How the Coast Guard is maintaining a persistent presence in the Arctic

Lots of nation's impinge on the Arctic Circle. Even more try to use it strategically, like China. That's why, for years, the U.S. Coast Guard has been stepping...

Lots of nations impinge on the Arctic Circle. Even more try to use it strategically, like China. That’s why, for years, the U.S. Coast Guard has been stepping up its patrols in the Arctic and why it convinced Congress to fund two new heavy ice-breaking ships. At the recent Sea Air Space conference, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin got an exclusive update from Coast Guard Vice Commandant, Admiral Steve Poulin.

Interview transcript:

Steve Poulin Dynamic changes in the Arctic, it’s a growing area of strategic competition. And if we want to protect America’s sovereignty, ensure that the Arctic remains a safe, open, stable, we need to protect Coast Guard presence in the region. And so that’s what we’re doing. We’re focused on building Coast Guard presence.

Tom Temin And how many nations do you encounter up there?

Steve Poulin Well, any nation that has the opportunity to flag a vessel and navigate freely, I mean, we’ll encounter up there.

Tom Temin But, I mean, within the Arctic Circle, there are certain finite number of nations that feel like this is our zone.

Steve Poulin There are many Arctic nations. There are eight Arctic nations, the United States happens to be one of them. But any commercial vessel can enjoy freedom of navigation under customary international law. And as we see ice recede, we see more navigation routes becoming open. So this is going to be a pathway for commercial commerce into the future. We have to be able to ensure safety, security and environmental protection for our waters and our natural resources. But we also need to work collaboratively with partner nations to build a coalition of the willing who wants to see a free, stable and open Arctic.

Tom Temin Now, a few years ago, one of the issues was cruise ships were deciding, hey, this is a great way we can get through now. And I remember the Coast Guard was worried, we’re going to have to drag a cruise ship out of here or unload 2,000 people or something. What’s going on in that particular domain of business?

Steve Poulin I’m glad you raised that. This is a remote area. It’s a difficult operating environment, but it’s a growing area of what we call ecotourism. And so any mass rescue operation will be challenged. So what we’re trying to do, is work with partners to build a coalition of search and rescue capability in the region. But importantly, it’s also the responsibility of the owner operators of these cruise ships to make sure that they’re prepared to operate in that environment. That they have the capability on board, medical standards, cold weather gear, things of that nature so that they’re prepared to handle what are their primary responsibilities to care for passengers.

Tom Temin And do you find that’s tends to be the case? Do you have any inspection authority or any sort of occasion authority there?

Steve Poulin We do. And we find that there are responsible operators. I think they understand it just makes good business sense to have a safe cruise ship and to keep passengers safe. There is a coalition of folks who share our goal of making sure of safety, security and environmental stewardship in the Arctic. And so we’re relieved by that. In fact, I think there’s a growing willingness on many Arctic countries to come together to talk about issues of mutual concern. I think of the Arctic Coast Guard Forum, where we bring Coast Guards together from those Arctic nations to talk about what we can do collaboratively to protect, not only our own sovereign interest, but where we have mutual goals.

Tom Temin With the creation of new passengers by warming, climate change, whatever you want to call it. The need for icebreakers is still acute for the Coast Guard?

Steve Poulin Absolutely.

Tom Temin Because you’ve got a couple of keels under construction.

Steve Poulin That’s right. Right now, we only have one medium icebreaker that can only operate in the Arctic. And one heavy icebreaker that can operate in both the high latitudes north and south. That’s not sufficient. We need to have a Coast Guard that can maintain a persistent presence year round in the Arctic, in the Antarctic. And we do that by building Coast Guard icebreaking capability. And I should correct it and say, it’s not just Coast Guard ice breaking capability, these are national strategic assets. These are national icebreakers.

Tom Temin So you have a couple, they’re two under construction.

Steve Poulin Right now, Bollinger, Mississippi shipyards, it was Halter. Bollinger recently acquired Halter. They have the contract to build three polar security cutters, these are going to be heavy icebreakers. We’ve got full funding for two. The FY24 budget has long lead time materials for the third polar security cutter, we call him heavy icebreakers. We’re working with Bollinger to get to a more advanced, detailed design. We’re working with them on certain shipbuilding techniques, because this is a difficult ship. Our offshore patrol cutter, which is 360 feet long, is going to replace our medium endurance cutters, has about 17 different modules, if you will. The polar security cutter has 85. It’s a much more complex ship. The thickness of the hull is orders of magnitude greater than you would put on a standard Coast Guard cutter. So there are issues of retooling and welding, the use of robotics, advanced techniques to build an icebreaker that you wouldn’t normally have to use with other shipboard construction. So that’s why it’s taken a little bit longer than we had anticipated. But I’m optimistic about the acquisition of the project.

Tom Temin And what about the training and personnel requirements for greater Arctic operations, including the icebreaking, when you have three or four fully functional vessels?

Steve Poulin No, that’s a great question. We’re we have to build the Coast Guard in terms of assets, but also in terms of people. So that’s what we’re committed to doing. Our focus is getting the ships through the construction process. At the same time, we will build that cadre of Coast Guard ice sailors, if you will. We already have incredible capability in the Coast Guard. We’ve leveraged the icebreakers that we do have, and we’ll continue to build on that. I have the training in place  to have that effective presence that I talked about.

Tom Temin And when you construct these ships and design them, is care and feeding, for lack of a better word, of the ice crew? That must be an important consideration, because that is not exactly lolling around in the Caribbean.

Steve Poulin No, absolutely. People are our number one priority, they’re our greatest asset. And so not only do we have to give them the tools that they need to do the job that America asks of them, but we also have to do it in a way that provides crew habitability, connectivity, the safety, the security, and just the comforts that they need to do what’s asked to them as well.

Tom Temin So these ships incorporate that idea?

Steve Poulin They do. They’re going to be incredible ships, technology as well. We have to leverage technology. Younger people today are used to dealing with technology. I came into an analog Coast Guard, almost for a decade, well before a decade.

Tom Temin You know what a dial phone is.

Steve Poulin I do, I had to use IBM punch cards at the Coast Guard Academy, that’s how dated I am. But, you look at young people today, and they thirst for technology. And technology is going to make us more efficient and it’s going to make us safer. For me, leveraging technology buys down operational risk. And so that’s what this polar security cutters about. That’s what all our Coast Guard new construction is about. It’s about giving technology to the people that we’re asking to do the hard job of the nation.

Tom Temin And getting back to operations in the polar area, russia must be all over the place up there now.

Steve Poulin Yeah, they have more icebreakers than we do. Many more summarize strength, and some more heavy icebreakers. The fact of the matter is presence matters. And in order to be present, you got to have the capability to be present. The only way to do that is with new icebreakers. And when we have presence in the area, we not only protect the United States interest, but we ensure a rules based order in the Arctic. That’s the only way you can do it. You blunt, malign activity. But you also, by maintaining presence, reinforce that rules based order. Maritime governance, we call it. You make sure that this is an area that that has sound and good maritime governance.

Tom Temin Because Russia has been snatching Americans off the street in Russia and in the air war, the non-air war happening in that region of the world. They are crossing our planes, coming close. Our drone strikes, this kind of thing. There’s been a lot of as close to conflict as you can without having it. In the Arctic or anywhere in the Coast Guard do their cutters cut your bow across that type of thing?

Steve Poulin Well, look, our focus is on good maritime governance, and making sure that we can detect, deter and defeat malign action, whatever flavor or color that is. And we think we do that by maintaining a presence in the region and a sustained presence in the region, not just episodic, but sustained.

Tom Temin And if an ice breaker cuts a way through, can a regular cutter then go in there? Can you have other presence that is persistent, that’s not an icebreaker in the Arctic?

Steve Poulin Well, we’ve got to be very cautious about using cutters that weren’t constructed for an ice environment.

Tom Temin They could get in, but they couldn’t get out or something.

Steve Poulin Well, we would look at what, maybe, future force packaging looks like. But right now, our focus is to build a capability for a cutter that can have sustained presence. That starts with the polar security cutter. And then we’re also talking about what an Arctic security cutter would look like, which would be a replacement to that medium cutter that we currently have in inventory. What do we need to maintain both a persistent presence in the north high latitude and also in the Antarctic?

Tom Temin And by the way, are the polar cutters capable of launching aircraft? Or the copters on them?

Steve Poulin Yeah, exactly. They’ll have a flight deck. It’s important that we have that to improve maritime domain awareness and logistical issues. It helps with the science mission sometimes, when we deploy up there with the National Science Foundation. And it’s just an added margin of safety for our crews. So absolutely.

Tom Temin And you conduct exercises and operations with the other Arctic nations that care about this.

Steve Poulin We do now. With our other cutters that aren’t ice strengthened or don’t have ice breaking capability, we’ll do it during the summer months or when certain waters are ice free. I think of the North Atlantic. We work with the Canadians, we work with Denmark, we work with the UK and France. And we do some similar exercises with Canada in the Pacific Arctic area off Alaska. And we’ll continue to do that. I think it’s important for us to build interoperability with partners and allies that share our mutual goals, because securing the entire Arctic is something that United States can’t do alone. Our focus, yes, is in part on protecting our own sovereignty, our sovereign rights and our national interest. But we have a continuity of interest across the Arctic, not just off Alaska. And the best way to build up that governance is by doing it with like minded partners and allies.

Tom Temin Who else has ice cutters besides the United States and Russia up there?

Steve Poulin Well, China’s building icebreakers and they are not an Arctic nation. But Finland and Norway.  There are a lot of the Arctic partners that have some level of icebreaking capability. What we need to do is, we need to build capability for the United States. You mentioned Russia before, we’re lagging behind. We need to accelerate, and that’s why we’re fully committed to the polar security cutter. And I will say, we are so grateful to the administration and Congress for their support for the polar security cutter. We haven’t built a heavy icebreaker in this country since the early seventies. And I’m not sure that I ever envisioned, during my tenure in the service, we would be building other heavy icebreakers. So I’m just really excited about this acquisition, about this project. I’ve talked with Bollinger, they’re excited about it as well. So again, I remain optimistic about the future.

Tom Temin And It’ll have wi-fi.

Steve Poulin It’ll have a lot of bells and whistles. It’ll have great technology, and we’re going to do as much as we can to enable those great crewmembers on board to do Coast Guard missions up there. And national missions, not just Coast Guard missions, National missions.



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