Operating in the Arctic


Resourcing For The 21st Century

02/12/2011 – In December 2010, Second Line of Defense sat down with one of the leading US experts on the Arctic who has significant operational experience in both polar regions.  Rear Admiral (Retired) Jeff Garrett remains significantly engaged as a national expert in various National Academy of Sciences and research efforts to shape approaches to dealing with a fluid Arctic situation in the coming decades.

Earlier we have posted a series of articles by our German correspondent on a European perspective on the problem.  And she reported as well from the Moscow conference on the Arctic held this past September.  She characterized the U.S. as the “reluctant” Arctic power, which is one of the challenges facing the U.S. as the Arctic dynamics reshape shipping, fishing, tourism and energy and other raw material exploitation in the 21st century.

A measure of the “reluctant” character of the U.S. as an Arctic power can be seen in the difficulty the country has committing to building new icebreakers, which, as Rear Admiral Garrett underscores, are the tools, which allow everything else to have mobility in the region.

Most other nations with polar interests are investing in new ice-capable assets for both polar regions:  the Russians are announcing plans for new nuke icebreakers; EU has a huge icebreaking research drillship designed; Canada is designing ice-strengthened Navy patrol vessels and a new large icebreaker; China is building a 2nd research icebreaker and establishing new Antarctic stations; Korea has a new ice-capable research vessel; and South Africa is building a new Antarctic ship, among others.

The Polar Star (Credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Uscgc_polar_star.jpg)The Polar Star Credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Uscgc_polar_star.jpg

SLD: Could you give our readers a sense of your background operationally?

Rear Admiral Garrett: When I came out of the academy, we were building the Polar Star, one of the first two modern polar icebreakers.  I went to the commissioning crew of that ship as a young officer and experienced the headaches in getting that ship operational and getting it from the builder.

And then I went from Polar Star to an older, World War II-era icebreaker.  At that point, the Coast Guard had become the sole operator of the nation’s icebreaker fleet.

SLD: This was in the 60’s?

Rear Admiral Garrett: Yes.  In the mid-1960s we signed an MOU with the Navy when they wanted out of the icebreaker game.  If you dial back to the World War II era, the Coast Guard designed the first modern polar icebreakers and ended up building seven of them.  The U.S. lent three of them to the Russians as part of the war effort, who didn’t return them until early 50s.

But the main wartime threat back then was with Greenland and the threat of the Germans going into Greenland.  And the rag-tag ice capable ships that we were able to put together were pretty much incapable of doing that.

President Roosevelt actually sent a note to the Commandant of the Coast Guard early in the war and said, “Build me the world’s best icebreakers.”  An officer who had spent the prewar years studying icebreaking technology in northern Europe was assigned the task. He sat down and with a design firm hammered out the 269-foot Wind-class design.  They ended up building seven of these icebreakers, with the ships split between the Navy and the Coast Guard.  The Navy built another ship in the early 50s called the Glacier.  It was bigger, and more powerful.

By 1970, there were eight U.S. polar icebreakers, and they were multi-mission naval assets.  One of their primary postwar tasks was to support Cold War-era defense logistics. They also supported scientific efforts in Antarctica, as the Navy mounted a couple of expeditions and then led the massive effort to establish a permanent U.S. presence in the mid-1950s. As the DEW Line was eventually automated and consolidated, it was not necessary to support the whole string of manned sites all the way across northern Alaska and Canada with annual resupply operations.  The polar work turned more toward science. [1]

SLD: So the fleet transitioned in the 1970s more into support for scientific missions? And by now there was a fleet of five icebreakers, some new, others old?

Rear Admiral Garrett: Yes.  Right.  By the time the two Polars were built (Polar Star and Polar Sea, in the 1970s), there were three Winds and these two big Polars.  We had three old ones and two brand new ones.

One of the Polars went down to Antarctica every year to break a channel into McMurdo Sound and resupply the big base there.  This important logistics effort still allows the U.S. to occupy the geographic South Pole and support the most robust research program on the continent.

The other Polar-class icebreaker would support a series of activities up north for defense logistics, defense science, and other research.  When the Alaskan pipeline was built, the icebreakers were involved with supporting the construction in Prudhoe Bay.

By the 1980s, the three older ships were becoming unsupportable and increasingly difficult to keep operating.  So Glacier, Northwind and Westwind were decommissioned and the fleet went down to the two Polars.

At that point, Congress funded the USCGC Healy, which is our most recent icebreaker.  Money was put into the USN budget to build this ship.  I was the commissioning CO for the Healy, delivered in late 1999.

SLD: So the lead ship is now 10 years old? And the other two ships?

Rear Admiral Garrett: The other two are pushing 35 years, coming up to 40 years. And the Healy, although a very innovative and efficient ship, is not as powerful as each of the Polars. It’s a very different ship, designed for modern science support.

(Credit: http://coastguard.dodlive.mil/index.php/2009/06/coast-guard-and-the-arctic-part-2/
Credit: http://coastguard.dodlive.mil/index.php/2009/06/coast-guard-and-the-arctic-part-2/

SLD: Where would you build a powerful icebreaker today in a diminishing shipbuilding capacity in the United States?

Rear Admiral Garrett: Not too many places left.  Probably Gulf coast yards, depending on what’s still going to be there.  Perhaps a few other east or west coast yards might be able to build a heavy, complex ship of this type.

SLD: What kind of price are we talking?

Rear Admiral Garrett: The Commandant of the Coast Guard and others have estimated three-quarters to a billion dollars for the right kind of ship, depending, of course, on the level of capability.

SLD: But we could put that into perspective as well.  First there are the logistics savings from having a new ship. Probably five years after the crossover point, you’re saving serious logistics costs.  And second, if I spend $1.2 billion at a U.S. shipyard, I’ve employed X number of people, I’m going to get taxes off of those people; I’m going to get taxes off the yard.  So my $1.2 billion is really a car sticker.  Here’s the list price, but when I add in the taxes that will paid by fully employed U.S. workers, I get to the real price to the taxpayers.

Rear Admiral Garrett: And the intangibles, like preserving your industrial base, or some remnant of it anyway, to be able to do work of this sort.  You would certainly save money you would otherwise spend trying to keep the older ships operational, and you would have the right capability for the job at hand.

SLD: Could you talk to the role of such an icebreaker, notably in the evolving conditions in the Arctic?

Rear Admiral Garrett: In an icebreaker, you are not up in the Arctic to break ice per se; you are there to permit mobility to accomplish missions of national importance.  You are an enabler for transit and related operations.  It’s really about mobility and being able to get to point A to point B or to wherever you want to go to do; whatever it is you’re out there to do. So what you need, is a ship with a lot of power, a very strong hull, and which has been designed to get through ice efficiently. In addition, people often overlook that you need significant endurance; there are no gas stations in the polar regions.

When you look ahead to what the Coast Guard needs to do its missions in evolving Arctic conditions, you see that there’s more open water, there’s more human activity, and there’s more maritime traffic.  But the ice is still there, and its movements are becoming more unpredictable.  You really need a ship that can operate in dynamic ice conditions to allow mobility and has the long legs to be there unreplenished for a reasonable length of time.

SLD: What about a nuclear-powered icebreaker?

Rear Admiral Garrett: Nuclear power is certainly attractive, but it’s based on an economic argument; you can pick a number for a price per barrel of oil in the out-years and can make the economic case.  At a certain price, the nuclear power often looks attractive financially, but there are a lot of other issues involved.

The biggest issue I see against nuclear power for a Coast Guard icebreaker is the fact that it would be so environmentally opposed in so many places around the world that you would be really limiting what the ship can do and where the ship could go.

(Credit: http://www.uscg.mil/history/docs/ArcticOverview%5B1%5D.pdf)Credit: www.uscg.mil

SLD: The Arctic is changing and I would assume that the demand for USCG presence would emerge as well.  How ready are we for that?

Rear Admiral Garrett: If you look at the Coast Guard footprint up north, it’s all in southeastern and southern Alaska.  The nearest base from which to deploy ships and aircraft into the Arctic is Kodiak.

The conventional, lower-48 force structure of the Coast Guard will not work in the Arctic. In most of the country you have a network of Coast Guard shore stations, air stations, boats, patrol boats and larger cutters, and marine safety assets located in each geographic region.  Establishing a similar level of infrastructure in the Arctic would involve  engineering costs that are just way too high due to the remoteness of the area and the engineering conditions such as permafrost.

And the demand for Coast Guard services is still on the low side.  This demand will probably be more seasonal and situational than it will be steady state.  So it’s not the Cape Cod or the Chesapeake Bay or the Pacific Northwest kind of model that you want up there; it’s going to be something else.

The demand will undoubtedly go up significantly as the Arctic changes, but the old model is not practical or cost effective.

But if you start thinking: What if I have an increasing SAR workload on the North Slope?  What if I have security issues?  What if I want to increase my maritime domain awareness up there?  I want to be able to respond to anomalies or unknown ships that pop up, and I want to show a convincing national presence suitable for one of the five Arctic Ocean nations.  How am I going to do that?

SLD: So the expanded demand for presence and operational capabilities by the USCG in the Arctic is not best done by trying to maintain shore based presence?

Rear Admiral Garrett: In my view, it is not the answer. Sure, you need some air operations sites ashore.  But you are better off building many of your task force capabilities around a capable icebreaker, and to think of the icebreaker as a mobile command post able to provide mobility in difficult conditions.  It’s a command and control facility with helicopters, extra berthing, configurable work spaces and heavy lift cranes; it’s got all kinds of boats; you can put containers onboard and modularize your mission suite.

It can patrol coastal and offshore waters, and it can go to a spot if you’ve got an oil spill or a suspected incident or something like that.  And you can drop in any kind of special teams or expertise.  For example, if you want to oversee an oil spill clean-up, you can send in a team of trained folks similar to the oversight structure that was working from the shore for the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf. You can have them on scene in the Arctic and able to move anywhere you need them along the coast. The big problem in deploying those kind of things on the North Slope is there’s little shoreside infrastructure.

SLD: That gets back to your endurance point.

Rear Admiral Garrett: As the Coast Guard has deployed people to the North Slope during the past few summers, finding a place for them to stay ashore has been reported as a major problem.  In the Prudhoe Bay area you have to beg it off the oil industry.  So you may have to depend on the very industry you’re regulating or monitoring for support, and they will be unlikely to have the capacity if a major contingency is in process.

Another benefit of having an icebreaker on scene is that they carry lots of fuel.  An icebreaker can operate as a mobile gas station for other deployed USCG aircraft and cutters. So not just the endurance of the icebreaker itself, but the inherent capability to act as a force multiplier for other needed assets.

(Credit: http://www.uscg.mil/history/docs/ArcticOverview%5B1%5D.pdf)Credit: www.uscg.mil

SLD: In effect, the new icebreakers are crucial to dealing with the evolving Arctic economy and to protecting U.S. interests.  And your suggested con-ops is that the cost of the icebreaker has to be understood in the context of the overall cost of having a “mobile infrastructure” to anchor operations.  It is not a ship; it is the foundation for operational capability.  The alternative is to not play in the Arctic or to try to build a very expensive land based infrastructure with permanently deployed land-based assets operating in difficult conditions.

Rear Admiral Garrett: I believe that the strategic stake is going up dramatically in the Arctic and in the very near future we will not have adequate assets to protect our national interests.

We face a pending crisis with the Alaska pipeline.  It is only half full now.  Without offshore oil going into this expensive infrastructure, we will simply have to shut it down. And we would be doing this while other nations are drilling and exploiting the Arctic’s significant hydrocarbon resources.  We may choose not to drill in our own waters, but we will nevertheless see the maritime traffic related to oil and gas drilling transiting through our waters.

SLD: If there’s a significant increase in cargo traffic, and the Coast Guard can’t have a decent presence there, in effect, we will have a highly unregulated transit route.  That affects our interests, and would reduce our ability to secure the conveyor belt of goods and services that are coming into the United States.

Rear Admiral Garrett: Absolutely.  In the western Arctic, there’s only one way in and out, and that’s the Bering Strait.  Every ship that comes or goes from the Arctic Ocean on the western side will go through U.S. waters.

We could choose to just ignore all the traffic and say we don’t really care about it.

And there are other issues.  We’ve got cruise ships going up there now.  The Canadians had an incident this past summer of a cruise ship running aground in the Arctic; fortunately, a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker was close by and able to assist.  So you are starting to see bread-and-butter Coast Guard missions.  The Canadians also had two tank vessels run aground in their Arctic waters this past summer.  How are we supposed to respond to these basic maritime safety issues when the aging assets we currently have are no longer available?

SLD: The overall capability of the Coast Guard to do its tasks is dramatically reduced over the last ten years. And with the new Arctic demand, and the need to build icebreakers as mobile command posts, the absence of money to build these assets will lead to significant economic losses.  An inability to play in the energy and resource efforts, the deep sea fishing issues, the container traffic and other issues, all pose significant economic threats and costs to the U.S. economy.  It is too bad that the cost of an icebreaker is debated in and of itself and not placed in the broader economic, security and global context.

Rear Admiral Garrett: And as the USN increasingly thinks about its role in the evolving Arctic, without the icebreakers their mobility will be significantly limited.  The defense side of the Arctic will return as a significant issue as well.


[1] See an overview of USCG polar missions.