Know Your Military

Partnerships Vital to U.S. Arctic Strategy

Sept. 13, 2019 | BY David Vergun

With the melting and thinning of Arctic sea ice, there has been an influx of tourist and commercial shipping, an increase in mining and petrochemical extraction and an expanded military presence by allies as well as by Russia and China, the U.S. Coast Guard's vice commandant said.

Adm. Charles W. Ray spoke today at the American Society of Naval Engineers-sponsored Arctic Day 2019 in Washington.

"Our nation is an Arctic nation. We've been operating in the Arctic nearly 150 years," Ray said, mentioning that he was stationed in Kodiak, Alaska, 30 years ago.

A person approaches a giant red ship sitting on an ice field against a pink-streaked sky.
Arctic Giant
The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Healy sits in the ice about 715 miles north of Barrow, Alaska, Sept. 30, 2018, during an Arctic research mission.
Photo By: Coast Guard Senior Chief Petty Officer NyxoLyno Cangemi
VIRIN: 181003-G-EM820-699Y

However, the Arctic is a much different place than three decades ago, he said.

Since 2013, the Russians built 14 icebreakers and six new military bases in the Arctic. Likewise, China has built icebreakers, he said, while the U.S. only has two heavy icebreakers, both over 43 years old and past their normal service lives.

One of the main missions the Coast Guard has in the Arctic is enforcing rules-based behavior, he said.

Man speaks
Vice Commandant
Vice Commandant of the Coast Guard Adm. Charles W. Ray, speaks at the American Society of Naval Engineers-sponsored Arctic Day symposia in Washington, Sept. 13, 2019.
Photo By: David Vergun, DOD
VIRIN: 190913-D-UB488-001C

"Anything we do in the Arctic requires a collaborative effort," Ray said. "We are a much better off as a nation when we operate in coordination with other nations that have a similar interest there. And, while we have significant strategic competition, that doesn't mean that there has to be conflict."

America, along with other Arctic nations, have significant roles in the Arctic Council and other forums that promote rules-based behavior, Ray said.

People get rope lifted out of icy water
Rope Lift
Aleasha Atoruk, a Kotzebue Fire Department volunteer, simulates a rescue of Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Alexis Lopez, a member of the National Ice Rescue School, as part of ice rescue training in Kotzebue, Alaska, March 19, 2019.
Photo By: Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Matthew Scho
VIRIN: 190319-G-HE371-0022C
Men squat in field
Alaska Aircrew
Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak aircrews conduct search-and-rescue training north of Kotzebue, Alaska, July 6, 2019.
Photo By: Coast Guard
VIRIN: 190706-G-G0217-4004C
Woman pulls herself out of the icy ocean
Cold Alaska
Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Shannon Eubanks pulls herself out from the Arctic Ocean during ice rescue training, Oct. 3, 2018, about 715 miles north of Barrow, Alaska. Eubanks is a crew member aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, which is behind her.
Photo By: NyxoLyno Cangemi, Coast Guard
VIRIN: 181003-G-EM820-293C

The Coast Guard's collaborative effort extends to the Navy as well. Ray said he expects to see more Arctic-area exercises in the future involving the Coast Guard, Navy, Marine Corps, as well as allies and partner militaries. The Navy and Coast Guard in fact have an exercise coming up in the next couple of weeks in the Alaskan waters.

The Navy also assists the Coast Guard in shipbuilding and requirements development as well as helping shape the contracts for its new cutters. "We wouldn't be where we are today without the Navy," he said.

Ship sails in bay
Port Visit
The USS Comstock sails into Kodiak, Alaska, for a port visit during the Arctic Expeditionary Capabilities Exercise 2019, Sept. 10, 2019.
Photo By: Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Brand
VIRIN: 190910-N-NL576-323C

Capability means having a credible presence in the Arctic, Ray said. 

At a minimum, three heavy ice cutters and three medium ice cutters are what the Coast Guard needs to have this presence, he said, noting that one heavy ice cutter, known as the Polar Security Cutter has received funding and funding has also been provided for a service life extension on the old heavy cutter, the Polar Star.

The Polar Security Cutter should be sailing by 2024, he added.