The Senate this week as part of its debate on the next authorization bill for the Defense Department is considering whether to direct the Pentagon to establish “at least one” strategic port for Arctic operations to help the U.S. more proactively protect its interests in the region, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) said on Wednesday.
Sullivan said that Congress previously in the fiscal year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) mistakenly “gave the Pentagon discretion to look at a strategic Arctic port,” noting that the need is “crying out” given Russia’s overwhelming military presence in the Arctic.
“In their great wisdom, they came back and said, ‘No need,’” Sullivan said at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event in Washington, D.C., on the Arctic. “This has been a frustration of mine where I actually think the last organization in town to recognize the importance of the Arctic has been the Pentagon.”
He said later in the event that the Pentagon opposes the new requirement for an Arctic port. The directive for the port is contained in Sec. 1041 of the NDAA bill the Senate is considering.
The Arctic port would have to be able to handle Navy ships up to the size of a destroyer, he said, and allow vessels to resupply. He mentioned Nome and Port Clarence, which sit along western Alaska near the Bering Strait between the Bering Sea in the south and the Chukchi Sea to the north. The straight also separates Alaska and Russia.
If the port provision is ultimately approved by Congress as part of the NDAA, “the Secretary of Defense will be mandated to do this.” He said the amendment is “strongly supported” by “almost all” the members of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC). Sullivan chairs the committee’s subcommittee on Readiness and Management Support.
Sullivan said Congress on a bipartisan basis has been well out in front in terms of working to protect America’s interests in the Arctic with the Pentagon well behind.
Another provision in the NDAA bill being considered by the Senate “strongly encourages” DoD to create a deputy assistant secretary for the Arctic, Sullivan said. This position would help the department overcome the “seams” that exist in the Arctic where the operational boundaries of various combatant commands meet.
Northern Command is the DoD’s advocate for the Arctic. Indo-Pacific Command has operational control over all U.S. military forces in Alaska. European Command’s area of operations also runs into the Arctic, and Strategic Command controls missile defense operations.
Sullivan said this can be a good thing in that defense strategists are in “accordance,” but it can “also be an indication that nobody’s in charge.”
A third provision in the bill requires DoD to have a plan for how each armed service will implement the recent Arctic strategy published by the Pentagon, Sullivan said. The bill also includes an amendment for the Coast Guard and Pentagon to have a plan for conducting rescue missions in the Arctic, he said, noting that commercial vessels and cruise ships are increasingly entering the region.
While Congress is in the lead on Arctic issues, some DoD officials have been moving the department forward in this area, Sullivan said. He mentioned Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, who has said the U.S. needs to be doing freedom of navigation operations in the Northwest Passage and the need for a strategic Arctic port in Alaska.
Spencer has said the Navy, with at least one destroyer, and the Coast Guard plan to do a “transit of the Northwest Passage” this summer, Sullivan said. The Northwest Passage is a sea route through the Arctic Ocean from the Northern Atlantic to Pacific Ocean.
Sullivan said the Navy and Marine Corps this fall are planning a “large-scale amphibious exercise” at the Navy’s air facility in Adak, Alaska, which stands at the southwestern end of the Aleutian Island chain in the Bering Sea, below the Arctic Circle.
Air Force Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy, commander of Northern Command, is “really starting to take this area seriously” as well, Sullivan said. “He’s been up to Alaska a ton.” Sullivan also quoted O’Shaughnessy as saying in a SASC hearing the Arctic is the “’front line in the defense of the United States and Canada.’”
Sullivan mentioned SASC support for the Coast Guard’s program to recapitalize its fleet of one operational heavy icebreaker with six new Polar Security Cutters (PSCs), which have been authorized by the committee. The Coast Guard, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, this year awarded VT Halter Marine a contract to design and build the first PSC.
The House Appropriations Committee in their FY ’20 DHS spending bill has provided funding for long-lead material purchases toward the second PSC. Senate appropriators have yet to mark up their version of the DHS bill.
The Pentagon hasn’t been putting the resources it needs toward the Arctic, Sullivan said, describing them as “severely lacking.” He said he’s a supporter of a 355-ship Navy, but that some of these vessels need to be ice hardened. The U.S. needs to show presence in the Arctic with surface vessels, he said.
Despite the lack of resources, the “trend lines,” at least with Congress, “are positive,” Sullivan said. He cited Congress in FY ’19 funding the first Coast Guard PSC. There isn’t any funding at the moment for a strategic port in the Arctic, he said.
Regarding the Pentagon, Sullivan said, “it can take a while to kind of turn the ship at the Pentagon.”