The reduction of sea ice in the Arctic has increased prospects for shipping to and from the Northwest Passage, development of offshore oil in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, and migration of fish stocks from the Bering Sea to the Arctic Ocean. The legal and political regime of the Arctic laid out by the Law of the Sea Convention and the work of the Arctic Council has clarified the obligations of Arctic states to monitor, regulate, and secure activities in their Arctic waters. The speed with which both the physical and legal regimes have changed has overwhelmed the United States’ capacity to monitor and manage activities in the region.
The Coast Guard’s Arctic icebreaker fleet consists of a single heavy icebreaker that is 10 years past its design life and one medium icebreaker commissioned in 1999, both of which may serve in Antarctica as well as the Arctic. Lack of harbors north of the Bering Strait, limited support on-shore for air operations along the Arctic Coast, and only limited deep draft port facilities and air bases in southern Alaska further complicate deployment of the ships and aircraft in the Alaskan Arctic. And satellite observation at high latitudes has not expanded to match increasing activity in the Arctic.
Future Arctic operations will require effective implementation of three functions: physical presence, maritime awareness, and land support. A new heavy icebreaker, budgeted at $1 billion, will provide continued presence but could take days to reach ships or platforms in distress. Additional ships will be needed, probably a mix of ice-hardened cutters, ice breaking patrol ships, and salvage tugs, along with helicopters capable of sustained operations at temperatures of 40 degrees below zero. This, in turn, will require new ports and bases in and near the Arctic for resupply and maintenance.
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