Global interests—including those of the United States—are at stake in this changing region.
Commercial opportunities are expanding exponentially in the polar regions as the ice pack retreats, and the need for commensurate U.S. government engagement is also increasing. Shipping companies are eager to capitalize on the savings of time and fuel made available by an ice-free Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route linking Europe and Asia. Oil and gas companies have already identified massive reservoirs suitable for development should the waters become reliably passable. A number of Arctic countries are already harvesting finfish and shellfish from polar waters, and other non-Arctic nations are demonstrating their intent by building ice-strengthened and ice-breaking-capable ships to facilitate their ventures. Ecotourism is burgeoning as luxury ships provide comfortable access to exotic and pristine wildlife venues.
This rapid uptick in human activity in the Arctic crosses numerous U.S. national interests, especially where the country has sovereign rights. Among the concerns are maritime safety, national security, economics, and natural resources (including fisheries, oil, and gas), national defense, and border control. National Security Presidential Directive 66 outlines the intended U.S. policy in the Arctic. However, to date the government’s presence in the polar regions has been more symbolic than effective, conducted almost exclusively by ice-breaking vessels—most recently the U.S. Coast Guard cutters Polar Sea(WAGB-11), Polar Star (WAGB-10), and Healy (WAGB-20). The Department of Defense operates an aircraft- and missile-detection system, and submarines are thought to also operate to an extent in the Arctic. But to achieve the goals of NSPD-66, a broad scope of additional action is urgently required.
As commercial maritime operations continue to ramp up in the near term, the Coast Guard’s existing resources cannot keep up with the needed levels of shipping oversight, marine casualty and incident response, maritime domain awareness (MDA), and national defense. Of the service’s three icebreakers—heavy breakers Polar Sea and Polar Star and medium breakerHealy —only the latter is functional. The other two, because of age and years of restricted budgets, are now inoperable and in need of significant overhaul. The Polar Star is scheduled to be ready for operations in late 2013, after significant reactivation work to allow her to potentially operate for another seven to ten years, barring further major mechanical breakdown. The Polar Sea would need mechanical work costing millions just to limp back under way for a few years, but even that is not budgeted, as the ship is slated for scrapping later this year.