Arctic supremacy: Why North Pole waters are crawling with US and Russian submarines

The Arctic Ocean is the smallest and shallowest of the world’s five major oceans, where the geographic North Pole can be found. All land, internal waters, territorial seas and Exclusive Economic Zones in the Arctic are under the jurisdiction of one of the eight Arctic coastal states. These include Denmark, Iceland, Sweden and Finland – but also Russia and the US, through the state of Alaska.

Last week it emerged that 14 Russian sailors were killed after a fire took place on a nuclear submarine on a top-secret mission below the North Pole.

It has since come to light that the nuclear-powered AS-12 sub, nicknamed Losharik, was spearheading Vladimir Putin’s plan to lay claim to, and mine, fossil fuels and precious stones from under the Arctic ice. 

However, it is not the first time Moscow has sparked controversy in these waters. 

On August 2, 2007, a Russian expedition dubbed Arktika 2007, composed of six explorers led by Artur Chilingarov, employing MIR submersibles, descended to the seabed at the North Pole.

In the coming decades, the Arctic Ocean will be increasingly accessible and more broadly used by Arctic and non-Arctic nations seeking the Region’s abundant resources and trade routes

Declassified Navy files

There they planted a Russian flag and took water and soil samples for analysis, continuing a mission to provide additional evidence related to the Russian extended continental shelf claim including the mineral riches of the Arctic.

The expedition came as several countries are trying to extend their rights over sections of the Arctic Ocean floor.

Currently, the waters fall under a 1982 United Nations Convention that allow each Arctic state an economic zone extending 200 nautical miles from their coastlines.

As a result, Putin urged greater efforts needed to be taken to secure Russia’s “strategic, economic, scientific and defence interests” in the Arctic.

Days later, Russia submitted data to the UN in support of a bid to extend their zone and claim a large chunk of the Arctic.

The US then launched the USCGS Healy to the Arctic Ocean to map the sea floor from Alaska.

Larry Mayer, director of the Centre for Coastal and Ocean Mapping at the University of New Hampshire, stated the trip had been planned for months, having nothing to do with Russian claims.

He said the purpose of the mapping work aboard the Healy is to determine the extent of the continental shelf north of Alaska.

However, their real interests were revealed after a 2009 Navy paper was declassified.

Sailors have long sought an accessible route through the Arctic between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. 

However, until recently, ice has made these crossings impossible.

As global warming continues to melt Arctic ice at an unprecedented rate, scientists have predicted that a route through the Arctic could be feasible by 2040.

European shipping will be able to reach Asia 10 days quicker by the middle of the century, set against today’s usual routes.

The declassified files state: “In the coming decades, the Arctic Ocean will be increasingly accessible and more broadly used by Arctic and non-Arctic nations seeking the region’s abundant resources and trade routes. 

“Due to the significant retreat of sea ice, previously unreachable areas have started to open for maritime use several weeks each year. 

“The predicted rise in oil and gas development, fishing, tourism, and mineral mining could alter the region’s strategic importance as Arctic and non-Arctic nations make investments.” 

The document goes on to reveal why the US is so invested in it, adding: “In November 2013, the Secretary of Defence published the Department of Defence Arctic Strategy identifying two supporting objectives to the National Strategy. 

“To ensure security, support safety, and promote defence cooperation.

“[And] Prepare for a wide range of challenges and contingencies. 

“In support of the National and Department of Defence aims, the Navy will pursue the following strategic objectives. 

“Ensure United States Arctic sovereignty and provide homeland defence. 

“Provide ready naval forces to respond to crisis and contingencies. 

“Preserve freedom of the seas and promote partnerships within the United States Government and with international allies and partners.” 

The US Navy has actually been running secret missions below the Arctic for more than 50 years.

Ice Exercise (ICEX) is a biennial operation conducted below the North Pole, where nuclear submarines test weapons, navigating under and surfacing through the ice and tactical capabilities. 

The attack submarine USS Hartford participated in the past two exercises, which were about “developing tactical prowess,” said Captain Paul Whitescarver, commanding officer of the Naval Submarine Base.  

Mr Whitescarver added that in the future, the Navy will seek to spend more money to increase its presence in the area. 

He said: “By 2020, middle of 2025, we’re going to start spending more money on how we participate in the Arctic.” 

However, the US is not at the forefront of Arctic exploration. 

Russia is believed to currently have 46 icebreakers completing various missions and Finland is the second highest with seven.

Last year, the EU and nine of the world’s biggest fishing nations signed a temporary agreement to prohibit fishing in the area for 16 years.

This was to allow scientific research to examine the area.

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