Warships International Fleet Review: U.S. Coast Guard’s Big Chill Demands New Tactics, Equipment

04.01.10

Categorie: Arctic, Coast Guard, David Axe, Naval |
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by DAVID AXE

Global climate change is changing the patterns of ice coverage in the Arctic. For nations with polar territory, this change represents a danger, and an opportunity. Maritime forces are at the forefront of mitigating growing risks in Arctic, while also exploring opportunities for new shipping routes, mineral exploration and tourism.

Russia, Canada, Denmark and the United States stand to experience the greatest fallout from changes in the Arctic. In the U.S., the Coast Guard — the smallest of the country’s five military services — has assumed leadership of America’s Arctic challenge. And challenging it is, owing to harsh conditions and a lack of funds for specialized equipment.

The Technical University of Denmark estimated this year that, with rising temperatures, the Arctic would be ice-free in the summer, beginning in 2015. Less ice means easier navigation for commercial vessels and cruise ships, and opportunities to tap previously inaccessible oil and natural gas reserves. “The receding summer ice pack … is opening up a world of possibilities,” noted Stratfor, a U.S. think tank. Though Arctic waters might be ice-free during summer within a few years, winters will still be icy.

For the U.S., less icy summers mean more human activity along Alaska’s North Slope, also known as “Arctic Alaska.” Today, the North Slope is inhabited by only a small number of native Eskimos. There’s little commercial activity and virtually no major government presence. The military has no permanent facilities on the North Slope.

That might change in coming years. In 2007, the U.S. Coast Guard organized its first major expedition to the North Slope, deploying a small number of boats and helicopters to test whether the region could support sustained security operations. Every year since, the Coast Guard has repeated the exercise, gradually refining its equipment and practices as the 42,000-strong maritime service moves closer to a formal Arctic strategy, to be completed in the next few years.

The Coast Guard is an unusual organization, by American standards. It combines the deployable security functions of a navy with the domestic law-enforcement tasks usually assigned to police forces. With around 100 frigates and patrol boats (the service calls them “cutters”) and several hundred aircraft, the Coast Guard represents one of the world’s top 20 navies, all on its own.

There are a number of reasons the Arctic mission fell mostly to the Coast Guard. “There’s not a requirement that would need naval warships,” explained Admiral Thad Allen, the Coast Guard’s top officer. Broadly speaking, Arctic nations have chosen not to deploy heavy military forces to the Arctic, as the ice melts. Instead, rescue craft, lightly-armed patrol vessels and icebreakers have dominated governments’ planning. Canada has announced plans to build a new class of six patrol vessels, strengthened to withstand collisions with loose ice.

The U.S. Navy quietly maintains under-sea Arctic patrols, using nuclear-powered attack submarines “hardened” to surface through ice. However, routine government operations are focused on law enforcement, fisheries protection, search and rescue and environmental response, activities will all take place within the 200-mile-wide U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone, Allen said. While the Coast Guard frequently deploys its larger vessels abroad, most of its day-to-day activities take place inside the EEZ. The Coast Guard also owns all three of the U.S. military’s icebreakers.

Even with reduced levels of ice in certain months, the North Slope is a hostile environment for military forces, due to harsh weather and historically low levels of infrastructure investment. For one, there are no purpose-built boat launches on the North Slope. “We have a very hard time launching small boats up there,” Allen said. In its annual Arctic experiments, the Coast Guard has learned to use natural outcroppings as makeshift launches.

Wet, cold weather causes icing on Coast Guard helicopters. For its first two Arctic deployments, the Coast Guard sent short-range HH-65C Dolphin helicopters, which have no organic de-icing systems. Aviators weren’t comfortable with the icing risk, so this year the Coast Guard sent larger HH-60J Jayhawk choppers with de-icing gear. On the North Slope, the helicopters operate alongside Coast Guard HC-130 Hercules patrol planes.

“The communications infrastructure is very sparse and spotty,” Allen added. This summer, Allen accompanied a government team on a tour of North Slope communities. While airborne, the team had to relay radio communications via two other aircraft, in order to contact ground facilities.

In other parts of the U.S., the Coast Guard works closely with local police forces, which often possess their own boats and helicopters for rescue and enforcement. But North Slope communities have very little in the way of major equipment, Allen said. This heightens the need for a sustained Coast Guard presence. Allen posited scenarios that could end disastrously, without Coast Guard intervention.

Allen described the possibility of a sinking cruise ship evacuating hundreds of tourists into lifeboats off the North Slope. “What do you do with the people in the boats?” he asked. Today, the Coast Guard “could get aviation there fairly quickly, but the closest ships are … 900 miles away.” If the survivors numbered in the hundreds, the Coast Guard’s helicopters might not be able to shuttle them all to land, in time to prevent deaths. To head off such a catastrophe, the Coast Guard needs a bigger, year-round North Slope presence.

The Coast Guard’s Arctic forces would also safeguard expanding oil infrastructure. During his summer tour this year, Allen rode on a British Petroleum hovercraft to survey oil pipelines. The U.S. Geological Survey estimated this year that Arctic waters might contain between 50 and 150 billion barrels of oil plus huge natural gas deposits.

Due to the apparent wealth of Arctic mineral deposits, many commentators anticipate a cold war between Arctic nations, as they deploy more military forces to the pole. But Allen doesn’t seem too concerned. He described changes in the Arctic reinforcing existing close ties between the U.S. and Canada. With one of the Coast Guard’s three icebreakers undergoing deep maintenance following a long period in storage, the U.S. has arranged to have Canadian icebreakers help cover the western portion of Arctic Alaskan waters.

The state of the Coast Guard’s icebreaker fleet is one of Allen’s biggest concerns. Two of the icebreakers are more than 30 years old and in need of replacement, but Congress has not appropriated the roughly $1 billion per ship that it would cost to buy new icebreakers. “We should not diminish the current capability,” Allen said. In other words, America needs new icebreakers, soon, if the Coast Guard is going to make the Arctic a full-time job.

(Photo: U.S. Geological Survey)

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3 Responses to “Warships International Fleet Review: U.S. Coast Guard’s Big Chill Demands New Tactics, Equipment”

  1. William Richardson says:

    Thanks. Vital information.

  2. Moose says:

    More Icebreakers for sure. In addition, while we’re building new large cutters we should be giving them at least basic Ice capability. Near-arctic commerce will increase as well as arctic, and we’ll need Cutters which can operate their confidently.

  3. […] doing enough to secure its slice of the Arctic pie. I should know: in weaker moments, I’ve written this tale, […]

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