The Canadian Coast Guard Ship Louis S. St-Laurent makes an approach to the Coast Guard Cutter Healy in the Arctic Ocean Sept. 5, 2009. The two ships are taking part in a multi-year, multi-agency Arctic survey that will help define the Arctic continental shelf. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer Patrick Kelley.

A Canadian Coast Guard vessel rendezvous with US Coast Guard icebreaker Healy (foreground) in the Arctic.

[updated with Adm. Greenert comment] WASHINGTON: While the Navy pivots to the Pacific, the Coast Guard has got their northern flank: the once icebound but now rapidly opening waters of the Arctic Ocean, with its new opportunities for oil, gas, and trade through the fabled Northwest Passage. For the chronically underfunded and “oversubscribed” service, however, the challenge is rebuilding Arctic skills and capabilities that have atrophied for decades – including construction of a new heavy-duty icebreaker that might cost up to a $1 billion, said Coast Guard Commandant, Adm. Robert Papp.

“The United States Navy’s not up there,” Papp told reporters after a speech this morning to roll out the service’s new Arctic strategy, “or if they’re up there, they’re not on the surface of the water”: Nuclear submarines are great for many missions, but not so much for search and rescue, fisheries patrol, or stopping oil spills.

“The United States Navy is forward deployed; it’s fighting wars,” Papp went on. So in the Arctic, “we have not had any participation with the US Navy nor have I asked them for any up there right now. I think the CNO [Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert] would tell you they are fully employed with their responsibilities around the world; and given this is more of a maritime governance issue and not a national defense issue, they are just as happy that the United States Coast Guard is taking on those responsibilities.”

That said, Papp is hoping the Arctic will get more high-level attention now that the administration has released its May 10 National Strategy for the Arctic Region. (He’d also like the Senate to finally ratify the Law of the Sea treaty, a political longshot but something he said he gets “lectured” about by his international counterparts at every meeting on regulating the Arctic). When Adm. Greenert gives his standard slideshow on strategic chokepoints around the world, “he does not show the Bering Strait,” Papp told the audience after his remarks. In fact, the CNO uses a map projection that, while accurate at lower latitudes, makes the Bering Strait look much wider than in reality, where it narrows to as little as 50 miles. “I’ve teased him about that,” Papp said, and, indeed, since November the CNO has added an entire slide devoted to the Arctic.

I got a chuckle out of the good-natured Adm. Greenert when I mentioned Adm. Papp’s anecdote to him before a speech later the same day– and during his remarks, despite the topic of the evening being the Pacific, the CNO made sure to show off his Arctic Ocean slide. “Working with the Canadian Navy, this is becoming a big topic of conversation, as well as with my partner in the Coast Guard,” Greenert told the audience. While his status reports can show dozens of ships in the Pacific, he said ruefully, “here’s what we’ve got in the Arctic region: one SSN [nuclear-powered attack submarine]. So we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

That includes making sure that whatever the Navy procures can operate in the extreme cold of the far north, Greenert said, rather than “learn[ing] the hard way” about the rigors of a new environment, as the fleet did in the 1990s when it took equipment designed for the North Atlantic into the heat and sand of the Persian Gulf.

Not every defense official, however, is catching up quite as quickly as Adm. Greenert. At one recent meeting with the Canadians, a Defense Department official Papp declined to name stood up and said “we see no conflict [in the Arctic], there are no threats, the Defense Department has no plans for the next 10 years,” Papp said. The senior Canadian present, he recalled, “turned very red.”

In fact, it’s the Coast Guard, not the Defense Department, that’s taken the lead on Arctic cooperation with the Canadian Navy, as well as the Canadian Coast Guard. For example, the American Coasties regularly send a cutter to participate in Canada’s annual “Operation Nanook” exercise “even when the Navy has had to back out” to cover commitments elsewhere, Papp said. For the future, the commandant expects to see close cooperation with the Canadians in the Arctic on the model already proven on the Great Lakes, where the two countries share icebreakers and helicopters. But the Canadians themselves are stretched thin over their own vast Arctic territories, so they’ve concentrated their resources on the eastern (Atlantic) side, leaving the western (Pacific) side largely to the US Coast Guard — which, of course, is the side on which we have a little thing called Alaska, which stretches across almost to Russia.

“We’re relearning all those lessons up there,” Papp told reporters. “The good thing is I also have the knowledge we’ve done it before.” It’s been a while, though: “The heyday was 1955 through ’58,” he said when the Coast Guard worked with Canada and the Navy to build the DEW Line to provide “distant early warning” of Soviet nuclear attack. That history proves that the nation can commit resources to far north when it has to, Papp said, and “that national imperative in the Arctic is upon us again.”

One of Papp’s proudest achievements as commandant has been to get the nation’s only heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, out of mothballs and back into service: It’ll be heading north soon to start training the crew. But the Star, built in 1976, won’t last forever, and the nation’s only other icebreaker is the much smaller Healy, so Papp has won administration approval to explore developing a new heavy-duty icebreaker. (Once again, he’s working with the Canadians, who “are probably about a year or two ahead of us” in looking at heavy icebreaker designs). While Papp doesn’t think Arctic-capable ships built by oil companies have enough icebreaking power, he does see some Scandinavian designs that might be good starting points for the US to modify.

It’s expensive, Papp admits, at least by Coast Guard standards: “The high end is a billion dollars, but I think that’s a good investment for something you’re going to use for forty years.” (For comparison, the Navy’s workhorse DDG-51 destroyers cost a couple of billion, and the fleet has more than 60 of them).

Besides icebreakers, though, Papp must also pay the bill for the Coast Guard’s new flagships, the National Security Cutters, and, soon, for a smaller Offshore Patrol Cutter to replace its 14 aging Reliance-class medium-endurance cutters:  “We don’t even send them to Alaska,” he said, and in fact the 1960s-vintage vessels have trouble even in calm water. “We’re constantly plugging holes in hulls,” he sighed, and one cutter, the Dauntless, just went into “emergency drydock” to repair a dangerously rusted hull.

Will the Coast Guard be asking for more National Security Cutters and Offshore Patrol Cutters than currently planned to cover its growing Arctic responsibilities? “No,” Papp said flatly. “I’m having enough of a challenge just getting the program of record,” he said, having fought a successful battle just last year to restore the seventh and eighth National Security Cutters to the budget.

It’ll be those big cutters that will act as the mobile headquarters for the Coast Guard as it surges to the North Slope of Alaska every summer in the coming years. “There’s no permanent infrastructure or operating forces” on Alaska’s northern coast, Papp said, nor does he think it wise to build them, at least in the near term. For the next decade, he said, the ice will remain bad enough in winter that commercial traffic will stay out and only a seasonal Coast Guard presence, about nine months a year, is necessary.

“One of the things that Shell found last year” – when some of the oil company’s craft got badly battered – “and that kind of surprised us as well, was the amount of ice still floating around up there,” Papp said. While the Arctic is opening for energy exploration, trade, and even tourism, it’s still unwise to underestimate its dangers.

Nevertheless, the Far North is changing inexorably. In his own first tour as a young Coast Guard officer, Papp recalled, he reported to the cutter Ironwood in Alaska, where he encountered the worst weather of his almost 40-year career. In 1976, when Ironwood tried to pass through the Bering Strait to patrol Alaska’s North Slope, it could find no way through the ice. In 2010, as Commandant, Papp went back to the same place: “I looked out as far as I could see, and there was no ice.”


[updated 7:30 pm with Adm. Greenert’s comments]


  • Peter

    Very interesting and insightful article! Thank you for covering this.

    Not sure if the article states, but did the White House and Congress approve $1B and hand it over to the USCG to build a new icebreaker, or did the White House just nod knowing that the USCG needs $1B for a new icebreaker but still needs to round up $1B and then have Congress approve it?

    And what about the Polar-class icebreakers? OK, the Polar Star is back in service, but what was wrong with it, what was fixed, and what could it do now with the repairs? Meaning, what took so long to get it back up and running? The same goes for the Polar Sea…I don’t think it’s just a money issue because if so, money could do a quick-fix and get both ships up and running again. Something had to be very wrong to ground both for a long time. (I read somewhere that one of the Polar icebreakers had an engine failure, which means a complex fix). Could you please ask the USCG and find out? It would be nice to see and know of the Polar Star is just patched up or really tricked out and refitted to “Almost like-new status.” Thanks!

  • PolicyWonk

    Long overdue, and woefully insufficient. The US has failed completely to stay current in the polar regions, as is evidenced by the ONE current icebreaker we have (the Healy).

    We should have at least 4 PER coast (east and west), and polar icecap (north and south). If we don’t protect our interests, no one else will. And with the polar ice caps melting (and still very dangerous), a visible presence becomes really important. The Russians (amongst others) are determined to drill and mine the sea beds of these oceans (and we know how careful they’ve been in the past – not that we’ve been stellar in that respect ourselves).

    There are NATO partner nations that have excellent designs and experience – we should buy/license their designs, and modify them accordingly. And by all means, partner with the Canadians and our other northern NATO nations.