With increased strategic competition between multiple actors in the Arctic, the Coast Guard has to grow its leadership and presence in the region and strengthen interoperability with the Defense Department, according to the new Arctic Strategic Outlook released this week.
“The Arctic Strategic Outlook reaffirms the Coast Guard’s commitment to American leadership in the region through partnership, unity of effort, and continuous innovation,” said Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz. “We understand the significant investment required to secure the Arctic, and we appreciate and embrace the trust the American people have placed in the U.S. Coast Guard. We will remain vigilant in protecting our national interests in the polar regions.”
Schultz adds in the outlook that “competition need not lead to conflict” as “the Coast Guard thrives in situations that require nuanced responses to complex issues.”
“Our persistent presence – on the water, in communities, or in international forums – absolutely equals influence,” he added.
The Coast Guard mission in the Arctic focuses on three lines of effort: enhance capability to operate effectively in a dynamic Arctic, strengthen the rules-based order, and innovate and adapt to promote resilience and prosperity.
“Increased accessibility and activity will create more demand for Coast Guard services in the Arctic maritime domain. While long-term trends point to a more consistently navigable and competitive region, other environmental and economic factors make it difficult to predict the scope and pace of change. Near-term variability in the physical environment exposes mariners and communities to unpredictable levels of risk,” states the outlook. “As the region attracts increasing attention from both partner and competitor states, America’s economic and security interests will become even more closely tied to the Arctic. Each development is significant on its own, but in combination, these trends create a new risk landscape for the Nation and the Coast Guard.”
Singled out as two key challenges: China and Russia.
China is a non-Arctic state, but “continues to expand its influence and seeks to gain strategic advantage around the world.”
“In recent years, China has declared itself a ‘near-Arctic’ state and is pursuing a Polar Silk Road plan with a range of Arctic infrastructure activities to include ports, undersea cables, and airports,” the report continues. “These plans are supported by the construction of a second multi-mission ice-capable ship, the announcement that it will construct a nuclear-powered icebreaker, annual deployments of research vessels into the Arctic, and investments in vulnerable communities. China’s attempts to expand its influence could impede U.S. access and freedom of navigation in the Arctic as similar attempts have been made to impede U.S. access to the South China Sea.”
Russia, meanwhile, “dominates the Arctic geography and possesses the corresponding dominant surface capability and infrastructure” and is expanding what is already the world’s largest icebreaker fleet.
“They are also rebuilding and expanding other Arctic capabilities and infrastructure, including air bases, ports, weapons systems, troop deployments, domain awareness tools, search and rescue resources, commercial hubs, and floating nuclear power plants. As a strategic competitor, the United States must take heed of Russia’s actions and potential dual-use of its capabilities,” says the report. “The U.S. Coast Guard and the Russian Border Guard have a history of practical cooperation and should endeavor to maintain that collaboration within a framework of mutual respect for established international rules and national sovereignty.”
The outlook stresses that “while the United States is committed to engagement across a wide array of Arctic organizations, it is the only Arctic State that has not made similar investments in ice-capable surface maritime security assets.”
“This limits the ability of the Coast Guard, and the Nation, to credibly uphold sovereignty or respond to contingencies in the Arctic. It also diminishes America’s position as the partner of choice for allies and partner nations.”
Climate change is also opening up new sea routes and access to a potential “wealth of undiscovered resources, which will become more accessible as environmental conditions change.”
“As sea water temperatures rise, fish stocks are expected to continue to shift northward, creating potential new enforcement challenges to the current international prohibition on commercial fishing in the central Arctic Ocean,” the report adds. “…Local leaders have also reported that the influx of illegal drugs into Arctic villages is overwhelming the limited healthcare and social services infrastructure in many communities. As the Arctic becomes more accessible, increased activity from industry, tourism, and research will create complex challenges to community resilience and health.”
Key partnerships for the Coast Guard include the Royal Canadian Navy, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Transport Canada and the Canadian Coast Guard along with a “unique and valuable relationship with tribal entities” that “builds mutual trust and improves mission capacity and readiness.”
“The Coast Guard has always been a creative, problem-solving organization. The Service must harness that energy in a deliberate and focused way to create solutions to the many complex challenges the Arctic poses. The Service will pursue domestic and international opportunities to engage in shared or joint research efforts that maximize the Nation’s return on its investments,” says the outlook. “This includes partnerships across the public and private sectors that serve to strengthen the national security innovation base.”