Just back from Sweden and Finland -- not NATO allies, but certainly premier partners both. I visited both in my hat as Commander of US European Command.
In both nations, I spent time discussing our work together in Afghanistan and Kosovo, as well as potential operations with the NATO response force for training and exercises in the time ahead.
Of note, I was also at the Northern European Chiefs of Defense meeting in Helsinki, Finland -- CHODs or senior reps from Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Norway were all present.
We discussed four topics: pooling and sharing resources to support the NATO framework; air policing; Nordic-Baltic military coordination; and evolving Arctic concerns.
All are important topics, but I'd like to focus here on the Arctic, because I believe it's an issue that will continue to grow in importance.
The Arctic -- an area of about 13 million square miles -- is one of the last remote frontiers in the world. As the ice cap melts, however, that remoteness is fading and we're seeing new opportunities in the region. But with those opportunities, however, come risks and concerns, among which are man-made disasters like oil spills and wrecks, and security and safety issues associated with new shipping lanes in a once closed area.
As more Arctic shipping lanes open, the volume of maritime traffic and the overall human presence in the Arctic will increase. We'll see more commercial traffic and scientific exploration missions, non-state actors trafficking illegal goods or other illicit cargo, or even just adventurous tourists. We are keen to leverage an interagency approach to address the risks, concerns, and opportunities associated with Arctic activities.
Bottom line: the increase in Arctic shipping traffic and the movement of humans north elevates the potential for man-made disasters like oil spills and ship accidents and the consequent need for appropriate response and rescue capabilities.
We're already taking steps to build those capabilities. The Arctic Council Search and Rescue Exercise (SAREX), for instance, is a multinational exercise series that tests military and civilian capabilities for search and rescue. Also, Arctic nations recently evaluated their current Arctic SAR capabilities and tested the effectiveness of the international response in the Greenland SAREX, led by Denmark's Greenland Command.
Earlier this year, Exercise Northern Eagle brought together U.S., Russian, and Norwegian ships in the Barents Sea to prepare for rescue and anti-piracy missions. As an Arctic nation with significant coastline "up north" the US will remain engaged.
One thing we must avoid is militarizing the Arctic. We need to ensure this open space becomes a zone of cooperation, not a zone of confrontation as it was during the Cold War. Cooperation in the Arctic today, through organizations like the Arctic Council, can help build trust and focus our efforts in areas of mutual interest to maintain regional security.
We need to make sure the area remains "high north, low tension."
After my time in Sweden and Finland -- and with other key nations involved -- I can say with confidence that the Arctic area nations are beginning to work together to address these security concerns.
This past August, 12 European and North American nations met for the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable. In this Norwegian Ministry of Defense and EUCOM-sponsored event, senior leaders focused on communication among security forces, maritime domain awareness, and other ways to handle the anticipated increase in maritime traffic and related effects as the Arctic sea ice recedes.
As our world changes and areas like the Arctic emerge as new human, environmental, and national security concerns, we should continue to pursue opportunities to promote a balanced approach to these issues through multilateral, collaborative relationships, as we did this week at the Northern Europe Chiefs of Defense Conference.
Supreme Allied Commander, Europe
Commander, US European Command