At a House subcommittee hearing this month, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., had a trick question for one of the witnesses.

“How would you align our Arctic strategy with what Gen. Mattis has talked about in our National Defense Strategy?” Hunter asked Adm. Charles Ray, vice commandant of the Coast Guard.

The Republican subcommittee chairman warned him. “It’s a trick question, so think about it.”

After letting Ray go on for a while about various working groups with the Navy, the value of joint exercises, and the need for “icebreaker recapitalization,” Hunter let him off the hook.

The catch, he said, is that Arctic isn’t mentioned at all in the National Defense Strategy unveiled by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in January.

“Mattis talked about everywhere on Earth basically except for the Arctic,” Hunter said, adding that it seemed “really myopic and shortsighted.”

Polar Star Coast Guard Icebreaker Arctic
Polar Star, the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker, completes ice drills in the Arctic on July 3, 2013. 
REUTERS/U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer 3rd Class Rachel French/Handout via Reuters

“We cannot afford to ignore what is unfolding in the Arctic,” said California Rep. John Garamendi, the top Democrat on the subcommittee on transportation and infrastructure. “The United States must embrace this challenge, for if not, rest assured other nation-states, friend and foe alike, will fill the vacuum.”

What’s unfolding in the Arctic is an accelerating meltdown of the polar ice cap unprecedented in modern times, opening up potential new shipping lanes and sparking a race for dominance in an area estimated to hold 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its undiscovered gas.

“Our two nearest peer competitors, Russia and China, have both declared the Arctic a strategic priority, and they continue to aggressively develop the capability, capacity and expertise to exert influence and seize opportunities in the region,” Ray testified at the June 7 hearing.

As the polar icecap was steadily shrinking and thinning over the past decade, the US was distracted by other threats such as China, North Korea and Iran, says Heather Conley, an Arctic expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“The emergence of a new ocean did not fit into the budget,” she said. “Now we’re behind.”

Russia icebreaker Yamal
Russian icebreaker Yamal during the removal of manned drifting station North Pole 36, August 2009. 
Pink floyd88/Wikimedia Commons

In August, a Russian tanker carrying liquefied natural gas made a record-setting transit through the Arctic Ocean without the assistance of an icebreaker, a feat that not only underscores the disappearing sea ice, but also the economic lure of new faster trade routes.

“In our national security strategy we call Russia and China our great power competitors,” Conley said. “Well, they are very invested in the Arctic and growing.”

“Our rivals are paying close attention to the changing Arctic, even if we are not,” said David Titley, a professor of meteorology and international affairs at Pennsylvania State University.

“The Russians are actively monetizing their northern sea route and rebuilding their Arctic military capabilities,” Tidley told Congress, while “China declares itself to be a near-Arctic state and intends to jointly build a Polar Silk Road as a northern flank in its Belt and Road Initiative.”

Russia has 50 percent of the Arctic coastline, which includes some major cities and deep-water ports.

The US has no Arctic infrastructure to match that.

“If there was a major incident, we wouldn’t even be able to send ships there to handle it. We don’t have helicopter assets there,” Conley said. “The Coast Guard has made do, and they should be commended for everything they have tried to do, but it’s always been within existing resources.”

Russia Arctic Troops
Russian troops practice an Arctic airmobile assault at Kotelny Island, in the New Siberian Islands. 
Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation

Russia also has more than 40 working icebreakers, and another eight under construction, while the US has only two: a heavy icebreaker, Polar Star, and a medium icebreaker, Healy.

And Russia is also arming some of its newest icebreakers, as well as making other moves to militarize the Arctic regions, Conley said.

“Russia is already putting special forces, surface-to-air missiles in parts in the Arctic,” something Conley calls “curious.”

“We need to assess that and see what US military posture should be to reflect that change,” she said.

The fiscal 2018 National Defense Authorization Act authorizes up to six additional polar-class icebreakers, but the appropriations bill funds only one, which won’t hit the water until 2023.

But obsessing about the icebreaker gap could be an example of backward thinking.

After all, if polar ice continues to recede, icebreakers will become less necessary to plow new sea-lanes, especially as newer cargo ships are designed with reinforced hulls.

The greater threat is the kind of international dispute going on in the South China Sea, where China is building artificial islands and asserting expansive territorial claims.

Xue Long icebreaker China
A drift ice camp in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, seen from the deck of Chinese icebreaker Xue Long. 
Wikimedia Commons

The US is already seeing signs that Russia and China are encroaching in waters over the extended US continental shelf north of Alaska, an area nearly the size of California that is rich with oil, minerals and other resources.

“We should use all our sovereign assets — Navy, Coast Guard, and [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] to develop a coherent and sustainable presence in the Arctic. It will demonstrate long-term commitment to our sovereign interests, reassure our allies, and send an unmistakable message to our great power rivals,” Titley said.

Titley also argues the US needs to ratify the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, a governance structure for the world’s oceans, which he says would allow the US to file a claim for seabed resources.

But the main problem, say critics, is the one Hunter zeroed in on in his June 4 hearing.

“There is no national defense strategy for the Arctic,” Hunter complained to Ray, the Coast Guard’s No. 2. “We’re going to fix that by asking you and the Navy to come back and tell us what your joint strategy is.”

The 2018 authorization act includes a mandate for a “Report on Arctic Strategies” to be delivered within six months.

What’s missing, said Conley of CSIS, is leadership. “No one is in charge of this. You need to have someone wake up every day and think about how the United States is preparing for a new ocean.”

Don’t be surprised if someone in Congress proposes creation of a US Arctic Command.