Interview article

General Charles Jacoby

Shaping Arctic Strategy
ROBBIN LAIRD  |  Jan 15, 2013

The High North is a region of growing global significance. It is both an emerging opportunity and challenge – it requires vision. We need to see past the near term. If we wait for the first oil gusher, the first cruise ship to run aground, the first environmental catastrophe, or the first security challenge to arise before we start investing in these capability gaps, it will be too late. With Arctic warming and pressures on global resources, the region is of increasingly strategic importance.

The main current claimants on the Arctic – Russia, Canada, Norway, Denmark and the United States, have formed an Arctic Council to manage their interests. But all are not equal in terms of committing resources to protecting those interests or shaping proactive policies. The Russians are clearly the leaders in this domain, in part because of the clear understanding of the strategic impact of the region on their future. As the Northern Route opens up, they will be able to connect their Atlantic and Pacific fleets for the first time. They will be able to shape an air capability covering their Atlantic and Pacific interests. They will add to their significant position as a commodity producer and have access to rare minerals and other resources.

Over time, Northern Europe will become more closely linked to the Pacific powers. The shift already seen within Europe whereby the North-South divide is growing could be accelerated as the “Arctic century” unfolds.

Although the United States has been a more reluctant Arctic power, General Charles Jacoby, the dual hatted NORAD and NORTHCOM commander seeks to rectify this. A key theme for the General is the need to build capabilities and presence over time, and to do so with the cooperative engagement of U.S. allies, and with clear headed thinking about how to evolve capabilities over time.  

Overall, he underscores the need to concentrate resources on the priority tasks emerging in protecting North American Arctic interests. He believes the Canadian-American relationship provides the clear bedrock for doing so, including the need to share resources, and develop thinking and plans to leverage resources in the security, commercial and defense domains.

General Jacoby echoes recent statements by the USMC Commandant that “according to our allies, virtual presence is actual absence.” He recently met with Robbin Laird at the Pentagon to ­candidly discuss, for a FrontLine article, the current situation and the evolution of the Arctic.

Q: How important are security and defense considerations to the future of Arctic development?

They are very significant. For some, the development of the Arctic is about commercial or environmental issues alone. But without security in the Arctic, one cannot have sound commercial or environmental development.

And it is important for us to get out in front on the Arctic, because if we don’t, other nations will define our Arctic future for us. And if we make smart investments over time in security and defense for the Arctic, we can get ahead of the game.

As I look at the Arctic, I think of it in terms of where there is key terrain that we must be prepared to defend. Just like I look at where our key terrain is in the homeland – Washington, D.C., or the New York Stock Exchange, for example – I need to know where the key terrain is in the Arctic.

The Bering Strait, for instance, has the potential to become another Strait of Malacca. As the ice melts, it will take on significant and global economic importance. There are also locations where mining or energy extraction will take place.

Capability gaps create vulnerabilities. I have direction in the Unified Command Plan to look carefully at what these might be, and advocate for ways to fill them. Of course, we will not do this alone. Our principal ally in the Arctic is Canada, and we have a shared stake with them in the peaceful development of the Arctic.

But it’s important to remember that the Bering Strait is not the Strait of Hormuz. This is an evolving issue, not a today issue. We need to make advances over time that allow us to stay ahead of evolving problems, with a solid strategic direction defined and in place.

There is a school of thought that says we can have competitive commercial and economic interests in the Arctic, but not have any associated security challenges – that’s simply not the way the world works.

Economic opportunities and challenges shape or imply security interests. We need to not only be prepared to take advantage of and exploit the economic opportunities in the Arctic, but also be prepared to address security challenges.

Q: The environment is a difficult one and shaping a proper infrastructure to support Arctic operations both now and in the future is complex. What are your thoughts on how to deal with the infrastructure challenge?

The Arctic is a challenging environment in which to work and for which to plan. A key element is to shape a flexible, agile and responsive approach with our mission partners. Instead of having separate bases and facilities in the region, we are looking to have a consolidated approach.

We simply cannot afford to have unnecessarily redundant facilities in the Arctic region. The different stakeholders need to work together to share in building these capabilities. We need an inclusive approach to this challenge, and in this case, an opportunity as well.

Earlier this year, (U.S. Coast Guard Commandant) Admiral Papp and I identified four key capability gaps in the Arctic. Those are: communications, domain awareness, infrastructure, and presence. We need to focus our investments in enhancing capabilities in each of those areas over time.

We are using our exercise programs to explore capabilities gaps, and look for high-payoff investments that we can make. We are working with our components, especially the Navy and Air Force, to help build to those capabilities. And because we are taking an allied and whole-of-government approach, capabilities can be leveraged not just from the services, but from other agencies, from the commercial sector, or from allies like Canada.

Q: Do you see a significant rise in activity by countries like Russia and China in the Arctic?

We do. The Chinese are building icebreakers, which clearly are not for operation in the South China Sea. Russia is the most active. There are concerns about freedom of navigation in the Northern Sea Route.

These developments do not have to be contentious, but it is foolish to think that economic and resource competition won’t lead to occasional disagreements. And as there starts to be more human activity in the Arctic, for us it will require communications, domain awareness, infrastructure and presence of some sort.

We could wait and be behind the curve in the Arctic. But in a harsh climate like that, when you’re behind, you’re way behind. By not rolling out capabilities on a steady basis, at any given time we’re not just one season away, we’re three seasons away from having that runway, that hangar, that piece of concrete, or that pier that we might need to support operations.

Q: Also on infrastructure, what is your thinking about offshore and shore based infrastructure requirements for an Arctic presence?

A key element is to shape forward operating bases in Alaska and the Arctic. There are going to be several stakeholders in the area. We need to be willing and looking at ways to share amongst all stakeholders. Shore-based facilities might need to be complemented with offshore facilitates.

Even in the warm season – in fact, especially in the warm season – hardened ships, whether they’re icebreakers or hardened Arctic-capable ships, are going to be required to do our most basic missions of safety, security and defense. You won’t be able to do it completely from shore-based facilities.

Q: Canada is a crucial partner in all of this. How would you characterize the Canadian role from your perspective? Do you believe it will be important to leverage one another’s investments and capabilities?

Indeed, it will be critical to do so – and we will need better satellite coverage of the region. But it doesn’t have to be a DoD satellite, or even an American satellite. There are investments that all the stakeholders can make, whether they are the U.S. government, Canada, the State of Alaska, or commercial enterprises. One of the things we’re doing as part of our Arctic campaign plan is we’re forming an Arctic board with the University of Alaska at Fairbanks to bring together all of the stakeholders to talk about this.

With such an approach we can leverage and share resources. For example, we might learn through these discussions that we need a piece of concrete within 200 miles of the North Slope. And if so, who are the different partners who can use that and invest in that so we can share the capability.

And Canada will be represented in that process. There’s a natural affinity between NORTHCOM and the new Canadian Joint Operations Command, and between Joint Task Force Alaska and Canadian Joint Task Force North, and we’re trying to enhance cooperation among those groups.

With my NORAD hat on, I have the ability to help both the U.S. and Canada plan together and say, okay, ‘what do we need in the Arctic in terms of presence, in terms of domain awareness, in terms of communications ability for our joint defense?’ And that is important.

To sum up, Jacoby’s two-pronged approach is clear: we need to map a strategic ­direction and we need to invest to meet core needs. There is a clear need to fill core capability gaps, identified in terms of communications, ISR, presence and infrastructure. This is a clear warning as well, as the U.S. continues to lose icebreakers and the ­Chinese add them. As the USMC suggests, “virtual presence is actual absence.”

Robbin Laird is the co-founder of Second Line of Defense and has worked for many years with the USCG on global issues, including the Arctic.
© FrontLine Defence 2013