For as long as the United States has been an Arctic nation, the U.S. Coast Guard and its predecessors have been there to fulfill the service’s statutory missions. Some of the service’s most storied rescues and exploits were carried out above the Arctic Circle, the latitudes just north of the Bering Strait, and the names of those Arctic heroes – Healy, Bertholf, Jarvis, Call, and Bear, among others – have been etched into everyday life in the Coast Guard.
It’s been more than 150 years since the United States purchased Alaska from Russia, and for more than 140 of those years, the vast majority of the Coast Guard’s Alaska work has been carried out below the Strait, in the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska, for the simple reason that there hasn’t been much navigable water in the American Arctic, other than the ice leads plied by Alaska natives in search of food. In 2009, a year after sea ice retreated enough to create navigable waters around the northern ice pack for the first time in recorded history, the service’s Arctic workload increased: Coast Guard District 17, headquartered in Juneau, began conducting a seasonal surge of personnel and assets northward – Operation Arctic Shield – to conduct maritime domain awareness patrols, outreach, safety inspections, and enforcement operations in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas north of the Bering Strait.
Arctic Shield is aimed at projecting Coast Guard presence into remote areas that remain icebound for around half the year, and that are known for their harsh climate and lack of infrastructure. There are no Coast Guard bases above the Arctic Circle, and Utqiagvik, the northernmost city in the United States, is nearly 1,300 nautical miles – a five-day sail – from the nearest deep-water port at Dutch Harbor. The nearest Coast Guard Air Station, on Kodiak Island, is a 940-mile flight from Utqiagvik.
Despite the extreme distances and obstacles, Arctic Shield operations have been overwhelmingly successful – and these successes are due largely to the relationships the Coast Guard has built and nurtured with the communities it serves in the region. “Fostering relationships among federal, state, tribal, and local partners is huge for us,” said Cmdr. Molly Hayes, Arctic Shield Operational Planner for District 17. “That’s how we’re able to do all that we’re able to do in the Arctic – being able respond to incidents and complete our statutory missions depends on these close working relationships with people who know the region, and their communities, better than anyone.”
2020 was far from a normal year in the Coast Guard’s least-normal operating environment. In the spring, as District 17 began mobilizing for Arctic Shield, it became clear that the global COVID-19 pandemic would compel operational adjustments – including a rethinking of service members’ interactions with remote communities that maintained a degree of geographic protection from the pandemic.
Operation Arctic Shield was formally launched on July 1, with the deployment of aircrews and two MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters from Kodiak to their forward operating location (FOL): a National Guard hangar in Kotzebue Sound. But most of the district’s annual outreach and engagement activities – in many ways the backbone of the Coast Guard’s Arctic work – began much sooner. In February, for example, the service provided ice rescue training to first responders in Kotzebue and Point Hope. As the viral pandemic escalated, Hayes said, the service was forced to re-evaluate its plans for engagement. “Anything that wasn’t mission-critical – a lot of those outreach and engagement opportunities –we tried to scale back,” said Hayes. The participation of Coast Guard prevention personnel in recreational boating safety and Kids Don’t Float, a statewide program that provided safety training for more than 3,900schoolchildren in 24 Alaska villages last year, was called off for 2020 to limit the risk of introducing COVID-19 to these communities.
With COVID-19 precautions in place, District 17 was able to maintain its on-the-water presence: the medium icebreaker Healy, the National Security Cutter Munro, and the cutter Alex Haley patrolled waters in the Bering and Chukchi Seas, in support of maritime domain awareness, search and rescue, community relations, and scientific research. Healy and Munro helped recertify MH-60 aircrews in shipboard landings that serve to extend the Coast Guard’s operational reach. Cutter Kukui and Pacific Area’s deployable specialized forces (Maritime Safety Security Team San Francisco) exercised the Coast Guard’s expeditionary law enforcement capability, conducting commercial fishing vessel safety on-water enforcement in Bristol Bay during the state’s most significant commercial salmon fishery.
One of the busiest units during Arctic Shield 2020 was the Marine Safety Task Force, which was formed by CoastGuard Sector Anchorage last year to ensure the safety of far-flung facilities in Western and Northern Alaska that aren’t reachable by road but are critical to the survival of communities – especially fuel storage facilities that must carry residents through the sub-freezing winter months. “Once we were able to put into place our COVID precautions,” Hayes said, “we were to do many of our facilities inspections under our prevention mission. We did these using a risk-based approach.”
These inspections, Hayes said, required a lot of planning and communication. “What would be routine in the lower 48 states is not routine up here,” she said. “It could take days to travel up to these little communities to do a facility inspection, and without a good-weather window, you could get stuck.” Sector Anchorage implemented a hub-and-spoke system, centering clusters of operations from communities that offer easier access to several other (relatively) nearby communities. Despite the distances and other challenges, the Marine Safety Task Force conducted 172 inspections of regulated storage facilities, 405 commercial fishing vessel examinations, six Port State Control examinations, and numerous other inspections and exercises. “Sector Anchorage has done an outstanding job coordinating that effort,” Hayes said.“They’ve been streamlining that and becoming more efficient in reaching these remote facilities.”
The Shrinking Ice-capable Fleet
As Hayes pointed out, Arctic Shield, while an impressive surge in resources and activity, accounts for only part of the Coast Guard’s work above the Bering Strait. “Our planning is year-round, and we’re doing things in the Arctic all year, but we really come through in the summer months when we’re able to travel up there. We’re able to bring in reservists and active-duty personnel who can assist Sector Anchorage with these missions that, yes, are in their back yard, but wouldn’t be possible without the increased support.”
Year-round presence in the Arctic requires icebreakers – ships capable of maneuvering through ice-covered waters by means of strengthened hulls and engines powerful enough to ram through sea ice. The Coast Guard operates the only U.S. icebreaking fleet capable of establishing a persistent influence in the polar regions, and by the outset of Arctic Shield 2020, that fleet was down to two operational ships: the 21-year-old, 420-foot Healy, a medium icebreaker capable of breaking through a maximum of about 10 feet of ice, and the Polar Star, a 399-foot heavy icebreaker capable of breaking through 21 feet of ice. As it enters its 45th year of service, Polar Star is performing well but living on borrowed time – and borrowed parts, scavenged from its decommissioned sister ship, Polar Sea, which has been out of service and berthed at its Seattle homeport since 2010. Polar Star spends half of every year dry-docked in Seattle, where it undergoes intensive maintenance and refurbishment. Healy, outfitted primarily as a platform for research and hydrographic surveying, plays a crucial role in fulfilling Coast Guard missions in the Arctic.
In August 2020, this fleet was temporarily reduced to one operational icebreaker. Healy, after completing the Arctic Shield component of its summer deployment, was on its way to Seward, Alaska, to pick up a science team from the Office of Naval Research when an electrical fire broke out, disabling its starboard propulsion motor and shaft. The remainder of its voyage was canceled, and one of its primary tasks – to retrieve a set of scientific instruments with a year’s worth of important temperature data, moored as far north as 82 degrees latitude in the Beaufort Sea – was later conducted when the Norwegian Coast Guard and its icebreaker Svalbard came to the rescue.
According to Lt. Cmdr. Andrew Dennelly, polar operations program manager for the Coast Guard’sPacific Area, the effort to repair Healy has been a gargantuan undertaking: The icebreaker managed to limp into the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, California, to be dry-docked and have its ruined 106-ton motor removed. Because the ship was literally built around its power plant, removal required cutting through the heavy ice-capable hull. Meanwhile, a 23-year-old replacement motor was hauled out of storage – it was so large that the structure around it had to be taken apart– at the Coast Guard Yard in Baltimore, Maryland; loaded onto a barge; and shipped through the Panama Canal to Mare Island, where it arrived in mid-November.
“They have the failed motor pulled out,” Dennelly said in an early December interview, “and the new one is actually inside the skin of the ship right now.”He expected the rest of the work – testing, certifying, welding, painting, and then sailing for Healy’s homeport of Seattle – to be completed by the end of the calendar year. “All in all,” he said, “we’ve definitely had our hands full repairing Healy.”
As Healy’s repairs began at Mare Island, Polar Star was gearing up for its scheduled departure from Seattle to the Antarctic, where it is typically the mainstay of the annual interagency Operation Deep Freeze: breaking outa sea route for the resupply of McMurdo Station, the U.S.research facility in Antarctica.
The Healy incident, which left the United States without an ice-capable cutter in the Arctic for the first time in years, underscores how limited American resources are in the polar regions. The Arctic is no longer an unfrequented maritime wilderness; it’s an arena of increasing economic and geopolitical engagement, which makes U.S. presence there critical to national security. In his State of the Coast Guard address in February, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz declared that having essentially one U.S. icebreaker assigned to cover each of the polar regions was “a woefully unacceptable level of presence in an area where we must be a leading force. Presence equals influence.”
Maintaining Arctic Presence and Influence, Now and in the Future
In a year full of surprises, the Coast Guard received a rare opportunity to project influence into the Arctic as fall turned to winter – and, in the southern polar region, spring turned to summer. Unseasonably warm weather, along with concerns about confining Polar Star’s crew for a long voyage during the COVID-19 pandemic, led to the cancellation of the icebreaking component of Operation Deep Freeze. Supplies would be airlifted to McMurdo during the summer months.
With Polar Star suddenly available and ready for deployment, it sailed north instead, departing Seattle on Dec. 4 for its first non-scientific mission to the Arctic in 26 years. The express purpose of the voyage, which was scheduled to last until February, was “to help protect the nation’s maritime sovereignty and security in the region.”
Why does the Coast Guard need to assert U.S. sovereignty in a region at a time when that region is mostly frozen over? The answer is simple: because vessels from other nations increasingly are found there, sometimes inside the U.S. exclusive economic zone. Around the time of the Healy fire, several U.S. fishing vessels were driven out of their fishery by Russian naval vessels conducting a military exercise. In addition to its fleet of about 50 icebreakers, Russia is building new military bases in the Arctic. China, despite having no Arctic-adjacent territory, has asserted a presence in the region also; it operates two medium icebreakers and is designing its first heavy icebreaker.
As a member of the Arctic Coast Guard Forum, the Coast Guard engages in high-level efforts to increase stability and cooperation in the region, and enjoys close working relationships with its counterparts from the seven other Arctic nations. Russia’s 50-icebreaker fleet is huge compared to every other Arctic nation’s, but so is its Arctic coast: At about 15,000 miles, it accounts for more than half the coastline above the Arctic Circle. There’s no reason to expect confrontation or conflict, and compared to other parts of the world, tensions in the Arctic are fairly low. But at a time when nations such as Russia and China are stepping up their presence there, the loss of the Healy left the United States essentially blind to what was happening in the Arctic maritime domain. The dispatch of Polar Star was a commonsense acknowledgment of the emerging Arctic reality. “U.S. waters are in the Arctic, and we had an asset available,” said Dennelly. “There’s a need to project U.S. sovereign power at will on a year-round basis in the Arctic.”
The Coast Guard has been leading the charge to recognize this changing environment. In 2012, it established a joint program with the U.S. Navy to begin an acquisition program for heavy polar icebreakers. Five years ago, the service determined, through its own strategic analysis, that it would need three medium and three heavy icebreakers to meet its mission requirements in the polar regions. Last April, the Coast Guard and the Navy awarded shipbuilder VT Halter Marine, of Pascagoula, Mississippi, a $745 million design and construction contract for the first of three Polar Security Cutters: 460-foot heavy diesel-electric icebreakers configured to provide as much icebreaking power as the current Polar class. The Coast Guard’s 2021 budget proposal includes an additional $555 million to fully fund the construction of a second Polar Security Cutter.
The Coast Guard expects to keep the Polar Security Cutter, the nation’s first new heavy icebreaker in 40 years, on a tight production schedule that will see the first enter service in 2024, with a goal of having the entire icebreaker fleet sailing by 2029 (plans for the medium icebreaker are still under internal review). In form, the new Polar Security Cutter, modeled after a canceled German icebreaker, Polarstern II, will have the look of a slightly sleeker Polar Star, but its function, said Dennelly, will be more analogous to the Coast Guard’s National Security Cutter, and it will reap the benefit of 45 years’ worth of technological innovation.
“It’s going to be a floating Coast Guard sector,” he said, “with command-and-control upgrades on par with the National Security Cutter. It will have an enhanced seakeeping ability, to enable it to navigate through rougher open water, and its technological upgrades will facilitate maritime domain awareness through sophisticated command-and-control and other sensors that Polar Star doesn’t have. Additionally, it’s going to have the ability to embark two MH-60 helicopters, and it will be able to field and employ unmanned aircraft.”
In what has been one of the most logistically challenging years in the service’s history, after the temporary loss of half of its icebreaking fleet, the Coast Guard somehow has managed to project American presence into the Arctic for all of 2020. With its new fleet of icebreakers at last beginning to take shape, it may require less creativity to remain Semper Paratus in the region – but regardless of what the future brings, the Coast Guard will find a way to be there.
“The United States is an Arctic nation,” said Dennelly. “We’re ready to provide that year-round presence – and we’re excited and looking forward for the future delivery of the Polar Security Cutter, to continue providing this presence and projecting U.S. sovereignty.”
This story first appeared in Coast Guard OUTLOOK 2020-2021 Edition