The Coast Guard Must Enhance Its Polar Roles
The U.S. Coast Guard and Department of State are currently chairing an Arctic Council task force to develop a potentially binding search-and-rescue (SAR) agreement among the eight Arctic states. Coast Guard experts have also been members of delegations addressing Antarctic SAR and tourism. These are excellent and appropriate initiatives, given the service's federal responsibilities in maritime SAR and safety in both polar regions. But the timely actions are not enough. The Coast Guard must be more proactive and engaged to ensure that our many polar maritime interests are given proper attention. Importantly, what needs to be accomplished does not need to be directly linked to the justification and acquisition of polar icebreakers.
The following modest plan would energize and enhance the service's key roles in polar affairs.
- Arctic Council Involvement : The Coast Guard must be a regular member of the U.S. delegation to the Arctic Council to provide broad maritime expertise. This intergovernmental forum is an evolving policy body that will continue to address emerging marine issues.
- Arctic Emergencies Forum : The Coast Guard should assume the role of U.S. representative to the Arctic Council's working group on Emergency Prevention, Preparedness, and Response, now chaired by the United States. Officials at the Department of Energy staff both the chair and a lead U.S.-representative position. The Coast Guard can contribute maritime expertise, particularly in marine-pollution response.
- Arctic Ocean Protection : The service must be a regular member of the U.S. delegation to the Arctic Council's working group on Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment, which conducts assessments and drafts policy strategies for the Arctic ministers. The Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (AMSA) was conducted under its auspices, and Coast Guard experts contributed extensively to the study. An Arctic Ocean Review is ongoing in the group, and the Coast Guard must participate in its development.
- AMSA Implementation Plan : AMSA was released in 2009, and the Coast Guard has smartly developed an internal tracking system to facilitate implementation of its 17 recommendations. A publicly released implementation plan would be an important next step, similar to the U.S. Navy Arctic Roadmap of late 2009 and NOAA's Arctic Vision and Strategy to be released later in 2010.
- U.S. Delegation to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) : The Coast Guard should strengthen the polar maritime expertise of the U.S. delegation to the IMO, which it leads. The IMO is developing a mandatory code for polar ships and beginning to address safety and environmental protection issues unique to the Arctic. This requires new expertise in polar operations and ship design.
- Polar Code Implementation : A mandatory IMO polar code could be fully developed by 2013; included will be sections on safety equipment, ice-navigator standards, polar ship-construction standards, and more. The Coast Guard should draft regulations and develop an implementation strategy for applying the polar code in U.S. Arctic waters.
- Ice-Operations Capacity in the U.S. Arctic : The Coast Guard has no ice-capable ships that can operate in the shallow, ice-covered coastal waters of Alaska (where deep-draft polar icebreakers cannot operate) or in deeper ice-covered waters when polar icebreakers are unavailable. An ongoing Arctic mission analysis should yield requirements to fill this gap in federal maritime capability in terms of enforcement and security. Ice-capable, multi-mission buoy tenders may be one answer, but more options need to be explored.
- Antarctic Treaty Delegations : The Coast Guard should be a regular member of the U.S. delegation to the annual Antarctic Treaty consultative meetings, and of working groups, especially when issues related to marine operations and marine tourism are discussed.
- Arctic Oil-Spill Experts Group : In the wake of BP's massive 2010 Gulf oil spill, the service should consider establishing a group of experts to review the issues and research needs for responding to an Arctic marine oil spill.
- Future Polar Marine Operations : The service should sponsor and engage fully in technical and operational forums to discuss the future of polar marine operations, including offshore development, fishing, marine tourism, commercial ship voyaging, and infrastructure needs.
These suggested tasks are not onerous or expensive. However, they are crucial to furthering U.S. interests in the polar regions. And being more engaged can surely be beneficial in arguing the nation's future polar icebreaker needs. The Coast Guard has the responsibility and the professional polar expertise to engage actively in these pursuits, and all of us expect no less.