Is the US Losing the Fight for Arctic Dominance?

Left of Boom Episode 14: Is the US Losing the Fight for Arctic Dominance?
Left of Boom Episode 14: Is the US Losing the Fight for Arctic Dominance?

Things are heating up in the Arctic -- literally and figuratively. As ice melts and new sea lanes open, the region is the site of intense new military competition between the world’s largest power players: the U.S., Russia and China.

While the U.S. Coast Guard is working hard to protect American interests in the Arctic, including the wellbeing of those in remote regions of Alaska, it has to operate aging equipment on a tight budget. Rear Adm. Matthew Bell, commander of Coast Guard District 17, joins Left of Boom to discuss a rare winter deployment to the Arctic for the nation’s only heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, and how the Coast Guard defends U.S. sovereignty without inflaming international tensions.

Read more about the Russian exercise discovered by fishermen and reported to the Coast Guard here.

NOTE: This podcast was recorded before the Heavy Icebreaker Polar Star deployed in early December.

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Mentioned in this episode:

Polar Security Cutter

The Polar Star’s Deployment to the Arctic

The Coast Guard

The New Polar Strategy

The Only U.S. Heavy Icebreaker

Military Rivalry in the Arctic

The following is an edited transcript of this episode of Left of Boom:

Hope Hodge Seck 0:00

Welcome back to Left of Boom. I'm your host, Hope Hodge Seck. What do you think of when you picture the Arctic? Ice-locked seas, Polar bears and the Northern Lights -- perhaps the North Pole and its Santa Claus mythology? Well, for the U.S. military and several of its major competitors, the Arctic is the location of a new battle for strategic dominance, with impacts on national defense, economic activity, food security and safety of transit. Big changes over the last several decades, including warming trends that have seen 95% of the perennial ice at the Arctic Circle disappear within the last 35 years, mean the Arctic is more accessible than ever, and seeing significant increases in commercial and military activity. But even though the United States is one of eight geographically designated Arctic nations, it's poorly resourced for Arctic presence. Its one heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star has been in service since 1976, and is overdue for retirement. The first of a replacement class of icebreakers is years from delivery. Is the United States going to lose the new battle for Arctic dominance? To help us understand the stakes of this new fight for dominance, we're joined today by Rear Adm. Matthew Bell, commander of the 17th Coast Guard District, which covers Alaska, the Arctic Ocean and the Bering Sea. In addition to being our first Coast Guard guest, Adm. Bell is a career cutterman who has spent a significant portion of his career stationed in Alaska.

Adm. Bell, welcome to the show.

Adm. Matthew Bell 1:38

Alright, thanks. So good to be here.

Hope Hodge Seck 1:40

So to start out, I did want to ask about this new deployment that was just announced of the U.S.'s only operational heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, which usually heads to Antarctica and is now going to the Arctic. I understand that is a decision that was made due to COVID conditions and some other things. But I'm really curious what the Polar Star will be doing on this rare deployment to the Arctic and what opportunities that represents.

Adm. Matthew Bell 2:09

Right, so very fortunate for us to have the nation's I call it their sole heavy icebreaker deployed to the northern high latitudes this winter in support of we'll call it Coast Guard's Arctic strategy. I think beginning in mid-December, the Polar Star is gonna conduct 80-plus days or so deployment to the Arctic to expand our coverage to conduct Coast Guard missions, patrol the U.S.-Russia maritime boundary line, contribute to maritime domain awareness, probably strengthen international intergovernmental partnerships, and of course, protect U.S. presence and sovereignty. The deployment will obviously support three lines of effort from Coast Guard's Arctic strategic outlook and enhance capability to operate effectively and strengthen rules-based order, and then innovate and adapt to promote resilience and prosperity there in the Arctic. I think primarily, they'll be operating in the Bering and Chukchi Seas, looking for first-year ice with supporting logistics stops out of Dutch Harbor. And of course, this provides a great opportunity to refine and develop future generation of icebreaker operators.

Hope Hodge Seck 3:13

Hmm. So you talked about patrolling the U.S.-Russia maritime boundary line Why is that important? And is that something that Coast Guard would like to do more of?

Adm. Matthew Bell 3:23

So it's unique, I mean, from a Coast Guard perspective, we are one of the few countries that has territories above the Arctic Circle, right. And obviously, I'll call it stating the obvious, we have a shared border with Russia and Canada, in the Arctic. So from a national security perspective, national sovereignty perspective, it only behooves the United States to actively patrol that maritime boundary line that's literally between the two countries. We have a great, I'll call it working relationship with the Russian border guard, especially for law enforcement, fisheries efforts, that's along the maritime boundary line in the Bering Sea. Well, that same maritime boundary line is as appropriate and connected up through the Bering Straits and up into the Arctic in the Chukchi Sea. So we've been able to mutually patrol that line with us and the Russians, ensures that, that our interests are best represented, certainly by the Coast Guard.

Hope Hodge Seck 4:15

Do you ever see anything that concerns you, concerns the Coast Guard, from that area? Or is this mainly to prevent any kind of problems from happening?

Adm. Matthew Bell 4:25

No, we see concerns. I think every day I can go back to you know, my first patrol up here in Alaska waters in the mid '80s was dealing with foreign fishing vessels, Russian fishing vessels in and around the maritime boundary line. Those were some of our first initial boarding efforts, specifically about fisheries, law enforcement there in the Bering Sea that continues today. Just here, a couple of months back we had Russia doing an exercise in the Bering Sea and their ships and aircraft came into U.S. [exclusive economic zone] to conduct that exercise that was kind of new and developmental from the perspective -- Russia has always been up here. But to have them actually come on on our side ... to conduct parts of that exercise was new. The Russian border guard has had I'll call it a continual presence in and around Diomede since the early summer, those ships just recently departed. But that's been a continual presence by the Russian border guard that I've not seen up here, certainly in in this tour. We'll likely see increased activity up in the Chakchi Sea even as early as next summer as Russia looks to open up a fisheries, there, north of the Arctic Circle, which of course the ice has been kept most folks out in the past, we've not seen that level of fishing activity in past history.

Hope Hodge Seck 5:45

Hmm. And you raise some really good points there when it comes to the existing security threats and how the region is changing. I think a lot of people understand when you talk about Europe or the Pacific, or China, you know, what the threats are, we need to shore up militarily. But when it comes to the Arctic, can you sort of give you the 30-second elevator pitch of you know, what change is happening? You know, how the the shape of the the ice and climate is affecting that, and why the U.S. does need to maintain a presence there?

Adm. Matthew Bell 6:17

Really good question. I mean, I kind of just said it before. I mean, it's obvious we have land interest in the Arctic, we share that common border with Russia and Canada. The Arctic is strategically important, you know, a significant amount of the world's undiscovered gas and oil and mineral reserves, and more than half -- and just just think about that -- more than half of the U.S. fishing stocks come from the U.S.'s exclusive economic zone. Here off the coast of Alaska, melting ice is opening up those sea lanes that never existed before. And it's becoming more accessible, which means more exploration, more tourism or shipping. Possible conflicts, as I think, world powers look to compete for their stake in ... increased international activity up here directly impacts our sovereignty, competing demands for resources, increased shipping traffic, I think will bring those risks closer to our shores, and closer to potential conflict and environmental catastrophes. That's why it's important for us to ensure safe, secure and environmentally responsive maritime activities in the Arctic, looking to protect species potential access to food sources, are linked to longterm conservation efforts that require enforcement and oversight for which the Coast Guard has adapted over the years. Again, the nation's consistent maritime presence in the region is the Coast Guard, we continue to provide increasing valuable partnerships, maritime domain awareness, search-and-rescue capabilities, icebreaking, of course, fisheries, enforcement and vessel and facility safety examination. It's interesting, the area is huge. It's incredibly remote. And it's difficult to provide that challenge. Other nations like China and Russia, specifically, they've invested -- huge -- in presence and are pushing the boundaries up there, we need to be able to respond accordingly. And I think in order for the United States to protect its sovereign interests in the Arctic, and possibly shape that future governance, it needs the capability to project presence 365 days a year, I mean, our Arctic strategy talks about presence equals influence.

Hope Hodge Seck 8:15

So I've read the documents, there are seven other Arctic nations if you're going geographically, in addition to the U.S. And then there's this wild card, China, which calls itself a near-Arctic nation, which is a very confusing term, based on its own geography. What is the level of Chinese activity in the region? And should we be concerned about what they're doing and what they're trying to do?

Adm. Matthew Bell 8:39

So I think we should we should all be concerned about that. I mean, we could talk about near peer competitiveness, you know, Arctic nations are what they are, there's eight of them. That's where it ends. Now, there are other folks that have interests. And there's other folks that have desires and pursuits in the region, they certainly can look to do that. I find it interesting that when we start talking about Chinese influence, they have an icebreaker. The Xue Long 2, is up here this summer, and just recently transited through the Bering Straits and through the Bering Sea heading back to China. And I didn't have a ship that could steam alongside them, or steam in the Arctic or into the ice alongside Xue Long. So does that put us at a disadvantage, perhaps. And we're kind of, going back to the Polar Star coming up here this winter, we have the cutter Healy that operates up there routinely. So those will kind of hold them in check, if you will. But if they want to continue their pursuits to generate additional access to the Arctic, that's only going to require the U.S. to be able to respond it with with appropriate resources in the region.

Hope Hodge Seck 9:43

You talk about resources and you talked about the seven other Arctic nations. How does U.S. investment in things like icebreakers and Arctic security, compare to, let's talk about, I guess, the major Arctic nations like Russia and Canada?

Adm. Matthew Bell 9:58

So in short, again, it's, from Matt Bell's perspective here in Alaska, we're lagging behind. But I think current investments will be closing the gap over the next few years. Recent contract awards for the Polar Security Cutter, the offshore patrol cutters. Those are all going to be great, great progress. I think fielding upgrading upgrades for the C-130Js, out to Kodiak, patrols to Alaska District 17 and the Arctic by our national security cutters are huge steps to influencing that proverbial battlespace. Russia and China exemplify that competition. Both have declared the Arctic a strategic priority. We've known that both have made significant investments in new and refurbished capabilities. And I think both are exerting direct and indirect influence across the region. Relationship-wise, I think we have the advantage of a history of providing the nation's most consistent maritime presence since the mid-1800s. We have enduring relationships with those that work, travel and live up here in the last frontier. I think speaking toward Canada, in the area of Arctic research, I can report that you know, one of our two icebreakers, the Healy plans to make a return deployment to the Arctic in summer of 2021 to do research and engage in other missions in and around the Arctic Ocean. I can also highlight that the Canadian icebreaker, the Sir Wilfrid Laurier, has conducted research in the U.S. Arctic waters annually for years now, as the Coast Guard continues in its program to recapitalize the nation's icebreaker fleet. With the commissioning of the Polar Security Cutters over the next decade, I believe the opportunity to enhance those international cooperations in the Arctic research will grow, along with many other critical facets of U.S. national security and defense in the region. And to that last point, the U.S. Coast Guard is very specifically focused on Arctic research, and has been with the Healy for years now. I think as our Polar Security Cutters come online, I think you're gonna see us expand that mission set, still doing some research, but then accommodate the other Coast Guard missions in and around the Arctic. And we'll see that this coming winter with Polar Star coming up. Their mission will be Coast Guard mission sets, and not necessarily focused on Coast Guard, Arctic research.

Hope Hodge Seck 12:14

If you had every platform, every piece of gear on your wish list in terms of carrying this out, what would that look like? What would the Coast Guard be able to do in the Arctic on kind of a regular basis?

Adm. Matthew Bell 12:27

Wow. So that's an interesting question. If I had it all, I guess I would sleep really, really, really well and not have a lot to do. Because much of the work that I do here as the district commander is talking about, you know, competing priorities and competing interests throughout the Coast Guard. So how best can we articulate those needs, those demands and mitigate that risk here in the state, I think if we were granted all of those resources, we would have, that would put us a permanent presence in the Arctic, which would directly imply influence that would allow us to further the U.S., I'll call it influence in the region. And that's whether that's, you know, assisting with our Canadian partners, or whether that's building that relationship with Russia, or continuing to influence the science-based or research-based decisions for global order or for that access that folks like China want to gain in the region. And I also think, too, that it would provide a level of security or calm amongst all the inhabitants that live here, here in Alaska, because they would see the same resources, they would see the same services, they would see the same support requirements that we see or experience in the Lower 48.

Hope Hodge Seck 13:37

So on the other side of the coin, now there's one heavy icebreaker. And it does seem to get into trouble, a fair amount just because it's old. And there's a sort of downpayment on the first in its class, new polar icebreaker or Polar Security Cutter. And it's assumed that more are coming. I think at least three are needed, if I understand correctly. So it seems like we're in a tight spot right now. What kind of scenarios in the Arctic keep you up at night? I mean, you talked about not being able to accompany the Chinese icebreaker. So what scenarios keep you up at night? And how does the Coast Guard work to ensure that worst-case scenario doesn't happen?

Adm. Matthew Bell 14:21

Yeah. So, you know, I would say there's not a lot that keeps me up at night. There's lots of things that I'm concerned about or worried about. But at the end of the day, I sleep pretty well. I've got a great staff, we've got folks that are really, really focused on what the priority mission sets are up here and especially working to mitigate that risk. I think we face all sorts of threats in the Arctic. I mean, it's the tyranny of distance, the lack of infrastructure, the dynamic and extreme weather events. I mean, all of those make it particularly challenging to respond to distress or pollution cases, protect our fisheries. I think our national sovereignty is tested daily by foreign nations. You know, melting ice caps, open sea lanes, the potential for conflict will challenge our country's capacity. And all of those challenges will have an effect on our native subsistence ... influencing our own nation's food sovereignty. I think from a personal perspective here as the district commander, our greatest threat would be the inability to generate a response, or an inadequate response to a catastrophic event event, growing maritime activity, or the presence of peer competitors. I think our ability to influence what happens in the Arctic is predicated on our ability to defend our interests here, as the nation's consistent maritime presence in the region, the Coast Guard uses our available resources to continue providing increased value partnerships, maritime domain awareness, search and rescue icebreaking, fisheries enforcement, you know, and so forth. We go through vessel security exams -- I think the short answer is we can always use more resources, right, especially in Alaska, to combat that tyranny of distance and lack of infrastructure. We talked about it we talked about all the time you already mentioned, we have two icebreakers, they're 20 and 50 years old respectively, they deploy worldwide, and not just here in the Arctic. The Polar Security Cutter acquisitions is going to be a game-changer for us, it's going to influence that. I think, geographically, you can just look here in the state, we have two Coast Guard Air Stations, routinely launching our missions that are equivalent from flying from Boston to Orlando. We have a relatively small handful of cutters that patrol an area I think almost the size of the United States. And I don't want to try to overstate that. But when we talk about that the vast distances and the challenges we have up here, it can't go understated. We deploy those assets, I think strategically, to provide the greatest effectiveness, given maritime traffic, the fishing seasons, the weather phenomenon. We just can't be everywhere at once. So let me talk about a partnership just as an example. So we have a very good relationship with NORAD, NORTHCOM and the Department of Defense, they help us paint the picture of activity in the Arctic, so that we can help make a sense of what's going on strategically to employ those assets and those resources. And I think in order to make the best use of those assets we have, we strategically placed them where the greatest need is, whether that's standing up a forward operating base for our helicopters to use up based on fishing activity, or deploying a cutter to patrol that maritime boundary line that we discussed a little earlier. And we also use our partnerships and our relationships with our Russian and the Canadian neighbors, to expedite rescues and pollution and prevention activities along along our shared borders. We monitor vessel traffic and and we rely on mariners to report concerns in areas where there's gaps in that coverage, which came out of the Ocean Shield exercise that Russia was conducting this summer. But those fishermen that were operating out there on the extreme western edge of the Bering Sea contacted us, basically, it's a team effort, and we're making the best use of the resources we have given those definite constraints that we have for distance and lack of resources.

Hope Hodge Seck 18:08

So some fishermen and mariners contacted you all and said, we see some Russian ships operating here, and that was news. And that alerted you to be able to go out and respond to that?

Adm. Matthew Bell 18:19

It did and ironically, so when they first called us, our nearest ship was in Dutch Harbor, it's a three to five-day steam for our cutter to get up there. You know, and kind of going back to your previous question, if we had all the resources, there would already be a ship or there already be an asset in the vicinity of the maritime boundary line or up off of Diomede. But with that, at that particular time, there was one asset in the Bering Sea and a three day steam for them. Actually, it took them five days because the weather kind of picked up, because that's usually what the weather does here. When you need to do a case it gets a little rough and impacts those operators.

Hope Hodge Seck 18:55

Of course. Well, I want to ask a couple of follow ups based on you know what, you just shared -- a lot of really good stuff, but you used the term a while back food security or food sovereignty. And I was hoping you could unpack what you mean by that. Obviously, we're talking about shipping lanes, and I assume that's a part of it.

Adm. Matthew Bell 19:16

So macroscopically, that there's another document out called IUU. So So illegal, unreported, unregulated fishing. I mean, that's a global approach to managing, I'll call it, you know, ocean protein stocks across the world. Well, if you look at that from a microcosm here in the state, you know, we've got some of the world's best-managed fisheries around the state, whether that's the salmon runs in and out of Bristol Bay, whether that's the federally managed halibut fisheries that we have across the state to the point where our native communities rely on subsistence hunts, whether that's off of Utqiagvik and to the north, or to those sockeye runs there in Bristol Bay or even here to the southeast for the many fisheries that they can operate in. All of those dictate how well or how prosperous a community can be, or how well and prosperous a state can be. And so it requires good management, it requires good governance, it requires good enforcement, it requires good follow-up to ensure all those aspects of that food chain is secure, or is managed effectively, to where one entity doesn't end up, you know, being able to reap all the benefits at the expense of others. So when you look at some small communities, up in the northern part of the state, you know, they rely on a very short window to get their hunt done, or their fishing done, that basically fulfills that the whole community's food locker or freezer, if you will, for the coming months. So if you're going to impact that very, very short window, their food security, their food sovereignty, is in jeopardy that that requires the Coast Guard, requires those local communities to protect that resource, whether you want to call it a natural resource, or a village resource, or a native resource, all of those require Coast Guard actions to be able to support.

Hope Hodge Seck 21:05

There is so much that goes into Arctic operations as as you go down the list, and it affects so many pieces of American life. Does it still make sense for the Coast Guard to own this significant military mission? I know in some ways, it's a really good fit enforcement and working with fisheries and working on the coast. And on the other side, I know that the Defense Department gets a lot more funding, a lot more resources, and they also get a lot more attention with military operations. So yeah, I know, it's a controversial question. But, you know, why does it make sense for the Coast Guard to continue to own Arctic security?

Adm. Matthew Bell 21:47

So I would approach that question from our statutory authorities. And we can talk about Title 10 or Title 14, and we kind of migrate from one to the other depending on what the threats and the circumstances are. From that aspect, I think the Coast Guard is uniquely positioned based on those authorities to work through, regulate through and operate in and around the Arctic. It's a whole-of-goverment issue, I would say that upfront. It's a whole of government issue, from whether it's Department of State or Department of Defense, Department of the Interior. All of my state partners here in the state, all of the partnerships or relationships we have with the 230-plus native tribes here in Alaska, requires all of us to do that. So I want to be careful when you say, Oh, the Coast Guard should be in charge of that. I'm not sure that the Coast Guard even with you know, 50,000 strong could be responsible or own all of that mission set, because it is so complex, because it is so dynamic. From an operations perspective, from a policy perspective, from a regulatory perspective, I think the Coast Guard is well positioned to do that. What I certainly like to have DoD's budget, absolutely. But at the same time, I would never want to give up our own Coast Guard statutory authorities that we have under the Department of Homeland Security, because our law enforcement additions, our search and rescue missions, our prevention missions are much more enabling for the Coast Guard to interact with those coastal communities than they would be from a Department of Defense perspective. And that relationship that we have with our Department of Defense counterparts is critical, because they rely on the information that we're gathering the information that we look at, they use it to inform their battle orders at the same time, the information that they garner, that they gain are able to influence our own operations and our own enforcement actions here across the state.

Hope Hodge Seck 23:34

Apart from icebreaker operations, are there any ways that Coast Guard is training or operating differently with regard to the Arctic today than it has in previous years, even 10 years ago?

Adm. Matthew Bell 23:46

The short answer is yes. Part of that is just because of the accessibility that we have to the Arctic. You know, historically, Healy has been up here for a number of years, and does research. I'll call it in the middle of the summer, because it provides easy access. I mean, the ice is still there. But it's thinner, there's greater leads, so they can provide greater access for them to do that science mission and the Coast Guard cooperates with the National Science Foundation to do that Arctic research. And that's been primarily the focus behind Healy. I think what we'll see with Polar Star this coming winter, plus the advent of what we're going to see while the Polar Security Cutter is coming online is a greater adaptation, a greater work toward all of the Coast Guard mission sets up in and around the Arctic. The Arctic is accessible, technically 365. We can do that with ships that are capable of breaking the ice but we can get there via aircraft we can get there via personnel we can get there via innovation. So there's lots of different ways to access and influence the Arctic, which we're already doing. We have an annual surge of operations during the summer, which we call Arctic Shield that provides a mobile expeditionary capacity that we get in some of those communities that we talked about, search and rescue. We talked about engagement. We talked about training that we can provide to the to the local elements. There, we even look at our own coastal and facilities inspections to ensure that old fuel tanks or new fuel tanks along the coastlines are intact and are up to current standards, to ensure that we're not polluting the environment or having a negative impact on the environment. All of that requires year-round effort to influence those operations in and around the Arctic. If we just focused on icebreaking. Well, icebreaking is is a capability. Okay, so if we can break the ice, all that does now is now enable those mission sets to search and rescue, to law enforcement, to prevention efforts that would provide, you know, our larger influence from a Coast Guard perspective.

Hope Hodge Seck 25:45

And nobody likes to speculate too broadly, when you're talking about the future, anything could happen. But what do you see 10 or 15 years down the road in terms of what you predict might be happening in the Arctic then, and what might change in terms of that region's impact on our national security on global affairs? You know, what are what do the trends say to you?

Adm. Matthew Bell 26:07

The Arctic, I think it's strategically important, right? And I think the Coast Guard is or should be well-positioned to provide mobile, and expeditionary mission service to the greater Alaska, Arctic areas and those connecting waters. I see the demand signal for normal statutory services only increasing. And that's going to be in response to the growing activity, whether that's U.S. activity or that from other state actors or industry itself. I think as long as there is a geostrategic competition with near-peer competitors, and continued efforts to gain influence over the resources, the infrastructure, the sea route, I think the Coast Guard is going to play an important and I think unique national role there. The Arctic's becoming more accessible. And oh, by means whether that's going to influence exploration, tourism, shipping, conflict, I mean, all of that's not going to change our thinking. Our efforts to help with that are only going to continue to be in more demand, I think the more activity you're going to see, the more demand there's going to be for the Coast Guard, our, call it, consistent and constant maritime presence ... we have incredible valuable partnerships, we have some incredibly valuable maritime domain awareness, obviously icebreaking, fisheries enforcement, vessel safety, exam, search and rescue, all of that's going to continue to, I think, go up, the more activity you see, the more demands are going to be placed on the Coast Guard and the rest of the I'll call it state and federal resources in around the area. I don't think that's going to change anytime soon, only going to get more. And as you look at the volume of industry that's driving to the west, from Russia, coming from Yamal and through, whether that's the increased prospects of traffic, transpolar routes, or through the Northwest Passage, all of that is going to create greater demands for all of the Arctic coast guards. But for us, focused on the U.S. Coast Guard in the Arctic.

Hope Hodge Seck 28:05

it strikes me as well that the Arctic is one of those rare regions where you've got all three major global power players operating in really close proximity, potentially. And it sounds like that doesn't happen all the time at this point. But in terms of keeping conflict at bay, when when you've got Russia, China and the U.S. all operating in the same region. How do you think about that and work to keep everyone playing nicely together?

Adm. Matthew Bell 28:37

So the easy answer is effective communications. I mean, we all have to work on communications. I mean, I work on the communications internally here with the staff. I work on it with, internal to our state and federal partners, and we've worked at it internationally. The cooperative effort that we have with Canada is tremendous. We all stand technically on the same watch floor at NORAD, and NORTHCOM. So we have a mutual interest there. As I mentioned before, my Russian border guard counterpart, I can talk to them, connected-wise from command center to command center, we do that almost daily. And that's to help influence the law enforcement actions in and around the maritime boundary line. We have routine communications, we have combined ops planning, we're working on a five-year plan for a combined ops manual. So those exercises, those communications, those cooperative efforts occur regularly. I would say I'm unique in that regard from a U.S. perspective, especially when it comes to trying to talk to Russia. It's very long and complicated to talk D.C. to Moscow, and it gets very, there's lots of players involved in that conversation. But if there's something going on in the Bering Sea, I can reach out to my counterpart and have a reply back and answer back -- I'll call them in a matter of minutes. Hopefully, the communications is working back and forth, but but that communications only can help influence that. Expanding that to a bigger, larger question. The activities that you see in the Barents Sea are the activities that you see off af Greenland. That's the same Russia that operates here in the Bering Straits. And folks tend to not recognize that on occasion, because of the, I'll call it the very antagonistic behaviors that we see across all of the players in and around the North Atlantic. We don't see that as often here in the Bering Straits, because of the lack of activity. But it's just also been, there's only two nations technically that own that border between Russia and the United States. So that requires some cooperative communications between the two players here literally across the street. We do that routinely. We cooperate with Canada regularly. As we work up across the top of Alaska and over into the waters leading up to Northwest Passage, we have some great cooperative efforts to establish the Bering Straits PARS, the polar access route study. So a mutually agreed upon IMO-approved traffic through the Bering Straits. Russia was a player in that, the U.S. was a player with that, Canada was a player with that. We're working now to establish an Arctic polar access route study. So a proposed traffic, for how the traffic industry should be moving across the top of Alaska and into Canada. And those are ongoing conversations that we have, not only internationally, but also across the board through the IMO.

Hope Hodge Seck 31:22

And you talked about a combined operations plan that's under development, can you describe that in a little bit more detail, what it will be how it will work.

Adm. Matthew Bell 31:30

So we have a good working relationship with the Russian border guard, I mean, we both patrol mutually the same water, it's the same group of fish that swim around the Bering Sea, we have access to them on our side of the line, they have access to their side of the line, we want to try to approach that with a rules-based order that everybody's following the same rules. And so we try to articulate what those guidelines should look like, what the boarding parameters would be, what the question should look like, what the actions of the law enforcement vessels should be in the presence of each other. We practice communications when we're in vicinity of one another, we try to establish some routine protocols. So when we do have an issue, that we can call back directly and walk through our pre-scripted communications plan, so it affects a cleaner outcome. And it gets us through some decision points much faster. And we routinely try to work those and practice those and train through those. So that combined operating manual kind of spells those out, and it's better to have, practice them, to have drilled them, to work on them in advance than wait until something comes up or waiting for a conflict to come up and then try to make that first phone call. So that operations manual, we try to update it periodically to give us a better, I'll call a better starting point when things come up.

Hope Hodge Seck 32:41

Hmm, I think that's a great note to end on. Thank you so much for being so generous with your time. I've learned a lot and really appreciate this conversation.

Adm. Matthew Bell 32:51

Yeah, thanks, Hope it's really great. As I say, anytime I can talk about Alaska or the Coast Guard, the Arctic I'm all in ... By all means reach out, despite the time/distance, we can certainly make the time to answer some more questions. So thanks again, Hope.

Hope Hodge Seck 33:14

Thank you for joining us here once again at Left of Boom. The incident involving the fishing vessels that alerted the Coast Guard to Russian ships took place in late August. There's a link to a story about the incident in the show notes with some more information. If this is your first episode, welcome, and I invite you to take a look back through our archives. Some of our most popular topics today have been military myths and culture; efforts to develop a pilotless Army Black Hawk, and the badass woman who inspired a character on Top Gun. I'd love to hear your ideas for future episodes as well. Send them to me at, and if I use anyone's ideas, I'll be sure to credit you in a future show. In the meantime, remember that you can get all the information you need about the military community every single day at

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