Maritime Transportation in the Arctic: The U.S. Role–House Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure

Above you will find a video of a hearing held on June 7, 2018 regarding “Transportation in the Arctic”. You will find the subcommittee web page here. It includes the video, the list of witnesses which I have reproduced below, and the Chairman’s opening remarks.

The video does not actually start until time 21:45.


  • Admiral Charles W. Ray, Vice Commandant United States Coast Guard | Written Testimony
  • Mr. David Kennedy, Senior Arctic Advisor, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration | Written Testimony
  • Ms. Heather A. Conley, Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic, Center for Strategic and International Studies | Written Testimony
  • Dr. Lawson Brigham, Faculty and Distinguished Fellow, International Arctic Research Center, University of Alaska Fairbanks | Written Testimony
  • Ms. Molly McCammon, Executive Director, Alaska Ocean Observing System | Written Testimony
  • Rear Admiral David W. Titley, USN (Ret.), Professor of Practice, Department of Meteorology and Atmospheric Science, Pennsylvania State University | Written Testimony


As you may see, the new Vice Commandant, Adm. Ray is the first witness. He completes his prepared remarks at time 32:30.

Incidentally one of the Witnesses Lawson Brigham (prepared testimony begins at time 44:00 to 48:25) is a retired Coast Guard captain with extensive polar icebreaker experience.

Questioning begins at time 1:00:00 with the “trick question” explored further by the Washington Examiner Magazine, “The Next ‘Cold’ War: America May Be Missing the Boat in the Arctic.”

There are few surprises here. There is almost no infrastructure in the Arctic. Apparently there is a slow effort to provide better domain awareness. Only about 5% of the American Arctic waters are charted to international standards.

The most significant thing to come out in the hearing was that there is no National or Naval strategy for the Arctic Ocean. (This might be because NORTHCOM, which is air and ground oriented, has responsibility for the Arctic Ocean area.) Congress has added a requirement for development of an Arctic Strategy in the FY2019 DOD budget, and they certainly expect the Coast Guard to have a large role in the strategy.

If you don’t listen to anything else, particularly listen to John Garamendi’s remarks 1:41:30 to 1:43:30.



Norway’s Coast Guard Challenges in the Arctic

Location of Svalbard, Norway. Prepared by

DefenseNews has an excellent article on the challenges facing the Norwegian Coast Guard around the islands of Svalbard.

You thought the USCG was small. They have less than 400 people but operate nine ocean going ships as well as inshore patrol vessels. They are part of the Norwegian Navy and have no aircraft of their own, so they don’t have the same range of responsibilities, but by any measure, they are a small force.

Global warming has increased access for fisheries and tourism. Traffic is increasing around the island of Svalbard and they are unable to meet the demanding new conditions.

We are likely to face similar problems in the American Arctic EEZ. How far is it from the nearest Coast Guard Air Station (Kodiak) to the Bering Strait? (677 nautical miles). To Barrow (822 n.mi).

How many ships do we expect to keep north of the Bering Strait? Would be surprised if it more than one.

Coast Guard to Recieve Two Satellites, Launch Expected This Year

Cube shaped satellite, 100mm (3.9″) on a side. This photo shows the Norwegian student satellite NCUBE2 ready for shipment to the Netherlands for integration with the ESA student satellite SSETI-Express, photographer, Bjørn Pedersen, NTNU.

National Defense is reporting that the Air Force is building two “Polar Scout” SAR satellites for the Coast Guard, expected to be launched this year.

An earlier post referenced a Acquisitions Directorate report on this R&D Center project.

These satellites, or “cubesats,” are capable of detecting transmissions from emergency position indicating radio beacons (EPIRBs), which are carried on board vessels to broadcast their position if in distress. The Coast Guard will deploy the cubesats in cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate’s Polar Scout program, the Air Force Operationally Responsive Space Office, and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

These two satellites will only provide intermittent coverage of EPIRB signals from the polar regions so more satellites may follow.

This appears to be first fruit of a growing cooperation between the Coast Guard’s R&D Center and the Air Force Research Laboratory which has been formalized by a recent Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed by the heads of the two organization on April 12, 2018.


“Charting the Course: the U.S. Needs an Arctic Fleet”–USNI/Why We Never See the Navy In Alaska

The US Naval Institute Proceedings has a short article that is available on line here. It not only advocates for an Arctic Fleet, but also explains why it has not happened, but suggests the operation of the 4th Fleet as an organizational model.

“…While naval forces are not permanently assigned to Fourth Fleet, the organizational structure remains in place both to support force assignment and to represent Navy interests in the region. The same can be true in the Arctic.

“This new Arctic Fleet can be established in a step-wise fashion, tailored across time and married to changing force structure. A sensible first step would be to augment the small Navy staff assigned to AlCom (Alaska Command–Chuck). Subsequently, in the mid-term, a joint inter-agency task force (JIATF) could be established out of the AlCom office, as resources and activity grew. Certainly, this JIATF would include the Coast Guard, but it also should include liaison officers from Canada, Norway, and other key allies. Ultimately this fleet would be stood up and merged with the NorthCom’s NCC. The Arctic Fleet could be commanded by, for example, either a Navy reserve admiral or a Coast Guard admiral.”

If we could get it to work:

This might end up looking a lot like 4th Fleet where the COCOM says all my ships are white with a racing stripe.

I would suggest that the Fleet would need much more than token Canadian representation. Ultimately any Arctic fleet is likely to have substantial Canadian representation.

Why the 4th Fleet Model probably will not work:

The proposed inclusion of “Norway and other key allies” seems to suggest that the author sees a single fleet working out Alaska Command (ALCOM), but while NORTHCOM includes Arctic waters as far east as the West coast of Greenland (which is a “constituent country” of the Kingdom of Denmark), realistically, there will be ships based in the Atlantic, and ships based in the Pacific, and the two are unlikely to have much interaction. Arctic waters that connect to the Atlantic are closely connected to NATO and LANTFLT operations. Operations in those areas would not logically come under the control of a small Naval staff in Alaska. Our Arctic Fleet would mostly be needed for the Pacific/Arctic/Alaska. The proximity of Russia and China reinforce the point.

The 4th Fleet model works because their AOR is part of the Atlantic Fleet AOR and Fleet Forces, as Atlantic Fleet, sees 4th Fleet as one of their responsibilities, all be it a minor one. Pacific Fleet does not see sending forces to answer to NORTHCOM as part of their responsibility.

The Bureaucratic Hurdles:

There are at least two major problems in overcoming “the way we have always done things” in making this happen.

  • There is a mismatch between who is in charge of the area and who is in charge of the ships that are needed.
  • There is a mismatch between the resources needed and the way the Navy packages its forces.

Areas of Responsibility:

The Arctic, note the US includes the Aleutians and the Bearing Sea as part of the Arctic even though they are below the Arctic Circle

U.S. Fleet Forces (USFF) Command serves as the supporting Navy commander to Commander, U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) and USFF also serves as the Joint Forces Maritime Component Commander (JFMCC) to U.S. Northern Command (including AlaskaCommand), but they are also Commander Atlantic Fleet. Notably for our purposes Commander, Pacific Fleet is someone different with a different set of priorities.

These are the Unified Combatant Commander’s Areas of Responsibility. Note Alaska in the extreme upper left

PACOM Area of Responsibility. Note all of Alaska is outside PACOM AOR, even though they are nominally 3rd Fleet waters.

The most likely areas of operation for an Arctic Fleet, the Bearing Sea and the Chukchi Sea, are split between PACOM and NORTHCOM. The most critical choke point in the entire area, Bearing Strait, is similarly split.

US Navy Fleet Organization. Note 2nd Fleet has now been subsumed into 6th Fleet.

Tactical Organization:

Another potential hang up is that the Navy has three primary organizational subsets.

  • Carrier Strike Groups (CSG)
  • Amphibious Ready Groups (ARG)
  • Submarines

Carrier strike groups and amphibious ready groups are in high demand and are rotated through customary assignments to 5th, 6th, and 7th Fleet. If you look at the USNI fleet tracker reports on a regular basis, you will see that there is never a sufficient number of Navy ships deployed to Fleet Forces, 3rd Fleet, or 4th Fleet to actually constitute a “fleet.”

Only submarines operate normally as single units and even they are frequently assigned to support CSGs.

Rarely, the Navy has dispatched groups of destroyers and frigates (when they had them) as “Surface Action Groups” (SAG) but generally these are fully committed to support of carrier strike groups.


Make Alaska part of USPACOM. It is the only way to rationalize this as an area of potential Combat.


CGAS Kodiak C-130Hs to be Replaced by J Models

Navy Times is reporting that Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak C-130s will be replaced with more capable C-130Js by 2020.

This is a very welcome change. According to the Acquisitions directorate,

“The HC-130J has a more advanced engine and propellers, which provide a 20 percent increase in speed and altitude, and a 40 percent increase in range over the HC-130H. The new aircraft also features state-of-the-market avionics, including all-glass cockpit displays and improved navigation equipment. The HC-130J’s suite of command, control, communication, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) equipment – comparable to that of the HC-144 Ocean Sentry medium range surveillance aircraft – helps to extend the fleet’s mission capabilities.”

Higher speed, longer range, shorter take-off and landing, better climb rate, better sensors, more intuitive cockpit, better terrain avoidance. Not bad.

China unveils vision for ‘Polar Silk Road’ across Arctic–Reuters

Chinese icebreaking research vessel Xue Long (Snow Dragon), Photo by Bahnfrend

Reuters has an interesting short article about China’s interest in the Arctic. Initially this will probably be primarily concerned with shipment of Russian LNG, but it appears we can expect other activities as well, including fishing. Certainly we should expect more traffic through the Bering Strait, bringing with it the possibility of SAR and Marine Environment Protection incidents.

“The white paper said China also eyes development of oil, gas, mineral resources and other non-fossil energies, fishing and tourism in the region. It said it would do so “jointly with Arctic States, while respecting traditions and cultures of the Arctic residents including the indigenous peoples and conserving natural environment”. “