A need for more US Arctic involvement
Testimony to congressional committee urges actions to boost the country’s presence in the region as international attention grows
The commissioning of a new heavy polar icebreaker for the U.S. Coast Guard will form a vital component of the United States’ future engagement in the Arctic region. But the country has been falling behind other nations, in particular Russia and China, in making moves to exert its influence and presence in the region, a series of experts testified to a subcommittee of the House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure on May 8. And key to exerting an Arctic presence is the development and maintenance of appropriate Arctic infrastructure, the testifiers said. Infrastructure includes port facilities and an adequate communications network.
Russia has nearly 50 icebreakers and has been opening up the Northern Sea Route around its coast. China has been opening Arctic research stations and observatories and is building its second icebreaker. Meanwhile, with just one aging polar heavy icebreaker and one medium-sized icebreaker, the U.S. Coast Guard can only operate in the Arctic during the summer.
Almost no infrastructureRetired Adm. Thad Allen, former Coast Guard commandant, told the committee that, although the U.S. Navy sees its subsurface capabilities as meeting the nation’s Arctic defense needs, the current inadequate Arctic command, control and communications infrastructure points to a lack of U.S. sovereignty in the region. Currently there is almost no marine infrastructure in the U.S. maritime Arctic, he said.
Heather Conley, a senior vice president from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, suggested that the country has lost a decade in advancing its Arctic interests, given the inactivity that followed President George W. Bush’s signing of a new Arctic security policy in 2009.
Adm. Charles Ray, vice commandant of the Coast Guard, commented on how the Coast Guard has been demonstrating its presence in the Arctic through the agency’s annual Arctic Shield program. This involves deploying assets, working with Arctic communities and conducting activities such as search and rescue, and emergency response planning.
Mead Treadwell, co-chair of the Polar Institute, the Woodrow Wilson Center, and a previous Alaska lieutenant governor, argued for the establishment of an Arctic seaway, modeled on the St. Lawrence Seaway, with a tariff-based service that could help fund infrastructure support. A bill has been introduced in the U.S. Senate to establish an organization of this type. Treadwell thinks that in future it will be possible to transport liquefied natural gas by sea from Alaska’s North Slope.
China’s interestsConley suggested that China’s current involvement in the Arctic primarily reflects an economic interest in the region. In particular, the country is interested in energy resources, as reflected in the country’s investment in Russia’s Yamal LNG facility. However, in the long term there is major interest in Arctic shipping, with the Arctic Ocean presenting a shorter distance alternative to the Straits of Malacca for shipment between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, Conley said. Of particular interest to China is a potential trans-polar route, across the middle of the Arctic Ocean, given that the waters of Russia’s Northern Sea Route are too shallow for deep container ship traffic.
“The Chinese vision is 2040-2050. They are thinking that far ahead,” Conley said.
Icebreaker programThe new polar icebreaker which Congress has now funded is planned as the first of three icebreakers of the same design. Adm. Ray said that the Coast Guard needs six icebreakers: three heavy icebreakers and three medium icebreakers, to have the capacity for year-round Arctic operations, including long-distance missions such as patrolling around Greenland. He also emphasized that it will be important to characterize the icebreakers as security cutters, given that the ships will be expected to be able to support multiple Coast Guard missions.
“We need the ability to project a year-round presence in the Arctic,” Ray said. “It is possible to be up there summertime and wintertime.”
Ray also said that maintenance of the Coast Guard’s existing heavy polar icebreaker, the Polar Star, will be critical to a continuing ice breaker capability until the new icebreaker is delivered, potentially in 2024.
Support infrastructureRay said that he anticipates Kodiak as continuing to be the Coast Guard base for the agency’s Arctic operations.
“That’s our northernmost place, where we have the most plans and the most specifics about investment,” he said. Given the dynamic nature of the Arctic, the Coast Guard’s approach is to operate from Kodiak and move icebreakers to wherever they are needed, he said. Conley suggested that there is a need to also think about establishing some forward operating bases in the Arctic.
Ray said that the Coast Guard has successfully worked with the Russians on a port access route study in the Bering Sea region, coordinating this work with local Native communities.
In terms of the Arctic communications infrastructure, the Coast Guard has now reached a point where it can use satellite communications reliably up to the 85th latitude - the agency is working with the Department of Defense to gain access to updated satellite communications. This year, in cooperation with other government agencies, the Coast Guard launched two miniature satellites in polar orbit, able to receive emergency signals, Ray said.
Abbie Tingstad, senior physical scientist in the RAND Corp., a policy think tank, commented on the importance of support infrastructure beyond icebreakers, in bolstering the ability to respond to threats and hazards in the Arctic. International and domestic cooperation between stakeholders is also critically important, she said.
Arctic navigationRear Adm. Shepard Smith, director of the NOAA Office of Coast Survey, described NOAA’s efforts in maintaining data, charts and forecasting services for marine navigation in the Arctic region. The agency supports international cooperation in the Arctic, including the activities of the Arctic Council, the Polar Code for Arctic shipping and the Arctic Report Card, an annual peer-reviewed science publication.
Smith commented that, given the huge distances involved to reach survey sites, NOAA’s annual operational season tends to be very short. The agency is considering the use of unmanned systems, to augment its efforts, he said.
Deep-water portA major issue, the subject of much discussion and study over the years, is the question of establishing a U.S. Arctic deep-water port, both for logistical support for shipping and to act as a port of refuge in the event of stormy weather. Much attention has focused on the potential to expand and deepen the port at Nome, which cannot currently handle deep-draft vessels. There is a natural deep-draft port at Port Clarence, not far from Nome. But Port Clarence has no supporting infrastructure and would require the construction of an access road.
Col. Phillip Borders, commander of the Alaska district, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, told the committee that studies have concluded that Nome presents the most viable deep-water port option. The Corps has recently published a draft feasibility study for expanding the Port of Nome. (See story in this issue.) However, the agency has been conducting this study as a civil works project that limits port depth considerations to depths required for vessels that currently use the port and for Coast Guard vessels. That would put the depth of the port at somewhere in the range of 30 to 40 feet - military use of the port would require a depth of 45 feet. Allen commented that the Corp uses a 45-foot depth in its official definition of a deep-water port.
Revenue from traffic?Treadwell suggested that the Port of Nome and Port Clarence could be supported by revenues from Arctic shipping traffic.
“Together you’re talking about a system of ports which is about a $300 million problem,” he said.
And Conley commented that it is time for a decision on the port issue.
“We have to get out of the mode of studying … we study things in lieu of action,” she said.
Allen urged for a whole-of-government approach to the issue, taking into account the drafts of vessels that might need the port over an extended U.S. presence in the region.
And Treadwell urged action on the port issue.
“I believe there’s enough on the record, right now, for Congress to find that it would be absurd for us to go into a brand new ocean, newly accessible to the world, and not have a deep-water port of refuge, and not have a port which could have us play a role in assisting shipping,” he said.