House Panel Examines Infrastructure and Security Needs in U.S. Arctic

June 7, 2018

The security implications of the U.S.’s lack of infrastructure in the Arctic were under scrutiny Thursday at a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation.

The hearing, led by Subcommittee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-CA), was called to examine the infrastructure needed to facilitate safe and efficient maritime transportation in the Arctic and included a panel featuring:

  • Admiral Charles W. Ray, Vice Commandant, United States Coast Guard
  • Mr. David Kennedy, Senior Arctic Advisor, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • Ms. Heather A. Conley, Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic, Center for Strategic and International Studies
  • Dr. Lawson Brigham, Faculty and Distinguished Fellow, International Arctic Research Center, University of Alaska Fairbanks
  • Ms. Molly McCammon, Executive Director, Alaska Ocean Observing System
  • Rear Admiral David W. Titley, USN (Ret.), Professor of Practice, Department of Meteorology and Atmospheric Science, Pennsylvania State University

While ostensibly about infrastructure, the hearing primarily served as a platform for Chairman Hunter, Ranking Member John Garamendi (D-CA), and other Members to air their grievances with the U.S. military’s—and particularly the U.S. Navy’s—lack of focus on the Arctic.

Hunter recalled that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ National Defense Strategy ignores the Arctic at a time when China and Russia are increasingly active in the region. He called the decision to leave the Arctic out of the strategy “myopic” – and in fact, National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) passed by the House in May requires the Navy and Coast Guard to submit a joint Arctic strategy to Congress by this September.

The disappointment was bipartisan: Ranking Member Garamendi lamented that the Navy “has simply abandoned the Arctic Ocean other than submarines – no surface interest at all.”

Rep. Don Young (R-AK), who pointed out he was the only one in the room who lived above the Arctic Circle, called for an “Arctic Czar” to lead coordination efforts between agencies as a potential solution for that lack of focus, adding that he might be the right person for the job—a statement that elicited laughter from the audience but may not have been entirely a joke.

Time seems to be of the essence: Chairman Hunter opened the hearing by pointing out that this is the first time in modern history that the Arctic is navigable for large portions each year. Rear Admiral Titley of the Pennsylvania State University said that the Arctic could be seasonally ice-free by 2035.

With that warming comes increased interest in using those waters for shipping.  Rear Admiral Titley described a “more variable, dynamic ice pack that will make maritime transportation more tempting, more feasible.”

The temptation is already there: China is pursuing a “Polar Silk Road” as part of its Belt and Road Initiative, and Russian liquefied natural gas (LNG) carriers are traversing the Russian Arctic to bring fuel to Asian energy markets.

Increased maritime shipping in the Arctic by necessity implicates the U.S., as transit between the Pacific Arctic and Atlantic Arctic requires going through the Bering Strait between the U.S. and Russia.

Infrastructure is critical to ensuring American shippers can compete in the Arctic, but also to enabling the Coast Guard—which has been operating in the Arctic since 1867 and is responsible for search and rescue operations, maritime border security, intelligence gathering, emergency response, and marine environmental protection and law enforcement—to do its job.

The assembled panel had a long laundry list of infrastructure challenges and needs to that end. Most prominent among them was the need for new heavy icebreakers; the first new heavy icebreaker in over 40 years is expected for delivery in 2023, thanks in part to Congress appropriating over $350 million to accelerate the design process. Congress is considering additional funding for it in the FY19 appropriations.

Admiral Ray called the new icebreakers “one of the Coast Guard’s highest priorities,” but the general consensus was that the needs go well beyond just icebreakers. They added to the list a deep-draft port, dredged at least 35 feet to allow for mooring and support of large ships in all seasons; more radars in Bering Strait; wave buoys (there are currently none, but one will be installed outside the Port of Nome this summer) and freeze-up buoys to help ships navigate; more tide gauges to measure water levels; expanded satellite coverage and architecture to support voice and data communications; and additional surveys to improve nautical charts (only five percent of the U.S. Arctic has been charted “to modern international standards”).

That is a long list, but the Subcommittee seemed very receptive. Ranking Member Garamendi’s homework to the panelists was to submit their suggestions in writing along with the estimated cost of each proposal (in staffing, equipment, and dollars). He suggested the Subcommittee might, with the panel’s guidance, create an Arctic strategy of its own absent one developed by the Pentagon.

Watch the full hearing and read the witnesses’ written testimonies here.

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