US Northern and Southern Command: Climate Change Impacts Our Area of Responsibility

By Dr. Marc Kodack

In case you missed it – On March 11, the Full House Armed Services Committee held a hearing on “National Security Challenges and U.S. Military Activity in North and South America.” Witnesses providing written statements and answering questions included the HON Kenneth Rapuano, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Global Security, Admiral Craig Faller, Commander, U.S. Southern Command, and General Terrence O’Shaughnessy, Commander, U.S. Northern Command. In their conversations with committee members, the two commanders acknowledged that climate change is affecting their Area of Responsibility, or AOR.

Key Answer Highlights to Members Questions

GEN O’Shaughnessy, Commander, U.S. Northern Command (CDR USNORTHCOM)

“As we do see our potential adversaries increasing their capability and capacity to take advantage of some of these more navigable waters we also need to be able to operate in that environment and so I have a renewed invigoration to make sure that we are able to operate in that Arctic environment.”

“Because we see more activity there [the Arctic] because of the environmental impacts that we’re seeing, we also have to make sure we have the ability to operate there.”

“We are seeing more and more of this great power competition that has arrived in the Arctic.”

ADM Faller, Commander, U.S. Southern Command

“Our security cooperation programs emphasize the partners capacity to do that [respond quickly] because as we see in some of these massive hurricanes, no one nation has the ability to do that alone.”

Below are a verbatim transcript of the exchanges between Members and the witnesses, followed by the witness’s written statements.

Questions and Answer Transcripts

Following is a transcript of Member’s questions directly or indirectly related to climate change and the witness’ replies.

Representative James Langevin (51:25)

“Obviously, you all face unique challenges across the diplomatic, information, military and, and, obviously, economic domains and the Arctic among one of them has rapidly become a battleground in the great power competition that we talked about here today. Climate change is obviously already exacerbating these challenges, as we see increasing hostilities in more navigable waterways. My question is, General O’Shaughnessy, do you agree that climate change is an aggravating factor in your theater?”

GEN O’Shaughnessy, CDR USNORTHCOM (51:58)

“Sir, what we’re seeing is diminished ice, increased usability of some of the waterways. We see increase activity. We see some of the impacts of the result of that, for example some erosion. And, those are all things that we have to take into account. From my particular point of view what I’m most concerned with is, as we do see our potential adversaries increasing their capability and capacity to take advantage of some of these more navigable waters we also need to be able to operate in that environment and so I have a renewed invigoration to make sure that we are able to operate in that Arctic environment.”

Representative James Langevin (52:35)

“So, so my question is, how is NORTHCOM factoring the implications for changing climate dynamics in its military planning?”

GEN O’Shaughnessy, CDR USNORTHCOM (52:44)

“So specifically, what we’re doing is maintaining our ability to operate. Looking at all facets of it. Whether it’s our infrastructure and make sure that we don’t have impacts to our infrastructure as a result of any changes that we see. But also, again because we see more activity there because of the environmental impacts that we’re seeing, we also have to make sure we have the ability to operate there, that we have, invest in things like communication, domain awareness, and infrastructure that will withstand those changes.”

Representative James Langevin (53:16)

“Admiral Faller anything that you have to add? Mr. Rapuano?”

ADM Faller, CDR USSOUTHCOM (52:19)

“The ability to rapidly respond to events, whether it’s a weather event, or an environmental event, a terrorist attack, transnational criminal organization is important. So, we continue to watch that closely and ensure that our exercise programs, our security cooperation programs emphasize the partners capacity to do that because as we see in some of these massive hurricanes, no one nation has the ability to do that alone.”

Representative Salud Carbajal (01:14:33)

“General O’Shaughnessy I know this was what has been touched on a bit, but I wanted to be a little bit more poignant and specific with you. This week the committee has discussed quite extensively Great Powers competition across the area’s responsibility. With that, China and Russia continue to invest heavily in the Arctic, as the Arctic increasingly is viewed as an arena for geopolitical competition. In DoD’s Report to Congress on its defense Arctic strategy it states, Russia and China are challenging the rules-based order in the Arctic. Can you elaborate on that? Does the US have sufficient strategy to counter Russian and Chinese efforts in the Arctic, with the underscoring of sufficient?”

GEN O’Shaughnessy, CDR USNORTHCOM (01:15:23)

“I think as a part of that answer is going to be highlighting the great work done to craft and deploy the 2019 Arctic, DoD Arctic strategy Significant change from the 2013 version thereof, with a real focus of a secure and stable region which the U.S. national security interests are safeguarded, the U.S. homeland is defended so that it recognizes that we must be in the Arctic to defend our homeland, and that nations work cooperatively to address the shared challenges. And so, to your point in there while we do see some cooperation, we are seeing more and more of this great power competition that has arrived in the Arctic. I’ll use an example of what the Russians are doing with respect to the northern sea route where they are claiming that you need to use a Russian icebreaker, you need to use a Russian pilot on your vessel. That is not in accordance with the rules based international order and so, I think we need to be able to have a presence, have the ability to operate there if we are going to be able to show by example exactly our ability to operate in these common navigable waters.”

Representative Salud Carbajal (01:16:31)

“Do you feel we have sufficiency?”

GEN O’Shaughnessy, CDR USNORTHCOM (01:16:34)

“Sir, what I would say is we need to invest in the Arctic we are, I’ve seen an increase in that activity, and we need to invest in order to operate there significantly.”

Representative Salud Carbajal (01:16:45)

“So, we’re not where we want to be as of right now?“

GEN O’Shaughnessy, CDR USNORTHCOM (01:16:47)

“The trajectory is in the right direction. More is to be done.”

Representative Jason Crow (2:24:19)

“Shifting gears, just briefly. On the issue of Arctic control and the increased pressures in the Arctic. There are plans to increase the number of our icebreakers. You know there have been appropriations for, you know, both the planning and the start the construction of those icebreakers. So, General O’Shaughnessy starting with you.  Are the current plans sufficient in your view over the next five years to field the icebreakers that are necessary to counter both Russian and Chinese influence in the Arctic region?

GEN O’Shaughnessy, CDR USNORTHCOM (02:24:51)

“Well, first I would applaud the effort of the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Navy that is supported that procurement of the icebreakers. I’ve actually been on the Polar Star [here] our icebreaker that is, you know, 44 or so years old. We need these icebreakers and the polar security cutters now. I would also say that as the deployment happens six nominally, six of them at least three heavy, initial deployments likely to Antarctica. And so, we have to look not just at the first one that will be operational, but when is the second and third one going to be operational which we’ll need in the Arctic as well. So, so, from my perspective, I’m very pleased that we are making progress in this, we had significant funds this year over 500 million applied to it, but we need to continue that program and if anything, we ought to be looking to accelerate.”

Representative Jason Crow (2:25:35)

“So, that the six as we understand it, would that be sufficient in the long term because I know Russia has upwards of 20?”

GEN O’Shaughnessy, CDR USNORTHCOM (02:25:44)

“Clearly, it’s a start. “I, my, as we work closely with the Coast Guard, this, especially with the three heavy, as a minimum, potentially up to six heavy depending on how they end up doing the procurement, will give us a start, but this, this is, we see diminishing sea ice, more navigation actually increases the need for those icebreakers in order to take advantage of the Arctic.”

Written Testimony

HON Kenneth Rapuano, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Global Security

Full, written statement here. Climate change is not explicitly mentioned anywhere in the statement including the strategic environment section at the beginning. Its potential effects are referred to through reference to natural disasters—hurricanes, wildfires, floods.

While “the Arctic poses new challenges to the defense for the United States and Canada” (page 2), these challenges are attributed to Russia and China.

“In support of the National Security Strategy, DoD is prepared to support civil authorities: in response to natural disasters (e.g., hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires, floods and pandemic diseases…” (page 3)

“We are working with our Federal partners and with other the public and private sector partners to expand sharing of threat information that affects Defense Critical Infrastructure and the Defense Industrial Base. The Department’s Mission Assurance Strategy identifies and prioritizes our most critical assets, evaluates their vulnerabilities and most likely threats, and employs risk mitigation measures to enhance their resilience. We are now actively expanding that process by working with industry to ensure the resilience of privately owned infrastructure, systems, and networks on which DoD depends. We are also looking at ways that we can manage risk to strategic missions earlier in the acquisition lifecycle. We are investing heavily in critical infrastructure risk management initiatives, such as expanding the scope of cyber vulnerability assessments and performing integrated cyber dependency analysis across our global strategic mission set. We are pursuing resiliency in our systems as well as in our decision-making process to blunt attacks in the U.S. homeland during conflict, or perhaps even before full conflict, we will respond in decisive terms to prevent further attacks.” (pages 7-8). Climate change is not mentioned or included as a threat, vulnerability, or risk to Defense Critical Infrastructure or the Defense Industrial Base in the written statement..

“DoD is better prepared to assist civil authorities than at any other time in our Nation’s history [such as] supporting FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] responses to natural disasters, including severe storms and an earthquake in Puerto Rico…”(page 8)

“Weak governance, corruption, poverty, crime, violence, and the effects of natural disasters risk regional stability and thus threaten U.S. national interests [in the Western Hemisphere].” (page 8)

“Finally, natural disasters threaten to devastate the region [the Western Hemisphere], requiring a coordinated multilateral response to thwart human suffering and lessen the long-term effects on regional growth and prosperity.” (page 9)

“Most of the region [the Western Hemisphere] is extremely vulnerable to natural disasters including earthquakes and hurricanes, the outbreak of infectious diseases, and a variety of destabilizing effects that follow those events, which compound economic hardship and cause increases in large-scale migration. DoD prioritizes expanding the HA/DR [humanitarian assistance/disaster relief] capacity of our regional partners and seeks to address these challenges to reduce human suffering and insecurity, reduce pressures on migration, and reduce requirements for U.S. forces to respond to disasters in the region.” (page 13)

“In conclusion, I would like to note that the Department of Defense takes a global view of the challenges facing the United States.” (page 14).

ADM Craig Faller, Commander, U.S. Southern Command (CDR USSOUTHXOM)

Full, written statement here. Climate change is not mentioned anywhere in the statement, including the strategic environment at the beginning.

GEN Terrence O’Shaughnessy, Commander, U.S. Northern Command (CDR USNORTHCOM)

Full, written statement here. Although GEN O’Shaughnessy did not explicitly mention climate change in his written statement, he did refer to the Arctic, to the harsh/extreme nature of the Arctic climate, and to natural disaster relief efforts elsewhere in USNORTHCOM’s area of operations [here].

“The Arctic is no longer a fortress wall, and our oceans are no longer protective moats; they are now avenues of approach for advanced conventional weapons and the platforms that carry them.” (page 2)

“Like the Russians, China also continues to invest heavily in the Arctic, determined to exploit the region’s economic and strategic potential as a self-proclaimed “near Arctic” nation. In the last few years, Chinese survey vessels have conducted several deployments to the Bering and Chukchi Seas, providing familiarity and experience that could eventually translate to Chinese naval operations in the region.” (pages 6-7)

“The Arctic affords our adversaries a direct avenue of approach to the homeland and is representative of the changing strategic environment in our area of responsibility. More consistently navigable waters, mounting demand for natural resources, and Russia’s military buildup in the region make the Arctic an immediate challenge for USNORTHCOM, NORAD, our northern allies, and our neighboring geographic combatant commands, U.S. European Command and U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.” (pages 15-16)

“I want to take this opportunity to thank the Congressional defense committees for your constant support as USNORTHCOM and NORAD have met our homeland defense challenges in the Arctic head-on. There are no easy solutions to the challenges presented by the extreme climate, terrain, and distances inherent in Arctic operations. However, due in no small measure to your continued attention and advocacy for our commands’ requirements, we have seen significant attention, expertise, and resources brought to bear on the homeland defense mission in the Arctic from throughout the Department of Defense.” (page 16)

“In order to reclaim our strategic advantage in the high north, it is critical that we improve our ability to detect and track surface vessels and aircraft in our Arctic approaches and establish more reliable secure communications for our joint force warfighters operating in the higher latitudes. This focus is now apparent in the 2019 DOD Arctic Strategy [here], which reflects my command priorities and makes it clear that DOD must defend the homeland against threats emanating from our northern approaches.” (pages 16-17)

We are leveraging the on-the-ground experience and expertise of our warfighters in USNORTHCOM’s Alaska Command along with leaders, planners, and combatants from USINDOPACOM and USEUCOM as we prepare for ARCTIC EDGE 20—the nation’s premier Arctic exercise. ARCTIC EDGE 20 will take full advantage of the unsurpassed capabilities of the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex (JPARC) and allow us to test our capability to fight, communicate, and win in the harsh terrain and climate of the high north. I am personally placing significant emphasis on this important exercise, as the lessons we learn from ARCTIC EDGE 20 will play an important role in validating the requirements that will allow us to deter, detect, and defeat potential adversaries along the front line of our nation’s defenses.” (page 17)

“Nested under our homeland defense responsibilities, USNORTHCOM provides for the safety and support of our citizens through our defense support of the civil authorities mission. Acting in support of lead federal agencies following disasters, such as during the response to Hurricane Dorian in the eastern United States, allows USNORTHCOM to demonstrate our resilience and test our response to unplanned domestic contingencies. These include natural disaster relief efforts or following a manmade disaster such as an attack by a peer adversary or a terrorist organization. When circumstances overcome the abilities of federal, state, or local public safety officials to respond effectively—and when we are asked to help—USNORTHCOM is prepared to provide trained, ready, and capable active duty forces when and wherever they are needed to protect the life, health, and safety of our citizens and neighbors. Hurricane Dorian’s impact on The Bahamas was nothing short of devastating, and USNORTHCOM was proud to support the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and our Bahamian partners by providing defense coordinating officials, strategic airlift, and rotary wing airlift in the early days following the storm. Working in support of USAID, the Command and our Service partners were able to expedite the deployment of military and nongovernmental organization relief personnel and equipment to Abaco.” (page 21)

“Although this was the first time that USNORTHCOM has directly supported a USAID led relief effort, we and our interagency partners were able to build on lessons learned from previous disaster relief and recovery efforts. Those hard-earned lessons, in turn, ensured that the correct mix of assets and personnel were ready to deploy as soon as they were requested by The Bahamian government.” (page 22)

To watch the hearing, click here.

Members Attending the Hearing and Asking Questions

Adam Smith (D-Washington, Chairman); Mac Thornberry (R-Texas, Ranking Member); Rick Larsen (D-Washington); Michael Turner (R-Ohio) James Langevin (D-Rhode Island); Mike Rogers (R-Alabama); Donald Norcross (D-New Jersey), Vicky Hartzler (R-Missouri); Salud Carbajal (D-California); Robert Wittman (R-Virginia); Kendra Horn (D-Oklahoma); Austin Scott (R-Georgia); Jared Golden (D-Maine); Bradley Byrne (R-Alabama); Xochitl Torres Small (D-New Mexico); Trent Kelly (R-Mississippi); Veronica Escobar (D-Texas); Mike Gallagher (R-Wisconsin); Elaine Luria (D-Virginia); Michael Waltz (R-Florida); John Garamendi (D-California); Don Bacon (R-Nebraska); Jason Crow (D-Colorado)

Dr. Marc Kodack is Senior Fellow at the Center for Climate and Security and former Sustainability and Water Program Manager in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Energy and Sustainability.

* This post is part of the Council on Strategic Risks’ “Responsibility to Prepare and Prevent” Blog Series, designed to increase the tempo and scale of relevant and useful analysis during a time of crisis

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