Second 270 Goes to the Arctic

As part of the Operation Argus search and rescue exercise, U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Tahoma (WMEC 908) and HDMS Triton (F358), a Royal Danish navy vessel, conducted towing evolutions off Greenland Aug. 18, 2020. Interoperability and rescue responses are vital in the high latitudes of the Arctic. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Seaman Kate Kilroy/Released)

Below is a press release reproduced in its entirety. This operation seems to represent a significant change in Coast Guard operations. This is the first reference to a Coast Guard “Arctic Patrol” I have seen other than WWII historical references. Significantly this is on the Atlantic side. When I have seen the Coast Guard participate in this exercise in the past, it was with a buoy tender. Here we have participation by two 270 foot WMECs. We talked about this exercise earlier here. It seems to mark a change for the US Navy as well as the Coast Guard with a Navy destroyer participating as well. 

united states coast guard

News Release

U.S. Coast Guard Atlantic Area
Contact: Coast Guard Atlantic Area Public Affairs
Office: (757) 398-6521
After Hours: (757) 641-0763
Atlantic Area online newsroom

U.S. Coast Guard carries out support of joint Arctic missions

As part of Operation Nanook, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Tahoma (WMEC 908) maneuvers with vessel from the Royal Canadian navy and coast guard, the Danish navy, and French navy, in the Atlantic Aug. 9, 2020. Strong partnerships are imperative to success in the Arctic. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Seaman Kate Kilroy/Released) Royal Danish navy members attached to HDMS Triton (F358) ran through search and rescue exercises aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Tahoma (WMEC 908) as part of the joint Arctic Operation Argus, Aug. 20, 2020, off Greenland. The Triton crew dispatched small boat crews to board the Tahoma, responding to the ‘distress call’ made by Tahoma. The scenario included multiple ‘injured’ parties and a pipe casualty exercise. Each ship’s crew shared techniques throughout the engagement, leading to a successful evolution. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Seaman Kate Kilroy/Released) Coast Guard Cadet 1st Class Rochelle Parocha looks on to the Royal Canadian Navy supply vessel Asterix after guiding in the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Tahoma (WMEC 908) during approach drills as part of Operation Nanook in the Atlantic in mid-August 2020. Strong partnerships are imperative to success in the Arctic. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Seaman Kate Kilroy/Released)

 Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Fetzner, Lt. Katy Caraway, and Petty Officer 2nd Class Calvin Christianson, an aviation maintenance technician, crew an MH-65 Dolphin helicopter on search and rescue maneuvers above Greenland, Aug. 19, 2020. The team comprises the aviation detachment aboard U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Tahoma (WMEC 908), taking part in joint Arctic Operations Nanook and Argus strengthening relations with strategic partners. They carried out multiple search and rescue drills involving lost hikers along the Arctic Trail and boaters in distress along Greenland's coast. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Seaman Kate Kilroy/Released) The HDMS Triton (F358), a Royal Danish navy vessel, approaches Greenland as seen from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Tahoma (WMEC 908), Aug. 15, 2020. Both vessel crews are participating in the 10th year of Operation Nanook. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Seaman Kate Kilroy/Released) As part of Operation Nanook, a Royal Danish navy MH-60 Seahawk Helicopter crew conducts cross-deck maneuvers over the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Tahoma (WMEC 908) in the Atlantic Aug. 10, 2020. Strong partnerships are imperative to success in the Arctic. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Seaman Kate Kilroy/Released)

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Tahoma (WMEC 908) became the first Coast Guard 270-foot medium endurance cutter crew to cross the Arctic Circle, Aug. 17, 2020. They took part in joint Arctic Operations Nanook and Argus, (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Seaman Kate Kilroy/Released) As part of Operation Nanook, U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Tahoma (WMEC 908) boat-crew participates in a search and rescue exercise with the HDMS Triton, a Royal Danish navy vessel Aug. 17, 2020 off Greenland. Operation Argus part of Nanook, focused on search and rescue interoperability, highlights the importance of cooperation between international partners. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Seaman Kate Kilroy/Released) As part of the Operation Argus search and rescue exercise, U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Tahoma (WMEC 908) and HDMS Triton (F358), a Royal Danish navy vessel, conducted towing evolutions off Greenland Aug. 18, 2020. Interoperability and rescue responses are vital in the high latitudes of the Arctic. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Seaman Kate Kilroy/Released)

Editors’ Note: Click on images to view more or download a high-resolution version.

KITTERY, Maine  — The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Campbell (WMEC 909) will relieve the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Tahoma (WMEC 908) on Arctic patrol, Sunday near Greenland.  

In mid-July, Tahoma began operations for the overall two-month patrol to the Arctic in support of joint operations Nanook and Argus, to secure the maritime domain, protect resources and strengthen partnerships. 

“I’ve been doing this for more than 33 years and thought I’d seen everything until I saw how positively this crew responded. There’s nothing more humbling than being surrounded by such a great crew. Their families and friends should all be proud of them; that they accomplished something important and accomplished it with style. They represented themselves, their families, their Service, and their country as well as could ever be expected. The finest traditions of the Coast Guard are alive and well within the Tahoma crew,” said Cmdr. Eric Johnson, commanding officer, Tahoma. 

As the Nation’s primary maritime presence in the Polar Regions, the Coast Guard advances our national interests through a unique blend of polar operational capability, regulatory authority and international leadership across the full spectrum of maritime governance.  

“The Coast Guard has been in the Arctic for over 150 years,” said Capt. Thomas Crane, commanding officer, Campbell. “This signature exercise began in 2007. We are committed to enhancing our multinational capability to operate effectively in the dynamic Arctic domain, strengthening the rules-based order through the presence and joint efforts, and adapting to promote regional resilience and prosperity. We are proud to bring USCGC Campbell back to Greenland as the previous Campbell (W32) supported Coastal Operations in and around Greenland during World War II.”

These exercises evaluate interoperability and build relationships between responders to identify shortfalls in communication and coordination of efforts. Each agency holds individual capabilities that complement each other’s efforts and bolsters the overall success of the regional defense and SAR system. The purpose is to continue building and improving operational cohesion between different agencies and the Coast Guard.

Tahoma participated in patrols and mutual exchanges with partners as part of Operation Nanook. Inuit for polar bears, Nanook is an annual joint exercise and the Canadian armed forces’ signature northern operation, which comprises a series of comprehensive, joint, interagency, and multinational activities designed to exercise regional defense and secure our polar regions. The Coast Guard is primarily supporting Nanook-Tuugalik, a defense readiness and security exercise, with multiple foreign partners off Northern Canada involving U.S. Navy 2nd Fleet, Royal Canadian navy and coast guard, the Danish navy, French navy, Royal Canadian air force, and multiple Canadian federal, state, local, and tribal agencies. This year crowns a decade of Operation Nanook.

Both Tahoma and Campbell participated in Operation Argus, a three-day search and rescue exercise in Greenland’s coastal search area with the Danish navy, French navy, U.S. Coast Guard, and Air Greenland. Campbell will also conduct exchanges, fisheries boardings to safeguard resources and protect domestic fisheries and serve as a platform for research and innovation.

“We continue to work with our allies and partners to ensure a safe, secure, and cooperative Arctic, even as our aspiring near-peer competitors maneuver for strategic advantage in the area,” said Vice Adm. Steven Poulin, commander, Coast Guard Atlantic Area. “We are leaning forward, and our persistent presence continues to counter those entities’ efforts as the strategic value, economic, and scientific importance of the Arctic grows.”

Tahoma and Campbell’s home port is the historic Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine. Both cutters have a crew of roughly 100 who regularly patrol the Atlantic from Canada to the Caribbean. Like the other Famous-class cutters, they are designed and built for multi-mission operations, including law enforcement, search and rescue, marine environmental protection, and defense readiness.

Due to COVID-19, the service is taking extensive precautions and closely monitoring all operations. As needed, unit schedules adapted to ensure missions occur as planned. Any port calls or personnel exchanges are evaluated for risk and conducted in close coordination with the host nation and relevant agencies.

“Coast Guard Sails Medium Cutter North of Arctic Circle as Nanook Exercise Kicks Off” –USNI

The US Naval Institute News reports that

“The Coast Guard for the first time in years sent one of its medium-endurance cutters to the Atlantic Ocean north of the Arctic Circle, as the sea service joins the U.S. and Canadian navies for a yearly maritime exercise.”

This is Operation NANOOK-TUUGAALIK 2020, the maritime portion of Operation NANOOK. In past years, when the Coast Guard participated, we usually sent a buoy tender. I don’t believe it has ever happened before, but this year the US Navy is sending a destroyer. According to Naval Technology,

“Participating assets include USS Thomas Hudner (DDG 116) guided-missile destroyer, the Royal Canadian Navy ships HMCS Glace Bay, HMCS Ville de Quebec, and MV Asterix; DDG 116, US Helicopter Maritime Strike (HSM) 46.2, the US Coast Guard cutter USCGC Tahoma, French Navy coastal patrol vessel FS Fulmar, and the Royal Danish Navy frigate HDMS Triton.” (Photos below–Chuck)

The Navy seems to be particularly concerned about doing small boat ops in the Arctic environment.

“We’ve really heavily relied on partners, including the Coast Guard, who have recent experience operating there,” he said.

Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Thomas Hudner (DDG 116) (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Brian G. Reynolds/Released)

Canadian frigate HMCS Ville de Quebec

Danish frigate HDMS Triton F358 in Reykjavik – Iceland (2016). Photo credit: CJ Sayer via Wikipedia

Royal Canadian Navy supply ship MV Asterix (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jimmie Crockett/Released)

Canadian navy Kingston-class maritime coastal defense vessel HMCS Glace Bay (MM 701) (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Rafael Martie/Released)

FS FULMAR P740. Description: Owned by French Navy and crewed by Gendarmarie. Built as fishing vessel ‘Jonathan’1991 at Boulogne,re-built 1996/97 at Lorient for French Navy as patrol boat, LOA 39M; beam 8.5M; draught 4.7M. Displmt:680 tons full load. Note French Coastguard (AEM) stripes on bow. Vessel based on St.Pierre et Miquelon,off S.West coast Newfoundland.Photo credit © tabarly

USCGC Tahoma (WMEC-908)

“Why NATO Needs a Standing Maritime Group in the Arctic” –CIMSEC

NoCGV Svalbard (W303), an icebreaker and offshore patrol vessel of the Norwegian Coast Guard (Kystvakten).

A recent CIMSEC article makes a case for a standing NATO group in the Arctic.

“…NATO needs to improve its capability and capacity to operate on the Arctic front. In order to deter the Russian threat and safeguard maritime security, sustained presence in the region is needed. To this end, NATO should create a new standing maritime group dedicated to the Arctic and separate from the maritime groups focused elsewhere.

“Instead of relying exclusively on frigates and destroyers from NATO navies to form the new group, NATO should look to its coast guards as well, recognizing that many of these forces field ships that are optimized for Arctic operations.”

The post also sees a standing NATO Group as a counter to Chinese militarization of the Arctic as well,

“How China might move to militarize the Arctic is anyone’s guess, but its 2018 white paper on the Arctic, as summarized by Lieutenant Commander Rachel Gosnell, USN, clearly states China’s interests in the region, and it has plans to protect them. While much of the paper touts adherence to international law, the world has very little reason to believe China will do so. One example of how China could move to militarize the Arctic is on the back of its seemingly benign fishing fleet. China has stated it has inherent rights to the fish migrating to the Arctic because of its large population. And where China’s fishing fleet goes, militarization will soon follow, as has been demonstrated already by Chinese fishing “militias.””

My take:

While I earlier I suggested something similar for the Western Pacific, a “Combined Maritime Security Task Force Pacific,” a maritime law enforcement alliance between Asian nations and other interested parties (probably including the US, Australia, France, and New Zealand) to ensure a rules based maritime environment in the Western Pacific, the situation in the Arctic is very different. 

A picture taken on November 16, 2011 from a South Korean helicopter shows Chinese boats banded together with ropes, chased by a coastguard helicopter and rubber boats packed with commandoes, after alleged illegal fishing in South Korean waters in the Yellow Sea.
Credit: Dong-A-Ilbo

In the Western Pacific, multi-unit cooperation is desirable to push back against Chinese bullying of her neighbors. Huge numbers of fishing vessels including many that are Chinese maritime militia, backed by Chinese Coast Guard vessels, can overwhelm and intimidate individual enforcement vessels. They have even been known to be violent. Having numerous international witnesses on scene can counter the Chinese narrative. So far we are not seeing huge Chinese fishing fleets in the Arctic.

Certainly we can benefit from international cooperation and coordination in the Arctic, for now at least, a wide ranging dispersal of assets, rather than concentration seems more appropriate.

A Combined Interagency Task Force (or maybe two), modeled on our Joint Interagency Task Force (JIATF) but including staff from other Arctic nations rather than a grouping of ships, might be a better near term solution. (In considering a “Freedom of Navigation Operation” through the Northern Sea Route, former USCG Commandant, Admiral Zukunft, even suggested formation of a JIATF–Arctic based on an augmented JTF Alaska.)  Missions potentially include SAR, Environmental Protection, and Fisheries Protection. Those concerns, have been to some extent addressed by the Arctic Coast Guard Forum. For now at least, Russia shares those interests. 

The limits:

In the CIMSEC article, there is discussion about the possibility of “Freedom of Navigation Operations” through the Northern Sea Route. Canada is likely to side with Russia on this question, because they consider the North West Passage Canadian internal waters.

Communications in the far North are still difficult. Recently the Commandant noted the difficulty of maintaining communications with USCGC Healy.

Western nations’ access to the Arctic is limited to widely separated Pacific and Atlantic Approaches. Inevitably we have to see the Arctic as two separate theaters. The Arctic Ocean that we approach from the Atlantic and the Arctic Ocean approached from the Pacific.

While Russia actually has naval bases in the Arctic, Western nations generally do not. The only exceptions are Sortland Norway where the Norwegian Coast Guard has their headquarters and Northern base, and Nanisivik, where Canada has converted a former mining site to a refueling station near the Eastern Entrance to the North West Passage.

The US has no Navy bases in Alaska. On the Atlantic side, the US Navy has no surface vessels based north of the Virginia Capes. The US Coast Guard has no ice-capable vessels larger than large buoy tenders (WLBs) based on the Atlantic side. Basing for future USCG medium icebreakers has not be made public. 

Canada is building eight Harry DeWolf class ice-strengthened “Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships,” six for the Navy and two for their Coast Guard.

Canada has no true naval bases in the Arctic, though their bases are further north than those of the US. Denmark patrols Greenland waters from Naval Base Frederikshavn on the Jutland peninsula. Sweden and Finland extend above the Arctic circle, but they have no coast line on the Arctic Ocean. Iceland is just below the Arctic Circle.

What we can do: 

A comprehensive common NATO operational picture of the Arctic and its approaches is desirable and doable. There are probably economies possible in maintaining air surveillance over the Arctic access points.

Icelandic Coast Guard Cutter Thor. Photo credit: Claus Ableiter

What is in place?:

We have the Arctic Coast Guard Forum.

Denmark has a Joint Arctic Command for the defense of Greenland and the Faroe Islands Area.

Canada has a Joint Task Force (North) and exercises annually under the name Operation Nanook. The US Coast Guard has participated in Operation Nanook at least three times.

Pacific Area Coast Guard, Third Fleet, and Canada’s Maritime Forces Pacific have been in discussion, but it does not appear that the Arctic was high on their agenda.

What we lack:

Seems a good next step would be a standing staff, to maintain maritime domain awareness of activities in the Arctic, and coordinate cooperative international monitoring efforts.

Do we include the Russian? Good question, but they may currently have the best information about what is going on in the Arctic.