Coast Guard: US Must Work to Prevent a Fight in the Arctic

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The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Healy sits in the ice about 715 miles north of Barrow, Alaska, Sept. 30, 2018, during an Arctic research mission. (Coast Guard photo by Senior Chief Petty Officer NyxoLyno Cangemi)
The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Healy sits in the ice about 715 miles north of Barrow, Alaska, Sept. 30, 2018, during an Arctic research mission. (Coast Guard photo by Senior Chief Petty Officer NyxoLyno Cangemi)

The Arctic's changing climate and the growing Russian and Chinese presence in the region signal a greater need for the U.S. to assert its role as an Arctic nation, with the Coast Guard contributing significantly to keeping the area "conflict-free," according to a new strategic outlook published Monday by the service.

To ensure that the U.S. maintains its leadership in the Arctic, the Coast Guard must work with the U.S. Navy and collaborate with Arctic nation partners and alliances, notes the strategy, the U.S. Coast Guard's Vision for the Arctic Region.

The service also needs to build out its fleet of icebreakers, aircraft and communications systems to ensure the safety and security of the Arctic "even as our aspiring ... competitors maneuver for strategic advantage in the area," the report states.

The strategic outlook is the first new policy paper by the service since 2013. According to Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz, it "reaffirms the Coast Guard's commitment to American leadership in the region through partnership, unity of effort, and continuous innovation."

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"We understand the significant investment required to secure the Arctic. … We will remain vigilant in protecting our national interests in the polar regions," Schultz wrote in a news release accompanying the report.

The last time the Coast Guard published an Arctic operations strategy, China and Russia were launching renewed efforts to expand business and national security interests in the region, notable for its natural resources, including mineral and energy deposits, fishing and increasingly accessible sea lanes.

China, which has no territory in the Arctic, was given observer status on the Arctic Council in 2013. And in January 2018, it released a white paper spelling out its goals for the Arctic, referring to itself as a "near-Arctic state" and outlining an ambitious plan, a "Polar Silk Road," of scientific and commercial development and environmental protection in the region.

Russia, an Arctic nation with long-standing interests above the Arctic Circle, also is increasing its presence in the region, maintaining a fleet of at least 40 icebreakers and building or enhancing six northern military bases since 2013.

The increased interest in the area by these and other nations, combined with growing access to what was once one of the planet's most remote regions, made possible by receding sea ice -- according to the Coast Guard report, satellite imagery taken between 2006 and 2018 showed the 12 lowest Arctic ice extents on record -- sets the stage for increased competition.

"Actions by strategic competitors will challenge the long-standing norms that have made the Arctic an area of peace and low tension," the report notes. "The institutions contributing to a conflict-free Arctic will face new challenges requiring active and committed American leadership."

As the only armed service outside the Defense Department, and one that also possesses law enforcement authority, the Coast Guard has held a long-established advisory and operational role in the region, contributing to the Arctic Council, the Arctic Coast Guard Forum and the International Maritime Organization.

The service conducts yearly patrols and scientific missions in the Arctic with its one medium icebreaker, the Healy, and maintains a heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, for Antarctic icebreaking operations that also is capable of handling Arctic ice.

The service also supports search-and-rescue operations, conducts maritime and fisheries patrols, and provides security for U.S. citizens in the upper reaches of Alaska.

But the Coast Guard has long maintained that it needs more resources to address the growing challenges in the Arctic, including requiring one or more new icebreakers. The Healy was commissioned in 2000 and is largely outfitted for scientific research, while the Polar Star was built in 1976, with an intended service life of 30 years.

This year, Congress appropriated $655 million for the service to build the first of six possible icebreakers -- what the service is calling polar security cutters. A contract for the first is expected to be awarded this spring, according to Schultz.

The Coast Guard's strategy expresses the service's commitment to preserving peace in the Arctic but also recognizes that increased activity in the region will place new demands on the service for search and rescue, maritime patrols and fisheries enforcement.

The Coast Guard must, the strategy states, "be able to provide physical presence at will."

"The Coast Guard must be able to ... uphold sovereignty, carry out operational missions, promote freedom of navigation and fulfill other national and international obligations," the report states.

The Defense Department is expected to release an Arctic strategy this year.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @patriciakime.

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