Coast Guard Commandant Details Arctic Security Issues

WASHINGTON, Feb. 24, 2012 — 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.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)