“Let the Coast Guard Helm Alaskan Command’s Maritime Component” –USNI

PACOM Area of Responsibilty

Two officers, one Army and one Air Force, both with experience in Alaska Command, find that the organization of naval support for the Command is problematic and suggest that making CCGD17 the Naval Component Commander is the solution.

In 2014, the subunified Alaskan Command was reassigned from Pacific Command to NorthCom. Alaskan Command owns the joint force activities in the land and air domains over Alaska and the Arctic and coordinates with Naval Forces Northern Command (NavNorth)—based some 4,500 miles from Alaska—for maritime joint operations. The Alaskan Command commander also is responsible to North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) for the Alaskan region’s air defense and identification zone (ADIZ), which extends to the North Pole and along the eastern border of Russia. Currently, the maritime warning responsibilities in the Arctic are held at NORAD headquarters in Colorado, and maritime domain awareness responsibilities are retained with the NavNorth Commander in Norfolk, Virginia.

With three different chains of command, none of which own surface vessels around the waters of Alaska, Alaskan Command’s ability to conduct homeland defense is at risk because of a cumbersome command-and-control structure beset with the challenges of distance and limited expertise in operating in the Arctic. There is a more effective command-and-control structure to protect the homeland in the Arctic: establishing the U.S. Coast Guard as the Joint Force Maritime Component Commander of Alaskan Command.

This is recognition of a problem we looked at before, and my conclusion was that Alaska should be reassigned to PACOM. Short of that there is another alternative I will get to below, and they do seem to have a good workable proposal for a Joint Inter-Agency Task Force (North)

There has been almost no cooperation between the Navy and Alaska Command. That may be starting to change. In May the Navy conducted Exercise Northern Edge 2019. The Navy talked about this a relearning how to operate in the Arctic, but as far as I can tell, they never got into the Arctic. Apparently the Carrier Strike Group stayed in the Gulf of Alaska, but at least they did work with the Air Force in Alaska.

Admittedly the US Navy has limited capability in the Arctic.

“…the Navy’s minimal involvement in the region is for good reason: the Navy has limited Arctic capability, apart from submarines and patrol aircraft. Essentially, there are no current requirements levied on the U.S. Navy necessitating an Arctic presence.”

That also might be changing. It is not unlikely that the Navy will return in at least some fashion to Adak as it has in Iceland..

“Last year, the Navy indicated it would like to begin flying submarine-hunting P-8 Poseidon aircraft from Adak Island hundreds of miles off the Alaskan coast in the Aleutian island chain, which would put US aircraft at the westernmost airfield that can handle passenger aircraft in the United States.”

Joint Force Maritime Component Commander

To be the Naval Component Commander you have to be ready for high end conflicts as well as the more routine requirements. Submarines and Maritime Patrol Aircraft are critical assets for success in any major conflict in the Arctic. They are also forces the Coast Guard is not ready to command.

US Navy Fleet Organization

Surely that Maritime Component Commander should be Third Fleet. Additionally, as I noted earlier, It makes no sense to divide the Bearing Sea and the Chukchi Sea between 3rd Fleet and 7th Fleet. Third Fleet should assume responsibility for all of PACOM’s Arctic waters including the entire Bering Sea and the Aleutians. (7th Fleet already has more than enough to do in the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean.)

Joint Inter-Agency Task Force (North):

Meanwhile it would make sense for the Coast Guard to participate in formation of a Joint Inter-Agency Task Force (North) for the purpose of Disaster Relief/Humanitarian Assistance, response to major SAR cases, and dealing with possible Russian, or even Chinese, Gray Zone operations in the Arctic.

“Icebreaker Xuelong 2 joins service on China national maritime day” –Global Times

China’s first domestically built polar research vessel and icebreaker, Xuelong 2 docks at the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai on Thursday morning. Photo: Polar Research Institute of China

Global Times is reporting completion of China’s first domestically produced Polar Icebreaker. (Their existing polar icebreaker was built in the Ukraine.)

According to Wikipedia, she was designed by Finnish firm Aker Arctic Technology. Specs are as follows.

  • Polar Class 3
  • Double Acting, can break ice going ahead or astern
  • Displacement of 14,300 tons
  • Length: 122.5 metres (402 ft)
  • Beam: 22.3 metres (73 ft)
  • Draft: 8.3 metres (27 ft)
  • Max Speed: 15 knots
  • Accommodations: 90 Passengers and crew
  • Diesel-electric propulsion system, two 16-cylinder, two 12-cylinder engines, both Wärtsilä 32-series, drive through two 7.5 MW Azipods. Just under 20,000 HP

It is a lot smaller than the planned Polar Security Cutter, but it is also larger and about as powerful and almost certainly more effective than the Glacier that served the US effectively for many years.

The hull and power plant looks like something we might want for our medium icebreakers, and I note, it looks like this size could negotiate the Saint Lawrence Seaway. That would mean a similar ship could potentially operate both on the Great Lakes and support Atlantic Fleet operations if required.

Thanks to Tups for bringing this to my attention.

“Big war in the Arctic: How could it happen?” –Global Security

http://www.state.gov/e/oes/ocns/opa/arc/uschair/258202.htm . This map of the Arctic was created by State Department geographers as part of the U.S. Chairmanship of the Arctic Council.

GlobalSecurity.com brings us a Russian view of the possibility of war in the Arctic (including a mention of the USCG).

“The US also seeks to increase its activity in the Arctic. One of the strategies used by the Americans is deploying a significant number of US Coast Guard units in the region.”

(Maybe if one is a significant number?)

Fortunately, even this author, Mikhail Khodarenok, “military commentator for RT.com, a retired colonel, …who served at the main operational directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces,” sees little likelihood of a major conflict.

Unfortunately he does see similarities to the situations we have in the Persian Gulf and the South China Sea where there have been, and we expect to continue to have, high levels of tension over the long term. This would be a change from the generally peaceful relations the Arctic nations have enjoyed for almost three decades.

There are a couple of points in his discussion that merit some comment.

“Western experts claim that Russia’s position on the NEP (North East Passage–Chuck)/Northern Sea Route is not always convincing, as allegedly it violates international maritime law to some degree and goes against the principle of the peaceful use of the seas and oceans. Moscow argues that Russia has authority over the NEP which passes through its exclusive economic zone (emphasis applied–Chuck) and any vessels willing to use this route have to ask for its permission.”

The Exclusive Economic Zone is purely about Economic exploitation, hence the name, and conveys no right to restrict  passage in any form. If the Russians start interpreting the meaning differently, as the Chinese seem to be trying to do, there may be trouble.

“…if the ice continues to melt at current rates. The Northwest Passage may become completely free of ice in the next 40-50 years. This route goes across the Arctic Ocean along the Northern shores of North America and the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. It will be the shortest way from Shanghai to New York. If that happens, it will give rise to the same kind of problems that exist today around the NEP. The US is most likely to claim authority over the route, (emphasis applied–Chuck) while China is sure to say that such claims violate maritime law and go against the freedom of navigation principle.”

Canada is likely to continue to claim that the Northwest Passage is internal waters and demand notification and permission for passage, but the US has been very consistent in considering it an international waterway where anyone, including the Chinese, can transit without prior permission, based on the same argument used to claim that the Northern Sea Route is an international waterway.

There is a good possibility that once our icebreaker fleet is a little larger, we can expect the Coast Guard will be asked to exercise Freedom of Navigation on both the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route. Apparently we have already been asked regarding the Northern Sea Route.

Ironically this is one area where we may find agreement with the Chinese regarding Freedom of the Seas, at least in the Arctic. It is a question of how closely the Chinese will try to work with the Russians. This could become a source of tension between the two.

Does Atlantic Fleet Need an Icebreaker Capability?

USCGC Southwind Commissioning.

This post is going to be a little strange, because it starts with a question no one has ask and it will not provide any real answer. It is more the start of a thought process about possibilities. 
Does the Atlantic Fleet need icebreakers to support high latitude operations? Particularly US military icebreakers? And if so, could this support be provided by icebreakers that might also provide icebreaking services in the Great Lakes during peacetime?
I don’t know, but we do know that the Coast Guard’s first icebreakers were not based in the Pacific and they were not intended for Antarctic. They were used during World War Two in the Atlantic, particularly around Greenland.
We also know that NORAD and NORTHCOM are going to need to start replacing the Dew Line Systems with more modern systems that are need to protect against, not just ballistic missiles and high altitude strategic bombers, but also surface skimming cruise missiles.
LANTFLT may not have considered the question  They only recently operated a carrier strike group North of the Arctic Circle for the first time in almost three decades. The question may not have come up, or they may have assumed that when the Coast Guard gets new icebreakers some of them will operate in the Atlantic.
If the Coast Guard persists in its current pattern, all icebreakers, except small icebreaking tugs and those in the Great Lakes, will be homeported in the Pacific. Of course that makes some sense. The US Arctic coast is all in Alaska and most readily accessible from the Pacific. The US Antarctic base at McMurdo Sound is also most accessible from the Pacific.
Atlantic Area’s only icebreaking requirement for assets more capable than the 140 foot icebreaking tugs and the 2,000 ton, 6,200 HP, 225 foot Juniper class buoy tenders is in the Great Lakes.
What kind of icebreaker might both operate in the Great Lakes and be available to support LANTFLT?
In World War II this was impossible. The Saint Lawrence Seaway was not opened to ocean going traffic until 1959. The Saint Lawrence Seaway currently admits ship up to a length 740 ft (225.6 m), a beam of 78 ft (23.8 m) and a draft of 26.5 ft (8.1 m) (SeawayMax). Clearly, it is the beam and draft which are the limiting parameters for any icebreaker design that is intended to operate alternately in both the Great Lakes and the Atlantic. The Polar Security Cutters with a beam of 88 feet are clearly too large, as would be the 13,623 ton Polar Star, with its 83 ft 6 in (25.45 m) beam and the Healey with its 82 foot beam.
In looking at what sorts of icebreaker might be usable in both the Great Lakes and the Atlantic, we have to recognize that draft will increase in fresh water because it is up to about 3% less dense but on the other hand the icebreaker could transit the locks in a lightened condition, at less than full load, reducing their draft. There may be a bit more flexibility relative to draft. 
The newer USCGC Mackinaw (WLBB-30) is not limited by the locks, with a displacement of 3,500 tons, it has a beam of only 58.5 ft (17.8 m) and a draft of 16 ft (4.9 m). Even the much larger original Mackinaw would have fit, (Displacement:5,252 long tons (5,336 t), Length: 290 ft (88 m), Beam: 74.3 ft (22.6 m), Draft: 19.5 ft (5.9 m)) as would the Wind class.

Norwegian Coast Guard Vessel Svalbard. Photo by Marcusroos

A couple of modern military classes that might be available to aid in the Arctic are the Norwegian Coast Guard Cutter Svalbard and the very similar Canadian Arctic Offshore Patrol Ship (AOPS). Both could easily transit the Saint Lawrence Seaway, but, with 12,000 to 13,410 HP, neither could be considered a medium icebreaker. Even so they are more powerful than the Mackinaw.

USCGC Glacier (WAGB-4)

USCGC Glacier (WAGB-4) (8,449 long tons (8,585 t) full load) would be considered a medium icebreaker due to her 16,000 MW (21,000 HP) motors. Her draft appears too deep at 29 ft (8.8 m), but since her beam 74 ft (23 m) was well within the SeawayMax, it should be possible to make an at least comparably capable ship that could navigate the Seaway. Additional length over and above Glacier’s 309 ft 6 in (94.34 m) could provide space to meet additional requirements. 
Conclusion: 
It should be possible to make a reasonably capable class of medium icebreakers that could be homeported in the Great Lakes and also be available to support any LANTFLT operation requiring icebreaker support.
These ships might be seen as overkill relative to the requirements of the Great Lakes, but if they wish to extend the navigational season, the additional capability might be useful.
An ability to support naval operations might provide additional justification for these vessels. For peacetime operations on the Lakes, armament is unnecessary and might be seen as a treaty violation, but provision for adding armament in case of a future conflict might be a good hedge against an uncertain future.
Could the same design also serve as the Medium Icebreakers currently planned? This is less clear. There is also the possibility that the best course to provide the six icebreakers currently being discussed is to simply build six of the current design Polar Security Cutters.

“Marines, sailors and Coasties play catch-up in Arctic warfare” –Military Times

The Arctic, note the US includes the Aleutians and the Bearing Sea as part of the Arctic

Military Times is reporting on a panel discussion at the Naval War College, looking at the security implications of changes in the Arctic and a resurgent Russia.

It talks about the difficulties of operating in the environment including poor communications. The Navy and Marines have apparently begun to at least think about operating there. They know it is an area of potential conflict, even If it is overshadowed by more urgent concerns. The Marines have done some small exercises in the Arctic. Still aside from operating submarines in the Arctic, the Navy has not done much operating in the environment. On the Atlantic side, they have recently reestablished the Second Fleet and have conducted one exercise that took a carrier battle group above the Arctic Circle for the first time in almost three decades.

On the Pacific/Alaska side, the US has a tremendous geographic advantage in holding one side of the Bering Strait, but we have almost no military infrastructure that would allow us to exploit this. So far the closest the surface Navy has gotten to the Arctic in decades is exercising south of Kodiak. The way the military divides up the world is still causing problems.

Former Norwegian Rear Adm. Saunes cautioned,

“You need to start looking at the Arctic as it is, not what you want it to be, and tension between NATO and Russia is increasing in the Arctic.”

The Coast Guard is certainly paying more attention to the Arctic than the US Navy, but Admiral Saunes had some comments about the Coast Guard as well.

“How is the Coast Guard to defend without any armament?” he said, adding that in Norway, security vessels for the Arctic “are armed underwater, on the water and in the air, because we know the environment we are going into.”

Presence and soft security will not be enough, Saunes said.

“Coast Guard Hopes to Have 3 Polar Security Cutters Fielded by 2028” –USNI

The US Naval Institute reported on the Commandant’s remarks from the service chiefs panel at the Navy League’s annual Sea Air Space conference regarding the Polar Security Cutter program.

“right now my sense is we enjoy support from the administration, we enjoy bipartisan, bicameral support” in Congress, he said

The first ship is supposed to deliver to the Coast Guard in 2023..The Commandant did not speculate on the future funding profile, saying only that he expected three PSCs operational by 2028. USNI noted,

…buying the second and third ships in FY 2021 and 2023, respectively – would allow for all three to be in the fleet by 2027 or 2028.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson also remarked on Freedom of Navigation Operations in the Arctic and the Navy’s intention to operate in the Arctic.

Norwegians Test Vertical Take Off UAS for SAR in the Arctic

Schiebel’s Camcopter S-100 will start tests with the Norwegian Coast Guard in fall 2019. Schiebel

Seapower Magazine is reporting that the Norwegian Coast Guard is to begin a second set of tests to confirm the usefulness of a vertical Take-off and Landing (VTOL) Unmanned Air System (UAS) for SAR in the Arctic environment.

The UAS, the Schiebel Camcopter S-100, has a max takeoff weight of 200 kg (441 lb), a length of 3.11 m (10 ft 2 in), and a main rotor diameter of 3.4 m (11 ft 2 in). The system is widely used, including operation by the German, Italian, and Chinese Navies and the Russian Coast Guard. (More here). It is much more compact than even the smaller MQ-8B version of Fire Scout which has a max. takeoff weight: of 3,150 lb (1,430 kg), a length of 23.95 ft (7.3 m), and a main rotor diameter of 27.5 ft (8.4 m)

We might want to ask if we could send an observer or at least get the results of their evaluation.