Posted: April 4, 2017 4:40 PM

Coast Guard, Navy Assess Arctic Presence, Priorities

By JOHN C. MARCARIO, Seapower Special Correspondent

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The U.S. Coast Guard and Navy continue looking at how future operations will work in the Arctic, while building on partnerships in the region.

The Coast Guard is the lead federal agency in charge of response and security operations in the Arctic while the Navy supports the service’s missions. As sea lanes continue to open, and polar ice continues to recede, the region has seen more commercial and tourist vessel traffic and natural resource exploration. With that has come a rising safety and security concerns.

“Is the Arctic a security issue for the Coast Guard? Absolutely,” Michael Emerson, the Coast Guard’s director of marine transportation systems and senior Arctic adviser, said April 4 at the Sea-Air-Space Exposition.

He echoed a common theme of the service in recent years with regard to the region, saying more resources are needed, including a modernized icebreaker fleet.

The service operates the only U.S.-flag heavy icebreakers capable of providing year-round access to the region. The Coast Guard currently has three polar icebreakers, Polar Star, Polar Sea and Healy, but Healy is largely used for scientific research missions. Polar Sea has been out of operation since 2010, when an engine casualty left the ship immobile.

In recent budget submissions, the service has requested funding to build one new heavy icebreaker, which is estimated to cost around $1 billion and take a decade to build. The service hope to begin construction on one in fiscal 2020.

The Coast Guard’s High Latitude Region Mission Analysis study has said the service needs three heavy icebreakers and three medium-range icebreakers.

“You have to have some sort of response capability,” Emerson said.

Fellow panelist, Rear Adm. Timothy Gallaudet, oceanographer of the Navy, said there are several drivers of change in the Arctic, including environmental and commercial activity, along with the emergence of Russia as a major player in the region.

Gallaudet said the U.S. and Russia share information with one another about Arctic matters.

“They are doing nothing provocative, it was an interesting change,” he said. 

The Navy is looking at increasing its exercises and international partnerships in the region. In the short term, the service will have a more deliberate approach to expanding its presence, but even that will require some level of additional investment compared with what it usually has, which is a seasonal presence.

“We are assessing what priorities are needed,” Gallaudet said.

The Navy will be taking part in ICEX 2018, an exercise that assesses the readiness of the submarine force while also continuing to advance scientific research in the Arctic region, along with taking part in Exercise Northern Edge, beginning May 1.

“Our presence is sufficient today, but we have not assessed what the future presence should be, but we do need to modernize our capability up there,” Gallaudet said.

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