The Arctic has become a hotbed of interest in recent years. The Coast Guard has recognized this trend and is pursuing more presence in the region, but will its resources be able to keep up with rapidly increasing traffic?
Rear Admiral Thomas P. Ostebo, commander of the 17th District of the U.S. Coast Guard, recently testified before Congress during a field hearing about Arctic issues and the sea service’s exercise “Arctic Shield 2012.”
Ostebo explained the purpose of the exercise, the lessons learned, and what new assets and capabilities they brought to the region. While the exercise is considered a success, the Coast Guard requires more resources to make these capabilities a reality.
Notably at Arctic Shield, the Coast Guard stationed two helicopters in Barrow, Alaska (the northernmost point in the U.S.), to afford the sea service increased presence, situational awareness, and reach within the Arctic Circle. The USCGC Bertholf, the first-in-class of the National Security Cutter (NSC) fleet, also deployed to the region, marking an important milestone for a cutter class intended to provide increased range and presence farther from the coast.
Both of these firsts indicate that the Coast Guard is aware of growing interests in the Arctic for natural resources such as hydrocarbons and fisheries, expanding sea lanes, and tourism. In spite of Arctic Shield’s success, the Coast Guard may have trouble keeping up with real-world increased traffic in northern U.S. waters while executing its various other missions.
The sea service has already been operating with old and overused equipment, particularly in its High Endurance Cutter fleet. The Hamilton-class fleet has been sailing since the 1960s and has extended well beyond its intended service life. The NSC, intended to replace this fleet, has been cut from a requirement of 16 vessels to just eight.
Sadly, the Coast Guard is having trouble meeting even that reduced requirement. The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) fiscal year 2013 budget request removes advanced funding for the seventh and eighth planned NSCs, which would effectively eliminate their production. No justification has been offered by the Coast Guard or DHS as to how this will affect Coast Guard missions and maritime security.
Also critical to missions in the Arctic is America’s icebreaking capability. Regrettably, this is one capability that is more lacking than even the High Endurance Cutter fleet. The U.S. Coast Guard has two heavy-duty icebreakers, neither of which is currently operational. One is set to be revitalized, but this will be costly and add only a few years to the vessel’s service life.
A new heavy-duty icebreaker would cost nearly a billion dollars and take a decade to build. Considering that the Coast Guard’s total recapitalization budget for fiscal year 2013 is $1.2 billion, it would be difficult to afford much else if the sea service wishes to buy a new icebreaker, even over 10 years.
Moreover, what will be covering Arctic waters during the decade that the vessel is being built? The U.S. should instead pursue leasing commercial icebreakers that can serve Coast Guard missions when necessary. This will be cost effective and provide presence more immediately.
Representative Frank LoBiondo (R–NJ), chairman of the House Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee, has claimed that the Coast Guard is caught in a “death spiral” because growing missions are dramatically outpacing fleet modernization and replacement. His colleagues in the House and Senate should recognize the critical security America gains from the Coast Guard and provide adequate funding for the sea service to perform its missions.