US Polar Strategy and the Geopolitics of Antarctica

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McMurdo Station in Antarctica with the Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star in the background.
McMurdo Station, a U.S. Antarctic research station, in January 2002 with the Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star in the background. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Rob Rothway)

Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter @JosephVMicallef.

Several months ago, the Trump administration presented a new national security and defense strategy for the polar regions. Titled Memorandum of Safeguarding U.S. National Interests in the Arctic and Antarctic region, it was the first time that strategic issues in both polar regions were treated in tandem.

The memorandum calls for the development of "a ready, capable, and available fleet of polar security icebreakers that is operationally tested and fully deployable by fiscal year 2029." In addition, the memorandum calls for the U.S. to secure "associated assets and resources capable of ensuring a persistent United States presence in the Arctic and Antarctic."

The Arctic and the Antarctic regions, however, are very different, with separate geopolitical and strategic considerations. This is Part II of a two-part series on the geopolitics of the polar regions. In Part I, we looked at the Arctic region. In Part II, we will examine the Antarctic region.

Antarctic Geopolitics

The Antarctic region is very different from the Arctic. It is the most inhospitable continent on Earth -- the coldest, windiest and driest.

Unlike the Arctic region, which largely consists of open ocean with a floating ice cap, Antarctica has a land mass. It's the fifth largest continent, with a surface area of 5.4 million square miles. It's larger than Australia and Europe, and about one and a half times the size of the U.S.

Related: President Trump's New Polar Strategy Is the First Step to Defending the Arctic

The climate is considerably colder than the Arctic. The average summer temperature is -30° Celsius/-22° Fahrenheit, while the average winter temperature is -60° C/-76° F. The coldest temperature ever measured on Earth was in Antarctica, -89.2° C/-128.6° F. The continent's extreme cold is caused by three factors.

First, the continent has an average elevation of 9,800 feet, whereas most of the Arctic is just a few feet above sea level.

Secondly, in the Arctic, the Arctic Ocean serves as a heat sink. It releases heat during the winter, moderating the extreme polar temperatures. The Antarctic Ocean plays a similar role, but its contribution is dwarfed by the continental mass. Moreover, the Gulf Stream brings warm water from the tropics into the Arctic region, while the Antarctic Circumpolar Current has the opposite effect, preventing warmer waters from reaching the Antarctic and keeping cold Antarctic waters bottled up.

Finally, the Earth is closest to the sun during the Antarctic summer (aphelion) and farthest in the winter (perihelion). That's the reverse of the northern hemisphere, which is why Northern Hemisphere winters are milder, while the summers are cooler than in the Southern Hemisphere.

Roughly 92% of Antarctica is covered in ice, with an average depth of 6,200 feet. Even the Antarctic ice shelves, the portion of the Antarctic glaciers that extend over the ocean, can be thousands of feet thick. The ice floes of frozen sea ice, however, are only a few feet thick. They form each winter and melt in the Antarctic summer.

Ironically, notwithstanding that Antarctic's average rainfall is less than four inches, comparable to the Sahara Desert, this polar desert contains 70% of the world's fresh water locked in its icy mantle.

To date, the military role of Antarctica has been limited. During War World II, Kriegsmarine supply ships were on occasion positioned on islands there to resupply German U-boats operating in the South Atlantic. The German deployment gave rise to persistent rumors of a secret Nazi base on the Antarctic continent.

These concerns prompted Great Britain to establish several small military bases in the Southern Ocean. It also prompted a controversial U.S. military operation, 1947's Operation Highjump, to discover and destroy the purported secret base. No such installation was found.

During the Cold War, the Pentagon was concerned that any Soviet military presence in Antarctica could be used to interdict U.S. Navy ships, especially aircraft carriers, crossing from the South Atlantic to the South Pacific via the Drake Passage, between the bottom of South America and the Antarctica Peninsula. The alternative route, across the Atlantic Ocean and around the Cape of Good Hope to the Indian Ocean and eventually the Pacific, would have taken more than twice as long.

Although the Antarctic ice shelves are thousands of feet thick, the annual sea ice is comparable to the Arctic ice pack and could be used to hide ballistic missile submarines. Since all of the Pentagon's potential targets are in the Northern Hemisphere, it would make little military sense to stage U.S. submarines in the Antarctic. None of the five countries that ring Antarctica -- Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand -- have nuclear weapons, much less nuclear armed submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and have little reason to launch them at each other -- Australia's record against the All-Blacks notwithstanding.

There are a handful of trans-Antarctic air routes. A Boeing 787 could easily fly over the South Pole. There simply isn't that much air traffic across the bottom of the Southern Hemisphere, however, and in the event an aircraft diversion over Antarctica was necessary, there are no airfields there that could accommodate large passenger jets.

Until about 180 million years ago, Antarctica was the heart of a giant continent called Gondwanaland. Africa, India, South America, Arabia, New Zealand and Australia all emerged from the breakup of this continent. Based on the mineral geology of the continents that previously surrounded Antarctica, the U.S. Geological Survey has estimated that the region has significant deposits of petroleum, natural gas, coal copper, iron, uranium, and other minerals.

Low-grade coal deposits have been found all over Antarctica. Significant deposits of iron ore have been identified in the Prince Charles Mountains, and oil and gas fields have been identified offshore in the Ross Sea. The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, however, bans any exploitation of mineral resources until 2048.

Given the harsh climate and terrain of Antarctica, the lack of any infrastructure and the distance to the nearest South American cities -- Ushuaia, Argentina, is some 600 miles from the Antarctic peninsula, the closest point to South America, while Punta Arenas, Chile, is more than 700 miles -- it's unlikely, even if the continent warms significantly, that any mineral exploitation is feasible.

The only two potential resources that can be exploited are marine fisheries and, ironically, fresh water. Millions of tons of marine wildlife have been harvested from the Antarctic. The bulk of that resource is in the form of krill, a two-inch crustacean that represents a biomass of around 400 million tons and is the basis of the Antarctic food chain. Krill is processed into pelleted food for farmed seafood, livestock and poultry, and is also a source of omega-3 fatty acid nutritional supplements.

The exploitation of marine fisheries in the Antarctic is regulated by various treaties. The harvest of krill, for example, is limited to just .3% of the available stock. The Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) regulates the exploitation of Antarctic marine resources. It has no independent enforcement capabilities and must rely on self-regulation by its members over their own fishing fleets. It has no authority over the fishing fleets of countries that are not a party to the Convention, nor does it have any jurisdiction of ships operating in international waters.

There have been several proposals in the past to harvest fresh water in Antarctica in the form of massive icebergs that break off the Antarctic ice shelf, then towing them to desert areas of the world. The "mining" of Antarctic ice on the continent, however, would likely run afoul of the ban in mineral exploitation.

Icebergs in international waters, however, would be fair game, but would likely require supersized, nuclear-powered tugs to move. Even moving icebergs to desert regions in the Southern Hemisphere would be a formidable task, much less to the Northern Hemisphere. Ice mining is an intriguing idea, but probably not very practical.

Unlike the polar region, where new maritime routes along the Northeast Passage and the Northwest Passage could save shippers thousands of dollars in cost per voyage, there are no such trans-Antarctic routes, since a continental mass sits at the South Pole. The amount of shipping that transects the Southern Ocean is minimal and of little economic consequence.

Simply put, unlike the Arctic region, which offers significant exploitable mineral resources; shorter transit routes between Europe, North America and Asia; and a significant military dimension on U.S. and European security, the Antarctic has little exploitable economic value at this time, has little bearing on trade routes, and its military role in the security of the U.S. and its allies, in both hemispheres, is minimal.

Conflicting Land Claims in the Antarctic Region

There are seven countries that have extended land claims in the Antarctic: Chile, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, France and Norway. The first four are Southern Hemisphere nations that are adjacent to the Antarctic continent. The latter three are European nations with a long history in the region and in Antarctic exploration.

Chile and Argentina's claims derive from two sources. The 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas between Portugal and Spain negotiated pursuant to Pope Alexander VI's Papal Bull Inter caetera, divided the lands to the west along a meridian 370 leagues (1,277 miles) west of the Cape Verde islands. All lands to the east of that line were granted exclusively to Portugal and all lands to the west to Castile (Spain).

In addition, Charles V granted the Spanish conquistador Pedro Sanchez de la Hoya the right to all the lands south of the Straits of Magellan. Both Chile and Argentina claim that, as successor states to Spain's New World empire, they inherited Spain's territorial rights in Antarctica. This is the same basis for Argentina's claims over the Falkland (Malvinas) Islands. Both countries have claimed a wedge of Antarctica immediately below their national frontiers in accordance with the Sector Principle.

The Sector Principle is a concept in international law whereby international boundaries are exerted in the Antarctic and Southern Ocean toward the South Pole following lines of longitude. The same principle is the basis of claims over sea areas in the Arctic toward the North Pole.

Great Britain officially claimed South Georgia, the South Orkneys, the South Shetlands, the South Sandwich Islands and Graham's Land in 1903, based on the fact that it had maintained a continuous presence in the Falkland Islands and the South Atlantic since 1833. A portion of the British claim was later transferred to Australia and New Zealand under the 1931 Statute of Westminster, and forms the basis of those country's claims. The British claim was subsequently revised to cover the region from 20° W to 80° W south of the 60th parallel to the South Pole.

France's Antarctic claims (Adele Land) derive from the exploration of the Antarctic coast in 1840 by French explorer Jules Drummond d'Urville. He named the region Adele after his wife.

Norway has claimed Peter I Island and the region between 44.38° E to 20° W. Named Queen Maud Land, after the Norwegian Queen Maud of Wales, the region was explored during the 1920s and 1930s. Norway's interest in the region was driven largely by the desire to retain access to its whaling stations in Antarctica. The Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen was a key figure in Antarctic exploration and led the first expedition to the South Pole in 1911.

In addition, the U.S., Russia (based on the earlier Soviet position), Brazil, Peru, Uruguay and Ecuador have all asserted their right to make claims on Antarctic territory, and have reserved their right to do so. As well, Marie Byrd Land, the region between 90° W and 150° W covering approximately 621,624 square miles, is unclaimed.

In 1939, a Germany expedition conducted an aerial reconnaissance of Antarctica and dropped thousands of darts emblazoned with the Nazi swastika over a 140,000-square-mile region. Termed New Swabia, the German government never made a formal claim to the region. Postwar German governments have not pursued the matter.

Based on current land claims, there are significant overlaps between the territories claimed by Chile, Argentina and Great Britain.

All of the countries that have made Antarctic claims operate research stations on the continent. Many have had an intermittent presence there since the mid-19th century. No one has had a continuous presence.

A total of 42 countries operate 70 permanent research stations in Antarctica, along with 30 summer field camps.

Political affairs in the Antarctic are governed by the Antarctic Treaty and related protocols. Collectively, these agreements are known as the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS). The ATS defines the Antarctic region as the area below 60° degrees south and demilitarized the region. It was the first arms-control agreement between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

Per the ATS, "Antarctica shall only be used for peaceful purposes". The establishment of military bases, fortifications, military exercises and weapons testing are specifically prohibited under the treaty. The ATS anticipates that Antarctica would be used primarily to host scientific research.

The ATS stipulates that no new claims can be filed and no revisions to historic claims can be made. Additionally, no activity carried out in Antarctica since the inauguration of the ATS in 1959 can be used to make further claims. Countries that specifically preserved their rights to make claims when joining the ATS, however, are not prevented from doing so in the future.

The ATS specifies that it has no bearing on any previously asserted claims to Antarctic territory, and that it cannot be used to challenge any existing claims or the boundaries of those claims. Effectively, the ATS froze the existing claims that had been made for as long as it is in force and deferred their resolution, if ever, to the future.

Antarctica is the only continent that does not have an indigenous population. Unlike the Arctic, there are no native peoples whose culture and rights need to be considered. There is an interesting twist on the issue, however.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the Chilean government offered Chilean women financial compensation to give birth at the "town" of Villa Las Estrellas at the Chilean Base, Presidente Eduardo Frei Montalva. The base is located on the Fildes Peninsula on King George Island in the South Shetlands, at 62° S, within the area claimed by Chile.

Argentina had a similar program at Base Esperanza, located at Hope Bay at the Tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, although it was much smaller in scope. That means if there was ever a plebiscite of native-born "Antarticans," they would be overwhelmingly Chilean. It's not clear whether the programs still function. A dozen children or so have been born in Antarctica.

U.S. Strategic Objectives in the Antarctic

What exactly are America's strategic objectives in the Antarctic? The expansion of the Coast Guard's icebreaking fleet would enhance U.S. access to the Antarctic coastline and the limited docking facilities there. Resupply of American research stations in Antarctica is mainly by ship for the coastal stations and by plane for the inland stations.

The Trump administration's memorandum calls for a "persistent U.S. presence" in the region. It does not specify a military presence, but that is how it has been interpreted. The U.S. already has a persistent (non-military) presence in the region. It operates three permanent year-round stations, including the largest research station (McMurdo Station), along with Palmer Station and Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, the southernmost. In addition, there are typically several dozen temporary field camps operated during the Antarctic summer. Two research vessels are also stationed there.

The U.S. has a very small, indirect military presence in Antarctica. Resupply of America's Antarctic stations often involves U.S. Air Force planes and Navy ships. Some military research relating to cold weather is also carried out in Antarctica. On occasion, military personnel may play a dual role as researchers in one of the Antarctic research stations. On the whole, however, the U.S. has refrained from operating anything that could be classified as a military base in the region or conducting military operations. There is little reason for doing so.

Any move to have a permanent military base in Antarctica would unravel the ATS, reignite long dormant claims, possibly trigger new ones, and be highly destabilizing. It would put the U.S. at odds with countries that already have made claims in the region, including such longstanding U.S. allies as Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, France and Norway.

It's hard to see how U.S. national security would be enhanced in any way by militarizing the Antarctic continent. An expanded U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker presence in the region could be beneficial, and it is possible, subject to the ATS members' consent, that there might be a role for the service to play in enforcing fisheries regulations in the area.

The Trump administration's new attention to the polar regions, as well as its emphasis on upgrading and expanding the Coast Guard's fleet of icebreakers, is both necessary and long overdue. Treating both the Arctic and the Antarctic in tandem, however, is a mistake. The two regions, notwithstanding their polar character, are very different, present different opportunities and risks, and represent very different geopolitical arenas.

The U.S. would benefit from an expanded presence in the Arctic region, including access to potential Arctic resources and the enhanced ability to conduct surface naval operations there, as well as to defend American interests from encroachment by other powers, especially China and Russia.

In the Antarctic, however, notwithstanding the benefit that a more robust Coast Guard icebreaking capacity could bring, Washington has little to gain from creating a military presence there. Indeed, American interests would be better served by maintaining and, where possible, strengthening the Antarctic Treaty System and collaborating with longstanding U.S. allies to preserve the status quo in Antarctica.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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