Vice Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Charles Ray told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Security at a Tuesday hearing on national interests in the Arctic that “never has the Coast Guard leadership been more important in the Arctic than it is right now.”
“The rapidly-changing physical, operational, and geostrategic Arctic environment is driving increased activity in the region, and with it increased risk across the maritime sector,” Ray said. “While our mission in the high latitudes have evolved since 1867, our commitment to the region has not. We are leaning forward to address the safety and security to our Arctic residents and the mariners who make their living there, by home porting new offshore patrol cutters, fast response cutters, investing in Alaska real estate, infrastructure, and prioritizing our operations in the region.”
Ray said the Coast Guard is “deeply concerned by the rising strategic risk to our nation, as China and Russia compete for diplomatic, economic, and strategic advantage in the Arctic,” as both “have publicly declared the Arctic a strategic priority, and they continue to make significant investments to advance their own interests.”
“Russia continues to invest heavily in icebreakers and Arctic infrastructure, better positioning themselves to shape the security and geopolitical environment in the region. They are focusing on developing the national resources, expanding their icebreaker fleet, and imposing strict governance on the Northern Sea Route,” he added.
Russia’s August live-fire military exercise in the Bering Sea that extended into the United States Exclusive Economic Zone left Ray “especially troubled,” as “their irresponsible execution of this phase of their exercise created confusion and potentially unsafe interactions with American vessels legally fishing in our EEZ.”
USCG communicated its concerns to Russia that day “kind of through a red-phone-type scenario” and by sending Cutter Alex Haley to the area, but Ray said he was “disappointed that Russia chose to push the boundaries of responsible behavior in the Arctic, and in doing so put Americans at risk.”
“This was not our best day with regards to doing our role to look after American fishermen,” Ray later told senators. “…We’ve looked at the ways that we would communicate that with a fishing fleet. And we did not do that that day, you know. There’s ways they could receive it.” USCG is holding biweekly meetings with industry groups “to hopefully prevent this from every happening again… to understand how we can communicate that to the fleet so that the fleet knows in advance these things that could cause a challenge to their fisheries’ operations.”
Meanwhile, China continues to expand its Arctic influence by “leveraging economic investments in natural resources and infrastructure and expanding their icebreaking fleet.”
“This summer they launched the Xue Long 2, which operated in the high Arctic,” Ray added. “China has announced plans for two additional icebreakers, threatening to outpace our icebreaker building program.”
The vice commandant thanked Congress for its support as the Coast Guard contracted to design and build up to three polar security cutters, with the first beginning construction next year, and looks to “build the next generation of assets.”
“Our Coast Guard’s Operation Arctic Shield continues to be the primary operational means of protecting and executing our sovereign rights and responsibilities in the U.S. Arctic,” he said. “Our flexible expeditionary approach has never been more important. As Alaska cruises were canceled this summer due to the pandemic, we redirected resources to conduct additional patrols to monitor foreign research vessels and to enhance policing of our maritime border with Russia.”
The Coast Guard will conduct operations north of the Arctic Circle this winter for the first time since 1984. “I think this demonstrates the Coast Guard’s agility and the importance of the polar security cutters, the need for a larger icebreaker fleet to persistently safeguard our nation’s economic and national security interests in the high latitudes,” Ray said.
Regional partnerships are also critical, Ray stressed, with summer exercises conducted off Greenland with Denmark, France, and Canada.
Ray told lawmakers that a home port analysis for the polar security cutters is ongoing, with completion expected in August and a report by the end of the fiscal year.
“What we look at is the mission effectiveness, our ability to bring those to bear in a reasonable amount of time so that we can have a high probability of success when we do sail that cutter,” he said. “That’s part of the calculus. There’s other parts of the calculus with regards to the ability for the COCs assigned to the cutters, for their families to live and prosper in that vicinity.”
Ray stressed that while the Coast Guard has “had really good success with getting the funds to purchase new assets, where we have fallen behind is in the funds to maintain those assets and operate them.”
“So whereas the Department of Defense when they went to address their readiness kind of deficit a couple of years ago under this administration, they realized about a 12 percent increase in their O&S funding, and we’re about flatlined,” he told senators. “And so that’s a challenge. That’s one thing that we need.”
“The Department of Homeland Security is great place for the Coast Guard, and we think we prosper there. But when it comes to the readiness funds that are provided to the Coast Guard via the department, that’s where I think we could use some support.”