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Coast Guard Commandant Wants Bigger Arctic Presence – How Cool is That?

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China and Russia, America’s great-power competitors, are increasing their presence in the Arctic Ocean, as are many other nations, said Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl L. Schultz.

“Presence equals influence. If we don’t have a presence there, our competitors will,” Schultz said at the Wilson Center in Washington.

Here are five things to know about the Arctic, according to the commandant:

As a result of climate change, the Arctic Ocean is heating up, causing a steady melting and thinning of sea ice. As a result, cruise ships are sailing into the Arctic, and this year, a Maersk container ship transited the Arctic. Also, nations are engaged in mineral, oil and gas exploration there. The implication is that the Arctic is vital to commerce and national security, he said.
Russia has 46 ice cutters, including seven that are nuclear powered, and 12 more are under construction, he said. Although China isn’t an Arctic nation, they have two ice cutters and another under construction. “It’s hard not to see [China’s ] activities in the Arctic as anything but an overt claim to power, pure and simple.” The U.S. Coast Guard has a mere two ice cutters, he said: the Polar Sea, a heavy ice cutter commissioned in 1976, and the Healy, a medium ice cutter, commissioned in 1999. The Polar Sea can ram though ice up to 21 feet thick and operate continuously through ice 6 feet thick. How cool is that?
The two U.S. ice cutters do a variety of operations in the high latitudes, Schultz said, meaning not only in the Arctic, but also around Antarctica. The cutters go on oceanographic research expeditions, conduct search and rescue missions, and sail at the request of combatant commanders as well as the Department of Homeland Security, as do all cutters. The Polar Star is strong enough to cut channels for ships resupplying scientists in Antarctica. The Coast Guard, incidentally, is the only military service to fall under DHS.
Cutter floats in sea ice
Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star Crew
The Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star operates about 13 miles from McMurdo Station, Antarctica, Jan. 26, 2018.
Photo By: Coast Guard Fireman John Pelzel
VIRIN: 180126-G-G0213-0010C
The Coast Guard is big on partnerships, Schultz said. The Coast Guard builds ties and trust through diplomacy and cooperation with many nations in venues such as the Arctic Council, the Arctic Coast Guard Forum, the North Pacific Coast Guard Forum and the International Maritime Organization, as well as formal and informal bilateral relations with many nations. For example, the U.S. Coast Guard cooperates with the Arctic nations, including Russia, on issues involving fishing treaties. Incidentally, the Arctic nations also include Canada, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and Denmark.
At the top of the commandant’s wish list is legislative funding for the Polar Security Cutter. The Polar Security Cutter is actually more than one cutter. It’s a program to acquire three new heavy polar icebreakers, to be followed years from now by the acquisition of up to three new medium polar icebreakers. The Coast Guard wants to begin construction of the first new heavy polar icebreaker in this fiscal year and have it enter by fiscal 2023.

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