As the U.S. Coast Guard prepares to spend more of its time – and to move more of its assets – into the Alaskan Arctic, it’s answering the simple questions first: Where can it put people? How will these people operate in an environment with no ports or ship maintenance facilities – a place where the roads are unpaved because of the permafrost, where fast ice clings to the shore for up to 10 months of the year, and where beach surfaces vary from jagged ice and stone to sandy swamps that won’t support the weight of an average person, let alone a vehicle?
In the northernmost U.S. community, Barrow, there are currently few options for moving people from land to sea, or vice versa. According to Chief Warrant Officer Mark Helmers of the Coast Guard’s 17th District Response Division, the city hauls out a makeshift portable boat ramp once the ice is no longer hard to the shore. About 15 miles to the east, near Point Barrow, “there’s a rather rudimentary concrete boat launch ramp, but that’s in very shallow water.”
One of the aims of the Coast Guard’s Operation Arctic Shield, conducted in the summer of 2012, was to assess the service’s capabilities in the region. The service’s likely mission profile in the Arctic will require it to maneuver in shallow water or on solid ice, or through a mixture of ice and water, and launch and recover craft on unimproved surfaces. Currently, there’s nothing in the Coast Guard’s asset inventory that matches that profile.
In 2011, after researching options, the service’s research and development center (RDC) in New London, Conn., recommended that the service conduct a series of evaluations for ice-capable craft in the Arctic. The Coast Guard followed up with a broad agency announcement seeking applied research contracts – basically, inviting manufacturers of Arctic-capable craft to participate in evaluative demonstrations. Because the high Alaskan Arctic has few good roads and no ports, the service specifically requested that the vehicles to be evaluated be deployable from a ship or C-130 Hercules cargo plane.
Ultimately, two amphibious craft were selected by key Coast Guard stakeholders for participation in these first exercises, conducted in and around Barrow from Aug. 13-17, 2012. The exercises involved experts from the center, the Coast Guard Office of Boat Forces, the Surface Forces Logistics Center, and personnel from District 17 – people such as Helmers, a boat manager at Coast Guard Station Juneau, who was selected because of his experience in making launch attempts in the Arctic.
The first craft, the ARKTOS®, is manufactured by ARKTOS Developments Ltd., of Surrey, British Columbia. Already contracted for private use around several oil rigs – it’s capable of evacuating up to 52 people at a time – the ARKTOS resembles a pair of coupled amphibious assault vehicles: two connected pods, each with a fiber-reinforced hull, driven by diesel-powered tracked wheels on land and by jet propulsion in water.
The 50-foot-long, 32-ton ARKTOS is a big vehicle and too wide to fit into a Hercules – the craft used in the evaluation was brought in on a barge from an oil rig in Prudhoe Bay – but the Coast Guard, assured by ARKTOS that a future version could be scaled down, still wanted to see how it performed.
The second participant, manufactured by Amphib Alaska/Tyler Rental of Ketchikan, Alaska, specifically for the evaluation exercise, was the Amphib Alaska, an 8-ton, 21-foot-long craft finished days before the demonstration and flown in on a Hercules.
According to Rich Hansen of the Coast Guard RDC, the craft were taken out to spots near Barrow to attempt several tasks. “We captured information about how quickly they moved through the water, how quickly they moved along the beach, things of that nature,” he said. “The sand up there – if you can call it sand – is a mix of everything from large pea stone down to fine sand, and so it’s very soft. If you walk on it, you sink much deeper than you would on a normal beach here in Connecticut. So you can’t have a lot of ground pressure. Both vessels were able to operate in that environment.”
The evaluations, Hansen said, revealed unique strengths and weaknesses for each amphibious craft; the ARKTOS, for example, proved extraordinarily adaptable to changing surface conditions, sailing out to an ice floe several miles offshore and then using its spiked treads to climb onto the ice. The Amphib Alaska, capable of retracting its 12-inch-wide tracks into a watertight hull, sailed remarkably fast for an amphibious craft.
Amphibious Craft Evaluation a First Step in the Arctic
Both Helmers and Hansen cautioned that the amphibious craft evaluation wasn’t a prelude to a purchase – far from it. “This was a first step in what is going to be a continuous process,” said Helmers. “We’re just reaching out to see what kind of off-the-shelf technology is available for the Coast Guard to utilize in the Arctic. It has to be a continuous process, because as the Arctic opens up, more companies are going to get Arctic smart, and I think you’ll see a progression in the technology that operates in the Arctic year-round.”
In the coming year, Hansen said the service will evaluate its own existing technologies to see which are most suitable for Arctic adaptation. While the Coast Guard uses lightweight ice skiffs – themselves adapted from the airboats of the Florida Everglades – for water and ice maneuverability on the Great Lakes, the skiffs are probably too lightweight for use in the Arctic surf. They’re also notoriously loud. The Coast Guard’s Arctic mission requires sensitivity to local communities and the wildlife they rely on for food – and an airboat loud enough to scare off a walrus is probably a bad fit.
“We’re going to be looking at things we could do with the existing Coast Guard boat forces,” said Hansen, “that might make them able to operate up there. For example, an RB-S [the service’s response boat-small] can go into a C-130. But how would we get it across an unimproved beach like those we experience up there, where you don’t have a boat ramp, you don’t have a harbor? Can you launch something into the surf, or not? How well would our existing RB-Ss deal with running into chunks of ice in the water? Because when it’s deemed ‘ice free’ up there, that only means less than 10 percent ice coverage. There can still be a lot of ice in the water. If you ran into an ice floe like the one they encountered in August, one that pretty much stretched from horizon to horizon, your only choice in an open boat is to try and go around it. And that’s not a good option.”
Just because there is no obvious answer sitting in a Coast Guard garage or boat slip, Hansen said, doesn’t mean the service shouldn’t be taking a long and careful look for adaptable candidates among its existing inventory. Buying highly specialized, location-specific assets simply isn’t the Coast Guard way – and hasn’t been for more than two centuries.
“That doesn’t fit our multi-mission model at all,” said Hansen. “The unique requirements of the Arctic could require the Coast Guard to acquire or develop a specialist – but not before all conceivable options have been considered. “Right now we’re just trying to provide the Office of Boat Forces as much information as we can,” Hansen said, “so they’ll have a body of knowledge to make an informed decision.”
This article first appeared in the Coast Guard Outlook 2013 Edition.