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The Arctic Search and Rescue Agreement: A Predictor of America's Future National Security Obligations in the Arctic?

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The rapidly diminishing amount of summer ice in the Arctic Ocean could potentially have a profound impact on America’s national security. This phenomenon has lead to an explosion of strategic interest in a region that was once an afterthought. If trends continue, the Arctic Ocean could become a modern version of the Mediterranean of antiquity and serve as a veritable bridge between its littoral nations and peoples.

Faster air and sea travel, speedier and more reliable shipping lanes and newly accessible deposits of oil, natural gas and minerals are just a few of the results of climatic change. To better handle these rapid developments, eight nations (the United States, Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation and Sweden) formed the Arctic Council in 1996. Since its formation, the Council has become an increasingly important arena for diplomatic and national security negotiations. This is demonstrated by the Council’s first legally binding agreement, the Arctic Search and Rescue Agreement (ASRA or Agreement), which went into effect in January 2013. By better understanding the United States’ legal obligations under the Agreement and, more critically, the strategic issues the treaty does no cover, it is possible to speculate on future regional agreements and the effects they may have on America’s national security.

The ASRA serves the necessary and fairly innocuous purpose of rescuing parties in trouble in the Arctic by setting three main obligations for member states. First is the designation of the geographical area of responsibility to those agencies conducting searches. For the United States, these agencies are the United States Coast Guard and the Department of Defense. Also required by this section is the designation of “Rescue Coordination Centers” (RCC). For the United States, these are located at Joint Rescue Coordination Center Juneau and Aviation Rescue Coordination Center Elmendorf.

The second obligation concerns the execution of rescue operations and requires the United States to provide assistance to individuals regardless of nationality, status or circumstance. It also calls for the notification of the other parties in the event of a search and rescue and the request for assistance from other nations.

Finally, the Agreement calls on the United States, as well as the other parties, to adequately prepare for potential future operations. Here, the United States is required to share information on RCC location and capabilities, meteorological and oceanographic data and other information requested by fellow members. The Agreement also requires joint training exercises, the sharing of equipment and techniques and joint reviews of training and actual search and rescue operations.

As interactions between the Arctic Council member nations, and even potentially non-member nations, increases, more binding agreements like the ASRA will be necessary. That these will include treaties more closely related to America’s national security seems a foregone conclusion, but what can the ASRA tell us about the subjects of these future agreements? The answer lies in what the ASRA does not directly address and therefore will need to be settled by future treaties and agreements.

For example, in the area of energy exploration, more definite delineation of each nation’s boundary lines will likely be required. The ASRA makes clear that the areas of responsibility are in no way related to each nation’s actual, legal boundaries. This is a contentious issue with a relatively long history and therefore will likely need to be addressed by a binding agreement at some point in the near future.

The structure of the ASRA also indicates that a future agreement governing movement across a foreign nation’s area of control will be necessary. Once the nations of the council determine the boundaries of the areas they control and begin to ramp up the exploitation of natural resources in those areas, they will be keen on excluding unfriendly nations from those zones. Therefore, it seems likely that some binding agreement regarding the protocol of cross-boundary incursions will be required. As more merchant vessels begin traversing the Arctic during the summer months, they will need clear operating standards to follow as they enter foreign waters.

Finally, as regional trade and energy interest increase, each nation’s military will be forced to play a more active role in order to protect their national interests. This, in turn, raises the issue of potential military-to-military confrontations. In order to avoid the type of misunderstanding that can occur all too easily in this type of situation, the parties will need to develop a clear and enforceable standard of conduct to be upheld by each nation’s designated agencies. As the size and number of military bases increases, it is likely that confrontations will occur on land, at sea, and in the air. Without a binding agreement between the Arctic nations relating to military encounters, the potential for a disastrous misunderstanding will be extremely high.

The ASRA itself is a practical solution to the problems presented by maritime and aeronautical rescue in the harsh environment of the Arctic. Under the Agreement, the United States has only three main obligations. However, as the Arctic becomes a larger part of the United States’ strategic considerations, future agreements may serve much more serious national security purposes. Agreements could be put into place between parties explicitly outlining energy exploration spheres or to prevent other nations from entering these areas even for trade or scientific purposes. The specifics of future arrangements are impossible to predict, and today, the number of binding agreements relating to the Arctic is small. However, that will change in the next few decades and the resulting treaties will need to address the difficult national security issues not resolved by the ASRA.

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