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Pentagon Balancing Military Needs in the Arctic, Future Infrastructure

Los Angeles-class fast attack submarine USS Hampton (SSN-757) during Ice Exercise (ICEX) 2016. US Navy Photo

U.S. submarines are in the Arctic to deny a bastion to Russia to attack the United States, but the probability of adding surface warships to the region in the near future as another maritime deterrent is slim, a Navy policy official said Tuesday.

Logistics is the limiting factor of operating surface ships in the Arctic, said Jeffrey Barker, deputy branch head for policy and posture on the chief of naval operations’ staff (OPNAV N515B), speaking at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

The tyranny of distance is also a consideration in stationing military ships or commercial vessels so far north, said Michael Powlowski, chief of staff for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). Ports could be hundreds of miles away from ships operating in the region.

Retired Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft said suggested a wide-ranging private -public partnership could be a way forward to meeting both civilian and military needs in port development in Alaska.

“It’s very, very expensive,” Barker said of building facilities in that environment, so private help would be of great assistance. “[But] the [chief of naval operations] wants us to think in terms of decades” when it comes to planning for Arctic operations, missions and stationing.

For example, when Navy Secretary Richard Spencer asked for cost estimates to return a Navy presence to Adak, an island in the Aleutians off the Alaskan coast, the figure came back at $1.3 billion.

The Air Force is expanding its presence by moving F-35A Lighting II Joint Strike Fighters to complement its fleet of F-22s and F-16s already stationed at two large installations in Alaska, Iris Ferguson, a senior advisor to the Air Force, said at the event. The move would mean new facilities and the stationing of up to 10,000 airmen to the region.

The Air Force “is still the predominant service” under the Department of Defense in the region, Iris Ferguson, a senior advisor to the Air Force, said. The move would mean new facilities and the stationing of up to 10,000 airmen to the region and is updating with Canada radar tracking stations for aircraft and missiles.

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz said his service”must have the tools” to assert U.S. presence in its territorial waters. For the region, that means icebreakers, where Russia has more than 40, and China has three, and the United States only has two.

In addition, Russia is modernizing its military installations to enforce its territorial claims on the Northern Passage as well as deploying cruise-missile carrying corvettes capable of operations in Arctic waters.

China not only has the shipbuilding capacity and now experience in building icebreakers and other vessels such as liquid natural gas transports to operate in the Arctic, but it is now training crews for these operations in expectation of longer sailing seasons due to climate change.

Zukunft, who in his tenure as commandant laid the groundwork for the rebuilding of the icebreaking fleet, said the need for presence was critical. He said that he had to turn down a request for the 40-plus-year-old heavy icebreaker USCGC Polar Star (WAGB-10) to conduct a freedom of navigation operation in the Arctic for fear the ship would break down and the U.S. would have to ask the Russians to tow it to port for repairs.

Earlier, he cited how the Russians provided an icebreaking petroleum tanker to provide fuel to Nome, Alaska, in 2011. The Coast Guard’s medium icebreaker USCGC Healey (WAGB-20) led the way into the port. The reality was the United States had no ship capable of making the delivery in the emergency.

That first icebreaker cutter would replace Polar Star, but it likely would be sent to the Antarctic to support missions there, he added, Schultz.

Schultz said later this week he will unveil the Coast Guard’s updated Arctic strategy at the National Press Club.

Ferguson and Barker also said their services are updating their Arctic strategies and expect to deliver unclassified versions of them early next year.

  • Curtis Conway

    Russia and our NORDEFCO (Nordic Defence Cooperation) Allies of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden have vessels that can police their waters in thin Arctic ice. All have Icebreakers as well. All have witnessed the Russians upgrade their Arctic facilities and grow all their forces across the board times four. The US sits and waits. How long do you think that is prudent?

    • PolicyWonk

      The USA needs to build at least 6 heavy and 6 medium icebreakers, while new NSC’s should be ice hardened for near arctic circle patrols. The USA is way behind and is in fact ceding the polar regions to our (potential) adversaries, which can only be (generously) described as neglect.

      OTOH, they’ve neglected the USCG for decades, despite the huge increase in mission sets that expanded tremendously since 9/11/2001, without a commensurate increase in budget.

      This isn’t prudence: this is idiocy.

      • Duane

        Nope – it’s sheer prudence. We have little at risk in the Arctic, and vastly more important places to operate our limited naval resources, and the costs of operating in the Arctic are just far too high to justify the extremely limited benefit.

        • Curtis Conway

          THAT is why the Chinese and Russia are placing their chips in the Arctic in this game. That is also why DoD is so laser focused upon the Arctic as well. Skills developed and learned when operating above the Arctic Circle are perishable. A lesson our fleet relearned in a recent exercise. IF, and I do mean IF, you are not going to qualify all forces for such service (which is not our norm, but our NORDEFCO neighbors norm), but rather qualify and equip specific forces, then you MUST QUALIFY THOSE SPECIFIC FORCES! This is not that hard to figure out. June 6, 1944 is the reminder of the wisdom of this policy, for good weather and ideal conditions is never a guarantee, and like the Airborne in Bastogne . . . we NEVER want to do that again!

          • Duane

            Actually, DOD is NOT “laser focused upon the Arctic”. We’ve always sent nuke subs up under the ice cap, going all the way back to the Nautilus in 1955. I’ve been there myself, my boat set the all time record through 1976 for days spent under the ice cap – 42 days as well as the record for earliest springtime transit of the Bering Strait (early March).

            But the US Navy owns and operates no icebreakers, and the US Navy owns and operates no “ice hardened” surface warships. That is the precise opposite of “laser focused on the Arctic.”

          • Curtis Conway

            You reveal where we ARE TODAY, and the fallacy of planning for any action in the future with non-existing forces . . . if we do not plan for/create them. An Arctic capable Frigate can operate anywhere, and if they planned the A/C right, even in the Arabian Sea (the Royal Navy figured this out the hard way).

            Icebreakers do not just show up overnight, and they could very easily be as important as a CSG, particularly when we already own everything below the ice (SSN(s) & new SSN(X) which start should be a done deal over the next decade).

            To expect resupply in the Arctic in bad weather by air is neigh-on impossible, and the recipients would starve to death waiting, and resupply die trying. That resupply activity has to be by ship.

            A new class of Maritime Supply Ships and their inherent capabilities is being contemplated as we write. I hope someone is listening. Adm Papp’s experience applies. Cut a FORD CVN and build the Heavy Icebreakers in serial fashion all in one MYP contract.

          • Curtis Conway

            We have NOT always had multiple intercepts of Russian aircraft, some waves containing tankers and fighters with the Bombers, nor Airborne exercises in the snow multiple times, sometimes coordinated with multiple submarines, and Arctic Circle carrier strike group ops complete with an Amphibious Assault. The ‘laser focused’ may be a little strong, but it sure AIN’T myopic anywhere else, as you would describe. The Russian Bear is pushing across their entire border from the Stan(s), Ukraine, Eastern Europe to the Baltic, Scandinavia, and the Arctic.

      • old guy

        A peak at the size and power of the RUSSIAN icebreakrs proves your point.

    • Duane

      Russia has a vastly longer Arctic Ocean coastline than does the US, and a fairly large percentage of their national population resides along that coast – about 10%. The percentage of the US population that resides along our Alaskan Arctic coastline approaches virtually 0%, and we have no significant seaports or navy bases along that coastline to defend.

      • Curtis Conway

        “Russia has a vastly longer Arctic Ocean coastline than does the US” . . . so we should Ignore Ours?! Duane, I’m glad you are not running DoD.

        • Duane

          No – I am just saying that comparisons between our assets and Russian assets in the Arctic is not a fair apples to apples comparison. The Russians have a great deal of assets at stake in the Arctic, while we have virtually none. We do have vast assets at stake in other waters of the planet, and a limited funding base. Every dollar wasted protecting nothing of value in the Arctic takes a dollar away from protecting our vast assets elsewhere.

          The Russians would dearly love to see the US waste our precious naval assets in the Arctic where we literally have nothing to protect, taking away protection for all the other stuff we must protect.

          It is in fact a zero sum game.

          And oh by the way, the guys that ARE running DOD now have zero naval bases or naval air stations or AF bases or Army posts located along the Arctic Ocean coastline.

          • Curtis Conway

            Please don’t say that too loud around around Nordic Allies. The Russians & Germans (WWII) found out otherwise.

    • Lazarus

      NORDEFCO is an acquisition alliance working on common uniforms and comm gear. It is not a military alliance.

      • Curtis Conway

        Excerpt from Research Paper ISSN 2076-0949 (Res. Div. NATO Def. Coll., Print/Online:
        “Weekly Swedish-Finnish-Norwegian air defense training in the very north of Scandinavia; Swedish-Danish cross border exercises in the southern part of the region; Swedish-Finnish maritime patrolling in the Iceland Air Meet exercise with NATO, led by Norway. These are only a few examples of Nordic Defence Cooperation, or NORDEFCO, the military acronym used to describe this multifaceted pattern of practical military training and cooperation across borders and security doctrines in the northernmost corner of Europe.”

        Facts are tough, but I’m sure they have the very best Extreme Cold Weather Clothing, and radios.

        I did your research for you . . . now go forth and prosper Commander!

        I SAY AGAIN: “The United States acting as, and in the interest of being a fellow Arctic Power, should petition for provisional member of NORDEFCO, and participate in their exercises on a ad-hoc basis as we are able to schedule.”

  • Duane

    Operating surface warships in the Arctic is simply impractical. Ice breakers move through ice at but 1-2 knots at most, and even the heaviest icebreakers cannot break through anywhere near the average ice pack thickness of 3 + meters. So-called “ice hardening” does not convert warships to icebreakers, it just makes them slightly less subject to damage when inadvertently striking small ice floes.

    Submarines are another story altogether, although under ice runs are still dangerous. Having myself spent 42 days continuous under the polar ice cap, knowing that 99% of the cap is too thick to surface through is quite a risk factor should the sub experience any kind of ship’s emergency.

    Having air bases from which to launch aircraft in the Arctic region is of course sensible.

    • Curtis Conway

      Duane. You really should educate yourself about Icebreakers. I will help you. Go to “US Coast Guard Polar Security Cutter” Facebook page and review the posts (particularly the videos) over the last two years. THEN you will see just how inappropriate and nonfactual you previous statement was.

      1-Australia’s new Antarctic icebreaker, RSV Nuyina
      2-Aker Arctic has designed the first Polar Class (PC) 2 icebreaker
      3-The Christophe de Margerie Heavy Icebreaker LNG Tanker
      4-And we can’t miss the Russian nuclear powered Arktika, and her follow-on big brother the “Lider-class” that plows through 15’ of ice and leaves a 200’ wide channel.

      What some qualities that should influence the design of our new FFG(X) Frigate should look like:
      1-Norwegian Coast Guard icebreaker and offshore patrol vessel NoCGV Svalbard (W303)
      2-Ice Class Arctic Patrol ship: Ivan Papanin

      Our new Polar Icebreakers should incorporate some of the design elements of all of these. If they were nuclear icebreakers we could just change the bow and make a Cruiser out of it. It’s already going to be all-electric, and we will just add more SSGTGs for combat operations (lasers & Directed Energy [otherwise]).

      The FFG(X) should have some of the facility of the Arctic Patrol Icebreakers, though not their bow and hull-form. Aviation support and perhaps the crane, boats, and other details should be considered in the design.

      The Polar Security Cutter should come in one easy package that are all identical, and bring on some lighter and less capable Arctic Patrol Craft for support . . . IMHO.

      • Heliarctic

        The Royal danish navy operates frigates (Thetis class) and 1700 ton patrol ships (Knud Rasmussen class) continously in the arctic waters around Greenland with heavy ice classification. They routinely sail north of the arctic circle in winter, and reach up to 82 degrees north in summer. Both classes are permantly based in Greenland.

        • Curtis Conway

          If only our navy were to move in that direction just a little. We will build 3-heavy & 3-medium Icebreakers, or 6-heavy Icebreakers, or we could build the 6-heavies and add some Small Surface Combatants similar to these for operations in the Arctic from Kodiak to Iceland. Operations of said Arctic capable SSC with a local liaison on board would buy a lot. If the US Coast Guard were to have their mission set expanded to include Presence (Show-the-Flag), then some cutters could relieve the pressure on USN Presence in the COCOM, particularly in the Arctic, but we have to arm them and equip them for other mission sets as well.

        • Curtis Conway

          More INFORMED Arctic Data Points. OUTSTANDING!

      • Duane

        Sorry, no, no ship can break 15 feet of ice.

        The Russians also claim they have working supersonic stealth fighter, but they don’t. And that they have a working 200 mph torpedo, but they don’t. They claim lots of ridiculous stuff.

    • old guy

      Russias Nucleas Powered “Lidhyer” class icebreaker makes 10+ knots in 15′ thick ice. It is a science that we have given little attention. You don’t cut through it, you climb up on it and crush it DOWN with weight and power.

      • Duane

        Sorry, no, there is no ship on the planet that can break 15 foot ice. Yes, I already realize that icebreakers are not icecutters ..the name says it all.

        • Ike_Kiefer

          When you get to unbroken ice a couple feet thick, there is no sense in trying to break it. It’s time to get out and drive.

      • Curtis Conway

        You know ‘old guy’ it is beyond Duane’s capability to actually search YOUTUBE and watch the video of it happening (actually breaking thick ice a greater speed), or actually read the specs of the platforms. With just a little investigation one can witness the crushing of 8+’ ice at 10 knots (thicker ice is crushed at slower speeds). Since the Russians are the only country willing to go there (nuclear icebreakers) then to envision a super nuclear icebreaker is not so hard to believe, particularly after the Chinese put the SNOW DRAGON (diesel powered) in the water that was acquired from Russia and upgraded. SNOW DRAGON has been conducting Arctic Operations since 1999, and the new and improved SNOW DRAGON II under construction.

        The Russian Lider-Class ships are in detail design, but construction not slated until next year (a common ploy by the Russian to influence our budgets). To counter the Russian statements of more Kirov’s, and this multi-warfare capable Lider-Class Icebreaking Cruisers, we should just bring back our four mothballed CG-47s (upgraded) which is what they really don’t want us to do, and make sure the FFG(X) is in fact a very capable Small Surface Combatant with long legs.

        If we grow the US Coast Guard just a bit with a few more National Security Cutters, and build far more Offshore Patrol Cutters than currently planned, then we free up more destroyers to do more important things than provide ‘Presence’ (Show-the-Flag), and counter moves by our adversaries in more relevant places. MYP the Carriers and save some more money.

  • Hugh

    Canada needs to be in this equation, with their coastlines, passages, economic zones, etc.

  • Ike_Kiefer

    Global Warming continues not to develop as forecast by the alarmists and
    swallowed whole by the U.S. Navy. Arctic ice pack is back to its median
    extent since satellite photos have tracked it, and an ice-free northwest
    passage remains a fantasy. Antarctic ice has been stable at or near
    record maximum for years. USA must have dedicated ice-breaker
    pathfinder ships to enable logistics resupply and warship FONOPS.
    Russia and China are acting while USA is talking.

    • Curtis Conway

      Thank You !!! Big Ike! AND it shall continue to be so. Either our ‘Heads are in the sand’ . . . OR NOT!

    • Ed L

      I remember back in the 70’s the global warming experts said the Oceans of the world were going to rise 15 feet by the year 2000. I thought it was b s back then

    • old guy


  • Murray

    A 27,000 tonne ice strengthened replenishment ship is currently being built for the Royal New Zealand Navy by Hyundai Heavy Industries, Ulsan, South Korea. When commissioned HMNZS Aotearoa will sail to Antarctica in the southern Summer with supplies for New Zealand’s Scott Base and America’s McMurdo Station. This ship could provide useful replenishment support to USCG/USN Arctic operations during the northern Summer should the need arise.

  • old guy

    I have posted this before. Anthropogenic (man caused ) climate change does NOT exist, Data from 3 Geophysical satellites, ORBITING G.O., POLAR O.G.O. and Earth O.G.O. over 10years shows ZERO effects. Data is obtainable froim NASA. They had orbits parallel, at 45 degrees and 90 degrees to the Earth’s rotational axis. The data is obtainable from NASA, but not with their analyses.

    This is different from transient weather effects (forget the co2 hoax). Unreforested hardwood reaping, Fallow farm fields, forest fires, ocean polution, overfishing, overfertilization of farms, urbanization and the like have a significant, and, manageable effect, mitigated by the profit motive.

    Let’s hope NASA will, at last come out with a TRUE, definitive satement, once and for all, killing such power grabbing schemes as the phony “Paris Accord” READ IT and anything from the IPCC.

    • Curtis Conway

      I wonder what explanation the proponents for Global Warning have for all the ancient cities we have found on the bottom of lakes, and seas/oceans, of off the coast of numerous continents? The climate has changed since day one. Every volcano has some effect, Every large meteorite and asteroid impacts have had effects on the planets weather. The two greatest factors on planet Earth’s weather everyday is sunlight, and water vapor, until some other overwhelming influence is injected (sometimes literally) into the equation.

  • Secundius

    The USCG set aside ~$750-Million for the Design and Development for a New Ice Breaker replacement. Unfortunately Three “X’s” and Two “Y’s” came calling for an orgy of destruction (i.e. “Florence”, “Helene”, “Isaac”, Joyce and “Michael”). Which cause an estimated $853-Million is USCG Infrastructure Destruction, which is currently being paid for by the “Icebreaker Funds”. Until the US Congress get’s off their Collective Ar$es, and reimburse the Services in Infrastructure Repair. Nothings is going to be Constructed (i.e. New Icebreaker)…