Defense Media Network

The Arctic: Emerging Maritime Frontier

Commandant Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr., writes of the urgency of responding to changing conditions in the Arctic.

As a maritime nation, the United States relies on the sea for our prosperity, trade, transportation and security. We are also an Arctic nation. The Arctic region – the Barents, Beaufort, and Chukchi seas, and the Arctic Ocean1 – is the emerging maritime frontier, vital to our national interests, economy, and security.

The Arctic Ocean, in the northern region of the Arctic, is changing from a solid ocean of inaccessible ice fields into a growing navigable sea, attracting increased human activity and unlocking access to vast economic potential and energy resources. In the 35 years since I first saw Kotzebue, Alaska, on the Chukchi Sea as a junior officer, the sea ice has receded from the coast so much that when I returned last year the coastal area was ice free. The shipping, oil and gas, and tourism industries continue to expand with the promise of opportunity and fortune in previously inaccessible areas. Experts estimate that in another 25 years the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free during the summer months.2

This change from hard to soft water, growing economic interests and energy demands, and increasing use of the seas for maritime activities by commercial, native, and recreational users demands a persistent, capable Coast Guard presence in the Arctic region. Our mandate to protect people on the sea, protect people from threats delivered by sea, and protect the sea itself applies in the Arctic equally as in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea. The difference is that in the rest of the maritime domain, we have an established presence of shore-based forces, smallboats, cutters, and aircraft supported by permanent infrastructure and significant operating experience. Although the Coast Guard has operated in southern Alaska, the Gulf of Alaska, and the Bering Sea for much of our history, in the higher latitudes we have little infrastructure and limited operating experience, other than ice breaking. Historically, they were not needed. Year-round ice, extreme weather, and the vast distances to logistical support, prevented all but icebreakers or ice-strengthened ships from operating there. As a result, commercial enterprise on any significant scale was non-existent. But the Arctic is emerging as the new maritime frontier, and the Coast Guard is challenged in responding to the current and emerging demands.

Willow on Arctic Patrol.jpg

The CGC Willow moves past an iceberg, Aug. 23, 2011, during an Arctic patrol. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Luke Clayton

The economic promise of oil and gas production in the Arctic is increasingly attractive as supply of energy resources from traditional sources will struggle to meet demand without significant price increases. The Arctic today holds potentially 90 billion barrels of oil, 1.6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids, 84 percent of which is expected to be found in offshore areas.3 This is estimated to be 15 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves and 30 percent of natural gas reserves.4 Oil companies are bidding hundreds of millions of dollars to lease U.S. mineral rights in these waters and continue to invest in developing commercial infrastructure in preparation for exploration and production, and readiness to respond to potential oil spills or other emergencies.5 In August, the Department of Interior granted Royal Dutch Shell conditional approval to begin drilling exploratory wells in the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska starting next summer.6 ConocoPhillips may begin drilling in the Chukchi Sea in the next few years.7 Also, Russia has announced plans for two oil giants to begin drilling as early as 2015,8 and Canada has granted exploration permits for Arctic drilling.9

The fisheries and seafood industry in the southern Arctic region (Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska) produces annually approximately 1.8 metric tons worth of catch valued at more than 1.3 billion dollars and sustains thousands of jobs.10 Although subsistence hunting has occurred in the higher latitudes for centuries, as waters warm, fish and other commercial stocks may migrate north, luring the commercial fishing industry with it.

As the Arctic Ocean becomes increasingly navigable, it will offer new routes for global maritime trade from Russia and Europe to Asia and the Americas, saving substantial transit time and fuel costs from traditional trade routes.11 In August and September, two Neste Oil tankers successfully traversed the Northeast Passage between Murmansk and the Pacific Ocean and onward to South Korea,12 and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin pledged to turn the Northeast Passage into an important shipping route.13


Addressing an Old Liability: Rule of Law

Because of these opportunities and the clamor of activities they bring, a legally certain and predictable set of rights and obligations addressing activity in the Arctic is paramount. The United States must be part of such a legal regime to protect and advance our security and economic interests.

Papp tours Barrow Alaska

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr., Senior Counselor to the Secretary of Homeland Security Alice Hill, and Commander of the 17th Coast Guard District Rear Adm. Tom Ostebo tour Barrow, Alaska, Aug. 8, 2011. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley

In particular, for the past several years, there has been a race by countries other than the United States to file internationally recognized claims on the maritime regions and seabeds of the Arctic. Alaska has more than 1,000 miles of coastline above the Arctic Circle on the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.14 Our territorial waters extend 12 nautical miles from the coast, and the exclusive economic zone extends to 200 nautical miles from shore just as along the rest of the United States coastline. That’s more than 200,000 square miles of water over which the Coast Guard has jurisdiction. Below the surface, the United States also may assert sovereign rights over natural resources on its continental shelf out to 200 nautical miles. However, with accession to the Law of the Sea Convention, the United States has the potential to exercise additional sovereign rights over resources on an extended outer continental shelf, which might reach as far as 600 nautical miles into the Arctic from the Alaska coast. This summer, the CGC Healy was under way in the Arctic Ocean, working with the Canadian icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent, to continue efforts to map the extent of the continental shelf.

The United States is not a party to the Law of the Sea Convention. While the United States stands by, other nations are moving ahead in perfecting rights over resources on an extended continental shelf. Russia, Canada, Denmark (through Greenland), and Norway – also Arctic nations – have filed extended continental shelf claims under the Law of the Sea Convention that would give them exclusive rights to oil and gas resources on this shelf. They are making their case publicly in the media, in construction of vessels to patrol these waters and in infrastructure along their Arctic coastline. Even China, which has no land mass connectivity with the Arctic Ocean, has raised interest by conducting research in the region and building icebreakers.15 The United States should accede to the Law of the Sea Convention without delay to protect our national security interests: sovereignty, economy, and energy.

Responsibility for the Arctic

Wherever human activity thrives, government has a responsibility to uphold the rule of law and ensure the safety and security of the people. The Coast Guard is responsible for performing this mission on the nation’s waters, as we have done in parts of Alaska during our 221-year history.

Coast Guard operations in the Arctic region are not new. Nearly 150 years ago, we were the federal presence in the “District of Alaska” administering justice, settling disputes, providing medical care, enforcing sovereignty and rescuing people in distress. Our heritage is filled with passages of Coast Guardsmen who braved the sea and ice in sailing ships and early steam ships to rescue mariners, quash illegal poaching and explore the great North. World War II ushered in the service’s first icebreakers. In 1957, three Coast Guard cutters made headlines becoming the first American vessels to circumnavigate the North American continent through the Northwest Passage. That mission was in support of an early Arctic imperative to establish the Defense Early Warning Line radar stations to detect ballistic missile launches targeting the United States during the Cold War.

The Coast Guard presence in southern Alaska, the Bering Sea, and Gulf of Alaska continues to be persistent and capable, matching the major population and economic concentrations and focus of maritime activities. The 17th Coast Guard District is responsible for directing the service’s operations in Alaska with:

  • two sectors;
  • two air stations;
  • 12 permanently stationed cutters and normally one major cutter forward deployed from another area;
  • three smallboat stations;
  • six marine safety units or detachments;
  • one regional fisheries training center; and
  • five other major mission support commands.16

We ensure maritime safety, security and stewardship in the region by conducting search and rescue, fisheries enforcement, inspection and certification of ships and marine facilities to ensure compliance with U.S. and international safety and security laws and regulations, and preventing and responding to oil and other water pollution.

Coast Guard members Kotzebue navigation marker

Petty Officer 2nd Class Shawn Crabtree, a boatswain’s mate and resident of Ketchikan, Alaska, Chief Warrant Officer Mark Helmers, a resident of Juneau, Alaska, and Hiram Walker, director for search and rescue Northwest Arctic Borough, point toward a barge that is navigating through Kotzebue Sound, Aug. 8, 2010. Walker led Crabtree and Helmers to a potential location for a new marker to be placed to help people navigate through the area during winter seasons. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Walter Shinn

The Coast Guard strengthens our leadership in the Arctic region by relying on effective partnerships with other federal, state, local, and tribal governments and industry members. We are working with other federal partners within the Department of Homeland Security, the military services and combatant commanders within the Department of Defense, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement within the departments of Interior, State, and Justice to achieve unity of effort within the interagency team at the port and regional level. We partner with state, local, and tribal entities. We maintain strong relationships with and oversight of the maritime industry. And we rely on cooperation from international partners, both permanent close allies such as Canada and developing ties with our maritime counterparts in Russia and China.

Although we have lived and served in southern Alaska for most of the Coast Guard’s existence, our access to and operations in northern Alaska on the North Slope have been only temporary and occasional, with no permanent infrastructure or operating forces along the Beaufort or Chukchi seas. There are no deep water ports there.

However, the acceleration of human activity in the northern Arctic region, opening of the seas and inevitable increase in maritime activity means increased risk of maritime accidents, oil spills, illegal fishing and harvesting of other natural resources from U.S. waters, and threats to U.S. sovereignty. These growing risks – inevitable with growth of human activity – demand the Coast Guard’s attention and commitment to meet our responsibilities to the nation.


Preparing to Lead in the Emerging Maritime Frontier

Our first challenge is simply to better understand the Arctic operating environment and its risks, including which Coast Guard capabilities and operations will be needed to meet our mission requirements. Operating in the Arctic region presents unique challenges to personnel, equipment and tactics. What would be normal cutter, boat, or aircraft operations almost anywhere else become more risky and complex. The climate can be one of extremes many months of the year with continuous sub-zero temperatures and more hurricane force storms each year than in the Caribbean. It’s hard on equipment where industrial fluids freeze, metal becomes brittle and electronic parts fail. It’s also hard on people, who must acclimate to exaggerated days and nights, harsh weather conditions, limited services, and isolation from family.

One of the most significant challenges is the lack of Coast Guard infrastructure in key locations along the northern Alaskan coastline that will be needed to sustain even basic shore-based operations. We have no infrastructure there today and rely on partner agencies and industry to support any sustained operations. Cutters, aircraft, boats, vehicles, and people require constant mission support and logistics. We are already exploring requirements to establish temporary forward operating bases on the North Slope to support shore-based operations, enabling temporary crews and equipment to deploy to support a specific operation, and then return to home station when complete.

We have been improving our understanding by increasing operations. We conduct regular Arctic domain awareness flights by long-range maritime patrol aircraft along the North Slope and over the Arctic Ocean, assessing aircraft endurance and performance and monitoring maritime activity. Since 2008, we have conducted Operation Arctic Crossroads, deploying personnel, boats, and aircraft to small villages on the Arctic Coast like Barrow, Kotzebue, and Nome. While there, we test boats for usability at these high latitudes and conduct flight operations. We also work closely with the Army and Air National Guard and the Public Health Service to provide medical, dental, and veterinary care to outlying villages. In return, we learn from their unique expertise about living and operating in this environment. These services invest in deepening our partnerships with and understanding of local peoples.

MH-60 Jayhawk Arctic Crossroads

A Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk rescue helicopter lands on the tarmac as an Army National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk and an Air Force National Guard HH-60 Pave Hawk prepare to land at Forward Operating Location Kotzebue, Alaska, with personnel deployed in support of Operation Arctic Crossroads Aug. 8, 2010. Helicopter crews transported personnel to remote northwestern Alaskan villages including Point Hope, Koyuk, Wales, Selawik, Shishmaref, and Kivalina. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Walter Shinn

Next, we must prepare by ensuring Coast Guard men and women have the policy, doctrine, and training to operate safely and effectively in the northern Arctic region. We have re-learned fundamental lessons in recent years about the need to be prepared when taking on new operational challenges. We will train personnel beyond qualification to proficiency to live and work for extended periods in the extreme cold and other harsh conditions there. We will ensure cutters, aircraft, boats, deployable specialized forces, and mission support personnel have the equipment, training and support they require to succeed.

Finally, we are working closely with other key federal partners to lead the interagency effort in the Arctic. The Coast Guard has significant experience and success with speaking the interagency language, bridging the traditional divides between military and law enforcement at the federal level, and synchronizing efforts between federal, state, local, tribal, and private-sector stakeholders. Simultaneously a military service, law enforcement and regulatory agency, and intelligence community member that is an agency of the Department of Homeland Security, the Coast Guard is in a unique position to exercise leadership in this emerging maritime frontier.


Prevention and Response

Coast Guard missions rely on the twin pillars of prevention and response.

We will take actions to prevent maritime safety, security and pollution incidents in the Arctic. In our regulatory role, we are working with the Department of Interior to review oil spill response plans and preparedness by the oil and gas and maritime industry prior to exploration activities, especially on the outer continental shelf. We are taking the lessons from the Deepwater Horizon disaster to ensure that type of incident does not happen again, especially in the Arctic. We regulate U.S. mariners and inspect vessel and facility security plans. When a marine casualty does occur, we will investigate and take appropriate action to prevent it from happening again.

As a law enforcement agency, we will provide security in the ports, coastal areas and exclusive economic zone to enforce U.S. laws governing fisheries and pollution, while ensuring the security of lawfully permitted activities, including energy exploration, in the region. We will deploy cutters, boats, aircraft, and deployable specialized forces – maritime safety and security teams, strike teams, dive teams – when the mission demands.

As a military service, we will enforce U.S sovereignty where necessary, ensuring freedom of navigation and maritime homeland security. The CGC Healy – our only icebreaker – and other ice-strengthened cutters will patrol where they can safely operate to provide persistent presence on the high seas and maritime approaches to the United States.


Arctic Maritime Campaign

We are developing and will execute starting summer 2012 an Arctic Maritime Campaign with the objective to establish a path forward for the Coast Guard to meet our responsibilities to the nation in the Arctic. This Arctic Maritime Campaign will:

  • Define the required mission activities for the Coast Guard in the northern Arctic region;
  • Determine required capabilities (personnel, equipment, and facilities) required to plan, execute, and support operations there;
  • Identify available resources for the mission and resource gaps; and
  • Fully prepare our service and Coast Guard personnel to safely and effectively operate there.

Initially, the Arctic Maritime Campaign will be a Coast Guard plan for service operations in coordination with other partners: a basic first step for any mission. From there, we will work to improve interagency coordination as activities and operations increase.



My years at sea taught me many life lessons; chief among those is vigilance, the art of keeping a weather-eye out for emerging challenges so that the service can adequately prepare and take early and effective action to prevent and respond to trouble. As I scan the horizon, one area demanding our immediate attention is the Arctic. America is a maritime nation and an Arctic nation. We must recognize this reality and act accordingly. The Coast Guard is working to do its part. For more than 221 years, we have overseen the safety, security, and stewardship of our nation’s waters. Our challenge today is to ensure we are prepared with a Coast Guard capable and ready to meet our responsibilities in the emerging maritime frontier of the Arctic.



1. “Arctic defined,” 15 USC 4111 Jan. 7, 2011
2. Rear Adm. David Titley and Courtney St. John, “Arctic Security Considerations and the U.S. Navy’s Roadmap for the Arctic,” Naval War College Review, Spring 2010: Pages 35-48–navy-s–navy-s
3. “Circum-Arctic Resource Appraisal: Estimates of Undiscovered Oil and gas North of the Arctic Circle,” (U.S. Geological Survey Fact Sheet 2008-3049, 2008 //
4. The Economist 30 Sept. 2011: Page 100
5. John Broder, “U.S. to Offer Oil Leases in the Gulf,” New York Times Aug. 19, 2011
6. John Broder, “U.S. to Offer Oil Leases in the Gulf,” New York Times Aug. 19, 2011
7. “Arctic Economic Development Summit, Chukchi Exploration Activities” (ConocoPhillips Alaska, Aug. 5, 2011
8. Andrew Kramer, “Russia Embraces Offshore Arctic Drilling,” New York Times Feb. 15, 2011 and Nataliya Vasilyeva, “Russia, Exxon Mobil strike deal for Arctic offshore oil drilling,” Anchorage Daily News Aug. 30, 2011
9. “PEW study urges Canada to suspend Arctic oil exploration,” Terra Daily Sept. 9, 2011
10. “The Seafood Industry in Alaska’s Economy” (Marine Conservation Alliance, 2011 update of the Executive Summary)
11. “Breaking the Ice” (Iceland Ministry for Foreign Affairs conference report, 2007)
12. “Neste Oil Ships operate successfully along the Northeast Passage,” (Neste Oil Corporation press release, 30 Sept. 2011
13. “On Our Radar: Putin Covets Northeast Passage,” New York Times Sept. 23, 2011
14. “Report to Congress on Arctic Operations and the Northwest” (Department of Defense, May 2011)
15. “Group: China preparing for Arctic melt commercial opportunities,” USA Today March 1, 2010 and “China to launch 8 Antarctic, Arctic expeditions,” China Daily Sept. 25, 2011
16. “Units located in the 17th District,” Oct. 12, 2011

This article was first published in Coast Guard Outlook: 2012 Edition.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-54894">

    First off I want to say great blog! I had a quick question
    in which I’d like to ask if you do not mind. I was curious to find out how you center yourself and clear your thoughts prior to writing. I have had difficulty clearing my mind in getting my thoughts out there. I truly do enjoy writing however it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes tend to be lost just trying to figure out how to begin. Any ideas or hints? Appreciate it!