Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) on Thursday said he is authoring legislation aimed at further increasing cooperation in the Arctic region between the Coast Guard and Navy for sustained operations and also said that he and Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) have formed a caucus in the Senate to support Coast Guard needs.
The bill will “further advance collaboration between” the two services “to increase their effectiveness for carrying out sustained operations in the Arctic,” Sullivan, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science, & Transportation Committee’s Subcommittee on Security, said at the outset of a hearing on the Coast Guard’s strategy in the Arctic.
“This bill will direct the strategic focus, infrastructure investment, and capability development needed to rapidly respond to crises in the Arctic, secure our sovereignty through persistence of presence in this region of increasing great power competition and part of the reason for this hearing is to help inform that bill as we’re putting the final touches on it,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan also said that he and Markey, the ranking member on the subcommittee, and other senators just formed the bipartisan Senate Coast Guard Caucus “to bolster and strengthen this important branch of the armed services.”
One of Sullivan’s key priorities in the Arctic region is the establishment of a strategic, deep water port that can accommodate large Coast Guard and Navy ships, such as heavy polar icebreakers, National Security Cutters, and Arleigh Burke-class DDG-51 destroyers, and other infrastructure for sustained operations.
The House on Wednesday passed the fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act that that includes a “Sense of Congress” provision that one or more strategic Arctic ports are needed to demonstrate the commitment of the U.S. in this region amid as great power competition emerges here. The Coast Guard’s Arctic Strategic Outlook released in April highlights competition from Russia and China in the Arctic to make its case for a new fleet of polar icebreakers.
Adm. Charles Ray, vice commandant of the Coast Guard, agreed with Sullivan that a deep water port in the region would be useful.
“Sir, there’s no question that a deep water port north of [Dutch] Harbor…would benefit Coast Guard operations, no doubt,” Ray replied to a question from Sullivan about the need to better protect U.S. economic and national security interests in the region. Dutch Harbor is in the Aleutian Islands chain hundreds of miles below the Bering Strait that separates Russia and Alaska below the Arctic.
Sullivan told Defense Daily after the hearing that the strategic port provision doesn’t direct the Defense Department to establish a new Navy base in the Arctic but represents a further step in that direction. Defense Daily reported on Tuesday that the conference report does direct the establishment of the new port.
It used to be just the Alaska delegation that favored the strategic Arctic port, but there is growing bipartisan interest in the Senate for this, including from Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the chairman of the full Commerce Committee, Sullivan said.
Before Ray’s testimony, a panel of experts also testified before the committee. Heather Conley of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said Russia’s announcement this week that it is installing S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems in each of its military units across the “Russian Arctic” as an “’anti-missile dome’” means the U.S. is “potentially, already losing access to the Arctic because of Russia’s growing military footprint.”
As the climate warms and Arctic ice melts, there is increasing activity in the region and the potential for more resource exploration and extraction, as well as commercial shipping.
Conley and the other experts said the U.S. doesn’t have the capability presently to conduct Freedom of Navigation Operations in the Arctic. The panelists, which also included Sherri Goodman and Mike Sfraga of the Wilson Center, also agreed on the need for a strategic port or ports in the Arctic.
Asked by Markey how the U.S. would respond to an oil spill in the Arctic similar to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, Sfraga said, “I can describe it by saying, not good,” adding, “we simply do not have the assets and resources for an oil spill or LNG tanker disaster in the Arctic.”
The Coast Guard earlier this year contracted with ST Engineering’s VT Halter Marine for the first of up to three new heavy icebreakers, called the Polar Security Cutters (PSC). The PSCs will replace the nation’s only heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, which conducts an annual support mission to Antarctica to resupply scientists working there year-round.
The Polar Star is 43 years old and is challenged in its annual mission, but the Coast Guard is planning a service life extension to so that it can operate until the second PSC comes along in 2025. The first PSC is slated for delivery early in 2024 although the contract with VT Halter contains incentives to advance the schedule to 2023, the originally planned timeframe.
The Coast Guard also has a medium polar icebreaker, the Healy, which conducts science missions in the Arctic every summer. The Healy is roughly half-way through its service life and the Coast Guard is just beginning to examine its requirements for a new fleet of medium icebreakers, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz said earlier this week at a Navy League breakfast.
Ray told Defense Daily after Thursday’s hearing that the Coast Guard is conducting a fleet mix analysis of its icebreaking needs and moving toward the mission needs statement and operational requirements document for the medium icebreakers, but that is more than a year away.
“My point is, we’re going to revise what we need with regards to medium capability icebreakers,” Ray said. “We’ll refine that and start shaping that. Right now, we’ve been talking about it at the 30,000-foot level. We’re going to get below that in the next year.”
The Coast Guard’s current plans for a recapitalized polar icebreaking fleet is three new heavy and three new medium ships. Schultz told Defense Daily after the breakfast on Tuesday that it’s possible that the requirement for icebreakers is higher than currently envisioned, but that it’s too early to make that call.
The non-profit research services company Rand Corp. is conducting a study for the Coast Guard to help with the fleet mix analysis, Ray said.
Ray told the panel that another shortcoming in the Arctic region is communications and related needs. The Coast Guard is reviewing its larger C4ISR needs, which includes the Arctic, but it doesn’t have a detailed plan yet that is ready to be submitted to Congress for appropriations, he said.
During Healy’s operations in the Arctic this year, Ray said the ship was “off-the-grid” for 27 days relying only on satellite communications.
Sullivan and Markey both highlighted the need for more robust communications and intelligence in the Arctic for things like rescue operations and environmental response.