The U.S. Coast Guard’s presence in the Arctic is about to see a dramatic change. In recent decades, operations there primarily have been scientific research missions, but the new polar security cutters (PSCs) will be expected also to conduct national security operations, statutory missions, and climate research—all in a hostile, unforgiving environment and with minimal shoreside support.1 The Coast Guard cannot manage this next generation of icebreakers as it has prior ships. If the service is to remain relevant in the Arctic and successfully fulfill multiple missions using a single asset such as the PSCs, it must overcome the region’s operational challenges while remaining poised to respond to a changing landscape. This cannot be achieved without innovation in personnel management, tactical-level operations planning, and technology acquisition.
Challenges in the Arctic
The Arctic is unlike any other area of responsibility (AOR) in which the Coast Guard operates. Communications are severely limited, and logistics are at the mercy of environmental conditions and extremely vulnerable to single-point failures. The Arctic maritime system is unprepared to accommodate the increased demands the PSCs will bring.
In his “2020 State of the Coast Guard” address, Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Karl Schultz noted that the medium icebreaker Healy (WAGB-20) loses all connectivity for almost a month while deployed in high latitudes, making a simple task such as sending routine messages nearly impossible.2 Reliable, polar satellite networks are prohibitively expensive, so cutters rely on geostationary satellites at the Equator. When using these satellites, a ship’s receivers often are pointed to a single degree of elevation above the horizon; a small swell could disrupt the connection. In addition, the Coast Guard does not actively monitor over-the-horizon radio communications, hampering its ability to provide support to mariners and conduct internal operations. Distress calls in the Arctic are likely to go unheard.3
Transporting personnel and supplies can make or break an Arctic patrol, and area logistics are unreliable at best. In summer 2019, a PenAir flight crashed at the Dutch Harbor airport—whose single runway, with a mountain on one side and water at both ends, is notoriously difficult to land on—killing one passenger. As a result, commercial airlines stopped servicing Dutch Harbor, leaving privately contracted flights as the only option for air travel on or off the island.4 All this unfolded as the Healy was returning from a science mission, which meant several science party personnel and crew were left stranded on Unalaska for more than two weeks. Air travel is just one example of the potential single-point failures in the Arctic logistics system.
Farther north, logistics are even more challenging. There are no ports north of Dutch Harbor that large vessels such as the Healy or the future PSCs could pull into. When the Healy needs to embark cargo or passengers from Utqiaġvik (formerly Barrow), evolutions must be conducted using third-party small boats or helicopters, which have more restrictive operating parameters than Coast Guard assets. With the unpredictable weather conditions of the North Slope, the Healy is at the mercy of the elements for any logistics missions. This will present a key difficulty for a PSC conducting national security missions.
When something goes wrong, help is thousands of miles away. In the event of an engine casualty, the nearest commercial towing service along the North Slope is in Dutch Harbor, 1,400 nautical miles away.5 This is the equivalent of transiting from Seattle to San Diego. In the event of a serious medical evacuation, the nearest high-level trauma center is in Anchorage.6 Patients would need to be flown off the cutter to Utqiaġvik for transport by a waiting medevac jet to Anchorage. A simple case of appendicitis is a life-threatening scenario.
Together, these challenges create a dynamic and demanding AOR. To research missions that can be planned months in advance, they may be just an inconvenience. But during time-critical missions such as search and rescue, they can cost lives.
An Increasingly Complex Mission
The PSC’s diverse set of missions will grow in complexity throughout their lifetimes. In one possible scenario, future high oil prices and lax environmental regulations could create conditions for a rapid increase in oil and mineral exploration along Alaska’s North Slope. In another, receding sea ice and advanced navigation tools could see pursuit of the Arctic as a commercial shipping lane. The Transpolar Sea Route could open to traffic as early as 2030.7
Developments such as these may seem like distant possibilities, but the Coast Guard can get a taste of what the future holds for the PSCs by looking at recent events in other polar regions:
- In January 2020, hundreds of Russian fishermen were stranded on a drifting ice floe after it broke off from land. Russian emergency services deployed three boats and a hovercraft to transport the survivors back to solid land.8
- In late 2010, ten fishing vessels carrying more than 600 crew members became trapped in ice in the Sea of Okhotsk. Russian officials dispatched three tugs to assist in freeing the vessels.9
- In December 2019, a Chilean C-130 crashed several hundred miles south of Cape Horn while transiting to Antarctica, killing all 38 people on board.10
The PSCs need to be prepared to respond to events like these at a moment’s notice.
Between the time the first keel is laid in Pascagoula, Mississippi, and the last hull is decommissioned, the Arctic likely will become one of the most significant maritime regions of the world and more operationally complex. The Coast Guard will need to find a way to balance the need to maintain national security presence, conduct statutory missions, and support scientific research. The PSCs have the potential to fill these diverse roles, but they must be supported by an innovative network. The service must reexamine how it invests in the PSCs’ personnel, guides their operations, and acquires their technology.
A Culture of Arctic Innovation
Despite its advances, the PSCs will be ineffective if they lack an innovative and nimble support system able to respond quickly to evolving mission needs. To build this support system, the Coast Guard must reward forward-leaning polar operators, encourage active and innovative crisis management, and quickly adopt new technologies. In short, it must focus on three key pillars: people, processes, and products.
The demands that will be placed on PSC sailors will differ from those on other cutters. PSC sailors are likely to face multiple “first of a kind” missions, such as responding to an oil spill in the Marginal Ice Zone. These situations will require creative and innovative problem solving. It is critical, therefore, that the PSCs bring together a diverse pool of expertise that transcends officer specialty codes and required C schools. In particular, the leadership grooming for the PSCs should focus on identifying career innovators and training them to respond to the needs of tomorrow’s Arctic.
Recognizing the urgency of grooming the next generation of polar leaders, the Coast Guard recently created a yearlong “ice pipeline” for prospective icebreaker operations officers.11 Candidates spend two to three months on board the Healy, Polar Star (WAGB-10), and Mackinaw (WLBB-30) building conning experience prior to reporting as operations officer at one of those units. The key advantage of this model is that the operations officer is well-trained in shiphandling prior to arriving. However, the program would fail to adequately equip tomorrow’s PSC operations officers largely because it does not educate candidates about the greater “Arctic system” and its various stakeholders.
Tomorrow’s polar operations officers and PSC command cadres need tools and training to help drive systemic innovation. A starting point would be to modify the ice pipeline program so it more closely resembles a fellowship. Prospective candidates would undergo a rigorous review process focused on identifying forward-leaning leaders. Selectees then would complete coursework in innovation leadership, crisis management, and Arctic strategy while spending time networking with key Arctic stakeholders. When a distress call or international incident occurs, PSC leaders would be well-connected both within the Coast Guard and across the greater Arctic.
The PSCs likely will see a number of “firsts” in Coast Guard history: the first regular commercial ship traffic via the Transpolar Sea Route, the first ice-free summer, or perhaps the first large-scale search and rescue. The PSCs will need to approach crisis management differently from other cutters.
In 2019, Mike Horn and Børge Ousland completed an unsupported crossing of the Arctic via the North Pole by skiing and rafting. Near the end of their expedition, their food stocks ran dangerously low, spurring a rescue operation by a Norwegian icebreaker.12 This rescue begs the question of what would have happened if a similar scenario had occurred north of Alaska. A rescue effort like this falls well outside Coast Guard policy guidance and transcends anything trained for at the cutter level. Even the Coast Guard’s search-and-rescue addendum has little to offer for on-ice search and rescue.13
The Coast Guard should begin to integrate the PSCs into Arctic Shield exercises and include polar operations experts in contingency planning. Complex Arctic response efforts require rapid, multiagency collaboration. Partnerships with groups such the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency or the U.S. Air Force Pararescue Jumpers, crowdsourcing organizations, and local search-and-rescue groups become critical. Although the Coast Guard has conducted Arctic Shield response exercises for years, existing icebreakers are not included because of competing mission requirements. The Healy is not trained to respond to an oil spill in the Arctic, and the PSCs risk the same shortfall without regular contingency planning.
The equipment that supports polar operations is unique, meaning the Coast Guard will need to employ innovative acquisition tools to give PSC sailors the best technology available. Ice radar, for example, is specialized technology integral to identifying ice features such as open water polynyas or dense pressure ridges.14 During the 2019 science mission, the Healy’s ice radar failed as soon as it entered the ice, leaving conning officers to visually scan for features, even during whiteout conditions. All too often, the Healy was driving blind when it mattered most.
The Healy and other Coast Guard units struggle to acquire technology such as ice radar because it is unsupported by the service’s command, control, communication, computers, cyber, and intelligence (C5I) community. The PSCs will face a similar challenge with acquiring the technology needed for improved communications and high-resolution satellite ice imagery, among others. But cutting-edge solutions exist today that would revolutionize polar operations. Kepler Communications provides high-bandwidth communications that Coast Guard icebreakers lack.15 Rutter has produced state-of-the-art ice radar since the 1990s.16 ICEYE will soon operate a constellation of satellites that can capture imagery updated hourly.17 The Coast Guard does not need to invent its own technological solutions; it just needs to figure out how to buy the technologies it needs.
There is no single solution to the Coast Guard’s technology problems; however, the Commandant’s “Tech Revolution” is a step in the right direction.18 Under this initiative, which aims to modernize the service’s IT infrastructure, the Coast Guard should launch an innovation network modeled after the Air Force’s AFWERX, which brings together industry, academia, and the military to rapidly get the best technology into the hands of the operators.19 A Coast Guard network of innovation hubs in San Francisco, New London, Connecticut, and Washington, D.C., could act as a conduit through which cutting-edge technologies are rapidly integrated into PSC units.
A Starting Point
The arrival of the polar security cutters will mark a pivotal moment in the history of the U.S. Arctic and the beginning of a new era of polar operations. The PSCs will operate in a unique maritime transportation system, and the Coast Guard must think innovatively about how it will manage these assets. Balancing research missions, national security demands, and traditional statutory missions will require advances in operational support.
Without quick action to properly support the PSCs, they will not be the “one platform conducts all” asset that the Coast Guard has dreamed of. Rather, they will be constrained by easily predictable bottlenecks. During a major search and rescue, survivors might perish when command centers realize their search patterns do not accurately model Arctic Ocean currents. As an oil spill unfolds, the PSCs might not receive high-resolution satellite imagery because connectivity is poor. The Arctic is indifferent to whether the Coast Guard is ready for the challenges to come. We must not be.
1. Dennis L. Bryant, “USCG Polar Security Cutters: The History and Future,” MarineLink, 15 April 2020, www.marinelink.com/news/uscg-polar-security-cutters-history-477597.
2. Gidget Fuentes, “Schultz: Cutter Funding Welcomed But More Investments Needed to Sustain Coast Guard,” USNI News, 21 February 2020.
3. Hanane Becha, “Coast Guard Deploys CubeSats for Arctic EPIRB Coverage,” The Maritime Executive, 3 December 2018.
4. Nathaniel Herz, “NTSB: Pilot Inexperience and Unfavorable Winds Factored into Fatal PenAir Crash in Unalaska,” Alaska Public Media, 16 November 2019.
5. “Emergency Towing Systems,” Division of Spill Prevention and Response, Prevention Preparedness and Response, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
6. “About the Trauma System,” Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, Division of Public Health.
7. Malte Humpert and Andreas Raspotnik, “The Future of Arctic Shipping along the Transpolar Sea Route,” Arctic Yearbook 2012, 285.
8. Deutsche Welle, “Russia: Hundreds of Fishermen Stranded on Gigantic Ice Floe,” DW.com, 29 January 2020.
9. “Ten Ships, 600 Crew Trapped in Frozen Sea of Okhotsk,” BBC News, 31 December 2010.
10. Reuters, “Chilean Air Force Chief Says Cause of Antarctic Plane Crash May Never Be Known,” The Guardian, 22 December 2019.
11. ALCGOFF 125/18, “Afloat Icebreaking Training Program (AITP),” 7 December 2018, https://content.govdelivery.com/accounts/USDHSCG/bulletins/220f14a.
12. “Hungry North Pole Explorers Horn and Ousland Near End of Epic Trek,” BBC.com, 6 December 2019.
13. U.S. Coast Guard Addendum to the United States National Search and Rescue Supplement, January 2013.
14. Canadian Coast Guard, Ice Navigation in Canadian Waters, ch. 4, “Navigation in Ice Covered Waters,” 26 July 2019.
15. “About Us,” Kepler Communications, www.keplercommunications.com/company/about.
16. “Ice Navigator,” Rutter Radar Solutions, https://rutter.ca/ice-navigation/.
17. “Sea Ice Monitoring,” ICEYE, www.iceye.com/use-cases/maritime.
18. “Coast Guard Releases New Tech Revolution Road Map,” National Defense Magazine, 20 February 2020.
19. “Frequently Asked Questions,” AFWERX, www.afwerx.af.mil/faq.html.