NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.–Following the Coast Guard’s release in late April of its strategic outlook for the Arctic, the White House and Defense Department are also crafting strategies for the region and the combined products and subsequent discussions will shape the nation’s way forward for U.S. needs and operations in the Arctic, the Coast Guard Commandant said on Wednesday.
The Coast Guard at present isn’t developing an implementation plan to meet its requirements in the Arctic, Adm. Karl Schultz said. The “national conversations are starting to happen right now,” he noted, and “I’m anxious to see what the different Arctic plans and strategies look like.”
The conversation around the Arctic has expanded to include more “players at the table” and to raise the “national interest,” Schultz said.
The Coast Guard’s new strategic outlook for the Arctic emphasizes competition in the region from Russia and China and makes the case for the service’s new heavy polar icebreaker, the Polar Security Cutter (PSC), which was awarded to VT Halter Marine two weeks ago. The PSC is the first major step by the Coast Guard toward establishing a more sustained presence in the Arctic, but the new strategy lists other high-level needs, including aviation assets, unmanned and autonomous systems, and personnel.
The White House strategy for the Arctic is being coordinated by the National Security Council. This week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo echoed the sentiment captured in the Coast Guard’s strategy about increasing great power competition in the region. Speaking at an Arctic Council meeting in Finland, Pompeo highlighted aggressive actions by Russia in the Arctic and concerns about the ultimate motives about China’s activities there.
The strategy also discusses the need to close communication gaps and enhance domain awareness in the Arctic.
NATO last year conducted a large exercise consisting of 50,000 personnel in Northern Europe as a counter to increasing Russian military activity in the Arctic region. These exercises also help fuel the future requirements for operating in the Arctic, Schultz said at the Navy League’s annual Sea-Air-Space conference here.
The Coast Guard operates the U.S. government’s only two polar icebreakers, the 43-year old Polar Star heavy icebreaker, which is used each winter to resupply a research station in the Antarctic, and the medium icebreaker Healy, which conducts research missions in the Arctic. The first PSC will replace the Polar Star, likely for the McMurdo breakout mission in 2025 if the shipbuilding schedule holds.
The Healy does give the Coast Guard some domain awareness in the Arctic but more is needed.
A major challenge to sustained and broader operations in the Arctic is the lack of persistent awareness of weather conditions on a day-to-day basis, a Navy official said at the conference.
“Conditions in the Arctic are extreme,” Rear Adm. John Okon, the service’s chief meteorologist and oceanographer, said. “Harsher than any other place on Earth. Under, on and above the seas.”
Low cost, persistent sensors are an important area for help from a technology standpoint to monitor the weather and climate in the Arctic, he said. Battery technology is a limiting factor in terms of cost and persistency, he said, adding that there is a need for these sensors to operate 200 to 300 meters above the ice.
Sea ice in the Arctic is “trending thinner and younger” and is decreasing, Okon said. “Understanding and predicting inter-annual variability and regional ice coverage continues to remain challenging,” he said. “As we prepare for current and future operations … understanding and predicting the environment is critical for meeting mission and ensuring safety of Navy, joint, coalition personnel and equipment.”
A number of variables can impact Arctic operations and awareness, including sea, ice, wind, water runoff and sea spray, and changes to these affect navigation, ice breaking, acoustic modeling and atmospheric propagation, Okon said.
Okon described polar lows, which are like hurricanes in the middle and low latitudes of Earth, but “develop really quick and move really fast.” There is also a lack of accurate navigational charts, he said.
There needs to be more observations and better modeling to improve Arctic operations, Okon said.
In the area of communications in the Arctic, the Coast Guard last year launched two satellites aboard a ridesharing mission into space that included two mini, or cube, satellites that were designed to evaluate the technology for detecting and locating emergency distress beacons in the region.
As a range of human activity increases in the Arctic, from shipping operations to pleasure cruises and exploration of oil and gas and minerals, requirements are developing to be able to effectively conduct search and rescue missions and enhance domain awareness.
The POLAR SCOUT CubeSat program is a joint effort between the Coast Guard and the Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate at the Department of Homeland Security. One of the satellites, YUKON, operated for several weeks and communicated data before communications were lost halfway through a pass over a Coast Guard ground station, a spokesman for S&T told Defense Daily in late April.
The other CubeSat, KODIAK, operated until April, and was able to provide S&T and the Coast Guard with “multiple months” of data before communications were lost. While both satellites were supposed to collect data for eight months to support the evaluation, KODIAK provided enough data to aid in the research.
“Although the on-orbit duration was less than expected, KODIAK successfully collected sufficient data for DHS to perform an evaluation of spacecraft performance and meet project objectives,” the S&T spokesman said. “An analysis will be completed by the fall of 2019.”