Analysis: Time to ramp up Arctic infrastructure in the U.S.

The U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy. U.S. icebreaker capacity in the Arctic falls far behind other circumpolar nations. (Ted S. Warren/ AP)
The U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy. U.S. icebreaker capacity in the Arctic falls far behind other circumpolar nations. (Ted S. Warren/ AP)
At long last, the United States government appears poised to seize – if at times, fitfully – it’s Arctic Destiny.

Earlier this year, in January, the federal government released its Implementation Plan for the National Strategy for the Arctic Region, following on to its May 2013 release of the National Strategy which articulates the U. S. government’s strategic priorities for this vast untapped frontier.

In quick succession, the Department of Defense too issued its Arctic Strategy document in November 2013 and its Arctic Roadmap in February 2014 to realize the strategy over the 2014-2030 timeframe. The Roadmap charts out a series of focused activity areas in the sphere of operations and training, science and technology, environment observation and prediction, safe navigation and maritime domain awareness, among others, over the next couple of years.

This sense of urgency is welcome. It is also belated. The U.S. has important – and oftentimes shared – national interests at stake in the Arctic and despite the recent burst of high-level attention, still lags behind its Arctic neighbors on a number of fronts.

The drivers of U.S. Arctic policy

Six major national interests, organized along three major effort lines, drive the U.S. Arctic policy. These are: national security, environmental protection, resource conservation, accommodation of the interests of indigenous populations, scientific research, and international cooperation. The three major activity lines are advancement of U.S. national security interests, pursuit of environmental protection and resource conservation, and the development of stronger bilateral and multilateral cooperation. Of the three, multilateral cooperation appears to have made the greatest progress. In May 2008, the states bordering the Arctic Ocean signed the Ilulissat Declaration which commits the countries to observe the principles of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as the appropriate legal framework for cooperation in the Arctic. An Arctic Search and Rescue Agreement as well as a Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response Cooperation agreement has also been signed.

Multilateral cooperation notwithstanding, the potential for a variety of inter-state threats and tensions in this vast and lightly policed frontier persists. These include: (a) potentially excessive continental shelf claims, and unilateral enforcement measures, by Arctic littoral states that impinge on the resources of their neighbors; (b) the staking of unilateral jurisdiction claims to seabed resources inconsistent with international law by non-Arctic states in the shared central area of the Arctic Ocean; and (c) and quarrels over migrating fisheries resources. The progress of Arctic multilateralism also serves to spotlight the extent to which the U.S. remains a relative laggard in resourcing its Arctic infrastructure: both hard and soft.

The Arctic Council

In 2015, the U.S. is due to assume the chairmanship of the Arctic Council – a voluntary inter-governmental forum of the eight Arctic states and which also includes a variety of indigenous organizations and related stakeholders. The Council typically meets in working group, task force and expert group formats and produces documents such as scientific assessments and guidance. While the Council’s workload has expanded significantly in the past few years, the same cannot be said of the State Department’s staffing level dedicated to these issues. As of February 2014, only two employees at the State Department worked full-time on Arctic Council issues. The absence of specified funding for Arctic Council-related work is a serious impediment,  as is the lack of an ambassadorial-level representative to the Council. All other council members except the U.S. have nominated an ambassadorial-level representative to the body.  The recent appointment of a retired coast guard admiral as special representative to the Arctic constitutes a useful first step forward, and the formation of a new Congressional Arctic Working Group on the Hill bodes well too. But the establishment of a congressionally approved U.S. ambassador to the Arctic Council would be an unambiguous statement of the U.S. government’s intent to proactively pursue its Arctic destiny.

Admiral Robert Papp (pictured here in 2013) is the U.S. Special Representative to the Arctic. (Sean D. Ellio / The Day / AP)
Admiral Robert Papp (pictured here in 2013) is the U.S. Special Representative to the Arctic. (Sean D. Ellio / The Day / AP)

Going forward, the Administration and the State Department in particular, must develop a whole-of-government strategy so as to successfully chair the Arctic Council agenda and activities during the 2015-16 cycle as well as deepen the nation’s engagement with that body. The Arctic Policy Group, the informal interagency group which discusses Council issues and oversees implementation of the U.S. Arctic policy, must outline a clear direction and identify the resources needed to sustain this effort. Alaskan officials, meantime, too must push their federal counterparts hard so as to ensure that the state’s interests within this inter-agency set-up are neither sacrificed nor misaligned with the state’s priorities. The Alaskan Arctic Policy Commission, which released its preliminary report this January, could perhaps serve as a coordinating point to ensure that the federal government’s buy-in and follow through on Alaska-related interests does not taper off for want of dedicated personnel or lack of structured implementation mechanisms.

Infrastructure issues

If the U.S.’ soft infrastructure on Arctic-policy issues still leaves something to be desired, its rollout of hard infrastructure, particularly in the area of marine requirements, remains woeful. There is no U.S. Arctic deep-water port and the harbors and coastal ports north of the Aleutian Islands are not sufficiently deep to support larger commercial vessels. There are no federally maintained navigation aids along the northern coast of Alaska and only nine fixed aids exist north of the Bering Strait. The Coast Guard operates just two functioning icebreakers – one of them, the USCGC Polar Star, seven years past its service life – when its requirements demand that it operate at least three heavy and three medium-size such vessels. A 2010 Coast Guard commissioned report had in fact recommended six heavy and four medium-sized such vessels. Finally, less than one per cent of the U.S. navigationally significant Arctic waters have been surveyed with modern technology. Clearly, the U.S. and Alaska’s hard infrastructure build-up in the Arctic region is still at a stage of infancy.

The lack of infrastructure has not been a serious deficiency so far; in the years ahead however, this constraint will bite – imperiling safety and security in these vast maritime spaces. With the Arctic being increasingly linked to global markets by the development of offshore natural resources; as changes in Arctic sea ice thickness, extent and character enable ever-longer seasons of trans-Arctic tanker and bulk-carrier shipping; and as large cruise ships and other specialized tourist vessels start operating for extended periods through the summer and beyond, this deficiency in hard infrastructure will become apparent. Should the waters north of the Bering Strait in the U.S. exclusive economic zone (EEZ) which include the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas be opened for commercial fishing, and should drilling in the Alaska Outer Continental Shelf be given a thumbs-up, this deficiency will become acute.

Future priorities

Going forward, as a first step to rectifying these shortfalls, the federal government must make an immediate down-payment in building up select aspects of Alaska’s marine infrastructure. These include: (a) strengthening the state’s Arctic marine domain awareness systems and search and rescue capability, (b) developing an Arctic deep-water port in northern Alaska, (c) mapping the entire U.S. maritime Arctic to international navigation standards, and (d) finally, investing in the state’s polar class icebreaking vessel capacity.

First, the federal government must strengthen the nation’s Arctic marine domain awareness (MDA) systems, which requires investing in the capability to obtain, organize and integrate information on personnel, cargo and vessels across this broad and remote expanse of maritime territory. Investment in maritime tracking technologies and communications networks to monitor and surveil activities in real-time is of the essence. Equally, accompanying search and rescue assets that are ship-based and mobile rather than shore based —- given the vast remoteness of the area, need to be appropriated.

Second, with a new era of demand for Arctic resources by global markets unfolding, the federal government must embrace the recommendations of a March 2013 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-Alaska State Department of Transportation and Public Facilities study and fund strategic investments in an Alaskan Deep-Draft Arctic Port system. A separate and brief U.S. Coast Guard study earlier this year too had concurred that a deep-draft seaport would furnish a variety of benefits, including economic development, inter-modal transit, energy independence, national security and mariner safety.

Third, the federal government must map the entire U.S. maritime Arctic to international navigation standards, given, both, the emerging high-density usage of Arctic shipping routes and the lack of binding international navigation rules related to the Arctic or polar waters. Such mapping, including hydrographic surveys, shoreline surveys and geodetic referencing in Alaska will require quantitatively greater resourcing of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Office of Coast Survey.

Icebreaker capacity

Finally, the U.S. must overcome its embarrassing ice-breaker vessel capacity shortfall. Tiny Finland is better resourced in this regard (it has four icebreakers) than the U.S. The U.S. owes it to itself and the wider region to equip itself with a larger and more modern inventory. Modernization of the polar icebreaking capacity would mean building both heavy-duty vessels as well as shallower-draft, ice-capable cutters able to operate along Alaska’s coastal areas. Legislative efforts by U.S. Senators Murkowski, Begich, Cantwell, and Murray in this regard are gaining support. Equally, modernization of the federal polar ice-breaking capacity also means that the new federal government vessels should not preempt the scaling up of the domestic manufacture of privately-owned ice-breaking vessels. As has been noted, the use of privately-owned ice-breakers for a variety of purposes in the U.S. maritime Arctic is a sure path to compelling economic opportunity. Federal agencies would be well advised to incentivize such private participation rather than shut it out.

We have written several articles previously on the sweep of the Arctic (“The Arctic Ocean Up for Grabs”; “Ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty”; “Between Strait and Sea”, and others) and interest on this topic continues to grow. We see the future of the Arctic as clearly as Cassandra previsioned the fall of Troy. There is a geometry of fate which makes straight line intersect parallels always at equal angles.

For most of the journey the route of a railway train is firmly dictated by the rails. From time to time, however, comes a junction from which various directions can be taken. Then the train can be turned in one direction or another by means of the small expenditure of energy necessary to set the point. Looking though our expert prism, the Arctic train has reached such a junction and the United States can, and should, turn it in the direction of its long-term national interests by implementing the notions enunciated in our article.

-This article first appeared in Alaska Business Monthly

Related stories from around the North:

Asia:  Full steam ahead for Asian icebreakers in the Arctic this summer, Blog by Mia Bennett

Canada: Canada’s N.W.T. seeks $600 million for roads, bridges, CBC News

Finland: New Finland icebreaker can operate sideways with asymmetrical hull, Yle News

Norway: Norway builds cross-border tunnel to Russia, Barents Observer

Russia: Third of 10 Arctic search and rescue centre opens on Northern Sea Route, Barents Observer

United States: Alaska military sites vulnerable to climate change, Alaska Dispatch

Sourabh Gupta & Dr. Ashok K. Roy

Sourabh Gupta (pictured left) is Senior Research Associate at Samuels International Associates, Inc. Washington D.C., USA. He holds 2 graduate degrees from Syracuse University and Georgetown University, and was a East Asia Forum Distinguished Fellow. Mr. Gupta has widely published on international relations, foreign policy, and policy analysis. Dr. Ashok K. Roy (pictured right) is the Vice President for Finance & Administration/ Chief Financial Officer of the University of Alaska System, and Associate Professor of Business Administration at University of Alaska Fairbanks, USA. Dr. Roy holds 6 university degrees and 5 professional certifications. He has authored over 82 publications. Dr. Roy has worked at 3 other universities, the private sector, and local government.

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