shown that this route has been ice free in the past but this is the first time in the modern period when that has happened. Russia is encouraging the use of the Northeast Passage, as it cuts the time it takes to get from East Asia to Europe by a third (from six weeks to four). Time is money in the shipping business and this is a big deal for China, which is a major exporter of goods to Europe. If the Northeast Passage remains open dependably China could end up sending 15 percent of its foreign trade along that route, making the increased Russian military presence up there welcome.
For the last two years Russia has been regularly patrolling (usually from the air) large portions of its 5,600 kilometer northern border (from Murmansk, near Norway, to the Bering Strait, near Alaska). The increased patrolling is to protect the growing number of oil and natural gas fields being developed near these coastal areas. Naval patrols will begin by 2015. With this coast ice free in warm weather, Russia sees a need for surface ships patrolling the area. Nuclear subs continue to run underwater patrols during Winter, when the coastline is iced in.
The appearance of the Northeast Passage is a boon to Russia as well, which can more cheaply supply the oil and gas fields along the north coast as well as the few people who live up there. The Chinese are not the only ships using the passage. Last year 46 ships used it, up from only four in 2010. If the China trade moves to the Northeast Passage in a big way it could mean thousands of transits a year. This is bad news for Egypt, which will lose hundreds of million dollars a year in Suez Canal transit fees.
The U.S. Navy noted the increased Russian activity in the arctic and became publicly alarmed at the fact that the U.S. Navy was no longer prepared to operate in the Arctic. Actually, the U.S. Navy was never big on operating in the Arctic. The navy used to have seven Wind class icebreakers, built near the end of World War II. But these were mainly to maintain access to polar shipping lanes that were only needed in wartime. These icebreakers were turned over to the U.S. Coast Guard after World War II and all were retired by the 1980s. The navy saw no compelling reason to maintain a fleet of icebreakers. The U.S. Coast Guard currently has three icebreakers but one is being decommissioned and the other is out of action for maintenance. The more recent one (entered service in 1999) is on call to rush to Antarctica to help keep a passage open to research facilities there.
But now all the other arctic nations (especially Russia and Canada, which have the largest claims because of their long Arctic coastlines) are increasing their military presence in the arctic. This is mainly to back claims to gas, oil, and mineral deposits believed to be present in shallow arctic waters. The U.S. Navy is using this potential for conflict over these arctic resources to get back into arctic operations.
In reality, the U.S. Coast Guard has far more experience in the arctic and is the force that is called on for any emergencies up there (there are very few). Navy interest in the arctic may disappear if Congress agrees that the navy should be involved but preparations will have to be paid for out of the current (shrinking) navy budget. In the last fifty years the only navy ships that regularly operated in the arctic were SSNs (nuclear attack submarines) that usually move about under the ice and occasionally surface where the ice is thin or, in the Summer, when there is no ice at all. This is as much for PR as it is to make sure no potential foe is sneaking about under the ice. The U.S. Navy intends to operate some ships up there during warmer, ice-free, months, just to show the flag. Canada, however, is intent on developing its increasingly ice-free Northwest Passage as a shorter route from the Pacific coast of North America to Europe.