“Rushing Navy Ships into the Arctic for a FONOP is Dangerous” –USNI

Map of the Arctic region showing shipping routes Northeast Passage, Northern Sea Route, and Northwest Passage, and bathymetry, Arctic Council, by Susie Harder

An interesting discussion of the Navy’s proposed Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) in the Arctic which would presumably require Coast Guard assistance.

Within these stories are three different ideas: first, that the Navy is interested in expanding its physical presence in Alaska, through returning to Adak and/or a port on the Bering Strait ( Nome has been discussed for years); second, that Navy personnel need to regain operational familiarity with the Arctic environment; and third, that the Navy appears to be considering a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in the Arctic for summer 2019.

The first two ideas are unremarkable. Given the dearth of infrastructure and the challenging environment, both improved facilities and practical learning opportunities are required to ensure Navy vessels and aircraft operate safely and effectively.

The third idea—conducting a FONOP in the Arctic in just a few months—is a bombshell.

I seem to remember hearing that this had been discussed, and the Commandant had taken the position that the Coast Guard could not support the idea of a Freedom of Navigation Operation given the state of our icebreaker “fleet,” but apparently the idea is still alive, at least as of mid January.

Norwegian Coast Guard’s New Ice Strengthened Cutters –They Will Be Big

Norwegian Coast Guard Vessel Svalbard. Currently the largest Norwegian Coast Guard ship. The new ships will be about 50% larger. Photo by Marcusroos

Just received information on the new Norwegian Coast Guard cutters that will be replacing the three ships of the Nordkapp class in the form of a 26 page pdf that appears to have been briefing graphics from August 2014.

We discussed these ships briefly in an Oct. 5, 2016 post. June 25, 2018 Marine Log reported that VARD had won a contract to build three ships at a cost exceeding NOK 5 billion (about $618 million).

Deliveries of the three vessels are scheduled from Vard Langsten in Norway in 1Q 2022, 1Q 2023 and 1Q 2024 respectively. The hulls will be built at Vard’s Tulcea, Romania, shipyard;

According to the presentation they are going to be relatively big ships, about three times the size of the ships they will replace at 9,800 tons, and 136.4 meters (447.4 ft) loa, 19 meter (62.3 ft) beam, and 6.2 meter (20.3 ft) draft. Later information puts the beam at 22 meters (72.16 ft). That makes them larger than the icebreaker Glacier, although they are not icebreakers, only ice strengthened. It does not have an icebreaker bow.

They are expected to hangar two NH90 helicopters (10,600 kg/23,370 lb max TO weight) with deck space to land an AW101 (14,600 kg/32,188 lb max TO weight). They are expected to have a speed of 22 knots, endurance of eight weeks, accommodations for 100, collective CBRN protection, and space for containers on deck.

They will have a single medium caliber gun, apparently a 57mm, with an all weather fire control system, plus machine guns, sonar, and torpedo and mine storage for the helicopters. Since these ships will be armed very much like the Nordkapp class that they replace, there will all probably be provision for mounting Naval Strike Missile, although that is not mentioned in the briefing.

They will also be equipped with pollution abatement systems.

These ships were designed by VARD, also the designer of the US Coast Guard’s Offshore Patrol Cutter and Canada’s Arctic and Offshore Patrol Vessel. This might be a design we should consider as an Arctic Patrol Cutter. Certainly the Norwegian Coast Guard should be able to provide some good advice once they have had some experience with these.

Thanks to Lee for bringing this to my attention. 

Hearing: “Review of Recent GAO Reports on Icebreaker Acquisition and the Need for a National Maritime Strategy”

Note: Apparently as a result of the Government Shutdown, links to the House of Representative’s Website that have been included in this are no longer available and once you get their error message you will no longer be able to back arrow to this site. You will have to reload. Hopefully these link will be reestablished some time in the future, so I have left them in. I have been unable to relocate some of the quotations below to provide more specific citations so I am going to go ahead and publish without them.  

Again, I have to apologize for being late in analysis of a Congressional hearing. In this case it is the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure’s Subcommittee on the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, “Review of Recent GAO Reports on Icebreaker Acquisition and the Need for a National Maritime Strategy” that took place on 29 November, 2018.

The video actually begins at minute 21.

Witnesses were:

  • Rear Admiral Michael J. Haycock, Assistant Commandant for Acquisition & Chief Acquisition Officer, United States Coast Guard  | Written Testimony
  • Rear Admiral Mark H. “Buz” Buzby, USN, Ret., Administrator, Maritime Administration  | Written Testimony
  • Ms. Marie A. Mak, Director of Acquisition and Sourcing Management, Government Accountability Office  | Written Testimony
  • Mr. Andrew Von Ah, Director of Physical Infrastructure Issues, Government Accountability Office  | Written Testimony
  • Mr. Ronald O’Rourke, Specialist in Naval Affairs, Congressional Research Service  | Written Testimony

Subcommittee members present included:

All five Representatives won reelection, so it is probable we will see them on the Subcommittee next year. Representative Garamendi was clearly excited and optimistic about the becoming chair of the House Sub-Committee. He strongly reports Coast Guard recapitalization. He also expressed a desire to see Rep. Brian Mast return as ranking member.

The two topics were essentially unrelated. We have revisited the topic of the Polar Security Cutter/Heavy Polar Icebreaker numerous times.

GAO is still contending there are Scheduling and Technological risks. They don’t seem to recognize the steps that have been taken to minimize these risks and that the largest scheduling risk is in delaying the start of the project once the detail design is substantially complete. There is real urgency in the need to replace Polar Star and they don’t seem to recognize that. Yes, the Coast Guard might have done a better job, if we had started this project about a decade earlier, and we might have done that if they had not continued to insist we had to keep our AC&I (now PC&I) budget to about $1.1B, but we can no longer afford more delay to achieve a drawn out, risk free, acquisition process.

Mr. O’Rourke once again made the case for block buy vs a contract with options, contrasting the way the Coast Guard has contracted for vessels while the Navy has successfully used Block Buy and Multi-Year contracting for vessels much more complicated than those being procured by the Coast Guard.

The need for a National Maritime Strategy reflected a realization that the US ability to transport military reinforcements to a theater of conflict in American ships with American crews seems to be in jeopardy. We discussed this problem and what the Coast Guard could do about it here.

Rather than reference the exchange on the video above as I have done before, I will just highlight parts of the two source documents, the “Summary of Subject Matter” (a six page pdf) and Congressional Research Service Naval Expert, Ronald O’Rourke’s prepared statement.

Regarding the Polar Security Cutter (Heavy Polar Icebreaker or HPIB), from the summary of subject matter

The Coast Guard Acquisition Directorate is conducting a tailored technical readiness assessment to update the HPIB cost estimate with an estimated completion of June 30, 2019.

The Coast Guard Acquisition Directorate will update the program schedule within three months of the Detail Design and Construction contract award and before awarding construction, as appropriate, with an estimated completion date of September 30, 2019.

The Coast Guard Acquisition Directorate is conducting a tailored technical readiness assessment to analyze and determine schedule risks with an estimated completion of June 30, 2019.

Since presumably much of this work would be done by civilian acquisitions specialist, it is likely the work is falling behind because of the government shut down

Shift in Security Environment; New National Defense Strategy

A Maritime Strategy has not been issued. If it had it would likely need an update given that both the Administration and Geopolitical situation have changed.

Mobility Capabilities and Requirements Study 2018 (MCRS-18)

 DOD states that it started the study, which it refers to as the Mobility Capabilities and Requirements Study 2018 (MCRS-18), on March 8, 2018, and that it is scheduled for completion in the fall of 2018…A September 25, 2017, press report about MCRS-18 states that “Since the early 1990s, Pentagon mobility studies have consistently identified a requirement for about 20 million square feet of roll-on/roll-off capacity to quickly transport material in support of a contingency.” Mobility studies conducted from the 1990s until recently, however, were all done in the post-Cold War era, when U.S. military force planning focused to a large degree on potential crises and conflicts against regional military powers such as Iran and North Korea. Given the recent shift from the post-Cold War era to the new era of renewed great power competition and the resulting formal shift in U.S. military force planning toward a primary emphasis on potential challenges posed by China and Russia, it is not clear that MCRS-18 will leave the figure of 20 million square feet of roll-on/roll-off capacity unchanged. A change in this figure could have implications for the content of a new national maritime strategy.

We have seen no indication of movement on these documents.

Potential Shortfall of Navy Escorts and Possible Impacts on Mariners

 GAO notes MARAD’s September 2017 estimate of a potential shortage of U.S.-citizen mariners available to crew U.S.-owned reserve sealift ships during a crisis or conflict. The challenge of finding adequate numbers of appropriately trained mariners to crew DOD sealift ships in time of crisis or conflict is a longstanding issue, dating back at least to 1990, when mariners in their 50s, 60s, and 70s (and one aged 81), some brought out of retirement, were reportedly needed to help fill out the crews of DOD sealift ships that were activated for Operation Desert Shield (the initial phase of the U.S. reaction to Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait). Problems in filling out ship crews reportedly contributed to delays in activating some RRF sealift ships to participate in the operation.  A potential shortage of U.S.-citizen mariners for manning DOD sealift ships in wartime has been a recurring matter of concern since then.

“Was I to die this moment, ‘Want of Frigates’ would be found stamped on my heart.”, Lord Nelson to Earl Spencer, 9 August 1798

Section 1072 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018 (H.R. 2810/P.L. 11591 of December 12, 2017) requires the Navy to submit a report on its plans for defending combat logistics and strategic mobility forces—meaning Navy underway replenishment ships, RRF sealift ships, and MSC surge sealift ships—against potential wartime threats. The report is to include, among other things, a “description of the combat logistics and strategic mobility forces capacity, including additional combat logistics and strategic mobility forces, that may be required due to losses from attacks,” an “assessment of the ability and availability of United States naval forces to defend combat logistics and strategic mobility forces from the threats,” and a “description of specific capability gaps or risk areas in the ability or availability of United States naval forces to defend combat logistics and strategic mobility forces from the threats….”

This was brought sharply into focus in a surprisingly frank article in Defense News, dated October 10, 2018, “‘You’re On Your Own’: US Sealift Can’t Count on Navy Escorts in the Next Big War,”

My earlier post talks about what the Coast Guard could do to mitigate this shortfall, but the most significant step would be to bring back the Coast Guard ASW mission. Equipping eleven NSCs and 25 OPCs with ASW systems could make a huge difference.

 

“Government Shutdown Puts Coast Guard Heavy Icebreaker Program at Risk” –USNI

The Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaks ice around the Russian-flagged tanker Renda 250 miles south of Nome Jan. 6, 2012. The Healy is the Coast Guard’s only currently operating polar icebreaker. The vessels are transiting through ice up to five-feet thick in this area. The 370-foot tanker Renda will have to go through more than 300 miles of sea ice to get to Nome, a city of about 3,500 people on the western Alaska coastline that did not get its last pre-winter fuel delivery because of a massive storm. If the delivery of diesel fuel and unleaded gasoline is not made, the city likely will run short of fuel supplies before another barge delivery can be made in spring. (AP Photo/US Coast Guard – Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis) NY112

The US Naval Institute has a report on the impact of the government shutdown on the Coast Guard and other government agencies, with a close look at what it probably means for the Polar Security Cutter (icebreaker) program.

“The Coast Guard turned down a request for an exercise for an Arctic exercise out of concern the US’ only heavy icebreaker would break down and Russia would have to rescue it” –Business Insider

Business Insider brings us an interesting report that the Coast Guard had declined to undertake a suggested “Freedom of Navigation” transit of the Northern Sea Route because of fear the Polar Star would break down while in the ice near Russia and require Russian icebreaker assistance.

The fact that using the Polar Star in the Arctic would have probably made, making the McMurdo breakout problematic, probably also made such an exercise almost impossible. As we have seen in the last year, between dry docking and the trip South the crew spent very little time in homeport

New Base at Port Clarence?

Bering Strait. Port Clarence bay is the large bight in the southeast.

Adapted from Wikipedia’s AK borough maps by Seth Ilys.

At the National Press Club Headliners Luncheon on Thursday, Dec. 6, the Commandant discussed the Coast Guard’s Arctic presence. We noted the Commandant’s remarks on the Polar Security Cutter earlier, that he was guardedly optimistic, but the US Naval Institute report on the same presentation, brings us more information about the possibility of a new port facility in Western Alaska.

Long-term, Schultz said it’s possible the Coast Guard would look to create a permanent presence in the Arctic. Most likely, Schultz said, the Coast Guard would look for a sea base, possibly in the far northern Port Clarence area. One option, Schultz said, is for the Coast Guard to install moorings to provide a safe haven. Port Clarence, Alaska, had a population of 24, according to the 2010 Census.

Port Clarence was at one time a LORAN Station, and it appears it may still have a substantial runway, so it might also develop into a seasonal air station.

The Secretary of the Navy has already expressed an interest in having a strategic port in Alaska. From the Navy’s point of view it is near the potentially strategically important Bering Strait.

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz meets with Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer and Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan in Nome and Port Clarence, Alaska to discuss the construction of deep draft ports in western Alaska, Aug. 13, 2018. This would allow the Coast Guard and Navy to have a strong presence in the U.S. Arctic. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Jetta Disco.