Read This Now: Admiral Robert J. Papp Jr. on the Arctic Frontier

For those of you who have not been following the national security or defense journals recently, the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings published in its February 2012 edition a great article by U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) Commandant Admiral Robert J. Papp Jr. on the Arctic, paving the way – I hope – for a national level discussion on U.S. interests and goals in the High North.

The Arctic region—the Barents, Beaufort, and Chukchi seas and the Arctic Ocean—is the emerging maritime frontier, vital to our national interests, economy and security,” Admiral Papp writes. “The difference [between the Arctic and the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans] is that in the rest of the maritime domain, we have an established presence of shore-based forces, small boats, cutters, and aircraft supported by permanent infrastructure and significant operating experience. Although the Coast Guard has operated in southern Alaska, the Gulf of Alaska, and Bering Sea for much of our history, in the higher latitudes we have little infrastructure and limited operating experience, other than icebreaking.”

Admiral Papp describes the U.S. Coast Guard’s responsibilities in the Arctic and, by doing so, lays out how the Coast Guard should be prepared to lead. “Our first challenge is simply to better understand the Arctic operating environment and its risks, including knowing which Coast Guard capabilities and operations will be needed to meet our mission requirements,” Admiral Papp states. This includes addressing the lack of USCG infrastructure that can support shore-based operations, as well as “ensuring that Coast Guard men and women have the policy, doctrine, and training to operate safely and effectively in the northern Arctic region.” In addition, the Coast Guard is “working closely with other key federal partners to lead the interagency effort in the Arctic,” leveraging its experience with “speaking the interagency language” and success with engaging the range of public and private stakeholders active in the Arctic, from local tribes to corporate adventurers.

According to Admiral Papp, beginning in summer 2012 the USCG will begin an Arctic Maritime Campaign that will “define the required mission activities for the Coast Guard in the northern Arctic region,” which by necessity will require the USCG to evaluate what capabilities it needs to execute those activities, and, more importantly in this budget-constrained environment, what capabilities it lacks. The effort, Admiral Papp writes, will begin with the Coast Guard and then (hopefully) include others from the interagency.

Even with the Coast Guard charging forward, the United States still needs a comprehensive Arctic strategy. To develop that strategy, we need more than just the Coast Guard at the interagency table having a conversation about strategy in the Arctic. The U.S. government needs all stakeholders to be involved in the conversation about what it is in the United States wants to do in the Arctic region. I give the Coast Guard a lot of credit for getting the conversation started. But there is a delicate balancing act that has to happen with respect to resources and strategy. Strategy must drive the conversation about what resources we need to accomplish our policy objectives in the region, not the other way around. Let’s be prepared to do what we want to do in the Arctic, and not be hamstrung by a lack of strategic thinking that translates into a lack of resources to accomplish our goals. The Coast Guard has started the conversation about strategy and resources; it is time for others in the interagency to join in.