Partnerships Vital to U.S. Arctic Strategy

September 13, 2019 – With the melting and thinning of Arctic sea ice, there has been an influx of tourist and commercial shipping, an increase in mining and petrochemical extraction and an expanded military presence by allies as well as by Russia and China, the U.S. Coast Guard’s vice commandant said.

Adm. Charles W. Ray spoke today at the American Society of Naval Engineers-sponsored Arctic Day 2019 in Washington.

“Our nation is an Arctic nation. We’ve been operating in the Arctic nearly 150 years,” Ray said, mentioning that he was stationed in Kodiak, Alaska, 30 years ago.

However, the Arctic is a much different place than three decades ago, he said.

Since 2013, the Russians built 14 icebreakers and six new military bases in the Arctic. Likewise, China has built icebreakers, he said, while the U.S. only has two heavy icebreakers, both over 43 years old and past their normal service lives.

One of the main missions the Coast Guard has in the Arctic is enforcing rules-based behavior, he said.

“Anything we do in the Arctic requires a collaborative effort,” Ray said. “We are a much better off as a nation when we operate in coordination with other nations that have a similar interest there. And, while we have significant strategic competition, that doesn’t mean that there has to be conflict.”

America, along with other Arctic nations, have significant roles in the Arctic Council and other forums that promote rules-based behavior, Ray said.

ARCTIC OCEAN – U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Shannon Eubanks pulls herself out from the Arctic Ocean during ice rescue training Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018, about 715 miles north of Barrow, Alaska. Eubanks is a crew member aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Healy (WAGB-20) and serves on the ice rescue team to protect crew members and scientists conducting work in the Arctic. The Healy is underway in the Arctic with about 100 crew members and 30 scientists to deploy sensors and semi-autonomous submarines to study stratified ocean dynamics and how environmental factors affect the water below the ice surface for the Office of Naval Research. The Healy, which is homeported in Seattle, is one of two ice breakers in U.S. service and is the only military ship dedicated to conducting research in the Arctic. (NyxoLyno Cangemi/U.S. Coast Guard)

The Coast Guard’s collaborative effort extends to the Navy as well. Ray said he expects to see more Arctic-area exercises in the future involving the Coast Guard, Navy, Marine Corps, as well as allies and partner militaries. The Navy and Coast Guard in fact have an exercise coming up in the next couple of weeks in the Alaskan waters.

The Navy also assists the Coast Guard in shipbuilding and requirements development as well as helping shape the contracts for its new cutters. “We wouldn’t be where we are today without the Navy,” he said.

Capability means having a credible presence in the Arctic, Ray said.

At a minimum, three heavy ice cutters and three medium ice cutters are what the Coast Guard needs to have this presence, he said, noting that one heavy ice cutter, known as the Polar Security Cutter has received funding and funding has also been provided for a service life extension on the old heavy cutter, the Polar Star.

The Polar Security Cutter should be sailing by 2024, he added.