Arctic Security Forces Round Table: A new way to live by an old code
In the upper reaches of Yukon and Alaska, the people who travel in the wilderness live by an old code. Any time a traveler stays at a remote cabin, he leaves the door unlocked, stacks of fresh-cut wood and dry kindling for the next traveler. On an average day that's common courtesy -- on a bad day that simple kindness could save someone's life.
After barely more than a week since arriving in Stuttgart as the new EUCOM J5, my first travel event was to attend the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable in Naantali, Finland. The ASFR is a yearly gathering of friends designed to be a meeting of the minds between senior military and coast guard leaders from the twelve main countries who either have coastlines above the Arctic Circle, or who have significant interest in the great white north.
This year, attendees came from the U.S., Canada, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Iceland, The Netherlands, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
Looking around the room at the ASFR, I realized I was among some of the finest military minds of our times. Many of these men and women came from countries whose links to the Arctic reach back hundreds or even thousands of years - and every nation represented, including the United States, brought its own historic collection of cautionary tales from Arctic expeditions gone tragically wrong.
No matter what your politics may be on the subject, there's no denying that our planet is going through significant climate change. The average temperature in the Arctic is rising faster than anyone anticipated; the corresponding ice melt is accelerating with it. Experts predict northern shipping routes could be in regular use by as early as 2015, to be navigated freely by commercial companies, scientists, tourists, adventurers and any number of other travelers.
At this point, you as a reader may not see a need for an international group of senior military leaders to meet and discuss Arctic issues. So far, military matters up north have been relatively friendly - any disagreements over regional boundaries have been minor, and settled diplomatically; meanwhile the development of closer partnership between all the involved countries has been a welcome side effect.
Why do senior military representatives from 12 nations need to focus on the Arctic?
The answer is simple, though the implications can be extremely complicated: our militaries and coast guards will have to support our national civil authorities in case of an emergency above the Arctic Circle. For every nation attending ASFR, their national military brings capabilities on a much greater scale than any civilian agency can provide. My new peers and I, sitting here at the same table, are the same people who will one day need to work together to improvise solutions that could save lives, protect the environment, or both.
Perhaps an example would help with visualization of a nightmare scenario for all of us. Let's say its summer of 2016, and ice across the North Pole has receded or thinned to a point that cruise ships full of hundreds of people can navigate across it. One of these cruise ships encounters a heavy storm and suffers a major collision, perhaps with an iceberg or by running aground, and is taking in water. Who will rescue the people stranded aboard that ship?
This kind of scenario is bad news even in a place like the Mediterranean Sea, where the water is warm and there are many nearby maritime assets available to assist. When we place this scenario in the Arctic, we're now in a vast, lonely, hostile environment where the nearest assistance could be thousands of miles away. Even in a modern survival suit, the human body can only survive for a short time in these waters, and while today's emergency lifeboats are a tremendous improvement over their predecessors, survival in one above the Arctic Circle is far from guaranteed.
There are simple things members at the roundtable can do today to help ourselves deal with this kind of scenario in the future. We can establish regulations for shipping going through the Arctic to maintain domain awareness. We can establish which of us has different capabilities, guiding the roles we will each play. We can even get into the details of simple things, like how we will communicate across vast distances on the Arctic Ocean. What language will we speak? Will we use radio or satellite communications? What will determine who takes leadership? The more cooperative thinking we can do now, the less distractions we'll have in a real emergency.
At the close of this year's ASFR, my new peers and I all acknowledged there is still much to be done; however, we've made progress toward a safe opening of the Arctic for economic, scientific and tourist activity. Even if we're analyzing ice-landing capabilities of a C-130 instead of stacking kindling in a cabin, we're still living by, and respecting, the code of the north.
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