Coast Guard struggles to protect US ‘fourth ocean’

Coast Guard struggles to protect US ‘fourth ocean’

The Coast Guard cutter Polar Star breaks ice in McMurdo Sound near Antarctica on Jan. 13. The Polar Star is one of only two Coast Guard icebreakers. Another is expected to be delivered in 2023. (Chief Petty Officer Nick Ameen/USCG)

WASHINGTON — National Guard troops are flowing to the southern border of the United States this week, a move designed to offset a perceived threat to national security from the south.

At the same time, the far northern border of the United States — the so-called fourth ocean of the Arctic Sea — remains wide open to exploitation and penetration by U.S. foes.

And it does not look as if that vulnerability will be addressed in the near future.

The U.S. defense of its fourth ocean and its plethora of assets consists of essentially one creaking Coast Guard ice breaker, a support vessel and a shrinking ally that once upon a time was solid, thick packs of ice.

“If you want to compete in the 21st century, you have to compete from a platform of strength,” Admiral Paul Zunkunft, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, said Tuesday in remarks to the 2018 Sea-Air-Space exposition at National Harbor in Maryland. “We are trying to assert sovereignty with reports and papers.”

Zunkunft said the Arctic Ocean region contains an estimated one-third of all natural gas reserves, 13 percent of the oil reserves and a treasure chest of a plethora of critical minerals. (A 2013 Council of Foreign Relations report by Coast Guard Capt. Peter Troedsson noted that “a 2008 study by the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that about 22 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and natural gas lie above the Arctic Circle.”) Yet due to a lack of assets, the Coast Guard must “punch above our weight class” in order to perform protective actions, he said.

He said that while the U.S. can make claims for resources on the extended continental shelf from Alaska, it is a hollow claim since Congress has failed to ratify the Law of the Sea protocol. Only three other nations have failed to ratify the protocol: North Korea, Iran and Libya.

Admiral Paul Zunkunft, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, addresses the 2018 Sea-Air-Space exposition on Tuesday at National Harbor. (Tom Squitieri/TMN)

Meanwhile, Russia has claimed territory all the way to the North Pole and is joining China in a race to build and deploy scores of icebreakers and other resources to stake territorial claims beyond the swath they now hold, Zunkunft said.

Unlike the ability of the Pentagon to issue an order and have the resources to implement action quickly, the Coast Guard has no such luxury. For example, the Coast Guard needs about six new heavy icebreakers — the one it has now is practically ancient — and the earliest that one can be delivered is 2023.

Those new icebreakers are likely to have offensive weapons, which will be a first, to offset the potential for aggressive interactions, the Coast Guard has said.

Currently the one heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, is operable only through constant maintenance. It was commissioned in 1976. Many of the ship’s parts are no longer manufactured and some have been scrounged from a second icebreaker that is no longer usable.

A report issued last year by the Council on Foreign Relations called for “greater investment in Alaskan infrastructure, including deep water ports, roads, and reliable telecommunications, to support economic development and a sustained security presence in the region.”

“The thought that we have just two — one heavy and one medium icebreaker — to serve both the Arctic and the Antarctic, is mind-blowing,” Christie Whitman, the former secretary of the Department of Environmental Resources, said when the report was issued. Whitman was a co-chair of the study.

“You don’t have to be a geography major to understand that those two things are not close together, and it is not a pleasant trip to get from one to the other. It is not a pleasure cruise. If anything goes wrong, and the ship that you need is not where you are, it’s going to be a long way away,” she said, referring to the need of a heavy icebreaker to keep open a path to McMurdo Station, the U.S. outpost on Antarctica. “Because it takes a long time to build them, we need to get moving on that now.”

Although a service branch of the Armed Forces, the Coast Guard is part of the Department of Homeland Security, thus making its budget more subject to uncertainty.

After years of seeing its budget slashed, the Coast Guard received a 15 percent boost in funding in the budget approved earlier this year. The new funds will be used to restore and maintain equipment, increase the size of readiness of the ranks and the purchase of much-needed equipment.

“The Service is hampered by lackluster funding requests that don’t meet the needs of the Service. The Coast Guard already falls behind the other Services,” Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Cal.), chair of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, said during a hearing earlier this year.

“The lack of budget clarity that the non-defense discretionary budget has imposed on the Coast Guard has definitely impacted the Service in its ability to adequately and consistently fund its programs,” Hunter said.  “As I’ve said before, this, without question, is a risk to national security and should compel a more serious budget approach.”

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