Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz emphasized that “presence equals influence” while warning of Russia and China’s growing Arctic operations and hunger for more control in the region expanding due to melting ice.
“It’s a complicated region, and it really warrants whole-of-government solutions, as we all know, as well as partnerships,” Schultz said Tuesday at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Polar Institute symposium on the Arctic and national security. “And those are across international borders.”
“Our homeland today is no longer a sanctuary, as yesteryear. The threats are no longer regionally focused,” he added, stressing that hostile nation-states and other adversaries who wish to do us harm “all pose legitimate threats to our security.”
The Coast Guard Strategic Plan covering 2018-22 focuses on three core priorities: “Maximize readiness today and tomorrow, address the nation’s complex maritime challenges, and deliver mission excellence anytime, anywhere.”
Schultz said the plan, with its concentrations on developing the workforce, modernizing assets and mission platforms, and strengthening maritime governance, is “firmly grounded in the understanding that our global operating environment is complex, and the change around us is really moving at an accelerated pace unlike ever before.”
“It’s also driving our update to an Arctic strategy,” he noted, adding he expects that to be rolled out “early 2019 — team’s working on that right now.”
“The Arctic’s becoming increasingly accessible” due to melting ice, with energy production and fisheries competition intensifying along with more cargo and cruise ship traffic, the commandant said. “The Coast Guard’s responding to an increasing mission demand in the Arctic.”
Schultz visited Arctic operations in the summer, but said he’s returning in January or February to gain better “knowledge of the harshness” and get his comprehensive understanding of the challenges “a little bit fine-tuned here.”
“Our sustained presence in the region is absolutely an imperative to ensuring our national security … to asserting our national sovereignty.”
Russia and China are competing over the same turf, with the former rebuilding dilapidated bases and shoring up military capabilities in the region including its icebreaker fleet, he noted. China’s interest in the region coupled with climate change “is really changing everything,” the commandant stressed.
“China is committed to a future in the Arctic. Their influence is only going to expand. Watching China’s behavior across the globe, it’s hard to not see its activities and interests in the Arctic as anything but an overt claim to power, pure and simple,” Schultz said. “Facing the surge in global strategic competition with increasingly sophisticated resource adversaries, the Coast Guard finds itself weighing the words of Secretary Mattis … ‘cooperating where we can, and vigorously competing where we must, to promote American values and influence around the globe.’ For the Coast Guard, the Arctic is certainly on the ‘vigorously competing’ end of the continuum.”
Schultz underscored that “without presence, diplomacy and cooperation are absent, or empty.”
“Without presence, our regulatory roles, our governance, and international agreements become hollow policies,” he said. “In the Arctic region, presence equals influence. The truth is, if we aren’t present, if we don’t know the environment today, our competitors will.”
While the Coast Guard focuses “on creating a peaceful and collaborative environment in the Arctic, we’re also responding to the impacts of increased competition in this strategically important region.”
“Our continued presence will enable us to reinforce positive opportunities and mitigate negative consequences today and tomorrow,” Schultz said.
Former Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft, who retired in May, said at the symposium that “the one thing we need to do is apply relentless pressure to the Arctic that can survive one political administration to the next.”
“We need to deal with the consequences of a changing climate and the patterns that are developing. How do we think long-term for a change in climate? We have a number of areas that are vulnerable to a rising sea level, and what investments are being made now to address these long-term consequences?” he asked.
Zukunft added that “a big challenge right now is, how do you model ice-melt in Antarctica?”
“There are some areas that are accumulating snow pack and others that are losing it. We have a bit of a data void right now in terms of what the model is, what is the impact, and how soon that might be,” he said.
Michael Pawlowski, chief of staff to Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), declared it “impossible for the United States to project sea power in the Arctic with a polar icebreaking fleet composed of only one operational heavy icebreaker” – the 40-year-old Polar Star. “A fleet of polar security cutters would provide assured year-round access in the polar regions,” he said. “They will allow us to continue to engage with our fellow Arctic nations, our allies, and our strategic competitors.”
Pawlowski added, “All of us, working together, can help Americans understand that it is not just about the Arctic, but it is about our Arctic – the American Arctic – and whether the United States wants to be a leader in the region or cede that position to other Arctic and, more importantly, non-Arctic nations.”