Words mean things. Simple yet obvious, this maxim encourages purposeful and considered word choice, including for the US military. Our words—and the meanings they convey in policy and strategy—shape our actions. When Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said in 2017 that the United States was shifting from a strategy of attrition to annihilation in the fight against the Islamic State, for example, his words meant things. Attrition and annihilation require different actions.

Defense policies and strategies are riddled with deliberate and calculated words—which makes the words used in the recent flurry of service-specific Arctic strategies that much more curious. There is no doubt that a tremendous level of effort went into producing the collection of Arctic strategies we find before us today. There are some wonderful words and thoughtful analyses within each. But for all good words, there are some equally strange ones leaving us to question exactly what they mean and the intent behind them? How will we achieve these goals? And do the services truly understand the many facets of the Arctic? In other words, how what will it take to translate these words into action? Or, in military speak, how will the US military operationalize its Arctic strategies?

The Curious Case of the Arctic Strategies

If we measure progress by sheer volume, then the litany of Arctic strategies produced by the US military branches in the last twelve months indicates success. However, if we measure progress relative to action taken on the account of paperwork generated, success is lacking. Surely, we should be able to see the manifestations of these Arctic strategies taking shape. For the two us—both with particular professional interests in the Arctic, with one in close proximity to US Northern Command, the DoD Arctic Advocate, and the other to Eielson Air Force Base, the northernmost North American military base—this should particularly be the case. We should be able to look out the windows of our Colorado Springs and Fairbanks offices and see some action toward realizing the many promises hosted within the DoD, Air Force, Navy, and Army strategies, shouldn’t we?

Yes, the Army is training in Alaska to “improve Arctic capability” and the Air Force scrambles fighter intercepts from Eielson to maintain “vigilance in all domains,” but what is the Army actually doing to “project power across the Arctic”? What is the Air Force actually doing to “project power through a combat-credible force”? What is the Navy actually doing to “maintain enhanced presence” in the Arctic? And what are the Marine Corps and the Space Force doing at all? There is certainly a lot of activity. But, now that we have Arctic strategies, what are the services doing to operationalize them? Is it all fluff with no teeth? And if so, what can—or should—the services do to put some meat on the bone of strategies that, in their current forms, are general statements of aspiration, at best?

Polar Platitudes

In their current forms, the various service Arctic strategies have lots of words but little substance. Are we writing about the Arctic as a type of potential warfare, or a region for potential warfare? What do we expect future conflict—should it occur—to look like in the Arctic? In the US Central Command area of responsibility, we have experienced and thus expect asymmetric conflict necessitating things like counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and irregular warfare capabilities. In the Indo-Pacific region, we expect future conflict—again, should it occur—to reflect conventional warfare pitting uniformed militaries against each other. The Arctic is more ambiguous. We should expect possible conflict to take both a conventional form against peer adversaries and an unconventional, gray-zone form that blurs the lines between commercial and military activities. Extending from this expectation and turning attention to the various service-specific Arctic lines of effort (LOEs), the natural question is this: How do we do what we say we are going to do? It is easier said (or written) than done in the Arctic—and that is the principal challenge to operationalizing Arctic LOEs.

There is ample evidence in the strategies to question whether the services really know and understand the Arctic environment they have so enthusiastically oriented to. The Navy’s strategy claims to include the Marine Corps, but largely sidelines the Corps, referring occasionally to Marines conducting multinational cold weather exercises as a means of strengthening partnerships. The Marines continue operating “in the snow of far-off northern lands” and are—more than any other service—committed to cold-weather operations, training, and exercises. Given their multi-domain orientation and capabilities, the Marines are arguably the most versatile and well-equipped force for Arctic operations. Yet, the Navy’s Arctic strategy relegates the Marine Corps to superficial relevance in a supposed Department of the Navy–wide approach. This is a missed opportunity. The strategy is, really, a Navy strategy with questionable promises.

The Navy insists that it will “maintain enhanced presence” in the Arctic. But to maintain presence, let alone an enhanced one, the Navy has to actually be in the Arctic. The Navy has submarines there but it does not currently have a surface presence to maintain. Occasional carrier strike group sailings above 66 degrees north, the first of which since 1991 occurred in October 2019, does not constitute “presence.” The Navy does not have icebreakers, and it does not have ice-hardened hulls on any ship in its current fleet, should it feel compelled to sail into Arctic icepack for some reason. Despite the rhetoric of melting ice, much of the Arctic Ocean remains unnavigable most of the year. There is no defined plan for maintaining enhanced presence in the Arctic, which raises the question of how well the Navy understands the Arctic environment.

To this point, in a January 2021 press release announcing its Arctic strategy, the Navy referred to China as an “Arctic State” despite the fact that such a term is reserved for those countries with Arctic borders. China’s closest Arctic border is a sparsely populated region in its northeast region bordering Russia’s Siberia that is nine hundred miles from the Arctic Circle. China does not even refer to itself as an Arctic state, though it has adopted the self-proclaimed title of “Near-Arctic State.” The Navy retracted and revised the announcement shortly after its release, but the word was out. So the fundamental question returns: Does the Navy really understand the Arctic?

The Navy did rapid damage control on its word choice. The Army, however, cannot perform public relations magic to walk its way out of its Arctic strategy blunders. In its own hack at an Arctic strategy, the Army emphatically proclaimed—in its title no less—that it is on a path to “regaining Arctic dominance.” We checked the history books. The US Army has never had Arctic dominance. So what is there to regain? More to the point, the Army claims it will “project power across the Arctic.” For this claim, we checked the maps. The Army is designed for dominating the land domain and sustaining ground combat power. To dominate a region via ground combat power, the Army must have boots on the ground. The problem is that there isn’t much Arctic ground for the Army to put its boots on and dominate. The Arctic is more than 70 percent water. Of the 30 percent that is land, greater than half is Russian territory. Canada further complicates the Army’s promise of Arctic dominance via landpower projection. Of the Canadian Arctic landmass, nearly all of it is part of Nunavut, the largest territory in Canada, independently governed and populated by the Inuit. Unlike Canada, the Inuit are not part of NATO. In effect, the Army’s ability to project power “across the Arctic” is, therefore, limited to about 10 percent of the entire Arctic region. This is hardly enough to regain dominance. Upon deeper inspection, the Army’s plan for Arctic dominance is—like the Navy’s—characterized more by platitudes and hyperbole than actionable substance.

Of the service-specific Arctic strategies, the Air Force’s iteration is the least hyperbolic and most actionable. Unlike the Navy’s claim to maintaining a presence it does not have and the Army’s claim to once again dominate an Arctic it never did, the Air Force can claim—with evidence of capability, action, and intent—its ability to be vigilant and project power in the Arctic, cooperate with allies and partners there, and prepare for the region’s unique conditions. However, though it is the service with the most Arctic presence and capability, even the Air Force’s LOEs are detached from reality in some areas. The Air Force wants to be vigilant and defend the homeland, but is reliant on twentieth-century technology to do so. Even with the rhetoric and promises behind programs like SHIELD—the Strategic Homeland Integrated Ecosystems for Layered Defense—and other missile warning and defense modernization efforts, we are still years away from realizing any of these capabilities. For now, the hard reality is that the homeland is at risk. Vigilance is lip service when faced with reality.

We now have three disparate Arctic service strategies seemingly competing for their piece of the Arctic pie while equally challenging the essence of unified, joint operations. Even more curious given the trends is that the service with the most adaptable and relevant role in future Arctic operations—the Marine Corps—does not have an Arctic strategy of its own. The Arctic is a region where the United States can—and should seek to—shape the future, but disparate Arctic strategies inject interservice parochialism into US Arctic posturing and invite internal competition. The time is now to operationalize the Arctic, but doing so requires a better and more complete understanding of the Arctic domain and what the United States should be doing in the high north to realize its national security interests.

Operationalizing the Arctic

Of course, critiques without solutions are unproductive. Acknowledging the gaps and challenges to realizing Arctic objectives, there are actions the United States can and should take to advance toward a successful northern posture. First among many is to stop creating service-specific Arctic strategies. The Arctic is a multi-domain challenge requiring a joint approach to achieving DoD and national security objectives. The services have a role to play but will not operate independently. Disparate strategies not only invite interservice rivalry that reverts back to the pre–Goldwater Nichols Act days, but also signal to our potential adversaries that we are not on the same page in the Arctic. Russia and China, if they are so inclined, can split the seams of the Arctic strategies to exploit US weakness. To project confidence, the United States needs to project Arctic competence. The way to do this is through a unified, realistic, and informed DoD approach to the Arctic that ties resources to strategy and strategy to policymaking and implementation.

DoD has released an Arctic strategy every three years since 2013. The next iteration is due in 2022. We have a year to get it right. The next strategy needs to emphasize service unity and actionable LOEs in each of the Arctic domains. It must be devoid of exaggerated promises detached from the realities of capabilities and geography. The United States cannot dominate in the Arctic; but it can influence. To do this, the new Arctic strategy should specify our objectives and approaches to succeeding in the Arctic’s air, land, maritime, and space domains via a train-project-sustain model. The US military needs to train for Arctic operations to enable future power projection and be prepared to sustain its forces in some of the harshest conditions on earth. Training, projecting, and sustaining translates to influence.

The United States does not need more icebreakers or more skibirds. It could benefit from platform and infrastructure modernization, but a purely numbers-based acquisition plan to have more without an associated need is myopic and wasteful. The United States does, however, require a more robust, deliberate Arctic strategy informing and directing increases in the three key areas of Arctic training, power projection, and force sustainment. This will in turn lead to broadened Arctic presence and commitment.

The current political and defense budgetary climates are such that the poles have been an afterthought in recent strategic discourse, only coming into clearer focus since 2019. The United States is an Arctic state but has continued its focus on near-term threats instead of long-term strategic challenges and realities. Today the United States is waking up to the realities of burgeoning strategic competition in the Arctic, but the result has been to hastily move toward Arctic strategies riddled with big words but little substance. The logistics of Arctic operations are extraordinarily complex. Everything slows in the cold; construction of infrastructure takes longer and is more expensive than a similar project elsewhere. The Arctic presents challenging climates, seasonally limiting conditions, and general unpredictability. And yet none of these Arctic truths seem to influence the prescriptions embedded within the US Arctic strategies. The Pentagon can—and must—do better if we are to achieve strategic success in a region of the world becoming increasingly more significant to the defense of our homeland. Defining the longer-term strategic interests of the United States within the region is a necessary step toward providing the unity of effort and the funding required of the services to meet future challenges.

Dr. Ryan Burke is an associate professor of Military & Strategic Studies at the US Air Force Academy, a fellow at the Modern War Institute, and co-director of Project 6633.

Dr. Cameron Carlson is the deputy director of the Center for Arctic Security and Resilience at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Lance Cpl. Elias E. Pimentel III, US Marine Corps