Op-Ed: Preparing for an Arctic Future

Alaskans lead the nation in many things – resilience, toughness and creativity – and we are leaps and bounds ahead of rest of the United States when it comes to knowing a cold truth: we are an Arctic nation, and we need to start mapping out an Arctic-oriented agenda, especially from a maritime perspective. This agenda will require the leadership of our nation’s maritime guardians, the United States Coast Guard. I see this New Year of 2013 as a new opportunity to set the nation’s course North to the Future.

This is a two-part equation: one part maximizing the Coast Guard’s capabilities, another part raising awareness from the rest of the nation to make this an American priority.

In November, the Coast Guard concluded operation Arctic Shield 2012, the largest-ever Coast Guard effort in the Arctic region. I toured the CGC Bertholf during the operation and was impressed by the technological know-how of the crew and the readiness capabilities of the entire team.  Now that the operation has wrapped up, the Coast Guard is evaluating what they learned, and where they can improve.

In many ways, this is also the state of the Coast Guard Acquisition Program, as the Coast Guard transitions its recapitalization strategy of the last two decades: what can and can’t we do, and how do we get better?  Many Alaskans remember “Deepwater” as an initiative that was both overtime and over budget.  While those criticisms were earned, its findings did streamline how the Coast Guard acquires ships and maps out future needs. Three of the assets they pinpointed, the National Security Cutter, Fast Response Cutters and Offshore Patrol Cutters will all see action in our waters.  I have made it a priority to see that a National Security Cutter is home-ported in Alaska.

            In order to move things forward on the federal level, I joined my friend Senator Susan Collins of Maine to request a government study on the Coast Guard legacy fleet of medium- and high-endurance cutters – to get a sense of the condition, capabilities, readiness and estimated life span of the fleet. The study came out in late July and confirmed the challenges Alaska faces with the rest of the nation: the Coast Guard’s performance targets are based mostly on predetermined operational “goals” rather than actual resource capabilities; as assets continue to age, shortfalls in performance seem likely to increase exponentially; there is a valid probability that the current fleet of High Endurance Cutters and Medium Endurance Cutters will not last until their replacements are delivered – short-sheeting our responsivity and defense.

To Alaskans, this is nothing new. We’ve lost two cutters from the fleet in the last decade, and the remaining Munro and Haley are both over 40 years old.  Help isn’t on the horizon, either.  According to reports, it may be 10-20 years before any replacements make their way to Alaska. This is particularly troubling at a time when nations like Russia and China are building vessels at a pace unseen since the cold and Second World War. We are falling behind in the race to secure our Arctic every day.  There is melting sea ice, the rising possibility of Arctic sovereignty disputes and looming conversations of exclusive economic zones in the Arctic – all as the Coast Guard’s ability to perform basic missions in our waters is an open question.

Armed with this study’s findings, I am working to expand knowledge and awareness on Capitol Hill.  Soon after the report came out, I hosted a field hearing of the Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee at the Coast Guard Air Station in Kodiak. Days later, I joined the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Chairman of that Subcommittee aboard the National Security Cutter Bertholf to showcase just what we can do when we make Arctic capabilities a priority.

We need to leverage this knowledge base in Congress to encourage our nation to look ‘North to the Future.’  Although we face tight financial times and difficult decisions, the Coast Guard’s heroic response and leadership following the recent grounding of the MODU Kulluk shows this is an essential investment in the service’s future. Our maritime needs should be a priority on America’s ‘to do’ list, as our Arctic waters represent a wealth of opportunities for our nation’s economy, resource development and national defense.  I will continue to work with political leaders in Washington to demonstrate Arctic initiatives are a national priority we cannot overlook. 


Source: By Senator Lisa Murkowski