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How Prepared Is the US Coast Guard to Defend Arctic Regions?

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By Dr. Brian Blodgett
Faculty Member, Homeland Security, American Military University

Note: This article was originally published on In Military.

Feel like taking a three-week summer cruise through the Arctic Ocean? What was once only for the brave is now a reality during the summer months, due to the thawing of the ice in our polar regions.

For centuries, ever since the discovery of North America, seafarers have sought a northern route from the Atlantic to the Pacific. In 1906, Roald Amundsen’s Gjøa became the first ship to transit the Arctic’s Northwest Passage during a three-year journey.

During the last century, the number of ships making the passage through the Arctic was relatively few. Many vessels were either lost as the ice trapped them or were turned back as their crews realized the dangers of the frozen Arctic Ocean.

Arctic Regions Growing in Economic Importance

The Arctic regions are of strategic interest to the United States due to the potential for exploration and the transportation of goods. With the thawing of the polar region, the number of cargo ships transiting the northern sea lanes will increase, since using the northern route cuts travel times between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans by up to 40 percent.

Clearly, these northern routes will become key in the economic future of the U.S., the world’s lone superpower.

US Coast Guard, Not Navy, Monitors the Arctic

However, the United States naval forces are not prepared for Arctic operations. A 2014 U.S. Navy report focusing on the Arctic stated that it was unlikely that the vast Arctic region would be the site of a state-on-state conflict.

Even though preserving the freedom of the seas is a critical mission for the U.S. Navy — as well as providing homeland defense in the Arctic regions of Alaska and safeguarding our national interest in the 200-mile economic exclusion zone — the U. S. Navy has not seen a need to bolster its arctic capabilities. Instead, the task of operating in the harsh arctic conditions is with the Coast Guard and its icebreaking cutters; the Coast Guard falls under the Department of Homeland Security.

The 2019 Congressional Research Service’s Changes in the Arctic: Background and issues for Congress, reaffirmed that climate changes could result in an increase in ice-free seasons within decades. That would open up even more opportunities for cargo transport through the Northwest Passage and the Northeast Passage.

How Coast Guard Icebreakers Function

Icebreakers are vessels that serve a unique purpose: providing access to remote parts of the Arctic and Antarctic Oceans. These ships have a strengthened hull, extremely powerful engines and specially designed shapes that allow them to clear a path through thick ice.

Icebreakers operate by using their massive structure with a wide rounded bow to glide over the ice and then the vessel’s weight crushes the ice. Alternatively, the ship can use a ramming method. Both methods open up a channel through the frozen water, so that other ships can follow a clear path.

Russia Is the Dominant Owner of Icebreakers in the North

While 17 countries have icebreakers, only nine have those capable of operating in the Baltic Sea. Even fewer nations have icebreakers that have been to the North Pole or designed for Baltic use.

Out of the five countries that have territorial claims to the Arctic — Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States — Russia is by far the leading Arctic power. So far, it has 30 Russian Navy and 19 privately operated icebreakers; and more are being built in shipyards. Norway is the only country bordering the Arctic that has an icebreaker, but it is not designed for Baltic Sea use.

Russia not only leads the world in active icebreakers, but also in those capable of operating in the Baltic Sea. Nine Russian icebreakers can operate in the Baltic region and four of them have already been to the North Pole.

Russia is also the only country with nuclear-powered icebreakers, which are much more powerful than their diesel-powered counterparts. In addition, Russia is also blazing the trail in giant-size icebreakers.

Russia recently launched their third giant icebreaker in May. These icebreakers are capable of breaking through approximately 13 feet of ice and leaving a 110-foot-wide trail.

But Russia is not content with these giant ships. It is building three behemoths, which are projected to be twice as powerful as Russia’s newest icebreaker and will be capable of cutting through eight feet of ice at 10.5 knots. Each of these ships can leave a 200-foot-wide opening in its wake, large enough for colossal 200,000-ton cargo ships to follow behind it. The first of these behemoths is projected to launch by 2025.

The United States, on the other hand, has only two active Coast Guard cutters designated as icebreakers and two privately owned icebreakers. Furthermore, the U.S. has fewer icebreakers than Finland, Canada, Sweden and Denmark.

The only remaining countries that have icebreakers capable of operating in the Baltic are Estonia (two) Germany (one) and Latvia (one).

Mission of the USCG Polar Icebreakers

14 U.S.C. 2 states that the Coast Guard shall “develop, establish, maintain, and operate, with due regard to the requirements of national defense, aids to maritime navigation, icebreaking facilities, and rescue facilities for the promotion of safety on, under, and over the high seas and waters subject to the jurisdiction of the United States,” and “shall maintain a state of readiness to function as a specialized service in the Navy in time of war, including the fulfillment of Maritime Defense Zone command responsibilities.”

In fact, U.S. polar ice operations support nine out of the 11 Coast Guard’s statutory missions. That includes:

  • Defending U.S. sovereignty in the Arctic through maintaining a presence in our nation’s territorial waters
  • Defending other U.S. interest in the Arctic region, to include our economic interests within the exclusive economic zone north of Alaska
  • Monitoring ships transiting the Arctic that are bound for the United States
  • Conducting law enforcement and other types of missions in our nation’s most northern territorial waters

In addition, the Coast Guard is the only U.S. government agency that serves multiple purposes. It is a military service, a law enforcement agency, a marine safety and rescue agency, and an environmental protection agency.

The Current State of US Coast Guard Icebreaker Cutters

In 2013, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) identified the need for the U.S. Coast Guard to have three heavy icebreakers that could break up to six feet of ice at three knots or 21 feet of ice using the back and ram technique. DHS also identified the need for three medium icebreakers that could break up to four and a half feet of ice at three knots and eight feet of ice using the back and ram technique.

The two active icebreakers of the U.S. have a maximum speed of three knots. This speed falls far below Russia’s projected capability of 12.5 knot capability.

The older USCG Polar Star, for example, is the nation’s only heavy class icebreaker and is 11 years beyond its intended 30-year service life. The Healy, commissioned in 2000, while larger actually has less icebreaking capability and is the nation’s only medium-class icebreaker.

The Polar Sea, a sister ship to the Polar Star, has been out of service since 2010 due to engine failure. It is being cannibalized for spare parts to keep the aging Polar Star operational.

Earlier this year, the Coast Guard received $655 million to begin construction on the first ship of the non-nuclear Polar Security Cutter class icebreaker as a part of the Department of Homeland Security’s 2019 appropriations bill. The Coast Guard is expecting delivery of its first ship in 2024.

By 2018, Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Schultz believes the third ship will be delivered. These ships will be more than icebreakers; they will also be exploration vessels designed for the extreme cold weather of the polar seas. The Coast Guard is also planning on three medium icebreakers as well over the next decade.

Despite New Vessels, US Will Remain Far Behind Russia

Even with the first of the new Polar Security cutter icebreakers potentially being delivered in 2024, it will not help the U.S. in the “war” against Russia. These ships will replace the Polar Star, which will likely be retired after serving nearly 50 years of duty and 20 years past its expected life expectancy. It will not be until the second and third icebreakers are active that the U.S. will be able to have a more active presence in the northern polar latitudes.

Schultz emphasized that “presence equals influence up there.” While the U.S. is building its new icebreakers, China is also becoming active in the Arctic region since oil and rare earth minerals likely in the northern waters make it a geographically, geo-strategically completive space.

Admiral Richardson, the Chief of Naval Operations, stated that the U.S. Navy intends to be more active in the Arctic with its Coast Guard and Marine Corps partners. He also said that the Navy has to make it a habit of “navigating in these now-free navigable waters. So we want to make sure that as navigation channels open up, consistent with our sovereign responsibilities – we are an Arctic nation – that we are getting up and remaining familiar with those operating in that high north.”

About the Author

Dr. Brian Blodgett is an alumnus of American Military University who graduated in 2000 with a master of arts in military studies and a concentration in land warfare. He retired from the U.S. Army in 2006 as a Chief Warrant Officer after serving over 20 years, first as an infantryman and then as an intelligence analyst. He is a 2003 graduate of the Joint Military Intelligence College where he earned a master of science in strategic intelligence with a concentration in South Asia. He graduated from Northcentral University in 2008, earning a doctorate in philosophy in business administration with a specialization in homeland security.

Dr. Blodgett has been a part-time faculty member, a full-time faculty member and a program director. He is currently a full-time faculty member in the School of Security and Global Studies and teaches homeland security and security management courses.

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