As China and Russia boost their military presence in the resource-rich far north, U.S. intelligence agencies are scrambling to study potential threats in the Arctic for the first time since the Cold War, a sign of the region’s growing strategic importance.
Over the last 14 months, most of the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies have assigned analysts to work full time on the Arctic. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence recently convened a “strategy board” to bring the analysts together to share their findings.
In addition to relying on U.S. spy satellites orbiting overhead and Navy sensors deep in the frigid waters, the analysts process raw intelligence from a recently overhauled Canadian listening post near the North Pole and a Norwegian surveillance ship called the Marjata, which is now being upgraded at a U.S. Navy shipyard in southern Virginia.
The administration’s growing concern was dramatized Wednesday when the Pentagon confirmed it was tracking five Chinese warships in the Bering Sea, between Alaska and Russia, for the first time. Officials said the Chinese ships were steaming in international waters toward the Aleutian Islands but posed no threat.
The growing focus shows how the United States and other polar powers are adjusting as global warming opens new sea lanes and sets off a scramble for largely untapped reserves of oil, natural gas and minerals. The United States, Russia, Canada, Denmark and Norway are pursuing jurisdiction over the Arctic seabed.
The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, known as the NGA, has spent two years drawing new maps and charts of waterways and territories in the vast region. In a statement, Director Robert Cardillo said his agency intends to “broaden and accelerate” that work, while other agencies help chart the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas.
“There are a lot of things we can see now that we couldn’t see 10 years ago,” said a U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the new interest in the Arctic.
Some of the transformation is visible on detailed digital maps that the NGA made public last week, while President Obama was on a three-day visit to Alaska and became the first U.S. president to visit a community above the Arctic Circle.
The maps show airstrips, oil drilling areas, ports, maritime boundaries and sea routes. The NGA plans to make public 3D maps of all of Alaska by 2016 and the entire Arctic by 2017 to help track melting sea ice and receding glaciers.
The U.S. intelligence focus is chiefly aimed at Russia’s military buildup in the far north under President Vladimir Putin. The country’s Northern Fleet is based above the Arctic Circle at Murmansk.
The Russian government announced plans in March 2014 to reopen 10 former Soviet-era military bases along the Arctic seaboard, including 14 airfields, that were closed after the end of the Cold War. A shipyard in northern Russia also is constructing four nuclear-powered submarines.
Alaska Gov. Bill Walker complained that the Pentagon is closing bases and shedding troops while Moscow has begun rebuilding a military force that was eviscerated after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“It’s the biggest buildup of the Russian military since the Cold War,” Walker told reporters during Obama’s visit to his state. “They’re reopening 10 bases and building four more, and they’re all in the Arctic, so here we are in the middle of the pond, feeling a little bit uncomfortable with the military drawdown.”
To help keep watch, Canada has refurbished a listening post called CFS Alert at the northern tip of Ellesmere Island, about 500 miles from the North Pole. It was once part of the Distant Early Warning line, a system of radar stations that watched for incoming Russian bombers or missiles.
“It was thought to be a relic of the Cold War,” said Rob Huebert, a professor in Arctic affairs at the University of Calgary. “Now it is a critical element of an intelligence system that monitors a part of the world that few have access to.”
About 100 intelligence officers stationed at CFS Alert, which stands for Canadian Forces Station, try to intercept Russian aircraft and submarine communications and other signals intelligence. Canada shares the take with U.S. intelligence agencies.
Norway also cooperates closely with U.S. intelligence agencies.
The Marjata, an advanced spy ship specifically built to collect electronic intelligence, has been getting new equipment and systems since April at U.S. Naval Weapons Station Yorktown in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia. Camp Peary, the CIA’s training base for clandestine operatives, is adjacent to the facility.
The Marjata, which is operated by the Norwegian Intelligence Service, is scheduled to leave in November, U.S. officials said. It will patrol the Barents Sea, on the Atlantic side of the Arctic, to eavesdrop on Russian military activities.
Under pressure to track growing environmental threats in the Arctic, the White House issued an 11-page national strategy in May 2013. It challenged federal agencies to “improve our awareness of activities, conditions and trends in the Arctic region that may affect our safety, security, environmental or commercial interests.”
Officials said that was a wake-up call to intelligence officials to pay more heed to potential problems in the Arctic.
The Navy already was paying attention. It had largely abandoned research in the Arctic after the Cold War, but the Office of Naval Research began charting Arctic waterways again in 2009. Now ships drop underwater drones that track temperatures and use upward-looking radar to chart ice thickness.
“We’re not storming into the Arctic or anything; it’s not a crisis,” said Scott Harper, head of the office’s Arctic Program. “But we’re doing research that will determine how our systems will work properly if and when we do.”