Pragmatic Thinking: How the U.S. Coast Guard Is Making Do with Less in the Arctic

By Mihaela David The Coast Guard came to the rescue just as the Obama Administration faced criticism over the lofty but vague National Strategy for the Arctic Region it revealed last month (for more information, read our recent article discussing the lack of specificity and the absence of an implementation strategy and long-term budgetary plan). The Coast Guard was the first departmental service to release a strategic document that furthers the lines of effort identified in the national strategy and offers the much anticipated specifics for its engagement in the Arctic region. The Coast Guard has also submitted its budget request for 2014 and made plans for its operations in the Arctic this summer, in a pragmatic effort to provide effective governance in a remote and rapidly changing maritime frontier within the limits of financial constraints.

Mission and Objectives

With increased accessibility and human activity in the Arctic region, the Coast Guard has a responsibility to provide effective maritime governance in the Arctic Ocean just as it does in other U.S. waters. According to Admiral Robert J. Papp, Jr., Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, the service’s mission in the region is to “uphold the rule of law, ensure the safety and security of its people, and ensure environmentally responsible maritime activity.”[1]

The Coast Guard strategy for the next ten years delineates three strategic objectives to guide operations and further the goals of maritime safety, security and stewardship in the Arctic:

 1. “Improving Awareness”
·      increasing collection and analysis of maritime activity data;
·      enhancing coordination and information-sharing of maritime intelligence; and
·      sustaining “effective maritime presence.”[2]
2. “Modernizing Governance”
·      safeguarding the marine environment and living marine resources;
·      protecting “U.S. sovereignty and sovereign rights”; and
·      sustaining effective governance domestically and internationally.[3]
3. “Broadening Partnerships”
·      building and “leveraging” strategic domestic and international partnerships;
·      promoting the Coast Guard as an “expert resource”; and
·      supporting national-level Arctic planning.[4]

The document was presented in the introductory statement as a “theater strategy” for its operations in the Arctic, and not an implementation plan.[5] As such, similar to the national strategy, the document offers a strategic vision for U.S. involvement in the Arctic but no insight on budgetary questions or specific plans to develop capabilities and assets. However, the Coast Guard’s 40-page strategic document is notably different from the national one: it is comprehensive in its review of the present physical and geo-strategic Arctic environment in which the service must operate and it provides substantive proposals and details the means through which its stated goals and objectives are to be achieved.

Sharing the Burden of Governance

The Coast Guard demonstrates an astute understanding of the limitations it faces in the Arctic region, from gaps in capabilities and financial resource constraints to transnational challenges and informational shortfalls.

Acknowledging that “no single agency or nation has the sovereignty, capacity, or control over resources necessary to meet all emerging challenges in the Arctic,” the Coast Guard’s strategically emphasizes building “a strong network of partnerships” at multiple levels of government and internationally.[6] Among the domestic partners targeted are other departments and agencies (notably the Department of Defense and its National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the National Science Foundation, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), interagency entities (such as the Capabilities Assessment Working Group established by the Homeland Security and Defense departments), as well as state and tribal governments, the private sector, advocacy groups, and academia.[7]

To overcome challenges and obstacles of a transnational nature, the Coast Guard also plans to enhance coordination with other Arctic states, especially border partners Canada and the Russian Federation; to leverage existing international arrangements, such as the North American Ice Service; and to advocate for international cooperation within the Arctic Council and the International Maritime Organization and for the ratification of UNCLOS.[8]

Most notably, the Coast Guard offered several specific governance proposals for a whole-of-government approach to governance of the Arctic region. It proposed the establishment of three Arctic expert bodies to inform decision-making at three levels of governance:

1.     An Arctic Center of Expertise at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy
·   to promote “safe, secure, and environmentally responsible maritime activity” in the Arctic region;[9]
2.     An Arctic Policy Board within the Department of Homeland Security
·   to bring “external perspectives on Arctic policy” from industry and academia;[10]
3.     An Arctic Fusion Center at the federal level
·   to promote interagency information-sharing and coordination in the area of “sustainable development and environmental protection.”[11]

The Coast Guard ducked the budgetary question by stating upfront that these proposals will be adopted "pending resources or funding."[12] However, the cost to set up these governance structures pales in comparison to the cost of modernizing infrastructure and assets, including the U.S.’ outdated icebreaker fleet.

Breaking the (Budgetary) Ice

The U.S. is in dire need of more icebreakers for assured access to the ice-covered Arctic waters: it currently relies on only one medium icebreaker, Healy, and one heavy icebreaker, the recently reactivated Polar Star. The strategy document does not discuss at length the Coast Guard’s plans to increase its icebreaking capability. The only mention of icebreakers is buried within a paragraph entitled “Science and Technology” in a final chapter on concepts to ensure long-term success. The document merely states that the U.S. “must have adequate icebreaking capability to support research,” and “must also make a strategic investment in icebreaking capability to enable access to the high latitudes over the long-term.”[13]

However, like all government entities, the Coast Guard is operating within a severely austere fiscal climate, and is forced to make tough decisions regarding the use of its limited financial resources. The U.S. Coast Guard is slated for a 13 percent budgetary cut in FY 2014, which will make its acquisition budget fall far short of what the service needs to modernize and maintain its infrastructure.[14] These fiscal constraints have already impacted the Coast Guard’s plan to upgrade its icebreaker fleet, forcing the service to push back its incremental funding timeline for the construction of a new heavy-duty polar icebreaker, which is projected to cost between $900 million and $1 billion.

In FY 2013, $8 million were allocated to initiate “survey and design activities” for the vessel and the Coast Guard projected that it would allocate $860 million over 5 years for its acquisition.[15] However, under the latest investment plan, only $2 million are allocated to continue design activities in FY 2014 and just $230 million are allocated through FY2018.[16] Table 1 shows the breakdown of the funding request differences: funding for the actual construction of the vessel has been postponed until 2016, and the incremental installments for acquisition are much lower than the previous plan (none exceeds $100 million per year).

Under this funding scheme, it would take over a decade until the vessel would be complete. The Coast Guard is cutting it a little close, since the only other heavy icebreaker, the recently reactivated Polar Star, is only expected to remain in service for another 7 to 10 years (i.e. until 2019-2022). 

What is remarkable is that even if this new heavy icebreaker is built in time to replace the Polar  Star, U.S. icebreaker fleet will still fall short of operational requirements and pales in comparison to those of other Arctic states. The 2011 Coast Guard High Latitude Study concluded that “The Coast Guard requires three heavy and three medium icebreakers to fulfill its statutory missions;” six heavy and four medium icebreakers if it expects to maintain “continuous presence requirements.”[17] To highlight the gap in icebreaker capability, it is important to note that, as of September 2012, Russia had 36 icebreakers in its inventory, 4 under construction, and 9 planned; Sweden, Finland and Canada had 8, 7, and 6 icebreakers, respectively.[18]

While the Coast Guard is acutely aware of its shortcomings in this respect, Commandant Papp considers the planned acquisition of a new icebreaker a success given the “finite number of resources” and a much better option than the more expensive leasing options.[19]

Mobile Infrastructure and Seasonal Presence

In his remarks at the strategy roll-out event, Commandant Papp argued that the changing Arctic environment requires “persistent, capable U.S. Coast Guard presence” in the region, but acknowledged that achieving sustained presence “is a challenge given the distances involved and the often hostile environment.”[20]

Noting the “lack of shore infrastructure” and “the expense of building permanent infrastructure” in the remote Arctic, Commandant Papp announced that the Coast Guard will continue to “rely on mobile offshore infrastructure to meet demands” for the coming decade.[21]

What this means is that the Coast Guard has no plans at this time to invest in permanent shore infrastructure, such as a forward-operating base closer to the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. It also does not expect other government entities to make these investments in the near future: the Alaska Department of Transportation and the Army Corps of Engineers are conducting a feasibility study for a deep-water port in the Nome area, but “no funds have been identified for construction at this time.”[22]

The Coast Guard is thus forced to “react and adapt” by employing “mobile infrastructure and seasonal presence of cutters, boats and aircraft – supplemented by the existing shore-side infrastructure” for its operations in the Arctic.[23]

There are clear advantages and disadvantages to this strategy. On the one hand, Papp argued that this is a “tested and proven” approach that offers the service flexibility, which is particularly necessary given the “uncertainty of dynamic and evolving requirements.”[24] The Coast Guard has hailed as a success the performance of the National Security Cutter Bertholf in the Operation Arctic Shield 2012, and plans to send a similar cutter, the NSC Waesche, to assist with mission in the summer of 2013.[25] This is also a cost-saving option, as the multi-purpose national security cutters can be deployed in other regions of the world during the off-season. 

On the other hand, the Coast Guard’s national security cutters were designed for the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean and “are not optimized for the region's extreme climate.”[26] This capability gap means that the Coast Guard is limited to operations in the summer months. While this corresponds to the peak of human activity, the need for off-season operations may also arise. In addition, using the national security cutters in the Arctic, even if only seasonally, means they are diverted from other locations and uses, such as drug interdiction. This will pose a significant challenge in the future if more than one cutter is needed in the Arctic, since the Coast Guard only has three such vessels in active service and four more in construction.

Another dilemma for the Coast Guard has been the lack of an adequate forward-operating base in the Arctic region of Alaska, as proximity to the shore is imperative to perform search-and-rescue and other operations in the region. In the summer of 2012, the Coast Guard leased a hangar in Barrow, AK for its two helicopters; this option was expensive ($60,000 per month) and the building had partially sunk due to permafrost thawing.[27] For the 2013 season, the Coast Guard opted for Kotzebue as its forward-operating location, where it could use an Alaska National Guard hangar.[28]

In the absence of permanent facilities in the remote region, the Coast Guard leadership is improvising and making the most of existing resources. Nonetheless, the flexibility of choosing different locations along the vast northern Alaskan shoreline can be considered a strategic advantage: the Coast Guard can select which location is most suitable depending on the specific mission requirements each season. Last year, a northern location was needed as the Coast Guard had to supervise Shell’s offshore drilling operations, while this year the Coast Guard shifted its priorities to the western shore to observe the increased traffic through the Bering Strait. In the future, the Coast Guard may have to deploy assets to multiple locations if the mission requirements dictate it, so having one permanent operating base in the region may not suffice and such a large investment could divert financial resources from better uses.  

When Handed Lemons, Make Lemonade

Coast Guard leadership has demonstrated a strong sense of pragmatism, both in articulating its strategic vision for its engagement in the Arctic region and in its budgetary and operational decisions.

Acknowledging its institutional and resource limitations, the Coast Guard is looking to forge domestic and international partnerships that it can leverage to more effectively fulfill its responsibilities in the Arctic. This is a cooperative and cost-effective approach to governance that, if implemented successfully, can be a blueprint for other departments’ and agencies’ engagement in the region. Burden-sharing within and among multiple levels of government is not just strategically wise, but also necessary given the fiscal austerity climate. 

The Coast Guard is also aware of its capabilities gaps and the necessity for both assured access and sustained presence in Arctic waters. The budget requests and operational decisions it has made thus far reflect the difficult choices the Coast Guard leaders had to make under the constraint of finite financial resources. The Coast Guard would ideally want to expand and modernize its icebreaker fleet to multiple heavy and medium vessels, but the costs are much too high and any budget request beyond the current plans for one new icebreaker would be deemed unrealistic and promptly rejected by the Administration and Congress. The pragmatic Coast Guard leadership sees success where others see failure: it has been able, at least, to argue in favor of acquisition instead of leasing of icebreakers and, if budgets are approved, having a new icebreaker a decade from now is better than none at all.

For the time being, the Coast Guard plans to achieve a sustained seasonal presence in Arctic waters using existing shore infrastructure and multi-purpose vessels. The flexibility and adaptability of mobile assets and temporary forward-operating locations seem to be a good fit with current mission requirements.

However, given the projected increase in shipping, offshore drilling, fisheries, and tourism in the Arctic region in the next decade, the Coast Guard will undoubtedly face increasing responsibilities as a law-enforcement agency and first-responder – for search and rescue missions, oil spill response, and border protection. It will most likely need to adapt its operations and possibly need to deploy more mobile assets, sustain presence in multiple locations, or operate for more extended periods of time. This, in turn, will require additional budgetary resources currently unavailable. These challenges will test the Coast Guard’s ability to fulfill its mission and the country’s goals in the Arctic. Only time will tell if this strategy will be successfully implemented and whether the service will be able to address emerging challenges and effectively perform its responsibilities in the region. The good news is that the Coast Guard can rely on a solid strategic vision to guide its efforts and its leadership is not a stranger to finding innovative cost-saving solutions. The bad news is that a reactionary and adaptive approach to governance cannot be sustained indefinitely. It must make way for strong, proactive leadership so that the Coast Guard can keep up with and stay ahead of the challenges posed by the rapidly growing maritime activity in the Arctic.

[1] Papp, Robert. “Coast Guard Arctic Strategy Rollout: Remarks of the Commandant,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, May 21, 2013, 2,
[2] U.S. Coast Guard, “Arctic Strategy,” May 2013, 23-26,
[3] U.S. Coast Guard, “Arctic Strategy,” 27-29.
[4] U.S. Coast Guard, “Arctic Strategy,” 31-32.
[5] U.S. Coast Guard, “Arctic Strategy,” 7.
[6] U.S. Coast Guard, “Arctic Strategy,” 31.
[7] U.S. Coast Guard, “Arctic Strategy,” 22 and 25.
[8] U.S. Coast Guard, “Arctic Strategy,” 23-24 and 31.
[9] U.S. Coast Guard, “Arctic Strategy,” 31.
[10] U.S. Coast Guard, “Arctic Strategy,” 27.
[11] U.S. Coast Guard, “Arctic Strategy,” 23.
[12] U.S. Coast Guard, “Arctic Strategy,” 23, 27 and 31.
[13] U.S. Coast Guard, “Arctic Strategy,” 35.
[14] Perera, David. “2014 Budget Request: Coast Guard faces deep cuts in fiscal 2014,” Fierce Homeland Security, April 11, 2013,
[15] O'Rourke, Ronald. “Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Modernization: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, June 14, 2012, 19,
[16] O'Rourke, Ronald. “Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Modernization: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, May 24, 2013, 1,
[17] O'Rourke, “Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Modernization,” 10.
[18] U.S. Coast Guard, “Major Icebreakers of the World,” September 2012,
[19] Marcario, John. “Papp: Growing Risks in Arctic Demand Coast Guard’s Attention,” Seapower Magazine, May 21, 2013,
[20] Papp, “Coast Guard Arctic Strategy Rollout,” 4.
[21] Ibid.
[22] DeMarban, Alex. “Deepwater port in Nome or Port Clarence to support Arctic shipping?,” Alaska Dispatch, February 1, 2013,
[23] Papp, “Coast Guard Arctic Strategy Rollout,” 5.
[24] Papp, “Coast Guard Arctic Strategy Rollout,” 4.
[25] Marcario, “Papp: Growing Risks in Arctic Demand Coast Guard’s Attention.”
[26] Troedsson, Peter “A Coast Guard for the Emerging Arctic,” Council for Foreign Relations, May 31, 2013,
[27] Johnson, Kirk. “For Coast Guard Patrol North of Alaska, Much to Learn in a Remote New Place,” New York Times, July 22, 2012,
[28] Caldwell, Suzanna. “Coast Guard shifting Arctic operations off Alaska to the west this season,” Alaska Dispatch, May 16, 2013, 

Table based on:
U.S. Coast Guard, "FY 2014-2018 Five Year Capital Investment Plan (CIP)," 2013, 
U.S. Coast Guard, "Fiscal Year 2013 Congressional Justification," 2012, p. I-12,