On Tuesday, the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation held its hearing on “Coast Guard Mission Needs and Resources Allocation” to address current capabilities. Present to field the Committee’s questions were witnesses Admiral Charles Michel, Vice Commandant of the US Coast Guard, and Jennifer Grover of the US Government Accountability Office. The hearing covered general resource allocation, but conversation centered on the Arctic region. At the outset of the hearing, ranking member Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA) highlighted the volatile nature of the area, explaining:
“Opening of the Arctic region… has prompted new operational challenges for the Coast Guard while simultaneously creating a shifting uncertain geopolitical environment.”
Of particular concern to the Committee was the state of the Coast Guard’s icebreaker fleet, which currently consists of only one operational heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star. While Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-CA) informed the hearing that the Senate was in the process of appropriating $1 billion for the construction of a new heavy icebreaker, Admiral Michel cautioned that the vessel would not be operational for at least a decade. Given the rapidly increasing importance of the Arctic region, the Committee clearly felt that the Coast Guard needs to find other ways of stepping up its presence in the area. When asked how the Coast Guard would handle a situation in which the price of oil skyrocketed, prompting greater activity in the Arctic, Admiral Michel could only point to the operation of a single medium-capability icebreaker. Common sense, and the Committee member’s reactions, made clear that such a low level of preparedness is troubling.
Today’s hearing made it obvious that the Coast Guard it will have limited icebreaking capabilities until at least 2025. Clearly such a lapse in coverage is a cause for concern, and Chairman Hunter even suggested that the Coast Guard look to lease icebreaking ships from other nations or consider turning responsibility for the Arctic over to the Navy.
But another option, that’s far more economical and straightforward, is well within reach: encouraging Arctic oil and gas development. Energy companies could enter the Arctic quickly and efficiently, bringing with them large fleets of vessels that would boost US capabilities in the region . The “many synergies between the types of infrastructure” used by oil and gas companies, the Coast Guard, and the U.S. Navy, as noted by the National Petroleum Council, would allow the US to step up its presence in the Arctic immediately.
Actively leveraging these synergies will allow the US to rapidly develop crucial supply and support networks and would be preferable to sitting idle for the next decade, only to find ourselves with an icebreaking fleet that is still dwarfed by the capabilities of other Arctic nations, in a region that will have massive geopolitical importance for years to come.