Why the US needs polar security cutters for the 21st century

OPINION: As other Arctic and non-Arctic nations increase their maritime capacity in the region, the United States is mired in debate and indecision.

By Lawson Brigham, Mike Sfraga - December 27, 2018
Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star, a heavy polar icebreaker, prepares to moor in Juneau, Alaska, Aug. 2, 2013. Vessels such as the Polar Star provide far more than just icebreaking services in the U.S. Arctic and beyond. (Petty Officer 3rd Class Grant DeVuyst / U.S. Coast Guard)

U.S. polar icebreakers are again in the news with a decision earlier this month to withdraw funding for new polar ships from the federal budget. This should be a cause for deep concern about the future presence of the United States in the Arctic and Antarctic.

The recent move renaming of the Coast Guard’s polar icebreaker acquisition program to a “polar security cutter” program is a positive sign. This action properly aligns these polar ships with their unique roles within U.S. global maritime power and might have been made decades ago. The new Coast Guard leadership who made it now should be applauded for creating a more accurate description of these assets and an effective strategy to communicate the important, multiple roles these ships will have in a changing 21st century polar world. This new vision for U.S. polar operations initiated by the Coast Guard should be resonating within the Congress. Instead — and ominously — 2019 federal funds to commence acquisition of the first of a fleet of new ships have been withdrawn.

Polar security cutters are foremost our nation’s visible, sovereign presence in Arctic and Antarctic waters. These cutters, which are also key U.S. naval ships, are the primary U.S. federal maritime law enforcement presence wherever they sail in the high latitudes.  Providing assured polar marine access they perform a broad range of Coast Guard missions including; maritime law enforcement; defense and security operations; search and rescue; and, marine safety and environmental protection roles. They provide a unique polar research platform used by a host of university and federal scientists. The same ships can respond to high latitude security incidents, marine emergencies and potential maritime disasters and provide on scene command and control, as well as emergency icebreaking assistance.

A “polar security cutter” is essentially a Coast Guard national security cutter that can break ice and operate effectively in unforgiving polar environments. Another way of looking at this designation is that current and future polar security cutters are mobile Coast Guard multi-mission platforms that have long-range endurance and are specifically designed for polar operations.  These polar cutters can certainly provide icebreaking assistance to any vessels including naval ships, but they are not normally breaking ice to facilitate commerce along coastal waterways with vessels in convoy. This role has been misunderstood for many years and has complicated the acquisition process for some time.  If in the future the U.S. would want to establish an expanded maritime transportation system around Alaska, new polar security cutters and commercial icebreakers could make that happen.  So maritime assets, federal and private, are both essential infrastructure elements required for Arctic natural resource development and Alaska’s economic future.

The name change to “polar security cutter” is consistent with a long history of U.S. polar ships operating since the U.S. purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867. Ships of the Revenue Cutter Service such as the Bear and Corwin, among others, sailed in Alaska waters in the 19th century providing U.S. sovereign presence, enforcing U.S. law in the new territory, supplying and providing health care to coastal communities, and conducting emergency response.  Such  activities demonstrate the broader definition of “security in action.” Each of these roles was often performed in ice-covered waters. The noted naturalist John Muir sailed aboard the cutter Corwin in 1881 establishing a link to — and vital role in supporting research on — the natural environment that remains in the voyages of today’s cutter Healy across the Arctic Ocean. So, the notion of a polar security cutter is nothing new when placed in the historical context of federal maritime operations around Alaska for a century and a half.  Further, a more defense-oriented definition of “security” is right on the mark for designation of these cutters as well.  During World War II, Coast Guard icebreakers conducted naval operations around Greenland.  In the late 1940’s through the 1960’s U.S. Coast Guard and Navy polar icebreakers supported an expanded U.S. presence and scientific research in the Antarctic. During the Cold War the same icebreakers supported the buildup of Distant Early Warning Line radar sites in Greenland and across the Canadian Arctic. Coast Guard icebreakers conducted oceanographic research voyages in support of defense operations throughout the Arctic Ocean.

Since 1984 at least five major U.S. icebreaker studies and assessments have been conducted — two interagency efforts, two by the National Academy of Sciences, and a comprehensive study by the Coast Guard (a ‘High Latitude Mission Analysis’); the most recent study was released in 2017.   All recommended a robust U.S. federal icebreaker presence (operated by the Coast Guard) in the Arctic and Antarctic. None of these studies recommended outsourcing our national interests to foreign polar assets.  None recommended leasing commercial icebreakers for federal national security, response and law enforcement responsibilities. We argue that such foreign and commercial options are inconsistent with the roles the Coast Guard has performed under federal law since the U.S. became an Arctic nation.

The missing elements in America’s naval and maritime power for the 21st century are polar security cutters, aka polar icebreakers, which directly support our far-flung and essential national interests and large investments at both ends of the world. The time for additional study and lengthy debate about these national assets is over; replacing our aging fleet of two ships (one with more than 45 years of operation) is urgent.  The removal of funding for the first new polar security cutter in the Department of Homeland Security budget delays a timely, critical acquisition with award of a contract to a U.S. shipbuilder.   This budget decision reduces our global maritime capability and limits the long-term ability of the Coast Guard to assure polar marine access. The decision jeopardizes a continued visible and credible U.S. maritime presence in our Arctic waters. As a leading polar nation, the United States must do better.

Lawson Brigham is a distinguished fellow and faculty at the International Arctic Research Center, University of Alaska Fairbanks and a fellow at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy’s Center for Arctic Study and Policy. As a Coast Guard officer he was captain of the polar icebreaker Polar Sea.

Mike Sfraga is director of the Polar Institute, and director of the Global Risk and Resilience Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.  He is also affiliate professor of the International Arctic Research Center, University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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