The Coast Guard will for the first time dispatch one of its new National Security Cutters to the Arctic as the ice breaks up on Alaska’s North Slope this summer.
Could permanent bases be far behind?
Long-term operations in the frigid climate will require shore-based infrastructure, Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr., commandant of the Coast Guard said in interviews the week he delivered his annual State of the Coast Guard address.
“I’m going to identify the needs, and I’m going to talk about them,” he told Pentagon media outlets.
Earlier, he announced that the Bertholf — one of the service’s three new NSC ships capable of plying deep waters on the high seas — will be operating in the Arctic this summer.
This move coincides with Shell Oil’s plans to begin drilling operations off the North Slope. The company will have 33 ships in the area and fly in 250 workers a week to the drilling platforms. The Bertholf will serve as a “movable operations center” that can do search and rescue and carry out the service’s pollution control mission.
The Coast Guard has had a presence in Alaska since 1867, but has had a short history on the remote North Slope, which is some 800 miles north of its Alaska shore-based facilities to the south. The changing climate has meant that “there is water where there wasn’t water before,” as Papp’s predecessor, Adm. Thad Allen, often said. He spearheaded early efforts to send ships to the region. For four summers, legacy cutters have been in the area.
Not having any shore-based infrastructure makes operations there difficult has been one lesson learned, Papp said. For example, aviation fuel turns to jelly in extreme cold and Coast Guard helicopters do not have any heaters for their fuel tanks.
Along with oil drilling, the breaking up of the ice in the region will bring more tourists, shipping and commercial fishing, Papp added.
The high-profile mission for the Bertholf comes at a time when the service is fighting to complete the National Security Cutter fleet. The fiscal year 2013 budget proposal includes the building of a sixth cutter, but doesn’t provide preliminary funding for the seventh and eighth ships.
There is also some funding — $8 million — to begin work on a new polar ice breaker. Updating the service’s Arctic ice breakers has been a longtime goal of Coast Guard leadership. The Coast Guard once had eight ice breakers, but it is now down to one operational ship, Papp noted. There is also $6.1 million in the budget to upgrade facilities in Cold Bay and Sitkinak, Alaska, near the Bering Sea and Aleutian Chain. There are no funds yet for permanent bases on the Arctic side of the state, though.
The expansion of operations in the Arctic comes during “stormy times,” said Papp, referring to the impending budget cuts. The service is facing the loss of 1,000 personnel, he said. It is decommissioning several older ships, and closing some Great Lakes facilities.
“Coast Guardsmen require modern ships,” he said, reiterating what he has stated in recent speeches about the service needing to sustain the gains it has made deploying high-endurance aircraft and ships to patrol large expanses of open waters such as the Pacific and Arctic.