At a recent conference, a Defense Department participant said the Arctic doesn’t represent a security threat for at least the next decade, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr. said last week.
“The Coast Guard has … a much wider aperture,” he added.
Papp told the Pentagon Channel and American Forces Press Service that the Arctic has economic, energy and environmental implications for national security.
Coast Guard missions there are increasing because Shell Oil Co. has permits to drill in Alaska's Chukchi and Beaufort seas beginning this summer, he said.
Shell will move 33 ships and 500 people to Alaska’s North Slope, and will helicopter some 250 people a week to drilling platforms, the admiral said. That activity has the potential to increase Coast Guard workloads in pollution and environmental response, as well as in search and rescue, he noted.
The Coast Guard will have to station responders in the North Slope, which it hasn’t done throughout its 150-year presence in Alaska, Papp said. Since 1867, he added, Coast Guard cutters have been based in southern Alaska to protect fisheries and marine mammals, give medical assistance to native populations and rescue whalers. The North Slope is new territory for the Coast Guard, with most of the service’s Alaska infrastructure some 800 miles away.
“We’ll take one of our brand-new national security cutters … as the Shell fleet proceeds up there to start their activities,” the admiral said. That cutter will serve as a movable operations center, with worldwide communications, a two-helicopter flight deck and three boats that can launch boarding teams, Papp said.
“For the last four years, we’ve actually been deploying forces up there on a temporary basis to experiment with our equipment [and] see what works up there,” the commandant said. “We will learn lessons … as drilling starts up there, but right now, I’m pretty confident we’ll be able to cover it.”
Climate trends also indicate new missions for the Coast Guard, as former “hard water” ice zones become “soft water” operation areas. The admiral said during one of his early assignments near the Bering Sea, some 36 years ago, a particular location was completely iced in. Two years ago, on a visit to the same place, he said, “there was no ice to be seen.”
In Alaska, fish stock and human activity is moving north as ice recedes, Papp said. But the extreme cold still poses equipment and other challenges for Coast Guard operations, as the Coast Guard’s North Slope experiments proved.
Papp identified two challenges Arctic operations pose: the environment and the infrastructure. With no deep-water ports, inlets for piers or asphalt ramps for boat trailers, “we had to come up with different operating procedures,” he said. And then there’s the fact aviation fuel turns to jelly in extreme cold.
“You don’t want that to happen when you’re flying at 500 feet,” the commandant noted. “We never had heaters for our fuel tanks, because we didn’t need to. So these are little lessons that we learned … that will help us to improve our operations.”
Turning to infrastructure, Papp said the Coast Guard has good command-and-control capabilities linking mariners and shore-based stations throughout U.S. coastal areas. The North Slope is an exception, and when it comes to piers for ships, barracks for service members and hangars for aircraft, Papp added, “there’s none of that infrastructure up there.”
Ships can provide a bridging strategy for North Slope operations, but long-term operations will require investing in shore-based facilities, Papp said.
“I’m going to identify the needs, and I’m going to talk about them,” he added.
Coast Guard Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr.
U.S. Coast Guard
Commandant: Coast Guard’s Wide-ranging Mission Set Increasing