National Security Challenges and Icebreaking Operations in the Arctic

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) held a high-level discussion in partnership with the U.S. Senate Arctic Caucus that examined the U.S.’s icebreaking capabilities in the Polar Regions, as well as identified emerging national security challenges specific to the Arctic.  The conference analyzed the state of U.S. readiness as well as addressed the questions related to President Obama’s announcement in August 2015 to accelerate the acquisition of additional icebreakers.


Welcome Remarks

Heather Conley, Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia and the Arctic at CSIS, stated in her opening remarks that this topic is a critical Arctic issue that deserves higher elevation in public conversation.  She also added that CSIS is breaking a taboo today by discussing national security in the Arctic, as there have been some significant and potentially negative changes in Russia’s military positioning.


Opening Remarks

The two Senators that chair the Senate Arctic Caucus – Senator Murkowski (R-AK), and Senator King (D-ME) both made opening remarks.


Sen. Murkowski began by stating at this time of year, you are unable to distinguish land from ice in the Arctic.  If there was an incident like the oil spill in 2012, it is not certain whether the USCGC Healy would be able to make it up there.

She went on to say there need to be funds budgeted to acquire a new icebreaker by 2020, which should be separate from the U.S. Coast Guard’s acquisition plan.  The USCGC Polar Star underwent a three year reactivation and returned to operations in late 2013.  The Coast Guard expects Polar Star to remain in service through 2020 to 2023.

A “whole-of-government” approach is necessary to fund this national asset, and national priorities are never cheap.  The Coast Guard is as integral to our national fleet and should be given the same type of funding priority as the Navy.

Sen. King began by stating that 30 years ago, there was not much discussion about the Arctic.  30 years ago, there appeared to be a lessening of tensions, there were greater quantities of ice, and the world appeared to be stable.  Today the world has largely changed from this in fundamental ways:

  1. Competition with Russia is now back on the strategic calculus;
  2. There is an ongoing reduction in the amount of ice; and
  3. We have institutions available to ameliorate some of the issues arising from the competition issues with Russia.

In addition to the fundamental changes listed above, the growth of seaboard trade has grown significantly.  Sen. King said that we need to figure out what we need to do as a result of these new realities.

The first thing we need to do is ratify the Law of the Sea (LOS) treaty.  Sen. King says it is “ridiculous” that we are putting aside an international process that will allow for the U.S. to settle disputes in the International realm.  By not signing, we are sacrificing power and freedom.

Sen. King went on to say that people have a misperception about what the treaty aims to do. To explain this, he used traffic laws as an analogy.  By obliging traffic laws, you are giving up parts of your freedom to drive as fast as you want and wherever you want on the roads.  But you are then also subject to other people who are driving freely on the road, not obeying any rules, which creates a very dangerous environment.  By giving up a small bit of your freedom and agreeing to obey traffic laws, you gain the ability to drive on the roads safely.

This is how the LOS treaty would make things in the international maritime realm.  By giving up some unilateral rights necessary to adopt the LOS treaty, we are gaining the adjudication of influence and power to make rules.

He then discussed the Arctic Council (AC).  He stated that we need to use the AC for all its worth, especially during the next year and a half while the U.S. holds the chairmanship of the council.

In Alaska, we need to move forward on North Slope operations.  Russia is broke and still very actively developing 14 different Arctic resources.  Their economy is not nearly as strong as the U.S.’s but they are ahead of us in the Arctic because they have decided that it is a national priority.

He then talked about what we need to keep in mind when it comes to infrastructure.  Polar Star is nearing the end of its life.  Its use has already been extended, and even if we let a contract in for design, it still will not be ready to go into service until 2020 or 2025.  This means that there is a time gap where the U.S. would have no icebreaking capacity.

Budgets are policy, so we need to watch to see what the budget in FY17 will be.  There needs to be additional money which cannot be carved out of the existing budget.  In addition, we need to finalize the requirements of what the ship will look like and all of its components, then we can allocate funds this year for a competitive design contract.


Keynote Address

Admiral Paul Zukunft, Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, discussed the importance of polar sovereignty – assured year-round access to the Arctic.  Though ships get sent to the Arctic during the ice-free season, until ships are able to access to the Arctic year-round, there will not be polar sovereignty.

He then discussed the planned Arctic voyage of a cruise ship this summer.  The Crystal Serenity will transit through the Bering Strait, the Northwest Passage, make several stops along the coast of Canada, and eventually return to port in New York City.  1000 passengers and 600 crew members will be on board.  That makes 1600 civilians traveling in semi-charted waters, 90% of which are not charted to 21st century standards.

Adm Zukunft said that the Coast Guard’s ability to stage a rescue operation up there is limited to non-existent.  Tickets on the Crystal Serenity are $21,500 each and the August 2016 trip is sold out.  When he has asked members of the tourism industry if other companies are thinking about expanding their operations into the Arctic, the response was “absolutely” given the potential earnings.

More ships transiting the Arctic means greater risk of an accident.  A fundamental element of risk is exposure – “the more times you run the red light, the higher chance you have to hit someone or something” – and the Coast Guard’s rescue capabilities in the High North are limited at best.

Adm Zukunft reiterated that polar sovereignty means ensuring year-round access.  The Navy should not be making it a priority to invest in the Arctic.  Instead, the Navy should be focused on finding the funding to recapitalize their SSBN fleet (ballistic missile submarines), which is a key element of the U.S.’s nuclear trident.  Recapitalizing the Navy’s SSBN fleet would probably cost about $8 billion.  We need to see if we have the investment in the military industrial complex, and if we have the wherewithal to build high technology stealthy platforms that can serve as our nuclear trident.  We need to have a similar industrial complex in the Arctic to say that we have the ability to build these ships.

In our 2016 acquisition, there is a line item so Adm Zukunft can decide what to do about investing in icebreakers.  They are hiring the acquisition staff to do that, and hopefully there will be an appropriation in 2017, so there is a year to bring in the workforce to design and acquire a polar icebreaker.

He said that they did national assessment of all the stakeholders that have equities in the Arctic, which included the Coast Guard, the Navy, DOD, DOI, the Department of Commerce, NOAA, NSF, and the AC.  This was to define the requirements so we can turn to industry to tell them what they need.  If requirements then costs change as well.

Even though there isn’t a current acquisition for an icebreaker, the Coast Guard has posted an RFP on for the USCG Polar Class Icebreaker Replacement Program.  He said that we need to think innovatively about this ship which will have an active duty life of 30 years.  We also need to keep environmental issues in mind.  As advocates for the Polar Code, we need to be stringent when it comes to environmental compliance.


Session I: Operational Imperatives in the Arctic

The following panelists participated in the “operational imperatives” session, which was moderated by Heather Conley:

  • Captain Anthony Potts, Commanding Officer, Canadian Coast Guard
  • Mr. Gary C. Rasicot, Director of Maritime Transportation System, U.S. Coast Guard
  • Dr. Lawson W. Brigham, Distinguished Professor of Geography & Arctic Policy, University of Alaska Fairbanks
  • Mr. Ronald O’Rourke, Specialist in Naval Affairs, Congressional Research Service

Capt Potts began by saying the growing access to one of the world’s last great frontiers has captured Canada’s attention.  Currently 25% of the goods sent to the Canadian Arctic arrive by ship.

Some of the Canadian Coast Guard’s priorities include modernizing marine naval capacity, strengthening icebreaking ship capacity, and strengthening relationships.

Capt Potts added that there is a comprehensive effort to review navigation aids in the Arctic to better meet mariner’s need for shipping routes.  The key to this is access, and the Coast Guard will play a large role in this department. Coast Guard vessels will break ice to keep shipping lanes open to access resources in the Arctic.

The Canadian Coast Guard is the backbone of life in the North, and without them, Arctic communities would be isolated.  Furthermore, given the age of the Canadian Coast Guard fleet, they are looking to recapitalize their fleet.

The Canadian Coast Guard only sends dry good through vessels, but they also support industry vessels that are crossing the Arctic.  To compensate for the increase in activity in Arctic waters, the Canadian Coast Guard has taken an effort to double their Coast Guard’s auxiliary presence.  The Arctic ecosystem is very fragile, and it will need to be demonstrated that they can effectively respond to accidents in the region.

It is essential to identify which shipping corridors will be used in order to ensure money is put towards developing the right corridors.  Corridors ensure that finite resources are able to respond to an evolving demand.

Research is being done to determine what needs to be included in these corridors, and this is not just a Coast Guard initiative.  In addition to the effects of projected traffic increases, research will also be conducted on multi-beam echo responders, and the effect of pollutants and how they will be dispersed.

Gary Rasicot says that we are not sure where a large Arctic base should go in Alaska, so the current mobile and seasonal approach is best for now.

If we want to modernize governance in the Arctic, we need to ratify the LOS treaty.  It is also necessary to broaden partnerships.  Today, there are very few single agency problems, and even fewer single agency solutions.  All Arctic nations agree on keeping people and oil out of the water, so these are two avenues to use the Arctic Coast Guard Forum (ACGF) to build constructive partnerships.

The Coast Guard Academy has also created a Center for Arctic Studies and Policy.  There are plenty of people studying climate change, but not on the impacts that climate change will have on the Coast Guard and Coast Guard operations.

The Coast Guard wants to establish voluntary traffic lanes, which they have been working on in concert with Canadians, and hopefully also with the Russians in the future.  We are also working with technological advancements related to these.

As the waters open up, people are going to be more interested in resources.  Without picking sides, there will be a competition for those resources.  If you want to win you need to do so through influence.  The only way you can do it with influence is by being there in person.

Dr. Lawson W. Brigham said that while the USCGC Healy spent most of the summer in the Arctic conducting science, the other U.S. icebreaker was in Antarctica. The U.S. is one of the few countries operating in multi-mission mode on both ends of the globe.  These ships represent instrumental sovereign policy, and that is sometimes is not emphasized enough.

These icebreakers are also unique, as they are commercial icebreakers constructed mainly for Arctic natural resource development.  The northern sea route is viewed in many different ways, but even the Russians admit that northern routes are seasonal supplements to southern routes.

The missing piece of research is serious economic resource analysis.  The central issues are what the Arctic is truly worth, what are the economic drivers in the region, and how the new Arctic is related to economic development and resource development.

Ronald O’Rourke discussed polar icebreaker modernization, stating that there are two anchor points to start this discussion.

The first point is the 2013 Mission Needs Statement from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) establishes a need to build a new icebreaker, but softens the statement by using the words “potentially” and “up to”. The second anchor point is President Obama’s declaration for the need to build more than one icebreaker during his September 2015 visit to Alaska.

The project to acquire an icebreaker was initiated in the FY13 budgets.  At that time there was a total of $860 million in the Coast Guard’s budget.  It was also stated that they would have a contract by FY18 and the ship built in the following decade.  In FY14, there was a 70% decrease in the five year icebreaker fund.  In FY15, there was no longer a timeline as to when the contract would be awarded.  In FY16, the budget was further decreased, and there was continued uncertainty in the timing of the project.  The 2015 September factsheet is a two year acceleration that simply makes up for the deceleration that happened in the years prior.

O’Rourke assessed the possibility of a time gap.  If a ship is procured in FY20, it will enter into service in 2025, which leaves a 4-6 year gap in polar icebreaking capacity.  He added that this funding dilemma is not limited to icebreakers.  In almost every area in the Coast Guard budget, funding is an issue.  Earlier funding profiles suggest that a serious initial increment of funding for the Coast Guard would be one way to get the FY17 column where it needs to be.

O’Rourke then assessed whether the ship could be procured without using Coast Guard funds.  Healy was funded largely through the Navy’s ship building account.  There is precedent for using funding appropriated to one agency on a whole-of-government basis.  It is not known where this strategy will lead us in the long run.

The idea of building icebreakers for the U.S. in foreign ship yards is being researched because foreign competitors are advertising lower constructions costs.  Many believe that the Jones Act would prevent this from happening, but this is not the case.

Another unknown is who will end up building the ship.  There should be a competitively awarded detailed design contract with a price option built into it.  The icebreaker problem is simply an example of all of the funding problems the Coast Guard has – an icebreaker is not the only thing that the Coast Guard needs funded.


Session II: National Security Issues in the Arctic

Heather Conley was the discussant in the “national security issues” conversation, which was moderated by Jeffery Rathke.

Conley started by talking about how CSIS has been discussing the Arctic for the past seven years, but has avoided the topic of national security in the Arctic.  CSIS discussions have included observations of Russia’s greatly increased activity in the Arctic over the past few years.

We have also seen a change in Russia’s posture going back to the 2006/ 2007 timeframe when Russia began regular patrols of the Arctic, which we have not seen since the Cold War.  That is when the outline of Russia’s military modernization plan became known.

The Russian government has recently announced a strategic command in the Arctic, and has an aspirational plan to have 50 military bases in their Arctic territory by 2020.

They are also exercising with nuclear potential.  The concentration of their sea-based nuclear forces – 81% – is in their northern fleet.  They have increased their special forces by 30%, and have announced that their ten search-and-rescue centers will function as dual use facilities, meaning there will be military applications for their search and rescue centers.

They have enhanced their radar stations, and there have been increases in the operational tempo of their operations in the Arctic and they are practicing retaliatory responses with their nuclear potential.  We saw where Russian forces performed a snap exercise to full combat readiness this past March.  “Snap” implies there was no notification to the other Arctic nation to avoid any chance of a misunderstanding. The fact that they could readily go into full combat mode in the Arctic would probably suggest NATO is straining right now to develop the same level of rapid mobilization.

The question is what are they are trying to prove by demonstrating this?  One explanation is an exertion of their broader sovereignty.  Russia has very ambitious economic plans for a northern sea route and energy development. The Arctic is Russia’s future economic resource base, but over the last few years, their activity has gone beyond the regular exertion of sovereignty.

Some concerning elements include the nationalistic rhetoric from the Kremlin that has now crept fully into the Arctic, making cooperation increasingly difficult.  The dramatic changes in Russia’s military posture means we are looking at a more significant area access, anti-denial posture, which hark back to the Cold War era.

Presence is influence, and it seems that Russia is aiming to come back to its presence during the Cold War era.  Clearly, this is about global projection power capabilities, but we need a full assessment of what these enhanced Russian activities in the Arctic mean.

In the National Defense Authorization Act, Sen. Sullivan (R-AK) recommended that there be an operational plan for the Arctic, which would help us understand if we should be thinking about operating differently in the Arctic.

Expressing concern about Russia’s changing posture in the Arctic and what it means, Conley mentioned that it may be time to rethink the Unified Command Plan (UCP).

Rathke alluded to a trend in Russian military doctrine and strategy – identifying NATO, and the U.S. in particular, as existential threats to Russia.

Their militarization and security policy has spilled over to their construction of the Arctic.  On the topic of Russia’s snap exercises, they are centrally controlled from Moscow and display very quick mobilization.  Their defensive systems, mobilizations, and advanced cyber anti-satellite weapons deny western military forces the ability to conduct their own military operations.  Given that these technologies are designed with a defensive mindset, they are clearly aimed at precluding our ability to maneuver in that space.

Rathke stated that NATO responds in the terms of adaptation.  To date, they have not done any work to develop what their own posture should be in the Arctic.  NATO moves when all 28 members have agreed, and currently, not all 28 countries have reached a consensus on whether there is a military role in the Arctic, or even if we should begin to plan for one there.  The countries that make up NATO are not sure what level of investment to make in the Arctic given all the other concurrent challenges in the world.

Rathke’s last point, and what he believed to be most important, is that increases in activity show an increase in investment and a desire to make a contested space a certain way.  Russia is using this space to redefine the order of security that is in existence today, which they do not believe favors them.  Russia is looking for ways to break out the constraints of economic sanctions, political isolation, and military disadvantage, and the Arctic is an avenue that allows them to do that.

Conley added that Russia had previously diminished its presence in the North, so given this, their recent activity is absolutely a rebuilding perspective.  Russia often rebuilds through military expression, which makes it challenging for analysts looking at Russia’s actions in the Arctic.  Sometimes they can be very cooperative, but at the same time they are very provocative, so we have to deal with both sides of that coin.  They exist in both spaces, so one avenue allows us to keep constructive dialogue going.  At the same time, this cannot prevent us from addressing negative behaviors such as non-notification of exercises, and turning off military aircraft transponders when flying over certain areas.