The Coast Guard has worked to mitigate capability gaps in the Arctic — communications, infrastructure and icebreaking — but has neglected to “systematically assess how the actions it takes in that area will affect those capability gaps,” a Government Accountability Office official told Congress on Wednesday.
Marie Mak, director of contracting and national security acquisitions at the GAO, told the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation and Maritime Security that since the issue was noted by her agency the Coast Guard “has been developing an implementation plan, which will provide the foundation for assessments of those capability gaps.”
The country’s only heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, “is in dire condition” and on the last two missions “the crew had abnormally dealt with flooding and fires and creative ways to replace broken parts.”
The Polar Security Cutter Program to replace the old ailing ship “did not start off with a sound business case,” she said, but at GAO urging the Coast Guard “has signaled a commitment to gaining key knowledge before proceeding.”
“For example, the program assessed its key technologies and is planning to revise the schedule to be more realistic. This program is still early in its lifecycle,” Mak said. “A key milestone and test of the Coast Guard’s commitment to a sound business case will be the start of construction on the lead ship, which is slated to begin next year.”
Vice Commandant Adm. Charles Ray noted of the Polar Security Cutter that “now that we’ve gotten started, we’ve got to get it right.”
“We’ve got a plan to extend her service life,” he said of the aging Polar Star. “We’ll start work on that so when she comes home in our summertime, their wintertime down in the South Pole, we’ll spend extra time in the yard, extra funds, to extend her service life” to make it to the anticipated 2024 finish date of the new icebreaker.
Ray told lawmakers that “the need for increasing Coast Guard presence” in the Arctic is driven by increased human traffic in the area led by China and Russia, which has the world’s largest icebreaker fleet.
“This ability to visibly project force coupled with the renewed interest in their infrastructure in the Arctic region and increase in military activities are indicative of this strategic significance they place on the region,” he said. Meanwhile, China is “working from the same playbook” it uses in its global influence campaign from Africa to South America. China has taken delivery of its first domestically built icebreaker, Xuelong 2, and will soon surpass the United States in icebreaker capability.
“If left unchecked, China and Russia’s behavior risk fracturing the tenuous stability in rules-based governance in the Arctic… leadership begins with presence and that’s a challenge,” Ray said. “Our nation’s icebreaker fleet is aging and we do not have the capacity to cover where we think we should be at the present time.”
“To continue to protect, we need the other assets up there to improve communication, maritime domain awareness, navigation,” he stressed. “I was up on the Cutter Healy north of the North Slope, about 60 miles and for almost a month this past summer, they say that up there they were without any communications other than an HF radio. I mean, they were literally off the grid.”
“A strong United States Coast Guard empowers the nation to lead in the Arctic and shape the region as a safe cooperative and prosperous domain,” Ray added.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs Michael Murphy warned lawmakers that “we should expect the rapidly changing Arctic system to create greater incentives for Russia and the PRC to pursue Arctic agendas that clash with our interests.”
“Russia views the development of the Arctic region as critical to its economic future and Russia has legitimate Arctic interests. Within the Arctic Council, Russia has cooperated with the United States on issues including oil spill response and search-and-rescue. However, Russia’s restrictions on the freedom of navigation in the Northern Sea Route are inconsistent with international law,” he said, noting that the Arctic “provides Russian ships and submarines with access to a critical naval chokepoint — the GIUK [Greenland, Iceland, and the United Kingdom] gap that plays an outsized role in NATO’s defense and deterrence strategy.”
“Underwater transatlantic cables also run through this area. In short, NATO’s Northern flank must once again command the attention of the United States and its allies.”
China “plans to develop a Polar Silk Road” as it has declared itself a “near-Arctic state” and “signaled an intention to play a role in Arctic governance.”
“This is disconcerting given PRC behavior outside the Arctic where it often disregards international norms,” Murphy said. “The PRC is seeking greater influence in the Arctic by trying to grow its economic, diplomatic and scientific presence. Over the past several years, the PRC has secured mining licenses from mineral deposits throughout the region including uranium and other rare-earth minerals.”
Ray stressed that this changing dynamic underscores the Coast Guard’s capability needs. “Do we need to be there this winter? Probably not,” he said. “But if you look at the way it’s trending, we need to have the capability to operate up there all year round.”