ABOARD COAST GUARD CUTTER ALEX HALEY (In the Chukchi Sea) • US commanders are watching warily. Russia's military buildup of the north and re-opening of Cold War bases underscores the country's increasingly assertive territorial stance and ambitions in the Arctic.
Of particular concern, US officials say, has been Russia's deployment of air defences in the far north. These include surface-to- air missiles whose main purpose is to counter aerial incursions that only the United States or Nato members could conceivably carry out in the Arctic.
The US and its Nato allies still have significant military forces - including missile defences and plenty of air power - in the Arctic, but the army is considering reducing its two brigades in Alaska.
The navy, which has no ice-capable warships, acknowledged in a report last year that it had little experience operating in the Arctic Ocean, notwithstanding decades of submarine operations during the Cold War. While it saw little need for new assets immediately, it predicted that could change.
Admiral William E. Gortney, head of the Pentagon's Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defence Command, said that Russia was increasing its capabilities after years of neglect, but this did not represent a meaningful threat, yet. "We're seeing activity in the Arctic, but it hasn't manifested in significant change at this point," he said in a recent interview.
Despite concerns over the military build-up, others said that some of Russia's moves were benign efforts to ensure the safety of ships on its Northern Sea Route, which could slash the time it takes to ship goods from Asia to Europe.
"Some of the things I see them doing - in terms of building up bases, telecommunications, search- and-rescue capabilities - are things I wish the United States was doing as well," said retired admiral Robert J. Papp Jr, a former commandant of the Coast Guard and who is now the US State Department's senior envoy on Arctic issues.
Since returning to the Kremlin for a third term in 2012, President Vladimir Putin has sought to restore Russia's pre-eminence in its northern reaches - economically and militarily.
In March, Russia conducted an unannounced military exercise that was one of the largest in the far north. It involved 45,000 troops, as well as dozens of ships and submarines, including those in its strategic nuclear arsenal, from the Northern Fleet, based in Murmansk. NEW YORK TIMES