What the new US Coast Guard strategy tells us about the Arctic in 2019

The Coast Guard's new Arctic strategy — the only such document from an Arctic coast guard — says a lot about the extent, and the limits, of U.S. engagement in the region.

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U.S. Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters sit in an Alaska Army National Guard hangar in Kotzebue, Alaska, June 29, 2018 as part of Arctic Shield 2018 operations. (Petty Officer 1st Class Brad Pigage / U.S. Coast Guard)

The U.S. Coast Guard’s ‘Vision’ for the Arctic, released earlier this week, walks the line between proposing clear-cut solutions to some U.S. capacity problems in the North and sounding the alarm about a potentially critical geopolitical situation for the U.S. if nothing is done to address its Arctic challenges.

“Upholding sovereignty” is a central component of the Coast Guard’s latest Arctic strategy. As the only such strategy from an Arctic coast guard, it takes up everything from China’s Northern ambitions to what it sees as a severe capability gap in the U.S. Arctic. Amidst the other rather bland Arctic strategy documents across Arctic states, the latest Coast Guard contribution tells us something about the current state of affairs in the Arctic.

[The US Coast Guard’s new Arctic strategy highlights geopolitics and security]

The Coast Guard’s Vision for the Arctic Region is the second such Arctic policy document from the USCG. Its 2013 ‘Arctic Strategy’ was aimed at fuelling the emerging domestic awareness of Northern issues, two years before the U.S. was set to take over the chair of the Arctic Council.

In the 2019 version, the regular Arctic buzzwords are all there — cooperation, partnerships, resilience, and stakeholder collaboration — but both the tone and focus is more outward-looking and confident. This strategy (or ‘Vision’) also says something more general about the status quo in the North today, with two key takeaways centered around (1) challenges to U.S. Arctic interests and (2) a dire resource-capability gap emerging.

First, the tougher language focused on ‘upholding sovereignty’ and protecting a ‘rules-based order’ in the North is not accidental. As Arctic strategies go, the USCG is remarkably direct in its criticism of Chinese and Russian actions in the High North:

“China’s pattern of behavior in the Indo-Pacific region and its disregard for international law are cause for concern as its economic and scientific presence in the Arctic grows,” the document says. “As a strategic competitor, the United States must take heed of Russia’s actions and potential dual-use of its capabilities [in the Arctic].”

While there is a low likelihood of immediate military conflict in the Arctic, the long-term strategic investments and engagements of China and Russia, and some other Arctic states as well, have placed the U.S. in a potentially vulnerable position.

As noted in the Coast Guard’s strategy, the U.S. “is the only Arctic State that has not made similar investments in ice-capable surface maritime security assets. This limits the ability of the Coast Guard, and the Nation, to credibly uphold sovereignty or respond to contingencies in the Arctic.”

The crew of U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Maple follows the crew of Canadian Coast Guard Icebreaker Terry Fox through the icy waters of Franklin Strait, in Nunavut Canada, August 11, 2017. The Canadian Coast Guard assisted Maple’s crew by breaking and helping navigate through ice during several days of Maple’s 2017 Northwest Passage transit. (Petty Officer 2nd Class Nate Littlejohn / U.S. Coast Guard)

This explicit focus on defending the rules-based order in the Arctic shows how security issues and concerns elsewhere have started to affect the region. The USCG ‘Vision’ even refers to Chinese actions in the South and East China Seas, linking these to challenges in the Arctic with an emphasis on ‘freedom of navigation’ (FON). This must also be seen in relation to the prospect of FON operations in the Arctic by the U.S. Navy suggested in late 2018, although it is still unclear what if any role the Coast Guard will play in such operations. The recommended solution by the Coast Guard is found in greater investments in capabilities such as the new polar security cutters and a greater focus on enhancing maritime domain awareness — hardly surprising in a document issued by a coast guard service.

However, we should not forget the multi-purpose role of coast guards in Northern waters. Coast guards are often part of a military structure — as in the case of the USCG – but they tend to spend most of their time on civilian tasks such as search and rescue, fisheries inspection, and environmental protection. Most of the tasks that this latest Coast Guard document argues need investments, capabilities and/or attention are in fact not of a strictly military character. ‘Upholding sovereignty’ is not a military task per se, but something that derives from being able to perform core functions and tasks within the country’s maritime domain.

Here, however, we have a paradox (or security dilemma): As states invest in their coast guard and general Arctic capacities, these developments are being used — as by the USCG referring to Russia — as an argument for why others must follow suit and similarly prioritize their own Arctic areas. Just what is seen as the ‘appropriate’ amount of investment in institutions such as coast guards, linked to the whole civilian–military spectrum, will necessarily vary. In fact, while the U.S. Coast Guard notes Russian capability enhancements as a driver for why it should be more active in the Arctic, the measures it outlines are predominantly civilian in nature, not focused on dealing with Russia at all. Instead, the U.S. needs to get its own Arctic house in order first.

This leads to the second point: The potentially dire capability gap emerging and the intended effect of, and audience for, the Coast Guard’s Vision for the Arctic Region. Anyone who has followed U.S. Arctic policy over the past decade will have noted the general lack of attention paid to the region and the varying, sometimes diverging, interests of those U.S. government actors who are interested. The U.S. period (2015–2017) as Arctic Council chair helped to consolidate and coordinate some of these interests, but it seems that, with the change of presidential administrations, the baby was partially thrown out with the bathwater. How exactly the Trump Administration views the Arctic geopolitical environment is still unclear, even after over two years in office.

The Coast Guard — like any other government agency — has its own policy interests vis-à-vis the Arctic. What is unique in the U.S. context is that the Coast Guard clearly articulates these in a public strategy document. No other Arctic coast guard service — from the Russian FSB to the Norwegian Kystvakten or the Canadian Coast Guard — has produced a similar document or has used such a strong independent voice for promoting its own concerns in the Arctic.

This speaks not only to the uniqueness of the U.S. system where the various government institutions enjoy considerable independence, it also speaks to the position and stature of the Coast Guard as the primary U.S. government body that engages with Arctic issues on a daily basis.

It is no coincidence that this ‘Vision’ has been issued just before the U.S. Department of Defense is expected to launch a renewed Arctic Strategy, with the U.S. Coast Guard finally having secured funding for a long-sought new icebreaker. However, the continuous struggle for attention and resources within the U.S. Armed Forces and the federal government is not unique to the U.S. In Canada, the Coast Guard has been chronically underfunded, despite the calls of consecutive governments to protect and secure Canadian sovereignty in the North. In Norway, the relatively positive resource situation is now being challenged by the need to replace old vessels, and the increase in activities. In Greenland, the Danish Royal Navy is tasked to expand its Arctic presence, while also trying to find how best to engage the Greenlandic authorities. The only Arctic coastal state to have made a distinct decision to enhance its coast guard capabilities seriously is Russia — albeit not without difficulties.

So the U.S. Coast Guard’s ‘Vision’ for the Arctic walks the line between laying out practical solutions and raising concern about potential geopolitical challenges.

Uncharacteristically direct for an Arctic policy document, it shows explicit recognition of the concern that other actors, with interests diverging from those of the U.S., have been stepping up their involvement in the polar regions. Whether these concerns will be sufficient to spur the White House to greater engagement in the Arctic, however, remains to be seen.