Military Challenged by Changing Arctic Landscape

By Valerie Insinna
Patrolling the cold, icy waters of the Arctic has long been the responsibility of the Coast Guard, but as polar ice melts and ship traffic in the area increases, the Navy may take a larger role in securing the region.

The Navy and Coast Guard will need additional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, more reliable communications and better mapping and logistical support to safeguard the region, according to retired military officials and the Defense Department’s 2013 Arctic strategy. 

Meanwhile, industry officials and policy experts are waiting with anticipation on the Navy’s new Arctic roadmap to be published this year. With no requirements spelled out in the overall strategy, company executives are hoping the Navy’s roadmap will give them a better picture of sales opportunities, said Ashley Godwin, senior defense advisor for the Shipbuilders Council of America.

The Navy is hard at work studying how much investment will be needed in the region, said Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus at a December event held by the U.S. Naval Institute.

“A northwest passage is already opening up. Ships are already going through there. You’ve got a lot of resources in the Arctic, which may cause some friction among Arctic countries. Countries are already sort of staking out their claims to that,” he said. “It’s clear that we are going to have increased responsibilities there, and it’s clear that we have to make sure we can provide that presence and that ability to respond, and I think we’re on a path to do that.”

It’s not only new platforms and technologies that are needed to secure the nation’s interests north of the Arctic Ocean, he said. The United States’ territorial claims will be frozen in place unless Congress signs onto the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. That would allow the nation to extend its claim up to 400 miles beyond its current holding of 200 miles from Alaska’s northern coast.

“Other countries that have passed it — which is virtually every country on Earth but us — have a much stronger legal basis for the assertions that they make than do we. And if we want to protect things like our access to natural resources, if we want to protect freedom of navigation, if we want to protect the things that we hold dear, [Congress needs] to pass that law of the sea treaty,” Mabus said.

The dual forces of diminishing polar ice and increased human activity will likely exacerbate security challenges in the Arctic, said Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in a foreword to the Pentagon’s strategy.

The region is peaceful, with a history of cooperation among Arctic countries, “and it is the role of the Department of Defense to ensure this observation remains true for future generations,” he said.

The Arctic is estimated to be home to 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves and 30 percent of its undiscovered gas reserves, said the Coast Guard’s Arctic strategy, published last May. The shipping, fishing, mineral and tourism industries are projected to expand their business endeavors as ice continues to melt. 

“Climate change has resulted in higher water and air temperatures, which have caused permanent ice cover to diminish to record low levels seasonally. Scientists predict this trend will continue,” it said.

The Pentagon envisions a collaborative approach to security, with countries engaging in science and technology partnerships and research initiatives coordinated by the Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee, the Defense Department strategy said.

The Navy will also take a leading role, among other government agencies, in improving oceanographic surveys and nautical charts, it said.

Although the strategy does not spell out specific technology needs, use of “innovative, low-cost solutions for polar command, control, communications, computers, [and] intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance” will be the primary way the military improves situational awareness throughout the region.

Further collaboration with government agencies and academia could yield information that “will help inform the development and design of future ice-strengthened ship[s],” it said. 

The Navy is already investing in such capabilities in anticipation that destroyers and other ships may one day be sailing Arctic waters, Godwin said. For example, the Office of Naval Research is developing an ice-resistant paint to protect the superstructure of surface ships.

The Navy continues to pour money into research-and-development initiatives, but it will be difficult in the current budget environment to find available funding to procure specialized equipment for Arctic missions, she said.

“It’s going to be competitive,” she said. “They need to get the infrastructure there as well as the ISR, the bandwidth, the communications. All of that needs to be in place as well before you just start sending ships up there.”

The Navy regularly sails submarines in the Arctic, but has not operated an Alaskan base since Naval Air Facility Adak closed in 1997. The Coast Guard administers facilities in Alaska, but they are in need of refurbishment, said Brian Slattery, defense analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

Unless security threats considerably increase, it is unlikely the Navy regularly will operate north of the Arctic Circle, said Chuck Hill, a retired Coast Guard commander. If that happens, the Navy will likely reopen Naval Air Facility Adak and fortify its surface ships with ice-resistant technologies, he said.

“They are talking about doing [the latter] as a possible hedge against contingencies, but that will not make them capable of operating without icebreaker support,” he said in an email.

The shipbuilding industry is watching closely to see if that need presents itself, said Joe Carnevale, senior defense advisor for the Shipbuilders Council of America and a retired Navy rear admiral. “They would be all over that. There would be half a dozen shipyards that would jump on that bandwagon.”

The Navy may not be building ice-hardened capabilities into its ships yet, but companies such as Edison Chouest Offshore are developing ice-class commercial vessels for offshore oil and gas drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, said SCA president Matt Paxton.

For at least the near future, the Coast Guard will retain responsibility for ensuring Arctic security, including conducting icebreaking missions. If the region becomes more populated and trafficked, it may need to ramp up icebreaking and search-and-rescue activities, Hill said.

Drilling platforms and ships could become targets for terrorists as the offshore oil and gas industries increase in importance, Hill said. “The embarrassment of an ecological disaster in an otherwise pristine environment might be seen by them as a bonus. Still, other targets are perhaps easier to approach without arousing suspicion and are likely to get more extensive news coverage.”

If the Coast Guard needed to greatly expand activities in the Arctic, it would have to cut back on other missions, such as drug interdiction in the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea, he said.

The Navy’s littoral combat ships and joint high speed vessels, however, may be well suited to take over some of those missions and free up Coast Guard assets, Hill said. “Ironically, the Navy may be best able to help the Coast Guard in the Arctic by picking up more of the load in these transit zones.”

No matter the level of activity in the region, it will be vital for the service to obtain technologies that increase situational awareness, he added.

Satellite and automatic identification system data can help Coast Guard ships detect and track cooperative vessels, he said, “but there are cases where we may want to track uncooperative targets. That is probably going to be more difficult.”

Communication infrastructures also need to be updated, said Rex Buddenberg, a former Coast Guard lieutenant commander who has served on icebreakers.

While some larger cutters use Naval satellite communications, other Coast Guard ships rely on commercial satellites, he said. However, visibility of geosynchronous satellites diminishes as ships sail closer to the North Pole, and the quality of satellite communications as a whole is not always reliable.

Buddenberg believes the Coast Guard should invest in a terrestrial network along the coast of Alaska to supplement existing communications and increase bandwidth capacity. It could buy or adapt commercial, off-the-shelf technologies to extend the range of communication farther out to sea, he said. “What we absolutely do not need to do is gin up a reinvent-the-Internet program like [the joint tactical radio system program],” he said. 

If flown higher than 65,000 feet, unmanned aerial vehicles could also be used in the region for surveillance and as low-altitude communications satellites, he said.

The Coast Guard will also have to buy new ice-breaking and ice-hardened ships for continued operations in the Arctic. Though it is used to operating with much less money and fewer resources than the Navy, funding these new-start programs could prove challenging in a budget downturn.

The Coast Guard has been embroiled in a struggle to procure an additional heavy icebreaker. Despite having an on-the-books requirement of three heavy-duty and three medium-duty icebreakers, the service has only one medium icebreaker — the Healy — and one heavy-duty icebreaker — the Polar Star — in its fleet.

Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., advocated reactivating the Polar Sea, a heavy-duty icebreaker currently mothballed in Seattle. Russia owns 22 icebreakers and currently is building the world’s largest, while China is building its second icebreaker, he said in a December column in the Seattle Times. 

Failure to rejuvenate the icebreaker fleet could result in the United States falling farther behind in the race to secure its Arctic interests, he said.

The service also has its hands full with the construction of the national security cutter and plans to procure an offshore patrol cutter to replace the medium endurance cutter fleet, Godwin said. “Within the Coast Guard, they’re competing for resources.”

The offshore patrol cutter will be strengthened against ice and will give the Coast Guard more options for operating in higher latitudes, Hill said.

National security cutters are not designed to withstand sea ice, but they can support operations in warmer months with additional assets, such as communications equipment and helicopters, he said. The Coast Guard first deployed a national security cutter in the Arctic in the summer of 2012, for example.

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Policy, Energy, International, Shipbuilding

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