Defense Media Network

The Coast Guard in the Arctic

Operating – and planning – in the nation’s emerging maritime frontier

Building on the precedent established by the district’s recent seasonal operations, Arctic Shield 2012, conducted from July through November, focused on three objectives:

  1. meeting the Coast Guard’s 11 mission requirements around the clock throughout the maritime season;
  2. building and maintaining relationships with communities in the region to deliver services, provide maritime safety instruction, and learn from centuries of cultural experience; and
  3. evaluating the performance and capabilities of people and equipment, for the purpose of informing the Coast Guard’s future presence in the region.


Arctic Shield 2013

Following up on the successes of Arctic Shield 2012, the Coast Guard launched Arctic Shield 2013 in July of this year, shifting its focus from Barrow and the North Slope to western Alaska and the Bering Strait – both to sustain a presence during a time of increased vessel traffic in the Strait and to serve and learn from the people who live in the region.

Vessel of Opportunity Skimming System

The crew of the U.S. CGC Spar works with the crew of the Canadian Coast Guard ship Sir Wilfrid Laurier to transfer a U.S. Coast Guard Vessel of Opportunity Skimming System between the vessels following an exercise near Teller, Alaska, July 18, 2013. The exercise allowed crews to compare operating practices, maintain their proficiency with the system, and strengthen the relationship between the two services. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Grant Devuyst

The FOL for seasonal operations was established at the Alaska Air National Guard hangar in Kotzebue, where an MH-65 Dolphin helicopter and its crew were installed. Bertholf returned as a command and control platform, this time accompanied by both the Coast Guard’s icebreakers, Healy and the 37-year-old Polar Star, and several other surface assets.

Operations in Arctic Shield 2013 have included:

  •  The evaluation of a Coast Guard Vessel of Opportunity Skimming System (VOSS), a remote-controlled system designed to collect oil and small debris from surface waters. The exercise, jointly conducted by the crews of the CGC Spar and the Canadian Coast Guard ship Sir Wilfrid Laurier, also involved the participation of the city of Nome and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. It was conducted near Port Clarence, just north of Nome, because of the site’s proximity to the Bering Strait and its relatively sheltered waters.
  • Safety inspections, conducted in Nome Harbor by the Spar’s crew, of the public’s fleet of floating gold dredges – vessels built by recreational prospectors to search the city’s offshore public mining areas.
  • Deployment of the first 110-foot cutter, the Ketchikan-based CGC Naushon, to the region to test the vessel’s capabilities and performance in the Far North. Naushon’s crew conducted law enforcement boardings and fisheries patrol in the Bering Sea, Bering Strait, Kotzebue, and Norton Sound.
  • More than 50 engagements with tribal and local government officials to discuss subsistence, shipping, and other concerns. A dedicated District 17 tribal liaison continued the ongoing work of strengthening existing relationships and ensuring Arctic Shield operations did not conflict with the rights or interests of Alaska Native communities. Community events included a mass rescue workshop in Kotzebue involving the Coast Guard and 12 federal, state, local, and tribal partners.
  • A Bering Sea patrol conducted by the Alex Haley. While not strictly an Arctic Shield mission – the annual Bering Sea patrol is an operation dating to 1870 – Alex Haley’s work directly supported the law enforcement and maritime domain awareness missions of Arctic Shield 2013.
  • Domain awareness and research flights by a Coast Guard HC-130H Hercules aircraft, which performed data-collection airdrops of atmospheric and environmental measuring instruments.


A Strategy for Working in the Arctic

After each season of operations in the Arctic, the Coast Guard meticulously combs through outcomes to compile a list of lessons learned – and while Arctic Shield 2013 is ongoing, lessons from the Coast Guard’s 150 years in the region have repeatedly confirmed the obvious: In the Arctic, short-range assets are of little use. Working in and around ice-covered waters is difficult, especially with the aging assets the Coast Guard has on hand. The lack of infrastructure makes it difficult not only to reach Arctic locations, but to support and supply people once they are there.

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