In a typical year, Alaska’s 1,060-mile Arctic coastline is encased in shorefast ice from November to July, a period when few – except for the Iñupiat whalers who ply the narrow offshore leads in their sealskin boats during the spring bowhead whale season – venture offshore. In midsummer, when the ice begins to recede, it’s a busy maritime environment, and getting busier, as the Arctic ice-free season grows longer.
During the busiest months, August and September 2012, according to Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, commander of the U.S. Coast Guard’s 17th District, there can be upward of 50 vessels along Alaska’s Arctic coast north of the Bering Strait, with half of them off the coast of Alaska’s North Slope: ecotourism operators; mineral explorers; oil workers supporting offshore drilling preparations; cargo vessels; and scientific research vessels, including a Coast Guard cutter. Ostebo’s early estimate of the number of vessels passing through the Bering Strait in 2012, from Alaska’s Pacific waters into the Arctic expanse of the Chukchi Sea, was nearly 500 vessels – more than twice the number of Bering transits for 2008 in 2012.
The longer ice-free season in the Arctic and the corresponding increase in maritime activities have essentially doubled District 17’s area of responsibility, both in terms of size and maritime customers, and over the past several years, the Coast Guard has responded by projecting its assets into a region where several factors – a harsh climate and environment, a lack of infrastructure and knowledge, and the logistical challenges these factors impose – have historically prevented the service from having much of a presence.
There is no organization better equipped than the U.S. Coast Guard, however, to ensure the Arctic remains safe, secure, and environmentally sustainable, and exercises/operations over the past few years have been aimed at increasing its Arctic presence, measuring its capabilities, and planning a tactical and operational profile for the future. The most recent of these operations, Arctic Shield 2012, was conducted from a forward operating location (FOL) established in Barrow, Alaska, during the maritime season that lasted from July to October.
“This is the first year we’ve had a ready operational presence in the Arctic,” said Ostebo. “It’s the first year we’ve had a sustained offshore presence for all Coast Guard missions, a 24/7 ready posture in the Arctic.”
Arctic Shield 2012 was conceived to consist of three interrelated elements: outreach to the Alaskan Native partners, operations, and capabilities assessment.
It’s misleading, said Susan Hargis, tribal liaison for District 17, to think the Coast Guard’s outreach efforts are aimed at a single exercise or season. “The Arctic is now an essential part of our operating area,” she said. “The melting ice has created exponential increases in shipping, in tourism, in resource extraction, and the Coast Guard has a mandate to be there in those situations. And in order to operate effectively in such a unique environment, we have to engage with the local people who have lived there for thousands of years and learn what they know.”
In 2012, about 70 percent of the service’s more than 100 tribal engagements in Alaska were focused on Arctic communities. Many of these were higher-level collaborations, with senior Coast Guard leaders engaging with Alaskan Natives, Arctic municipal governments, and tribal governments.
The people of the 17th District also led or participated in 55 events in 26 different Arctic communities, generally focusing on health and safety: More than 1,300 community members received health and/or dental care; more than 440 animals received veterinary care; and more than 2,900 grade-school students received safety training through the state’s Kids Don’t Float program. Coast Guard personnel also conducted 79 commercial fishing vessel safety (CFVS) examinations in six villages – including the first CFVS visits ever in the village of Savoonga, a remote island community closer to Russia than the Alaska mainland, where Siberian Yupik is the native language.
The focus on the community level during these outreach efforts, Hargis said, is aimed squarely at the Coast Guard’s operational future in the Arctic. “You’re learning information about their runway, or their dock facilities, or their community infrastructure, in case we have to, say, conduct a medevac, or in case we need to land helicopters or conduct other Coast Guard operations in those communities,” she said. “For example, you might need the community’s health aide, who is going to be the person who calls the command center, to understand a little bit of how to engage with us. Or we may learn that the runway at Point Hope is almost three miles from town, so we won’t want to just drop a team off there without arranging transportation. Community outreach is essentially building relationships and learning about the communities.”
The operational component of Arctic Shield began in mid-July, as District 17 established FOL Barrow with a pair of Kodiak-based MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters in a small rented hangar at Barrow’s Wiley Post-Will Rogers Memorial Airport. Coast Guard members, stationed at FOL Barrow for two to three weeks at a time, were divided into two detachments: an aviation detachment (AVDET), consisting of 15 people, and the 11-member communications detachment.