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Research Questions

  1. How do the U.S. armed forces' capabilities differ from those of other countries operating in the Arctic, including the Russian Federation, the People's Republic of China, and various U.S. allies and like-minded partners?
  2. To what extent are foreign military and commercial entities operating in parts of the Arctic inaccessible to U.S. armed forces, particularly in the surface maritime domain, and what potential risks might these activities and any differences in regional access pose to USCG forces and to U.S. national interests?

The United States has considerable interests in the Arctic and is one of just eight countries with territory in the region. It also has a responsibility to prepare and protect its armed forces that could be called upon to secure its Arctic interests as the region becomes an increasingly active security environment. Russia continues to maintain and upgrade large-scale, credible Arctic military capabilities. Moreover, China's growing economic and scientific activities in the region could enable it to expand its influence and capabilities there. Beyond strategic competition and growing concerns over the possibility of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) — Russia clash, the armed forces of the United States—particularly the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) — continually contend with safety, law enforcement, legal, other national security, and environmental issues in the region. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021 requires a report on the Arctic capabilities of the armed forces. This report summarizes the findings of this research and is intended to, at a minimum, address the congressional request and could also contribute related, independent findings about needs and issues.

Key Findings

The United States has important Arctic military capacity and capability shortfalls

  • A primary limitation for the United States is capacity and, to a lesser extent, capability in certain areas (e.g., communications, domain awareness, and logistics).
  • The U.S. armed forces' most-urgent needs for Arctic access and presence fall into the following categories: assets with proximity to support response; multidomain awareness and communications; infrastructure for response and logistics; sufficient cadre of personnel trained, current, and proficient with the skills to operate in this harsh environment; tactics and equipment for low-probability, high-impact incidents; and the ability to scale presence.
  • Leaving these attributes without resolution could lead to several types of risk to U.S. regional interests, including the following: potential inability to fulfill responsibilities (e.g., for search and rescue and oil spill response) when called on; loss of life, property, economic potential, and environmental integrity; limitations in being able to operate with and rely on partners; growth in Russian control and potential for aggression in concert with a loss of possible opportunities to engage in positive diplomacy; development of Chinese regional influence; accidental escalation of NATO–Russia tensions; and global perception of U.S. absence and a security void, which would exacerbate some of the other risks.


  • Bolster momentum in implementing the Arctic strategies of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the USCG, the U.S. Department of Defense, and the military services. Regularly updating strategy documents, formalizing actions and collaborations through implementation plans, advocating for stronger emphasis on the Arctic in national-level strategies and plans as appropriate, and continuing to place liaisons in other U.S. government and foreign-partner offices would help enable momentum and continuity of effort.
  • Continue efforts to expand funding for priority U.S. Coast Guard and DHS needs, such as icebreaking vessels and logistics nodes.
  • Seek opportunities to benefit from commercial investments. This could be an opportunity to take advantage of commercial innovation and form early partnerships.
  • Strengthen research partnerships, including coordination with academic institutions and among DHS and Department of Defense organizations.
  • Strengthen international partnerships, including through tactical engagements and expanding information-sharing where possible.

This research was sponsored by U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) Office of Requirements and Analysis (CG-771) and conducted in the Infrastructure, Immigration, and Security Operations Program of the RAND Homeland Security and Defense Center.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

RAND is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.