July 23, 2012

The Coast Guard’s Arctic Mission

On Sunday, The New York Times published a report that outlines some of the key issues that the U.S. Coast Guard must grapple with as it assumes greater responsibility in the Arctic, including how it will conduct search and rescue missions, as well as oil spill response.

According to The New York Times report, the Coast Guard began a pilot project in July known as Arctic Shield, “combining search and rescue responsibilities with disaster response and maritime safety enforcement,” a likely first step towards increasing its presence in the region.  

Perhaps one of the most pressing challenges that the Coast Guard must face is the lack of physical infrastructure in the Arctic Circle, particularly its own shore-based infrastructure from which it can conduct a range of missions. Most of the Coast Guard’s personnel and equipment in the region is based in Kodiak, Alaska, almost 1,000 miles south of Barrow, Alaska – the northern most U.S. town – from which the Coast Guard will presumably be operating from.

Consequently, Coast Guard officials have to make tough choices about temporary infrastructure to use to support their increased responsibilities.  According to the Times’ Kirk Johnson:

When the United States Coast Guard arrived in this remote corner of the Arctic this month to begin its biggest patrol presence in the waters north of Alaska, only one helicopter hangar was available for rent, and it was not, to put it mildly, the Ritz.


Built by someone apparently more familiar with the tropics than the tundra, the structure had sunk several feet into the permafrost, with the hangar entrance getting lower as the building sank. Squeezing two H-60 helicopters into the tiny space? Think of parallel parking a stretch limousine. And for this — the only game in town, take it or leave it — the owner demanded $60,000 a month, a price that made Coast Guard leaders gasp.

Physical infrastructure is both a priority and necessity, according to Coast Guard officials. Without a presence in the Arctic Circle, “how are we going to respond adequately?” asked one Coast Guard official.

And yet even operating out of Barrow, Alaska presents its own set of logistical challenges. “With air operations based here in the nation’s northernmost community, more than 300 miles past the Arctic Circle, the assignment is expensive, logistically complicated to supply and far from backup should things go wrong,” The New York Times reported.

In all likelihood, this is only the beginning of a conversation about how the Coast Guard will be positioned to protect U.S. interests in the Arctic. As Shell and other private companies – including international shipping and eco-tourism businesses – begin operating in the opening Arctic seas, the Coast Guard will be pressed to patrol an increasingly crowded space. The Obama administration and Congressional officials need to have a candid conversation about U.S. Arctic interests, what the U.S. government’s role will be with respect to safeguarding those interests and how it will equip U.S. government agencies to operate in the Arctic. 

Photo: The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy crew navigates through the ice near the North Pole to retrieved canisters that were airdropped from an Air Station Kodiak HC-130 Hercules aircrew September 7, 2011.

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