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Coast Guard Navigating Arctic Security Challenges and Maritime Infrastructure Gaps

Deputy commandant tells lawmakers that USCG has "a sense of urgency to make sure we can deliver now and well into the future."

“Never before has Coast Guard leadership been more important to the Arctic” as the U.S. Coast Guard charts its path forward in the evolving region while maritime security faces challenges ranging from Russia and China to climate change.

A government watchdog, though, emphasized that current “gaps in infrastructure exacerbate the inherent challenges of maritime activity in the Arctic.”

“We’re witnessing firsthand how the impact of climate change is opening up new access to Arctic waters,” Coast Guard Deputy Commandant for Operations Vice Adm. Peter Gautier told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation on Wednesday at a hearing on the Coast Guard’s Arctic responsibilities. “This drives greater activity in the Arctic region and with it risk across the maritime sector.”

“And the Coast Guard is deeply concerned about the rising strategic risk to our nation as Russia and China compete with diplomatic, economic, and strategic advantage and influence in the Arctic,” he added. “While our missions in the high latitudes have evolved since we first started operating in Alaska and the Arctic in 1867, the Coast Guard’s commitment to the region has not.”

The deputy commandant said that the Coast Guard is “operating forward to address the safety and security of our Arctic residents and mariners who make their living there: homeporting new cutters, investing in infrastructure and capabilities, prioritizing our operations, supporting research, and strengthening our international partnerships,” while “changing conditions in the Arctic are driving an increased demand for Coast Guard services.”

Gautier emphasized that the service has “a sense of urgency to make sure we can deliver now and well into the future,” with a course of action supported by the 2022 U.S. National Strategy for the Arctic and the 2019 Coast Guard Strategic Outlook.

During Operation Arctic Shield this year, the Coast Guard “increased seasonal presence in the U.S. Arctic to provide Coast Guard services across 65 remote communities,” he said, responded to Typhoon Merbok in western Alaska in September, and sent the Cutter Healy to the North Pole for the second time to conduct important scientific research.

“Strategic competition across the Arctic is also driving demand for our leadership,” Gautier continued. “Last year, Coast Guard cutters intercepted four Chinese military vessels operating together in the U.S. exclusive economic zone off the Aleutians. And in September, we intercepted a combined Russian-Chinese task group of seven ships in a similar location. In both instances, the Coast Guard met presence with presence to ensure these ships operated in accordance with international law.”

“The Coast Guard’s strategic influence extends beyond the U.S. Arctic. We routinely conduct engagements with other Arctic nations and partners, and despite the absence of Russia in the Arctic Council and Arctic Coast Guard forum, we continue to work with likeminded nations to advance shared interests and safety environmental stewardship and responsible governance.”

Government Accountability Office Physical Infrastructure Team Director Andrew Von Ah noted to lawmakers that reports issued by the agency in 2020 and 2016 contained findings and recommendations related to addressing Arctic maritime infrastructure gaps.

“Climate change has led to record low levels of sea ice making Arctic waters navigable for longer periods of time leading to increased shipping activity,” he said. “Data show more transits of the Bering Strait in 2021 than ever before. Increased shipping of natural resources extracted from the Arctic, growing demand for tourism and destination cargoes, and greater interest in transarctic routes that can reduce travel times may continue to drive activity in the region.”

“These potential economic opportunities also bring safety and environmental risks, particularly given that the U.S. Arctic does not have the typical elements of a marine transportation system such as a deep draft port, comprehensive charting of waterways, and robust communications infrastructure. These gaps in infrastructure exacerbate the inherent challenges of maritime activity in the Arctic, vast distances, dangerous weather, and unpredictable ice conditions, which pose risks to mariners as well as the fragile Arctic ecosystem.”

In a 2020 report, GAO found that federal efforts in the Arctic “lacked a current strategy with goals and measures as well as interagency leadership.” The White House subsequently reactivated the Arctic Executive Steering Committee, which met for the first time in December 2021 and has since approved eight interagency initiatives; one of those was to advance safe and secure Arctic shipping as led by the Coast Guard.

Von Ah said the Arctic strategy released by the White House in October establishes a vision for Arctic capabilities but “it does not provide details on steps needed to achieve that vision or establish goals or measures for addressing gaps in Arctic maritime infrastructure as we had recommended.”

“For example, although the strategy calls for investments in telecommunications infrastructure and the development of ports, it does not specify how agencies should prioritize these investments nor does it identify measures to assess progress,” he said. In November, GAO was told that the process of developing an implementation plan for the strategy was underway, and that “for each major action of the strategy, the implementation plan should identify lead and supporting agencies and the plan should also identify investment priorities and resources to implement the actions in a way to measure progress.”

“By completing this plan and establishing goals and metrics, the federal government should have the tools to demonstrate the results of its efforts and decision makers can gauge progress in addressing these gaps,” Von Ah continued. “Our report in 2016 found that although the Coast Guard was taking some actions to implement its Arctic strategy, it did not have a systematic way to assess how its actions will help mitigate Arctic capability gaps.”

“We therefore recommended that the Coast Guard, as it develops an implementation plan for its strategy, also develop measures for assessing its progress. As of December 2022, the Coast Guard is continuing to update its implementation plan. The plan is expected to provide the foundation for assessing its efforts.”

Von Ah stressed that “better understanding its progress and addressing capability gaps will be important given the Coast Guard’s recent and planned investments in icebreaking capabilities.” The Coast Guard plans to invest an estimated $13.3 billion to acquire, operate, and maintain three heavy polar icebreakers.

“And by tracking its progress and addressing its icebreaking and other capability gaps, the Coast Guard will be better positioned to understand how to support these assets and what level of infrastructure and support investments are ultimately needed,” the GAO official continued. “Moreover, the Coast Guard has an important opportunity to coordinate the completion of its plan with the recently released National Strategy.”

“Coast Guard’s multi-mission role and its presence in the region gives it a central role to many federal efforts. Taking such action will position the Coast Guard to understand how to allocate its resources and prioritize activities to help achieve the national goals in the Arctic region.”

U.S. Arctic Research Commission Chairman Michael Sfraga told lawmakers that while over the past two decades most of Cutter Healy’s time at sea has been in support of research “two challenges loom just over the horizon.”

“First, in recent years, Healy has become less available to the scientific community because there has been an increase in missions and patrols directly related to priorities of the Department of Homeland Security,” he said. “Clearly, these missions are critical to our nation’s security and must continue. This inherent push-pull on the Healy’s time in the Arctic demonstrates the ever growing demands the Coast Guard has on it … this rebalancing of Healy’s mission profile provides few alternatives to U.S. researchers other than to rely on foreign icebreakers for support.”

“Second, Healy is now 23 years old with an original service life of 30 years,” Sfraga continued. “Healy will undergo a five-year service extension, but decommissioning is not far off. What vessel will replace the Healy? Will it be another Coast Guard vessel? Perhaps an Arctic security cutter for which there is no yet program of record?”

Sfraga recommended that “government planning to ensure continued and enduring access to the Arctic Ocean needs to begin now given the long lead time before delivery,” and “when the government procures new icebreakers, it should consider the broad mission sets and requirements of all applicable federal departments and agencies.”

“And when feasible, incorporate them into vessel designs in order to advance the full range of our nation’s Arctic interests,” he said, adding that “multibeam sonar systems should be standard hydrographic equipment installed on all U.S. icebreakers because the charts that they create reveal the depth and shape of the sea floor and provide information critical to safe navigation, economic development, weather prediction, coastal hazard assessment, coastal change analysis, fisheries habitat, and resource development.”

“And finally, continue to support research enabled by the Coast Guard in order to reap the international benefits of soft power diplomacy.”

Bridget Johnson
Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a terrorism analyst and security consultant with a specialty in online open-source extremist propaganda, incitement, recruitment, and training. She hosts and presents in Homeland Security Today law enforcement training webinars studying a range of counterterrorism topics including conspiracy theory extremism, complex coordinated attacks, critical infrastructure attacks, arson terrorism, drone and venue threats, antisemitism and white supremacists, anti-government extremism, and WMD threats. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and a private investigator. Bridget is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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