Get Serious About the Arctic

August 5, 2012 11:07 PM - Updated: February 5, 2013 6:38 PM

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.

Therefore the Healy is the only U.S. government surface vessel capable of operating in polar and sea-ice conditions. Construction of new icebreakers takes many years and would cost upward of $1 billion each—thus being of no help in the near term, and an unlikely appropriation in the current budgetary climate.

So what operational paradigm can the government implement that can possibly meet all our national responsibilities while also clearing budgetary constraints? Fortunately, increased maritime use of the Arctic Ocean will necessarily be tied to summers, and the predominant environmental factor of Arctic summers is perpetual sunlight. This powerful characteristic presents a unique opportunity for mission fulfillment and personnel support. Solar-powered activities could be greatly facilitated and avoid difficult logistical challenges that petroleum-powered activities entail.

Recent developments in winged and aerostat (tethered, unmanned airship) technology and solar power could easily be combined to yield a persistent, low-cost MDA presence using high-altitude orbiting aircraft with appropriate sensors. In the short term, a number of unmanned aircraft such as the Zephyr or the high-altitude airship, with a combination of radar, FLIR, and VHF/UHF radio receivers, could provide total Arctic Ocean activity awareness at a very small cost, and with no deleterious effect on polar ice masses that would be impacted by ships patrolling in the traditional sense, actively breaking ice.

Such aircraft could remain in flight all summer without refueling. They could reasonably be managed from existing U.S. government facilities near Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Dutch Harbor, Alaska; and Thule Air Base, Greenland. Additionally, some or all of these aircraft could be flown south for the winter to provide coverage in the antarctic when the Arctic shipping season closed. Other elements of the Homeland Security Department are already fielding such assets to provide surveillance of U.S. borders and aid in customs enforcement.

While MDA is the critical first step, just knowing what is going on in the Arctic Ocean will not be adequate. True sovereignty also requires the ability to act. Because of its unique authorities, the U.S. Coast Guard remains the logical governmental arm to carry out much of the nation’s policy interests at the poles. But to do so means actually getting personnel on station anywhere in the Arctic, both in U.S. territorial waters and throughout the U.S. exclusive economic zone. To accomplish this, we have three alternatives: watercraft, aircraft, and submarines.

Icebreaking Coast Guard cutters would seem the obvious choice, until we consider the vastness of the area. As in antipiracy efforts in the waters off Somalia, the number of ships required to effectively patrol the region would simply be too high for icebreakers alone to ever achieve adequate coverage. Additionally, the appropriations gauntlet for a high number of these expensive ships would be daunting. In the short term, though, a comprehensive service-life extension of both existing Coast Guard heavy icebreakers is the only way to rapidly begin to assert sovereignty. Such a move would also represent a credible beginning of U.S. government projection of presence in the Arctic.

Because the Polar Sea has been slated for decommissioning, a solid repair estimate is not available; a realistic estimate for returning her to service for the period necessary to build a new ship ranges between $50 million and $100 million. To put this cost into perspective, the funds necessary for proper refurbishment of the existing cutters are about the same as one year’s worth of royalties from just a few of the larger Gulf of Mexico oil-production wells. After production begins from Arctic wells, the government can expect a similar additional revenue stream.

This is an important point in a constrained budget climate: the capabilities proposed here can be paid for from new revenues rather than taking from existing commitments. After that, multiyear funding for new icebreaking cutters should be established to ensure that two or more (ideally), or at least one new polar-capable ship per decade is produced. This will allow for maintenance of the existing ice-capable ships and provide for the establishment of shipyard expertise to produce the unique vessels. At roughly $1 billion each, a minimum annual funding appropriation of $100–$200 million can sustain the specialized capability.

Once this program is established, should the geopolitical or physical environment experience a further “climate” change that hastens the need for additional polar ships, it will be much easier to ramp up production from an existing base than to create the capability from scratch. From a taxpayer point of view, the return on the investment of $200 million—about 3 percent of Gulf of Mexico royalties and rents—is a strong U.S. sovereign presence along with the potential to compete for the Arctic’s economic resources. It also means the United States will be able to continue to expand on cutting-edge research on the Arctic ecosystem, as well as providing expertise and the enforcement of environmental-protection measures.

With the high situational-awareness level that drone reconnaissance platforms will bring, along with the watercraft capacity proposed here, the third leg of a clear U.S. Arctic presence should be high-speed response aircraft such as the V-22 Osprey or CH-47 Chinook helicopter, which could effectively mobilize from existing bases near Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Thule when urgent needs develop.

High-speed, amphibious, or hover-capable aircraft can easily drop emergency dewatering pumps, life rafts, and exposure suits to people in distress, or conduct hoist recovery evolutions where necessary. They can also airlift in personnel and supplies sufficient to conduct U.S. sovereignty-related functions.

With some additional region-specific policy decisions, as in other operational areas they can also be armed in the event that illegal activities or issues pertaining to national defense or sovereignty should arise. Either the Coast Guard could procure the Osprey organically, or potentially the aircraft could be operated by the U.S. Marines with Coast Guard officers on board as mission authorities (as is done now with joint Coast Guard/Navy patrol boats). The establishment of such a routine interagency operation arrangement would also greatly enhance U.S. government capabilities for national defense of the region. Other amphibious aircraft and potentially wing-in-ground-effect vessels could be even better suited for operations over ice and tundra, but are not as operationally ready as are the Osprey and Chinook.

Submarines also meet the need for a U.S. presence and projection of authority, albeit in a different way. Like icebreakers they can provide large numbers of personnel and equipment on location, but with much greater alacrity than any surface craft or cutter, and without the concern for excessively contributing to ice break-up or critical-habitat destruction. The stealth characteristics of submarines also have a powerful deterrent effect, making potential wrongdoers wary.

Obviously the only provider of submarines is the U.S. Navy, and any arrangement for using them for a governmental law-enforcement presence in the Arctic would have to be through close cooperation between the Coast Guard and Navy. However, similar collaboration on mission fulfillment is well established in counterdrug operations, and U.S. naval vessels are presumably familiar with operating in polar waters. Therefore, if policy makers choose to implement such an arrangement, no practical impediment exists.

In addition to personnel and platforms, the Coast Guard will need to promulgate new and stronger operational regulations for commercial activities in the Arctic and along polar shorelines. In an area cruelly unforgiving of errors, oversights or equipment breakdown—almost any failure—can rapidly spawn catastrophes and are simply unacceptable. Implementing comprehensive safety management regimes, including the International Maritime Organization’s International Safety Management Code and the pending Polar Code, will be an absolute minimum requirement from the standpoint of safety of life, property, and environmental protection.

Accession to these treaties by the United States needs to be emphasized, and pre-voyage compliance-verification inspections must be mandated. Further, without Senate accession to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea treaty (UNCLOS), all U.S. oil, gas, and other mineral exploration and production opportunities are severely compromised. The United States should immediately join the more than 160 nations that have ratified UNCLOS. Doing so will enable us to legitimize our claims to resources in areas of the continental shelf that extend beyond the 200-mile exclusive economic zone. To quote former President George W. Bush, who, like President Barack Obama, supports U.S. ratification of the convention: “It will give the United States a seat at the table when the rights that are vital to our interests are debated and interpreted.” 2

None of the technology or interagency operational arrangements proposed here is new or unproven. Among the milestones that have already occurred are the 2011 transit of the fully laden Russian Suezmax oil tanker Vladimir Tikhonov through the North Sea Route, the 2010 grounding on a shoal of the large-capacity passenger ship Clipper Adventurer east of Kugluktuk due to inadequate use of available technology, and the 2011 Russian Arctic Circle installation of an oil-exploration platform. 3Canada drilled numerous wells in the 1970s and 1980s but found too little to justify production at the returns then available; today the climate, both financially and meteorologically, is far more favorable.

Using a multi-tiered approach that combines unmanned reconnaissance drones for MDA and command and control, refurbishment of existing icebreakers and commitment to new vessels, and staged high-speed-response aircraft along with the ability to call upon Navy submarines, the U.S. government can rapidly and very cost-effectively equip and empower the Coast Guard to provide clear and unequivocal MDA, the assertion of U.S. sovereign interests, and the capability for casualty and incident response. All of these are critical to ensure the safety of lives at sea and the protection of our national interests and homeland security, while protecting the marine environment. Congress must hasten to act. More agile international and industrial interests are rapidly leaving us behind.

1. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, “Proposed Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program, 2012–2017,” U.S. Department of the Interior, November 2011, .

2. Alaska State Legislature, “Findings and Recommendations of the Alaska Northern Waters Task Force,” January 2012, .

3. “Tanker Vladimir Tikhonov Completes Successful Northern Sea Route Transit in a Week,” The Maritime Executive , 1 September 2011,… “TSB Report on Clipper Adventurer Grounding Reveals Broken Equipment, Questionable Decisions,” Nunatsiaq Online, 27 April 2012,… “Gazprom Towing Oil Rig to Arctic Circle,”, 19 August 2011,… .

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