Hagel, citing climate change, rolls out Arctic strategy

The Defense Department on Friday unveiled a first-time strategy for protecting U.S. security interests and fostering international cooperation in the Arctic, where climate change is bringing new commercial activity and potential for conflict.

“The Arctic is at a strategic inflection point as its ice cap is diminishing more rapidly than projected and human activity, driven by economic opportunity — ranging from oil, gas, and mineral exploration to fishing, shipping, and tourism — is increasing in response to the growing accessibility,” the strategy states.

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Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, in a speech, said the strategy reflects the U.S. interest in working with allies to “promote a balanced approach to improving human and environmental security in the region.”

He also said the U.S. would “detect, deter, prevent and defeat threats to our homeland and we will continue to exercise U.S. sovereignty in and around Alaska.”

The strategy is the latest sign of high-level Obama administration attention to the Arctic as melting ice opens up new shipping routes, and nations compete for access to oil and gas and other resources in the environmentally sensitive region.

The White House released a separate National Strategy for the Arctic Region in May.

Hagel announced the Defense Department strategy in remarks at the Halifax International Security Forum in Nova Scotia. He said the Defense Department will focus on eight priorities.

They include improving the department’s understanding of the Arctic environment to ensure safe and effective operations, and preserving the “freedom of the seas throughout the region” to ensure the Arctic Ocean will be peacefully navigated.

Other priorities include making sure that the military’s Arctic infrastructure and capabilities “evolve” as conditions change.

“We are beginning to think about and plan for how our Naval fleet and other capabilities and assets will need to adapt to the evolving shifts and requirements in the region,” Hagel said, according to his prepared remarks.

While U.S. relations with Russia are currently strained, Hagel said one goal of the strategy is to strengthen ties with the fellow Arctic-bordering nation.

“By taking advantage of multilateral training opportunities with partners in the region, we will enhance our cold-weather operational experience, and strengthen our military-to-military ties with other Arctic nations. This includes Russia, with whom the United States and Canada share common interests in the Arctic, creating the opportunity to pursue practical cooperation between our militaries and promote greater transparency,” he said.