Defense Media Network

Newest Defense Media Network Promotion

The Coast Guard’s Arctic Surge

 

 

On Aug. 16, 2016, the Crystal Serenity – a ship with 13 decks, eight restaurants, a casino, and a spa – departed Seward, Alaska, for a historic voyage: With more than 1,000 passengers and 600 crewmembers aboard, it sailed around the Aleutian Island chain, through the Bering Strait, along the Arctic coast of Alaska’s North Slope and, on Aug. 27, became the largest cruise ship ever to enter Canada’s Northwest Passage. The ship completed its monthlong voyage in New York City on Sept. 16.

The Coast Guard carries out Arctic missions year-round, of course; in early March, when a pair of British kayakers sent out a distress signal near Little Diomede Island, in the Bering Strait, rescue crews from Kodiak – 760 miles away – arrived in time to save the men, who were well prepared to wait for help.

Such a trip would have been unthinkable as recently as a decade ago, but longer ice-free summers have opened the Arctic maritime to an increasing amount of human activity in recent years. The Crystal Serenity’s luxury cruise is a dramatic illustration of how fast things are changing: Just last summer, the greatest concern above the Arctic Circle was the potential for an oil discharge from an exploratory offshore well operated by Royal Dutch Shell plc – but the company, citing poor results, low oil prices, and an unpredictable regulatory environment, abruptly and indefinitely suspended its operations in the Arctic after sinking more than $8 billion into the effort.

Crystal Serenity introduces a new contingency for the Coast Guard and Arctic communities: a mass rescue, in an area with multiple challenges unique to the region. In the March 2016 issue of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings, Cmdr. Douglas T. Wahl, USN (Ret.), and Cmdr. Timothy P. McGeehan, USN, outlined several of these challenges in an article titled, “Search and Rescue in the Arctic”: American capabilities for search and rescue (SAR) in the Arctic, they argued, were hindered by shortfalls in communications, navigation, capable platforms, logistics and training, meteorology/oceanography, and infrastructure.

These shortcomings aren’t unique to SAR – they could hinder the Coast Guard from fulfilling any of its 11 statutory missions in the Arctic – nor are they new to the service, which has been in Alaska for the last century and a half. Nevertheless, they do represent tactical problems that must be solved – particularly during the summer season, when the service’s area of responsibility in its 17th District (Alaska) roughly doubles in size.

 

Operating Day to Day in a “New Ocean”

The Coast Guard’s seasonal surge north, now an annual exercise known was Arctic Shield, is launched when the ice-free season begins, at what the rest of Americans think of as the height of summer. 2016 operations officially began on July 1, when the Coast Guard moved people and a pair of MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters to a rented hangar in the city of Kotzebue, about 175 miles northeast of the Bering Strait. The service also stepped up its presence in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, aboard cutters and the medium icebreaker Healy.

cgc healy

Chief Petty Officer Mark Wanjongkhum and Chief Warrant Officer Michael Allen, both from Surface Forces Logistics Center, walk under the CGC Healy while in dry dock at Vigor Shipyard in Seattle, Washington, March 31, 2016. Healy, a medium oceangoing icebreaker and one of two operational oceangoing icebreakers in the service’s fleet, underwent three months of maintenance. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Zac Crawford

The scale of this annual surge is hard to convey to people who haven’t visited the region. The Coast Guard has literally no permanently stationed assets north of Anchorage. Most SAR cases are conducted from Air Station Kodiak, a 941-mile flight from the northernmost U.S. city, Barrow – about the same distance as between New York City and Jacksonville, Florida. The deep-water port nearest Barrow is Dutch Harbor, on the Aleutian island of Unalaska, a sea voyage of more than five days and 1,300 nautical miles – but rough weather prevents sea voyages for much of the year. There are no roads connecting any of Alaska’s Arctic settlements.

The great distances are only one factor complicating the Coast Guard’s work in the Arctic. During these summer operations, in both the everyday execution of its missions and in planned exercises and evaluations that usually involve other agencies, the service confronts and continues to develop solutions to the tactical challenges outlined by Wahl and McGeehan in their Proceedings article:

  • Infrastructure

The Coast Guard carries out Arctic missions year-round, of course; in early March, when a pair of British kayakers sent out a distress signal near Little Diomede Island, in the Bering Strait, rescue crews from Kodiak – 760 miles away – arrived in time to save the men, who were well prepared to wait for help.

Prev Page 1 2 3 4 5 Next Page

By

Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...