New Senate legislation would require a greater U.S. Navy presence in the Arctic, more collaboration with Coast Guard

The new bill would also increase U.S. Navy capabilities, create a strategic port and increase surface vessel presence in the Arctic.

By Melody Schreiber - December 24, 2019
The U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Oscar Austin transits the Arctic Circle on Sept. 5, 2017. (Ryan U. Kledzik / U.S. Navy)

A new bill introduced last week in the U.S. Senate would require the Navy to have a greater presence in the Arctic, in collaboration with the Coast Guard.

The Strategic Arctic Naval Focus Act of 2019 is co-sponsored by Senators Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski, both Republicans from Alaska, and Sen. Angus King, an Independent from Maine.

As sea ice recedes and opens up the Arctic to more maritime activity, U.S. lawmakers are increasingly framing the Arctic as a zone of competition with Russia and China — one in which the United States has fallen far behind. In this legislation, the senators emphasize the strategic importance of the Arctic to the United States and seek to increase its military presence in the region.

“Our new legislation will change this dynamic, directing the Defense Department and Homeland Security to make serious assessments of our interests and capabilities in the Arctic, and to put forward detailed plans to preserve the safe flow of commerce, protect the pristine natural environment, and secure America’s sovereignty,” Sullivan said in a statement.

In a Senate hearing earlier this month to help refine the legislation and to explore how the Coast Guard could further shape its Arctic strategy, Sullivan also highlighted the economic potential of the region.

“There is a whole realm of economic opportunity that didn’t exist 10 or 20 years ago, and other nations have already taken major steps to capitalize on this prospect,” he said, pointing out Russia’s efforts to improve and construct ports, icebreakers, ice-hardened shipping vessels and maritime traffic infrastructure in order to expand their commercial activity in the Arctic. He also spoke of China’s investments in Arctic development and the construction of its own icebreakers.

“The U.S., one of eight actual Arctic nations, has lagged behind in developing the infrastructure needed,” Sullivan said.

At the hearing, Sullivan announced the forthcoming introduction of this bill, as well as the creation of the Senate Coast Guard Caucus, which would advance the service’s priorities in Congress.

The new bill seeks to increase U.S. Navy capabilities in the circumpolar North, require more collaboration between the Navy and the Coast Guard, create a strategic port in the Arctic, and increase surface vessel presence in the Arctic. It would also create an Arctic Security Initiative, following the model of the European Deterrence Initiative, which would fall under the defense department.

The Department of Defense, which houses the Navy, and the Department of Homeland Security, the Coast Guard’s home, would need to develop a “detailed” and “concrete” plan within a year of the bill’s enactment for creating an “operational and strategic support system for Arctic naval surface operations with set deadlines for implementation,” according to a statement from Sullivan.

Part of that plan, the bill proposes, would be developing ice-hardened naval vessels to patrol the Arctic, homeporting two icebreakers in the Arctic, and increase icebreaking activities specifically to keep the Northwest Passage open.

The Northwest Passage could represent a shorter shipping route that the Panama Canal, said Mike Anderson, a spokesperson for Sullivan. “The reduction in transit time and distance offers huge financial and environmental benefits,” he told ArcticToday.

“Given the increasing transit season, and the benefits of the Northwest Passage route, it is critical to have icebreaking capabilities able to keep this sea lane open, and to be able to respond to crises there year-round.”

Currently, the Navy has no ice-hardened ships, and the U.S. only has two operation polar icebreakers, both homeported in Seattle.

Three expert witnesses who testified in the hearing agreed that the United States needs one or more strategic ports in the Arctic.

Michael Sfraga, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Polar Institute, called for a “string of ports” from the North Slope along the Bering Strait, down to Adak, a former military base in the Aleutians.

In fact, Adak, which is now owned by the Aleut Corporation, could be used as one of the strategic ports, a plan Sullivan has advanced in the past. Although Adak is the southernmost city in Alaska, its location on the Bering Sea places it within the area defined by U.S. federal law as the Arctic, and it lies close to major shipping routes and Russian waters.

In a conversation with ArcticToday earlier this year, Sullivan confirmed that Adak is one of the ports under consideration, as well as ports in Nome, Port Clarence and possibly Kotzebue.

Sherri Goodman, a senior fellow at the Wilson Center and former U.S. deputy under-secretary of defense, said that the plan to create new strategic ports should have an environmental security component. “We should use it as a way to understand what it takes to build a resilient port — resilient to changing conditions,” she said.

Heather Conley, senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, spoke of the decade-long process to secure one new heavy icebreaker. “We cannot wait 10 years for this infrastructure,” she said. “But I think we have to do it in a smart way. We have to think about public-private partnerships.”

The new U.S. defense bill, passed last week, called for the designation of one or more strategic Arctic ports, but it stopped short of providing funding to create one.

Although Conley agreed that the United States needs a strategic port in the Arctic, she cautioned against homeporting the heavy icebreaker used for the Antarctica mission in the Arctic, which would significantly increase its transit time.

The Polar Star is tasked with resupplying McMurdo Station in Antarctica every year — a journey that takes several months from Seattle. The rest of the time, the vessel undergoes significant repairs at the dock in Seattle. A new heavy icebreaker currently under construction would take over the McMurdo mission.

“I think sometimes we think these are only for the Arctic and it is—” Conley began, before Sullivan cut in.

“I know they have an Antarctica mission,” the senator said. “But I think we need to take care of our home first. Our coasts first.”

Sullivan is having conversations with the Coast Guard, he added, about prioritizing increased competition and activity in the Arctic. “Coast Guard needs to recognize that,” he said.

The Coast Guard’s vice-commandant Adm. Charles Ray also testified in the hearing about the Coast Guard’s Arctic missions and capabilities. On the question of the port, Ray said there was “no question” that a deepwater port north of Dutch Harbor would benefit Coast Guard operations. “No doubt about that,” he said.

All three expert witnesses asserted that neither the U.S. Navy nor the Coast Guard is capable of conducting a freedom of navigation operation in the region at this time, as Sullivan and some Navy leaders have previously discussed.

In addition to Coast Guard assets and infrastructure, the witnesses also called attention to insufficient communications in the Arctic, as well as the possibility of disastrous oil spills or a cruise line accident.

“We simply do not have the assets and the resources for an oil spill or an LNG tanker disaster in the Arctic,” Sfraga said. “That keeps me up at night, as well as a disaster with a potential cruise ship.”