One of today’s most complex emerging maritime challenges is Russia’s presence in the Arctic. Russia is vying to create a military and economic foothold in geographic proximity to the United States that rivals many other national security threats. The Coast Guard has made some significant efforts to address this challenge. For the first time in almost four decades it will soon begin construction of a new ice breaker to preserve what the Commandant has called our “national sovereign interests” in the Arctic. Although the Coast Guard’s 2019 “Arctic Strategic Outlook” acknowledges that Russia “dominates the Arctic geography and possesses the corresponding dominant surface capability and infrastructure,” it makes no reference to improving Russian language capabilities. This despite the fact that issues stemming from a Russian language barrier have already been reported by Coast Guard units. The Coast Guard should act now to create a cadre of Russian speakers so it can be prepared for contingencies that will come.
As the previous commandant, Admiral Zukunft, said, “Russia’s got all the pieces on the chessboard. I’ve only got a couple of pawns.” This statement describes Russia’s unrivaled fleet of 46 icebreakers and a large military buildup including submarines, surface ships, and a new Arctic motor rifle brigade. Meanwhile, the Russian Federation has ambitious plans to further strengthen its Arctic force structure. These developments will invariably result in increased U.S. Coast Guard interaction with Russian speakers.
The catalyst behind Russia’s arctic mobilization is development and transportation of natural resources in the Far North. These resources will be transported via the Northern Sea Route (NSR); a shipping lane through the Arctic that runs from the Barents Sea to the Bering Strait. As The Economist explains: “Ships sailing through the NSR need the permission of Russian authorities, who collect transit fees and provide escorting icebreakers. The NSR has been touted as a potential rival to the Suez Canal because it could dramatically slash some journey times between Asia and Europe.” This suggests a sharp rise in Russian shipping activity miles from Alaska. Such trade will grow as Arctic ice melts and Russian energy exports expand. According to The Oil and Gas Journal, Russian liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports increased 100 percent in the first three months of 2018 and “are poised to grow dramatically in the next 22 years.”
U.S. Coast Guard units have long reported Russian language barrier issues. In January 2012, the Coast Guard Cutter (USCGC) Healy (WAGB-20) completed a historic icebreaking escort of the Russian vessel Renda, which delivered critically needed heating oil to Nome, Alaska. The first of several lessons-learned in commanding officer Captain Beverly Havlik’s report noted a serious gap in Russian language capabilities that hindered the Healy’s efforts. “Effective comms btwn [sic] the icebreaker and escorted [vessel] are absolutely crucial. In the case of a non-English speaking bridge team, a professional translator w/ knowledge and understanding of maritime ops should be a requirement.”
Much has changed since 2012, but the commanding officer of a new Polar Security Cutter may make the same observations in 2027 if Russian language capabilities in the Coast Guard are not improved.
The Need for Russian Linguists
The burgeoning Arctic economy increases the risk for a catastrophic spill incident in the high latitudes. Therefore, the Coast Guard needs to consider Russia as a partner before an environmental emergency necessitates collaboration. In such an event, multiple Russian linguists will be needed to coordinate complex response operations. The National Research Council’s 2014 report Responding to Oil Spills in the U. S. Arctic Marine Environment addresses the need for Russian linguists in planning for these contingencies.
Search and Rescue (SAR) is another important mission for the Coast Guard in the Arctic. Future cases will invariably involve Russian speakers and collaboration with Russian rescuers. Communications between command centers, vessels, and aircraft are complicated enough during these events without a language barrier, and will be even worse if trained members are not available around the clock to translate. The Coast Guard already participates in the 2011 Arctic Search and Rescue Agreement, which requires close communication between all Arctic nations. Article 9 of the agreement specifically calls for “exchange of experience,” “arranging exchanges of visits between search and rescue personnel” and “conducting regular communications checks and exercises.” All of these actions require linguists when carried out with the Coast Guard’s Russian counterparts. In fact, the 2019 Arctic Strategy specifically advocates that the Coast Guard work with the Russian Border Guard on search and rescue.
Russian linguists are just as crucial when dealing with Russia as a competitor. As the Coast Guard has made clear in calling the new ice breakers “Polar Security Cutters,” these ships will have a larger national defense focus than their predecessors. The 2018 National Defense Strategy states, “The Coast Guard must prepare to encounter Russia in a tense strategic environment.” The potential for the Department of Defense to experience tension with its Russian counterparts in the Arctic is likely; for the Coast Guard it will be unavoidable.
According to the Office of the Directorate of National Intelligence, “Russia will almost certainly continue to bolster its military presence along its northern coast to improve its perimeter defense and control of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). It will also almost certainly continue to seek international support for its extended continental shelf claim and its right to manage ship traffic within its EEZ. If Russian-Western relations deteriorate, Moscow might become more willing to disavow established international processes or organizations in the Arctic and act unilaterally to protect these interests.”
Coast Guard cutters operating in the Arctic may be severely overmatched by the Russian military. Having a Russian linguist on board will help deescalate an encounter in the Arctic.
While Coast Guard ships may not be a formidable deterrent to Russian warships, the intelligence they could gather in the Arctic could be a significant contribution to national defense efforts. As the nation’s primary maritime presence in the Arctic, the Coast Guard must have the ability to monitor Russian communications. This intelligence could contribute to maritime domain awareness (MDA) in the region and would make the Coast Guard increasingly relevant at a time when it struggles to demonstrate its worth as an integral part of the evolving national defense strategy.
The Coast Guard is the only military branch that does not have an enlisted rating devoted to language proficiency. This may not pose a problem for a cutter conducting counterdrug operations in South America, as many Coast Guard members speak Spanish and are available to translate. However, it is unlikely that a cutter operating in the Bering Sea would have a Russian speaker onboard. In 2005, the Coast Guard language program was established. At that time, the Coast Guard documented more than 2,300 “moderate to high level” active-duty Spanish speakers it its ranks, compared to just 37 Russian speakers.
In lieu of dedicated translators, the Coast Guard currently relies on interpreters. According to the “All Coast Guard” message on foreign language proficiency pay (ALCOAST 362/17), “Interpreters are not tied to a billet or a specific language, but are collateral duty assignments.” This means there is no guarantee that a cutter regularly operating near Russian waters will have a Russian interpreter on board. In fact, having interpreter allocations does not mean they will be filled.
Units operating in or near the Arctic may be allocated several interpreters, but no policy exits to ensure any of them will be Russian speakers. A cutter in this predicament can arrange to have Russian interpreters assigned temporarily for a patrol. However, this is inefficient because it takes personnel away from their permanent units and comes with the high cost of transporting these members to distant locations. This system can also be problematic in scenarios like the Healy’s escort of the Renda. The cutter was unexpectedly tasked with the escort at the end of a patrol. Having a Russian speaker permanently assigned would have streamlined communication.
One possible solution is to create Russian linguist billets. Unlike interpreter allocations, linguist billets require proficiency in a specified language. Members filling these positions could be sent to the Defense Language Institute to learn Russian. Certain billets in District 17 and on Pacific Area cutters could be designated for Russian linguists who could be taught technical, job specific vocabulary before reporting.
Enlisted members across several rates could be designated as linguists to handle a broader spectrum of encounters. For example, a Russian-speaking operations specialist in Alaska could better communicate when coordinating a search-and-rescue operation. A Russian-speaking maritime enforcement specialist could serve as a boarding officer inspecting Russian fishing vessels. A Russian linguist on a C-130 could ask a Russian mariner potentially life-saving medical questions before a helicopter arrives.
Another approach is to create a team of Russian linguists that could deploy with any unit operating in the vicinity of Russia. A team comprised of members from several ratings could deploy as needed to support an operation, fulfilling requests such as Captain Havlik’s for a professional translator with operational familiarity.
Acknowledging the need for organic Russian linguists in the Coast Guard is the critical first step. One thing is certain: Soon there will be more frequent interaction between the U.S. Coast Guard and Russian-speaking mariners. Let’s prepare for it now rather than find ourselves wanting for linguists in an emergency.