Coast Vice Commandant Adm. Charles Ray said the U.S. needs to be ready for an opening Arctic as “nations seek to shape the security environment, expand their influence, and advance their own interests.”
According to the World Economic Forum, temperatures in Greenland are at record highs and the ice sheet may be completely gone by the year 3000. The Arctic accounts for 15 percent of the land on earth, yet only half a percent of the world’s population. Shrinking ice along the Northern Sea Route will open up shorter shipping routes, and players will also be competing to build data centers and run fiber optic cables in the region, harvest fish and reap raw materials.
Ray told the Senate Commerce Science and Transportation Subcommittee last week that, as America’s primary maritime presence in the Arctic, the Coast Guard has “seen the impact of increased accessibility, human activity and geostrategic competition.”
“As a result of the opening of this new ocean, commercial opportunities abound from energy production, surging cruise industry, expanded environmental tourism, centuries-old subsistence activities are being altered, hundreds of fishermen must go farther away from traditional fishing and hunting grounds,” he said. “Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing is an increasing threat with obvious potential to negatively impact Alaska’s seafood industries and the U.S. economy.”
Russia, he noted, has the world’s largest icebreaker fleet and uses “this expanded infrastructure to bolster military activities, grow their economic investments along the northern sea route.”
“From that position of strength, they have the ability to exert influence and compete pretty effectively below the level of armed conflict. As has been stated, China, a non-Arctic state, is also invested heavily in the region. This year, they took delivery to their first domestically built icebreaker and they are a shipbuilding country. And they’re currently designing a nuclear-powered icebreaker. China is also pursuing economic investments, oil, gas, and rare earth minerals… I think their encouragement in the Arctic is emblematic of what they’ve done all over the world. Left unchecked, their actions risk fracturing the Arctic’s kind of rule-based governance.”
In April, the Coast guard released its Arctic Strategic Outlook, which underscored the “significant investment” required to secure the changing region.
“We must maintain a physical presence in the Arctic. It begins with icebreakers,” Ray told senators, adding that it’s “been a long haul and we’re a lot better off than we were just a couple of years ago.”
“Just as we have in many other missions in other parts of the world, we’ll use our extensive authorities and unique capabilities to continue to cultivate a global coalition of like-minded partners. We’ll work with federal, state, and local communities to strengthen interoperability and secure U.S. sovereign rights,” he said.
The Coast Guard also “must have reliable technical capabilities that include communications, maritime domain awareness and navigation.”
Fish stocks are moving north, “and we’ve got to be able to get up there and do enforcement where they are, and we intend to be there,” the vice commandant said.
Chairman Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) noted that the new bipartisan Senate Coast Guard Caucus has “made a commitment” to ensure members of the Coast Guard will be treated like other military branches and receive their pay in the event of a future shutdown.
“We need to fix that, we’re committed to fixing that,” Sullivan said. “It’s in the bill right now and I want to call out any colleagues of mine who are trying to block that because I think most Americans found that outrageous that your men and women were not getting paid.”
“Since last January when the government started back up after the 35-day shutdown, I’ve traveled from Puerto Rico to Alaska from Boston to Houston and every place I meet with Coasties — every place, without fail, they say, ‘Admiral, what are you doing’ because young Coasties think I can do anything. I quickly let them know it requires a change in law for it to have this, and what are you doing to ensure that that doesn’t happen again,” Ray said. “And they understand it, they’re smart, and they get it when I explain to them how the process works. But the thing I care about over the long haul is, in the short term, it’s a readiness issue. When I’ve got people worrying about that, they’re not worrying about the dangerous work they’re doing day in and day out.”
“And then, over the long haul, the young people that serve in the Coast Guard that raise the right hand, they’re making decisions. They could serve in the Marine Corps, the Army, the Air Force, and they’re choosing to serve in our Coast Guard. And I don’t want them to think that the Coast Guard is less of an armed service and we’re going to do a better job of taking care of them and their families.”