November 30, 2011

House Hearing to Evaluate U.S. Coast Guard Arctic Capabilities

Tomorrow, the House Transportation Committee’s Subcommittee
on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation will hold a hearing on “Protecting
U.S. Sovereignty: Coast Guard Operations in the Arctic
.”  (Available for viewing by webcast.)

According to a background
provide by the subcommittee, the purpose of the hearing is in part to
examine if the Coast Guard has the ability to execute its statutory missions in
the Arctic. Capabilities, including Coast Guard icebreakers, are obviously an
important element in evaluating if the Coast Guard is setup to fulfill its
missions in the High North, so I’m hopeful to see some discussion about the
lack of U.S. icebreaking capabilities, and how that affects the Coast Guard. I
wrote a post exploring this issue last week that I think is worth revisiting.
Here’s hoping it tees up some of the questions we’ll hear asked by the members

Should U.S. Arctic Capabilities Look Like?

Originally published
November 22, 2011

Last Monday
[November 14, 2011], Businessweek published
an excerpt from a new book by David Fairhall, Cold
Front: Conflict Ahead in Arctic Waters
. Besides the provocative
title (which, by focusing on conflict does not help further our understanding
about the challenges and opportunities
that lie in the Arctic), the book looks rather interesting.

In the excerpt
from Businessweek, Fairhall describes
in brief the history of polar icebreakers, including their evolution to nuclear
propulsion in Russia. “Today,
a dozen countries operate icebreakers. Canada needs them in large numbers to
cope with winter, not only in the Arctic but also in the St. Lawrence River and
Hudson Bay. Scandinavians use them to keep Baltic ports clear
,” Fairhall
writes. “The
U.S. has strategic and scientific interests in both the Arctic and Antarctica,
for which it has three polar-class vessels.

Yet where it
gets interesting – at least from a national security perspective – is the gap
between U.S. and Russian icebreaking capabilities. As Fairhall explains, “Still,
no one disputes the predominance that Russia achieved by adapting nuclear
propulsion to icebreaking. These vessels need a great deal of power and the
ability sometimes to remain at sea for long periods without refueling -- both
things that a nuclear reactor can deliver

And beyond
nuclear propulsion – which gives the Russians more robust capabilities – they
also have a fleet that dwarfs the U.S. fleet of three non-nuclear icebreakers.
According to a report by The New York Times in
August 2008,  “a resurgent
Russia has been busy expanding its fleet of large oceangoing icebreakers to
around 14
, launching a large conventional icebreaker in May and, last year,
the world’s largest icebreaker, named 50 Years of Victory, the newest of its
seven nuclear-powered, pole-hardy ships.” Meanwhile, in August 2011, The Christian Science Monitor reported that Russia is
expanding its Arctic presence: “Among
other things, Moscow plans to build at least six more icebreakers and spend $33
billion to construct a year-round port on the Arctic shores.

The National Academies of Science and
the Coast Guard have been warning Congress for several years that the lack of
funding to support growing U.S. icebreaking capabilities could, as the National
Academies of Science warned in a 2007 report, put the United States “at risk of
being unable to support national interests in the north [Arctic] and the south
” According to Fairfall:

In recent years, the U.S. has been
stretched to find one or more powerful icebreakers to enable supply ships to
reach the Antarctic scientific research station in McMurdo Sound. (On a couple
of occasions, the Americans have had to ask the Russian icebreaker Krasin to help
out.) A changing climate will put greater demands on the small U.S. polar fleet
by opening up the Arctic to maritime transport, oil exploration and tourism.
The U.S. has a strategic interest in maintaining its freedom of navigation in
the Arctic -- especially for naval vessels -- and the ability to conduct
independent scientific research.

Given the announcement this morning
that the congressional
super committee has not been able to negotiate a deficit reduction deal
convincing appropriators on Capitol Hill that the United States needs to grow
its polar icebreaking capabilities is going to be more difficult. But that
should not give pause to those efforts to redress our lack of sufficient
capability. If anything, this can be an opportunity for strategic planners to
work through a little more about exactly what capabilities the United States
needs in the Arctic.

To understand what capabilities we need, U.S.
policymakers must first decide what it is the United States wants to do in the
Arctic. How broad or narrow do we want our Arctic mission to be? Is it more
than just the capability to support search and rescue operations? Eco-tourism?
Interdicting illegal traffickers? Do we want a sustained, semi-permanent or
permanent presence in the Arctic? These questions aren’t meant to be
exhaustive; they are merely meant to get the conversation started. Answering
these questions will help us decide what our capabilities should look like. If
I have learned one thing in working closely with my colleagues in the maritime
services, it is that you can’t have a ship that does everything – that ships
have very specific roles for specific missions. Just saying we need icebreaking
capabilities is not sufficient for understanding what we need to secure our
interests. Certain icebreakers – conventional versus nuclear-powered, for
example – offer you different capabilities. Which do we need? These questions
are important – and are ever more important in an environment where federal
dollars for funding these capabilities are scarce. Perhaps offering answers to
these questions is the key to breaking through the frosty reception that
icebreakers have received on the Hill.