The Arctic is full of mineral and oil resources, and international sea lanes are opening up there as global warming melts more of the ice.
Though ownership of the resources has been largely settled for years, rising international tensions between Russia and most of the other countries with Arctic claims could lead to a confrontation in the ice. The U.S. and four of its NATO allies have rights to Arctic shipping and minerals. Russia has probed the defenses or otherwise threatened each of them in recent months. (Iceland, Norway, Denmark, and Canada.)
While Russia has shown some cooperation in the Arctic, they've also staged massive war games there including "38,000 servicemen, more than 50 surface ships and submarines and 110 aircraft," according to the Canadian Broadcasting Company. NATO allies have staged sub-Arctic exercises since, but they were conducted further south and later in the Spring, meaning two factors combined to make the rigors of fighting in the frozen North less pronounced.
Russia is simply better prepared to fight there. Here's how.
Icebreakers are perhaps the biggest difference between the two nations. The Coast Guard has two heavy icebreakers, one of which has been sidelined for years due to a need for repairs and the other risking becoming stranded every time it pushes north. Meanwhile, Russia has over 40 icebreakers including the only nuclear icebreakers, and it is building the world's largest icebreaker in St. Petersburg.
Russia has better maps and more experience
Russia's maps of the Canadian Arctic are better than Canada's, according to The Globe and Mail. While the U.S. Navy rarely sails surface ships there and maintains limited submarine patrols, Russia spent the Cold War under the Arctic ice. Their military still has many of the maps and other documents on how the Soviets learned to operate, and Russia still conducts large exercises like the one described above.
The U.S. has held few exercises and had to cut a February exercise short. America is working on this, predominantly through an air role. This is partially because most Navy surface ships can't exercise in the cold waters.
Navy surface vessels need to be "ice-hardened"
The cold waters of the Arctic can wreak havoc on ships. Part of the reason the Titanic sunk was that its hull become too brittle at cold temperatures. For the Navy to protect its ships from a similar problem in the much colder Arctic, the ships would need to be "ice hardened," but that process costs as much as 33 percent of the price of buying a completely new temperate ship.
Russia has been expanding its fleet with an eye on the North Pole for years.
The U.S. has no deepwater ports in the Arctic
While the Coast Guard's limited Arctic capabilities allow it to conduct limited rescue missions on the ice, neither it nor the Navy can park any ships that far north due to a complete absence of American deepwater ports. This increases reaction times for any emergency or military operation.
Russia, meanwhile, has 16.
The Navy isn't even planning on being fully Arctic-capable until 2030
While the Navy understands its problems in the Arctic, budget constraints and other missions keep it from being able to pivot north. The long-term plan for the Arctic doesn't even call for full operational capability there until 2030, though they want more sailors trained and prepared by 2020.
There is good news, however. Russian military spending is coming under tight pressure as economic sanctions and oil prices continue to constrict the country's revenue. The Iran nuclear deal may increase this pressure as Iranian gas hits the market.
Hopefully, the Navy can increase its capabilities before its called on to fight over the North Pole.