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As both Russia and China encroach upon the Earth’s lightly-populated polar regions, both the North and South Poles are enjoying a resurgence of American interest. America is advancing multinational efforts to preserve maritime norms and taking other steps to secure American interests in both the North and South Poles. But, out of all of these actions, America has primarily focused upon waters nearby, securing the Subarctic and Arctic waters off Alaska, America’s 49th State. It is a tough task, and the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard are still mulling how to best secure America’s sprawling Arctic holdings. How can they keep Alaskan waters safe in the years ahead?
America’s maritime team–the U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research fleet and other government stakeholders–have already done a lot to get started securing Alaskan waters. Within the U.S. Government, the Coast Guard has been a vigorous driver of Polar strategy, using, in part, their 2013 Arctic Strategy to help set the U.S. Government’s agenda in northern waters, as well as effectively using existing international partnerships and forums to build international consensus and concern over Polar encroachment.
America has responded, sending ships north of the Arctic Circle far more regularly, with the latest patrol, the USS Donald Cook (DDG 75), operating in the Arctic a few days ago. The accelerating operational tempo in Alaskan waters was emphasized in September, as about 3,000 Navy and Coast Guard teammates conducted a series of amphibious operations, “Arctic Expeditionary Capabilities Exercise (AECE) 2019”, exercising for a range of Arctic and subarctic contingencies.
Unfortunately, the United States has a long way to go before Alaskan waters can be considered secure. With too many demands and too few resources, both the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Navy are unable to muster more than a token Arctic patrol presence. As more and more nations eye the thawing Arctic as a passage to European markets, the need for persistent presence will only increase. The U.S. Coast Guard’s 2019 Arctic Strategic Outlook warned stakeholders “commercial traffic is growing, including a doubling of cargo tonnage transported on the Northern Sea Route.” Cruise ship numbers have more than doubled between 2008 and 2016.
If America fails to impose order in it’s own maritime waters, other rivals will consider flooding U.S. territorial waters with military traffic or other sovereignty-degrading “Grey Zone” forces–aggressive “research” vessels, nationalized illegal “fishing” fleets or even maritime militia. If initial trespassers are allowed to operate without U.S. sanction, even rival state-associated commercial entities, eager to exploit Alaska’s economic resources, will chip away at America’s loosely held Polar sovereignty. Encroachment will be fast and, when it starts, the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard will be hard-pressed to keep up.
Securing America’s Exclusive Economic Zone–seas two hundred nautical miles from any U.S. coastline–is no task for a surveillance robot or fancy satellite. American maritime personnel need to be out there, in person, patrolling and eying each and every visitor. New resources are coming, but up to three new heavy and three new medium Coast Guard Icebreakers are not enough. Protecting American sovereignty off the Alaskan coast will require far more ships, aircraft and personnel than are available to either the U.S. Navy or the U.S. Coast Guard right now.
Even with additional resources, ensuring American sovereignty in Alaskan waters will not come easy. The Aleutians and the seas off Alaska are some of the toughest places to operate, with wind, storms and corrosive salty-mist extracting a steady toll on ships, planes and personnel. It is a perilous time–America needs to add presence to deter persistent future encroachment, but the immediate encroachment risk isn’t quite severe enough to spur Congress to make the massive investments in new Alaskan bases needed to support that forward presence America will require in the coming years.
But new bases or transient support options cannot be dismissed. The Alaskan exclusive economic zone is enormous. Any U.S. ships and aircraft sent to patrol Alaskan waters will take a beating from the weather and the rough seas. But Alaskan bases have the potential to aid America’s overall strategic position in the wider Pacific Ocean, too. As America’s higher-end naval forces increase their operational tempo in the Northern Pacific, those vessels will be eager for safe nearby refuges to briefly rest, refresh and resupply. As China and Russia loom, the piers of mainland U.S. bases in Everett, Bremerton, San Diego and Hawaii aren’t getting any closer.
Focus On The Aleutians:
The Aleutian Islands, a lonely line of rocky pickets between the deep Northern Pacific and the Bearing Sea, are particularly crucial pieces of American real estate. Forlorn and peppered with abandoned military infrastructure, these sparsely populated islands will become a flash-point as rivals, eager to secure their new northern trade routes, endeavor to degrade American sovereignty in this resource-rich gateway to the Arctic.
The Aleutians are difficult to secure. The size and remoteness of America’s Alaskan islands are almost impossible to describe. The westernmost islands of the Aleutians are about 1,400 miles from both Japan and the nearest large Coast Guard base in Kodiak, Alaska. The closest major U.S. Navy concentration—about 2,000 miles away—is Yokosuka, Japan. The nearest American home bases are about 2,400 miles away in Hawaii or Washington State.
The weather is erratic and extreme. Constant salt spray, erratic weather and changing sea conditions make the area an inhospitable place for operation and maintenance of robust ships and aircraft. High-end sensors, optics or other key tools of high-end warfare struggle to remain effective under such stress. Poorly surveyed, the high Aleutians seas, coupled with strong currents and submerged hazards, make navigation a challenge. Communications, always a problem for data-intensive and potentially classified information, is even more difficult in the northern latitudes.
But U.S. forces were out there, once. America’s old World War II and Cold War base infrastructure has long receded from the Western Aleutians. Today, the closest big U.S. government maritime base is at Coast Guard Base Kodiak, some 1,400 miles from Attu and Kiska, the two westernmost islands of the Aleutian island chain. Even as the Coast Guard invests in the facility to ensure it can support modern ships, the base is too far away to provide timely assistance in an accident or gray-zone crisis.
The skeletal remnants of America’s old bases are still out there. In the Aleutians themselves, bases have been abandoned, mothballed or converted to civilian use. A small contingent of defense contractors operate the Eareckson Air Station on Shemya Island, which is home to a 10,000-foot airstrip and several key U.S. surveillance and communications systems. An abandoned U.S. airstrip sits forlornly on Attu Island. Farther away, the airbase and harbor at the relatively recently closed Naval Facilities Engineering Command on Adak Island are slowly degrading. An airbase and harbor at the former nuclear test site on Amchitka Island have been razed.
These lightly held reminders of American sovereignty are facing growing geopolitical interest with little overt support. The Chinese Navy has already surveyed America’s Aleutian Island holdings, sending a five-ship amphibious squadron near Attu in 2015 to eye America’s communications and surveillance resources at the undefended Eareckson Air Station. Last month, the United States answered, conducting drills throughout Alaska and landing a force on Adak to demonstrate America’s ability to, essentially, retake a seized subarctic island.
Aside from a few patrol aircraft or an all-too-infrequent fisheries patrol, the U.S. maritime presence in the Aleutians is limited. Until the last few months, when the USS Somerset (LPD 25) visited, the U.S. Navy’s sole local sea presence was marked by an occasional U.S. submarine stopping at Dutch Harbor to make quick personnel changes.
What To Do:
The U.S. Coast Guard has spent a lot of time thinking about Alaska and the Arctic, and the 2019 update of the Coast Guard’s Arctic strategy offers a clear way forward. Both the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard will continue to work together in identifying and filling operational gaps, and working to preserve maritime order in the region.
There are a lot of basic projects that need doing.
Make Modern Maps: The waters off the Aleutians are still not very well studied, and they need to be mapped. Charts that are in use today rely on soundings taken by Captain Cook in 1778. The beleaguered National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research fleet and their contractors require immediate funding to map Aleutian waters so that America’s mariners can operate with confidence.
Build Better Communications Networks: The lack of communications bandwidth is a chronic problem for the U.S. Coast Guard, and that communications gap is even more marked in the far North and South latitudes. It is a daunting challenge, but all of America’s maritime forces should work together to ensure sufficient classified communications resources are available.
Demand Actual Presence: Without a strong advocate for persistent presence from an existing Combatant Commander or Area Chief, resources for new Polar operations will get sucked away and sent to other regions that want “their normal share” of America’s maritime team. And if the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Navy expect to increase their operational tempo in the region over the longer-term, both services will need to work together to provide Polar presence, procuring more icebreakers, offshore patrol cutters and other ice-ready craft, while jointly researching innovative solutions for maritime domain awareness challenges.
Modernize Existing Bases And Consider New Ones: To support Alaskan and Northern Pacific activities into the next decade, America’s maritime forces need to modernize the Coast Guard’s existing Coast Guard Base Kodiak, and consider the establishment of a new military support base or two, potentially tagging along with some of Alaska’s ongoing port improvement projects. Feasibility scoping studies suggest that Nome might be a center for future civilian deep-water port development, bringing with it some added support capability for government vessels. But Alaska’s ongoing harbor planning process has been focused maximizing economic benefit. The calculus for a naval base is often substantially different—sites that were rejected for improvement as a commercial port might make a perfect site for the Department of Defense.
Consider Smaller-Footprint Expeditionary Basing: Smaller, lower-footprint basing options also exist. The Aleutians have a number of underutilized small boat harbors that might welcome a transient support center. Dutch Harbor facilities on Unalaska, King Cove harbor, False Pass harbor on Unimak and the new boat basin on Akutan Island may offer interesting basing options for smaller government boats as well as opportunities for bigger ship visits or stays by unmanned vessel contingents.
An “expeditionary” option might be viable as well. Multi-mission surface ship tenders–all decommissioned and scrapped or sunk after the Cold War–could be revived. Tenders are essentially floating support bases, offering all the electrical and other services that a traditional port pier can provide. Tenders could set up camp in various areas in the region, rendezvousing with deployed ships in isolated bays or leveraging the services of a strategic pier or temporary mooring. Such a resource offers U.S. sailors an opportunity to take a breather from being on duty, and give the maritime services a means to repair, resupply and re-arm ships that have been battered by the weather or extended service in the higher latitudes. Surface ship tenders may also allow smaller, less costly patrol vessels to operate forward, while avoiding the substantial cost of re-inaugurating and operating a fully-fledged Aleutians base–with all the power generation, communications, sanitation and vessel husbanding services that are difficult to provide in isolated forward areas.
Certainly, tenders would need to be built—the Navy decommissioned their last destroyer tenders in the mid-nineties, after barely a decade of service. But with the Navy’s two forty-year old sub tenders approaching retirement, new tender procurement might be a fruitful area of collaboration between the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard. These are flexible platforms, useful far beyond Polar waters. If procured, these ships could easily be based out of Ketchikan, Alaska’s nascent vessel maintenance center, or come up from ports farther south, rotating out technical contractors and receiving critical gear from the local Aleutian airstrips as needed.
The U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Navy need to be out there, reinforcing America’s fragile Polar sovereignty with actual presence. Better maps, communications, more ships, and a support network of either bases, transient units or tenders would do a lot to secure America’s maritime border. It is an expensive prospect, and the cost of a robust naval presence in Alaskan and other Polar waters may seem high. But, as defense policymakers learned after the Falklands War–and as they are are re-learning today in the South China Sea–the cost of maintaining sovereignty over territory is a lot less than to cost of getting that sovereignty back after somebody else rents it, purchases it or just simply reaches out and grabs it.