With funding for new icebreakers nowhere in sight, some analysts – such as conservative scholar James Carafano – have called for a new paradigm in Arctic operations: A privatized fleet of icebreakers, working for hire, that will help assert the nation’s commercial interests, national security, and sovereignty.
Despite rapid climate change, the Coast Guard is taking a more measured, cautious approach to its future in the polar regions. Capt. James J. Fisher, the Coast Guard’s Chief of Policy Integration, says that in terms of the Coast Guard’s current operational mandate in the Arctic, there’s no reason for alarm. “If we have two fully functional icebreakers – and in this case it would be the Healy, our medium icebreaker, and one of our heavy icebreakers, the Polar Star – and the budget authority to operate, maintain, and train those vessels and their crews for polar ice breaking missions, we’ll be able to meet our current operational requirements,” Fisher said.
The future, Fisher acknowledges, is a big unknown: While it’s possible there could be a big increase in activities such as offshore oil and gas drilling, ecotourism, fishing, and maritime shipping, so far the most obvious increase in Alaska’s polar waters has been more frequent tug and barge traffic on resupply voyages to northern communities. Reports of explosions in activity, Fisher cautioned, need to be placed in perspective; yes, cruise ship traffic north of the Bering Strait has nearly doubled from 2008 to 2011, but that has meant an increase from five or six annual visits to about a dozen. “The media out of Russia is reporting that they’re going to increase the number of ships they send through the Northern Sea Route [sometimes known as the North East Passage, along Russia’s Arctic coast] by about 500 percent,” Fisher said. “But 500 percent of one or two is still not a huge number.”
Before it pulls the trigger on a billion-dollar heavy icebreaker – in today’s budget climate, a fantastic idea – the Coast Guard will need to define more clearly what it would be used for, or whether heavy icebreakers will be necessary at all to meet future mission requirements. From 2009 to 2010, the Coast Guard conducted what it called the High Latitude Study, an analysis of its statutory missions in the Arctic and Antarctic regions. While the results of the study have not been made public, Fisher described it as a three-volume study, the third of which dealt specifically with ice breaking requirements. It focuses on the question: What will the operational requirements be for the Coast Guard in the polar regions, and what assets will it need to maintain a presence there?
While the Coast Guard has explicitly refused to hazard a guess as to what kinds of equipment, vessels, or aircraft will be needed to maintain or expand Arctic operations, it hasn’t prevented others from airing their visions. Given the difficulty – and expense – likely to be involved in building and maintaining Arctic shore-based stations, retired Coast Guard Rear Adm. Jeffrey Garrett, a consulting expert on national security issues, envisions a future in which a heavy icebreaker serves as a “mobile command post” to project other Coast Guard assets – smallboats, aircraft, heavy-lift cranes, and rescue or enforcement personnel – into more remote Arctic locations.
The Coast Guard’s own analyses may eventually reach a similar conclusion – or they may not. As a follow-on to the High Latitude Study, the service’s proposed FY 2012 budget includes a request for an in-depth, DHS-led study of the nation’s ice breaking requirements – and it will likely be this study, Fisher said, that will provide the data the Coast Guard needs to map out its future at the poles. “There will be some missions up there, and during certain times of the year,” Fisher said, “where you don’t necessarily need an icebreaker. You may just need an ice-strengthened vessel. The two functional icebreakers we have will just be a bridging strategy, until we get the results of that study and have a much better sense of what the long-term polar icebreaker requirements are for the nation.”