The Coast Guard on Monday released its new strategic outlook for the Arctic, pointing to increasing competition in the region from China and Russia and making the case for new polar icebreakers and investments in other assets and personnel to obtain the capacity and capabilities for assured access to the high latitudes.

The strategy precedes an imminent award by the Coast Guard of its first contract in more than 40 years for a new heavy polar icebreaker, dubbed the Polar Security Cutter (PSC). The service plans to buy at least three PSCs, which will operate in the Arctic and Antarctic, giving the service a self-rescue capability and more operational flexibility than it currently has with its one operational but aging heavy icebreaker and one medium polar icebreaker.

To close its current strategic gaps in the Arctic, “the Coast Guard will invest in ice-breaking ships, such as the Polar Security Cutter, aviation assets, unmanned and/or autonomous systems, and personnel, all capable of operating in the austere and remote Arctic environment,” says the 48-page United States Coast Guard Arctic Strategic Outlook. “Assets must be upgradeable and interoperable, capable of prosecuting an evolving portfolio of mission activities from search and rescue to defense operations to marine scientific research support.”

The Coast Guard’s Polar Star heavy icebreaker conducting ice breaking operations in Antarctica in Jan. 2017. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer David Mosley.

The Coast Guard argues in the strategy that increased activity by China and Russia in the Arctic region combined with expanding and potential economic benefits as well as safety needs demand an increased presence by the service.

“America’s competitors have shown a willingness to work within established frameworks when advantageous to them, but just as willing to work outside these frameworks to further their ambitions or spoil the interests of others,” the strategy says.

For example, it points to China’s participation as an observer on the intergovernmental cooperative Arctic Council while also flouting international law by its activities in the East and South China Seas, adding that the country is also pursuing infrastructure activities such as ports and airports in the Arctic.

“China’s attempts to expand its influence could impede U.S. access and freedom of navigation in the Arctic as similar attempts have been made to impede U.S. access to the South China Sea,” the Coast Guard warns.

Since the most recent Coast Guard Arctic strategy in 2013, Russia has built 14 new icebreakers and six military bases in the Arctic region, the April 2019 strategy says. It points out that given its geography, “Russia has legitimate sovereign interests in the region,” but like China, has recently demonstrated aggressive behavior elsewhere that is beyond international norms.

“As a strategic competitor, the United States must take heed of Russia’s actions and potential dual-use of its capabilities,” the new strategy says.

The strategy concludes that “The Coast Guard’s mission in the Arctic is enduring, but the strategic context has changed. In the intervening six years since the promulgation of the 2013 Coast Guard Arctic Strategy, changes in regional geopolitical competition, economic drivers, and the physical changes in regional geopolitical competition, economic drivers, and the physical environment required the Coast Guard to take a fresh look at our existing missions, activities, and strategic objectives in the Arctic.”

In addition to enhancing capabilities and capacities, the Coast Guard’s outlook for the Arctic emphasizes the need to “strengthen the rules-based order,” noting it is positioned to provide American “leadership in the maritime domain.

Strategic “competition doesn’t preclude cooperation,” the Coast Guard says, but “the Service must do so within the context of the Nation’s national security interests.”

“The Coast Guard will continue to work with our allies and partners on the mutual goal of ensuring a safe, secure, and cooperative Arctic, even as our aspiring near-peer competitors maneuver for strategic advantage in the area,” Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz said in a statement. “The Arctic Strategic Outlook reaffirms the Coast Guard’s commitment to American leadership in the region through partnership, unity of effort, and continuous innovation.”

The strategy also highlights the need to continue to develop and strengthen partnerships with various stakeholders in the Arctic region for reasons of safety and emergency response, law enforcement, modernization of the maritime transportation system, and environmental protection.

The 2013 strategy document has extensive discussion about the changing climate in the Arctic and the increasing ice melt, which is opening the region to more human activity.

The 2019 strategy spends less time discussing climate change, and unlike the previous strategy doesn’t even mention the term, but does describe the changing environment as a key factor in growing nation-state and economic activity, particularly shipping.

“The Arctic’s role in geostrategic competition is growing, in large part because reductions in permanent sea ice have exposed coastal borders and facilitated increased human and economic activity,” the 2019 strategy says. “The warming of the Arctic has led to longer and larger windows of reduced ice conditions.

In addition to Icebreaker and more aviation and unmanned assets, the new strategy calls for the Coast Guard to “establish and maintain situational awareness and understanding” in the Arctic, which was also laid out in the 2013 document. It also mentions that the nation needs to overcome communications gaps in the Arctic where radio signals are poor, adding this will require partnerships at the state, local, private and international levels.

The Coast Guard has the funding in place for the first PSC and is seeking $35 million in fiscal year 2020 toward long-lead material purchases for the second ship. The Coast Guard maintains that the $35 million will keep the program on schedule, although Rep. Louis Correa (D-Calif.), a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said during a recent hearing with the Coast Guard that the funding request is insufficient to maintain the schedule for the second icebreaker.