Category Archives: Arctic

Analysis related to the global polar regions.

Assessing the U.S. Navy’s Arctic Roadmap

By Andreas Kuersten

Shielded by a significant expanse of sea ice, the Arctic Ocean has historically had limited naval strategic relevance outside of submarine and early warning operations.  But the process of climate change is increasingly melting away this covering and laying bare previously inaccessible northern waters.  As a result, and in concert with the region’s vast natural resource endowments and potential shipping lanes, one of the world’s five oceans and adjacent marine areas are slowly opening to human maritime activity – both in terms of state and private actors.  As the military branch responsible for fielding forces “capable of winning wars, deterring aggression and maintaining freedom of the seas,” the United States Navy has understandably turned its attention northward. 

In planning for the Arctic Ocean’s opening and its ensuing responsibilities in the region, the Navy researched and published the Arctic Roadmap: 2014-2030.  The report lays out how the service views the high north as a theater for operations and its priorities in the area in the near- (2014-2020), mid- (2020-2030), and long-terms (2030-beyond). 

The Arctic Naval Strategic Environment

As outlined at the beginning of the Roadmap, the Navy expects the Arctic “to remain a low threat security environment where nations resolve differences peacefully.”  It sees its role as mostly a supporter of U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) operations and responder to search-and-rescue and disaster situations.  However, the presence of vast resource endowments and territorial disagreements “contributes to a possibility of localized episodes of friction in the Arctic Region, despite the peaceful intentions of the Arctic nations.” 

For the most part, this assessment appears accurate.  The Arctic has consistently remained an area of peaceful interaction despite periodic disagreements, and its harsh environment minimizes conflict potential.  But the region also presents a completely unique geopolitical and military situation for the Navy.  As Arctic sea ice melts, the Navy will find itself engaging a theater where it is not the most capable force for the first time in recent history.  Russia’s Northern Fleet, designated in 1937, has been based and operating in the Arctic for nearly 80 years.  Russian naval and support capabilities in the high north surpass those of the Navy: currently, they possess the only fleet of nuclear powered icebreakers and extensive naval bases. 

Direct comparisons with Russia, however, are not very telling in terms of what the Navy’s Arctic priorities should be.  Russian interests in the Arctic have always been far greater than those of the U.S.  As such, the Roadmap is right to avoid any language seeking American naval predominance in the region, or comparisons to the northern capacities of others.  But given Russia’s recent provocative actions in Ukraine and elsewhere, and the fact that the Roadmap was published before these commenced, the Navy would be right to incorporate awareness of Russian activities and capabilities into future Arctic policy publications. 

Russian warships en route to New Siberian islands, including Kirov class battlecruiser Pyotr Velikhiy.

The Navy’s Arctic Capabilities

Turning to the more technical issue of actual Arctic capabilities, the Roadmap presents the region as a unique operational environment.  It astutely notes that “Navy functions in the Arctic Region are not different from those in other maritime regions; however, the Arctic Region environment makes the execution of many of these functions much more challenging.”  This observation was born out in the Fleet Arctic Operations Game naval exercise of 2011.  Unfortunately, so was the reality that the Navy is currently ill equipped to operate in the high north.  A report from the U.S. Naval War College on this exercise noted the following:

The U.S. Navy is inadequately prepared to conduct sustained maritime operations in the Arctic region.  This assertion is due to the poor reliability of current capabilities as well as the need to develop new partnerships, ice capable platforms, infrastructure, satellite communications and training.  Efforts to strengthen relationships and access to specialized capabilities and information should be prioritized. 

The Roadmap seeks to take each of these failings into account, though it does so to varying degrees of prudence.  It presents the need for strong cooperation and partnership with foreign states, the USCG, and other government agencies.  Such interactions are aimed at helping to manage shared Arctic spaces, engage in multilateral training and operations, and develop Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) for the region. 

The Roadmap puts a heavy emphasis on the advancement of MDA and logistics capabilities in the Arctic, and these foci are well warranted.  The principal restrictive variables in Arctic operations are severe and erratic weather, sea ice, poorly developed nautical charts, remoteness, and the absence of support infrastructure.  Tackling these issues begins with extensive data gathering and MDA development.  In this regard, the Roadmap asserts that partnerships with government agencies responsible for meteorology and geography – such as the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – are crucial for helping “the Navy better predict ice conditions, shifting navigable waterways, and weather patterns to aid in safe navigation and operations at sea.”  A force with a robust understanding of a harsh environment has a significant advantage in any undertaking or confrontation therein. 

Arctic MDA will, in turn, aid in the maintenance of critical logistical support for naval assets deployed in remote northern theaters and the alleviation of infrastructure failings.  The distribution of fuel and other resources, along with the conservation of these assets, are important considerations in Arctic operations and ones the Roadmap shrewdly highlights. 

Beyond MDA and logistics, the Roadmap puts an emphasis on Arctic training and exercises.  These are often conducted with other countries and military branches and are touted to “improve knowledge of the Region and provide a positive foundation for future missions.”  While this is certainly true, training can only go so far when a force lacks the requisite equipment for operating in a region, and this is the Roadmap’s main problem. 

The Naval War College’s assessment of the Navy’s Fleet Arctic Operation Game, noted above, serves to illuminate the branch’s deficiency in terms of material capacity when it comes to the Arctic.  In addressing its equipment needs for northern operations, the Navy’s Roadmap is lacking.  Rather than stating the need to procure necessary equipment, it simply “directs review and identifications of requirements for improvements to platforms, sensors, and weapons systems.” 

For years, the needs of the Navy in terms of Arctic acquisitions and refitting have been extensively researched and presented.  Many individuals and organizations have laid out the various basic purchases and upgrades necessary for effective Arctic naval action.  Moreover, as reported by the website DoD Buzz through interviews with top Navy Officers, the branch is well aware of its needs and has undertaken numerous research and development projects to address them.  Ice-strengthened hulls, topside icing prevention and management, surveillance and reconnaissance sensor establishment and maintenance, and network systems adaptation to northern conditions are all clear areas of need with available remedies. 

Training and operating within equipment limitations enhances effectiveness, but being properly outfitted allows for substantially more freedom of action and strategy, as well as for the more likely attainment of superiority in any future confrontation. 

Even though the Navy is currently experiencing a time of relative budget constraint and massive asset redistribution – namely to the region of East and Southeast Asia – a policy roadmap encompassing the next several decades must make Arctic-directed equipment procurement an expressed priority.  These sorts of undertakings require a good deal of lead-time, and continuing to tread water by solely emphasizing need assessment over need fulfillment is a recipe for future shortfalls in necessary capabilities. 

In addition to equipment, the Navy is also lacking in terms of Arctic infrastructure.  Aside from Thule Air Base in Western Greenland, American deepwater ports are non-existent above the Arctic Circle.  The Navy has utilized temporary ice bases in the past for submarine exercises – the most recent being Camp Nautilus north of Prudhoe Bay in 2014 – but to support the necessity of an increasing naval presence in the next several decades a permanent base and deepwater ports will eventually be needed. 

These, however, are incredibly costly undertakings, both in terms of money and capital as well as force deployment to occupy such facilities.  The absence of any clear intent to look into permanent presence possibilities, or commit to equipment procurements, evinces the Navy’s desire to hedge its commitments to a remote and relatively minor area in the face of important responsibilities elsewhere.  While this is certainly prudent, such policies could become problematic if they result in the inconsequential development of Arctic capabilities over the period the Roadmap encompasses. 

Crewmembers of the Los Angeles-class submarine USS Annapolis (SSN 760) man the bridge watch after breaking through the ice during Ice Exercise (ICEX 2009) in the Arctic Ocean.
Crewmembers of the Los Angeles-class submarine USS Annapolis (SSN 760) man the bridge watch after breaking through the ice during Ice Exercise (ICEX 2009) in the Arctic Ocean.

The Navy’s Near-, Mid-, and Long-Term Arctic Assessments

The Navy’s concluding presentation on its ambitions over the timeline of the Roadmap lends credence to concerns over its intent to meaningfully prepare for future Arctic obligations. 

Within the near-term (2014-2020), the Navy plans to have a limited Arctic presence, “primarily through undersea and air assets.”  Surface operations will only take place in open water conditions.  More broadly, the Navy states that it aims to “increase the number of personnel trained in Arctic operations,” maintain ongoing exercises, “focus on areas where it provides unique capabilities,” “leverage…partners to fill identified gaps,” and “emphasize low cost, long-lead time activities to match capability and capacity to future demands.”  From this information, it appears that the Navy has minimal Arctic ambition in the near-term and is content to expand very little on its current capacities. 

In the mid-term (2020-2030), the Navy predicts that it “will have the necessary training and personnel to respond to contingencies and emergencies affecting national security.”  Its “surface vessels will operate in the expanding open water areas” and the Navy “will work to mitigate the gaps and seams and transition…from a capability to provide periodic presence to a capability to operate deliberately for sustained periods when needed.”  Although this language may be interpreted to push for accelerating Arctic initiatives in the mid-term, it actually simply shows the Navy moving at the speed of climate change.  Surface-wise, it will expand into the high north wherever the melting ice allows, but no real impetus is noted to engage the region outside of those areas that become like other environments in which the Navy already operates.  Furthermore, there is not even an ambiguous expression as to how the Navy plans to facilitate “deliberate and sustained” Arctic operations.

In the far-term (2030-beyond), the Roadmap asserts that the “Navy will be capable of supporting sustained operations in the Arctic Region as needed to meet national policy guidance” and “will enable naval forces to operate forward.”  Once again, however, no clear avenue, let alone a vague one, is presented through which these capabilities will be developed.  Consequential investment in region-adapted equipment and infrastructure are needed before the Navy can meaningfully operate in a forward capacity in the Arctic.  Unfortunately, as noted throughout this analysis, there is scant mention of any such commitment. 


The Roadmap ultimately shows the Navy having a keen understanding of the capacities it must develop to be a truly Arctic-capable force, but also evinces an organization weary of any real commitment to a region currently possessing little national security importance.  As the Navy puts it in the report’s final sentence: “The key will be to balance potential investments with other Service priorities.”  The Roadmap, however, currently shows that balance tipping away from any substantial Arctic engagement.  Hopefully the Navy’s fiscal apprehension will not hamstring its ability to operate in a future Arctic environment requiring its capable presence and leadership. 

Andreas Kuersten is a lawyer working in international law who has previously held positions with NOAA and the U.S. Navy and Air Force JAG Corps.

Strategic Insights Arctic Special Issue – Call for Papers

The December 2015 special issue of Strategic Insights magazine will deal with maritime security problems associated with the Arctic. Although international attention in recent months has shifted to places such as Russia/Ukraine, Syria/Iraq, Greece, or the South China Sea, the High North retains its unique position and potential as a future site of conflict and cooperation, disruptive technology, and a major maritime trade shortcut. We are looking for thought-provoking contributions that address challenges and risks in the High North, and provide fresh perspectives for our readers. Whether it is a particularly Canadian, American, Russian, Norwegian, Danish, or any other nation-state view, a discussion of current and future operations, or perspectives on maritime security from your particular point of view, all suggestions are welcome.

It doesn't happen often that an entire ice-breaking fleet is in one picture... but when it does, it's set to be cool.
It doesn’t happen often that an entire ice-breaking fleet is in one picture… but when it does, it’s set to be cool.

Anyone with an interest in writing an article should send a short note Sebastian Bruns, member of the SI editorial board and fellow CIMSECian, at Please include a short bullet-point list of what you would like to discuss and provide 2-3 sentences on your professional background. If your article is accepted for publication, remuneration is 300.00 € (or – currently – 335.00 USD) per article and will be paid via bank transfer on the first of the month after publication of the respective issue. The deadline for your final article is 15 November 2015.

From Russia with love.
From Russia with love.

Strategic Insights draws on the focus and geographical coverage of Risk Intelligence’s MaRisk maritime security monitor, but takes a wider look at the nature of maritime risk in different threat locations around the world. Each issue goes beyond facts and figures to consider the drivers of maritime security challenges and how these challenges will evolve in the future.
The focus of Strategic Insights is on security threats and political-military developments with a maritime dimension, particularly non-traditional security issues such as piracy, maritime terrorism, insurgency, smuggling, and port security. The journal is read by players in the maritime industry, law enforcement agencies, think tanks and institutions, and inter-governmental regional security bodies. A particular emphasis is placed on articles that offer policy-relevant and operational analysis relevant to the maritime community. The style is a mix of journalism and academic, length about 2,500-3,000 words. Visit the website for more info and to download your complimentary free issue.

Sebastian Bruns is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University where he is responsible for all things maritime. He is also one of the editors for Strategic Insights magazine.

The Importance of U.S. Chairmanship of the Arctic Council

This month the United States will begin its two-year Chairmanship of the Arctic Council, a high-level intergovernmental forum that primarily addresses environmental protection and sustainable development issues in the Arctic region.  The Arctic Council, which also includes Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden (also referred to as the A8), was formed as a result of the Ottawa Declaration in 1996.  As interest in the Arctic has grown over the years, so too has the status of the Arctic Council. 

With the Arctic becoming more attractive, there will be opportunities for major international players to share information and best practices for sustainable development and safe navigation through the busy shipping lanes in the region.  It is realistic to believe that all Arctic and major trading nations benefit from open access to shipping lanes in the Arctic.  However, the geopolitical significance placed on the Arctic by some actors may hinder information-sharing of all types between states active in the region.  For example, Arctic states, who all have different coast guard structures, could deny information to others in order to protect sovereign rights.  Furthermore, non-Arctic states, particularly China, may build influence in the region to pursue its own interests.  China’s economy relies heavily on shipping and plans to use the Arctic to ship around 15% of its international trade by 2020.  A precedent must be set that manages possible competing influences in the Arctic to secure peaceful usage of the region.   

Besides the permanent members of the Arctic Council, there are non-Arctic states with Observer Status who, at the moment, do not play a significant role in the Council’s decision-making, but may in the future.  Many states have an interest in the Arctic, which is likely to drive certain actors to pursue unilateral actions to enhance their Arctic objectives if there is no change to the status quo.  With top energy consumers and economic powers like China and India as Observers, along with Russia’s aggressive activity in the Arctic, as evidenced by its large-scale military exercises, the U.S. must exercise a leadership role to coordinate collaboration between all states interested in the Arctic, mitigating tensions and ensuring freedom of the seas.  

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, host of the 8th Arctic Council meeting, opens the closing session attended by Secretary of State John Kerry at the City Hall in Kiruna, Sweden on May 15, 2013.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, host of the 8th Arctic Council meeting, opens the closing session attended by Secretary of State John Kerry at the City Hall in Kiruna, Sweden on May 15, 2013.

Most Americans are probably not aware of what the Arctic Council is and that the U.S. will be its Chair starting later this month.  This U.S. Chairmanship is sure to differ from its predecessor Canada’s, as the U.S. seems adamant about having a strong focus on climate change while also building upon Canada’s theme of economic development in the Arctic.  Because issues in the Arctic affect a number of nations, the United States has a grand opportunity to use its Arctic strategy to help guide multilateral cooperation to promote regional governance and stability.   

Due to the geopolitical factors associated with the Arctic, it is important to remind the American public of the potential opportunities for the U.S. to further its goals in the High North.  With competing interests in the Arctic, the U.S. should seek out opportunities to strengthen its cooperation with the other Arctic nations.  Russia has been the most active in the Arctic by margin.  Relations between Russia and the other A8 have been strained since Russia annexed Crimea, but the U.S. should prevent a “Crimea flu” from taking place, while also not allowing Russia to encroach upon its Arctic neighbors’ sovereign territory.  Whether it be technological partnerships to advance oil and natural gas exploration or multilateral efforts within the Arctic Council to develop a comprehensive framework aimed at Arctic security, the U.S. should make it a goal to work with Arctic and non-Arctic states to further unity and stability in the region.   

U.S. Approach to the Arctic Region

As demonstrated by the Obama administration’s Implementation Plan for The National Strategy for the Arctic Region, the United States will look to address certain themes during its Chairmanship of the Arctic Council.  Those themes include: Arctic Ocean safety, security and stewardship; improving economic and living conditions; and addressing the impacts of climate change.  These issues will become increasingly more important as the diminishing polar ice cap will make the Arctic broadly accessible and vastly enhance the region’s appeal.  Experts at the Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predict that based on current trends the Arctic will be ice-free in the summertime before 2050.  The melting of Arctic ice will result in new complex issues concerning the exploitation of natural resources, freedom of navigation, and territorial sovereignty. 

NOAA Ship Fairweather in the Alaskan Arctic.
NOAA Ship Fairweather in the Alaskan Arctic.

Preventing tensions in these focus areas is in the interest of the Council, as all seek stability in the Arctic.  The challenge though is for all Arctic nations to understand that inter-council tensions will threaten their interests.  As stated in a report by the Director of National Intelligence last year, “Some states see the Arctic as a strategic security issue that has the potential to give other countries an advantage in positioning in their military forces.”  Militarizing the Arctic may seem advantageous to individual states in the region, but doing so weakens Arctic governance and threatens the interests of global commerce.  Thus, it is important to persuade all Arctic states, particularly Russia, that military activity in the High North is likely to deteriorate the Arctic’s future economic viability.

In addition to the themes laid out in America’s Implementation Plan for the Arctic, there are certain goals the U.S. is looking to achieve over the next two years.  As stated by Julie Gourley, a Senior Arctic Official at the State Department, during a conference in Washington, DC this past summer, U.S. overarching goals while Chair of the Council are to introduce new projects and initiatives into the Council; raise public awareness of the Arctic and why it is important to U.S. interests; and strengthen the Council as an intergovernmental body.  The U.S. will focus on cooperation among the A8 on implementing renewable energy projects in the region, especially solar, wave, and wind, while also developing information and communication technologies to foster partnerships.  Increasing public awareness of the Arctic could garner more support for U.S. activity in the Arctic and help expand economic development.  The U.S. Government is planning to allow Shell to restart its drilling for oil in the Arctic, while also continuing to work on its Draft Proposed Program that would allow three lease sales in Alaska (Beaufort Sea, Chukchi Sea, and Cook Inlet areas).  The administration’s program, according to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, would make available nearly 80 % of Alaska’s undiscovered technically recoverable resources. 

Based upon the Obama administration’s literature, it seems that the U.S. is placing more emphasis on environmental stewardship than economic development when it comes to its Arctic strategy.  Preserving Arctic ecosystems and limiting the negative impact of energy exploration on the environment are factors that must be considered; however, not finding the right balance may cause the U.S. to fall further behind in acting as a strong voice in international Arctic policy.

Natural Resources in the Arctic

According to a U.S. Geological Survey 2008 report, the Arctic comprises 22% of the world’s remaining undiscovered, technically recoverable petroleum resources.  These resources include 13% of undiscovered oil, 30% of undiscovered natural gas, and 20% of undiscovered natural gas liquids to the Arctic.  It is projected that the Alaskan Arctic region holds the largest undiscovered Arctic oil deposits, approximately 30 billion barrels. 

A second drill rig engaged in Beaufort Sea exploration.
A second drill rig engaged in Beaufort Sea exploration.

Not only can the U.S. benefit from Arctic oil and natural gas, there are also mineral resources that may be an even more important economic driver.  Examples of such resources include zinc, lead, gold, coal, iron ore, nickel, and palladium.  As noted in a recent report by the Congressional Research Service, without the appropriate infrastructure and funding, these natural resources cannot be appropriately explored and extracted.  

In order for the U.S. and the other A8 states to take advantage of the economic value of the High North, it will require an Arctic that is stable for passage by vessels and safe exploration of resources.  As the next Chair of the Arctic Council, the U.S. should develop a cooperative effort among the A8 to focus on Arctic security to assure stability and maritime safety in the region.

Preserving Stability in the Arctic  

Given the number of territorial disputes and the vast amounts of natural resources in the region, there is the possibility that tensions could rise among the Arctic states. Commerce through the Arctic will only increase while the Arctic melts, thus, it is imperative to prevent conflict that may disrupt maritime trade and security.  To preserve peace and security in the region, the U.S. can act as a guardian in strengthening regional cooperation through confidence and security building measures with the other Arctic nations.  

Presently, military conflict in the Arctic does not look realistic.  However, Russia, who has been the most active in the High North, has placed a strong emphasis on the Arctic in its military doctrine.  Russian Defense Minister Army General Sergei Shoigu said in February, “A broad spectrum of potential challenges and threats to our national security is now being formed in the Arctic.  Therefore, one of the defense ministry’s priorities is to develop military infrastructure in this zone.”  Russian military buildup could be destabilizing, which is why the U.S. should implement intergovernmental mechanisms to reduce future tensions.

 Pacific fleet vessels' sortie for combat training

The U.S. could introduce confidence and security building measures that would allow the A8 to cooperate on maintaining stability in the Arctic.  For instance, the U.S. could lead an effort to establish an annual forum that brings the heads of state of the A8 countries to discuss Arctic security issues.  Government officials from the Arctic Council members have met on several occasions to discuss security issues in the Arctic, such as: the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable, Coast Guard Forum, and Northern Chiefs of Defense Meeting.  However, having the U.S. President call upon the other A8 leaders to meet would demonstrate America’s commitment to upholding security in the Arctic. 

Other mechanisms to preserve peace in the Arctic could include bi or multilateral cooperation on Arctic technology or infrastructure for energy exploration in the region, and possibly an annual Arctic security exercise between the A8 to strengthen maritime safety procedures.  For the former to occur, the U.S. administration will need to show more willingness to pursue such projects.  To start, it would be beneficial for the United States to invest in the production of new icebreakers to support security exercises.  A Foreign Affairs article lays out several reasons as to how new icebreakers can enhance U.S. security in the Arctic and foster international cooperation.  Additionally, progress in renewable energy in the Arctic is beneficial to all and could be a leading example in the potential of this technology.  With all Arctic states seeing the importance of unconventional energy sources, collaboration in this sector through government-initiated development programs could assist in strengthening Arctic security.   

There are multiple opportunities for the U.S. to take a leading role in strengthening Arctic security for decades to come.  The U.S. can lead efforts to efficiently manage governance in this new common space by having the A8 establish a Working Group or framework that outlines shared responsibilities of security in the Arctic, to collaborate with the A8 to develop infrastructure needed to support transportation through the Arctic (such as a networked maritime domain awareness fusion centers encircling Arctic or other communication systems), and to create capabilities required to oversee and police the Arctic waters.  All of these efforts can accommodate the needs of all Arctic nations; however, the U.S., as well as the other A8 members, will need to significantly fund such efforts, which seems difficult with today’s budget constraints.

A Historic Opportunity Awaits the U.S.

Chairing the Arctic Council provides the U.S. with the chance to more effectively implement collaboration among the Arctic nations.  Of course, not everything the U.S. wants will be achieved, as the Council requires consensus by all eight states to move forward with any activity.  Instead, the U.S. should look for opportunities to advance the interests of all Arctic states for policy to turn into action during the U.S. Chairmanship. 

Accomplishing all of its geopolitical goals in the Arctic will be difficult.  The United States has trouble funding its own projects in the Arctic, whether it be the exploration of natural resources or building an icebreaking fleet.  Even the Council as a whole has issues with funding, which has impeded certain initiatives.  The next two years will be of high importance for the U.S. in terms of establishing itself as a key Arctic state.  Therefore, all levels of the U.S. Government should work together with their Arctic partners to take advantage of this historic opportunity.

A Retired Coastie’s Perspective on the Revised Strategy


IHMAS Success refuels USCGC Waesche RIMPAC2014n considering this strategy, it is clearly not a strategy for war; it is a strategy for maintaining the peace, the sometimes violent peace that has become the new norm. As such, it assumes the Coast Guard will continue exercising its normal peacetime priorities. Still I feel it should provide a guide for transition to a wartime footing. Unless it is in the classified annex, that guidance is missing, in that it does not define Coast Guard wartime roles or suggest how the Coast Guard might be shaped to be more useful in wartime.

The Coast Guard is, potentially, a significant Naval force. It currently has more personnel than the British Royal Navy. Effectively, the Coast Guard is the low end of the American Naval Forces’ High/Low mix, bringing with it significant numbers of patrol vessels and aircraft. At little marginal cost, it could be made into an effective naval reserve that would serve the nation well in an intense conventional conflict.

If you look at the title, “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower: Forward, Engaged, Ready,” the words cooperative, forward, and engaged are particularly relevant in describing the thrust of the strategy.

It expects US naval forces to cooperate and engage with allied and friendly forces both to improve relations and strengthen and encourage those friendly forces. The Coast Guard has a major role in this, in bringing expertise in a board range of governance functions that friendly navies and coast guards can relate to.

The Navy also expects to have a substantial part of its force “forward.” Not only forward but also geographically widely distributed. This violation of the Mahanian maxim to keep your battle force concentrated has been the norm for decades, but it has been a reflection of the preponderance of the US Navy that may be eroding. It is a calculated risk that, the benefits of working with and assuring allies and being on scene to deal with brush fires, outweighs the potential risk isolated, forward deployed Carrier Strike and/or Amphibious Ready Groups might be overwhelmed in a first strike by a concentration of hostile forces.

The strategy talks about surge forces, but frankly the potential is far more limited than it was when the Navy was larger. For the Coast Guard this “forward” strategy, combined with the apparently ever increasing concentration of US Navy forces in only a few homeports, including foreign ports, has important implications. There are long stretches of the US coast that may be hundreds of miles from the nearest US Navy surface combatant.

If a suspicious vessel is approaching the US, that must be boarded to determine its nature and intent, the boarding is most likely to be done by a Coast Guard cutter, and not by a National Security Cutter, but most likely by something much smaller. The cutter is also unlikely to have any heavily armed backup.


The strategy recognizes and explicitly states an intention to exploit, “…the Coast Guard’s unique legal authorities…(to)…combat the illegal drug trade, human trafficking, and the unlawful exploitation of natural resources…”

In several places there is recognition of the Coast Guard’s potential for capacity building with navies and coast guards of friendly nations.

There is also an apparent commitment to an improved and shared Maritime Domain Awareness.

The apparent intent to increase the availability of modular systems provides a means of quickly adapting Coast Guard assets to wartime roles, but thus far I have seen no official interest in exploiting this possibility.

The Middle East Section seems to suggest that the six Coast Guard patrol boats and their augmented crews, currently stationed in Bahrain, will remain there and, given their age, they may require replacement as the new Webber Class WPC, Fast Response Cutters, come on line. In fact these Webber class patrol craft could be very effective in combatting piracy off Somalia.

These patrol craft essentially fill the same role and face the same threats as the Navy’s Cyclone class patrol craft. Will they receive any of the weapons upgrades that the Navy’s Cyclone class PCs have been given?

WPC Kathleen_Moore

A Webber Class WPC, Fast Response Cutter

Looking at the section on the Western Hemisphere, there is a commitment to, “…employ amphibious ships and other platforms, including Littoral Combat Ships, Joint High Speed Vessels, Afloat Forward Staging Bases, hospital ships, other Military Sealift Command ships, and Coast Guard platforms, to conduct humanitarian assistance and disaster response missions. We will also employ maritime patrol aircraft such as the P-8A Poseidon and unmanned aerial vehicles. Other ships and aircraft will provide periodic presence for recurring military-to-military engagements, theater security cooperation exercises, and other missions.” But there is no specific commitment to employ Navy vessels for drug enforcement. Was this omission intentional?

Competing claims in the Antarctic

Looking at section on the Arctic and Antarctic,  There is no specific commitment by the Navy, although the DOD does have an Arctic strategy that includes better hydrography and Maritime Domain Awareness. It looks like the Navy is content for the Coast Guard to be the face of US naval presence in the Arctic. There is reference to the use of the Nation Security Cutters (NSC) in the Arctic, but surprisingly no mention of the planned 25 Offshore Patrol Cutters (OPC) even though the OPCs will be ice-strengthened, while the eight planned NSCs are not.


A model of Eastern’s proposal for the Offshore Patrol Cutter. Eastern is one of three shipyards still in contention to  build the 25 ships planned.

In the Deterrence section, the strategy states, “The Coast Guard maintains a continuous presence in our ports, internal waterways, along our coasts, and offshore, providing an additional layer of defense against maritime threats.” But there is no definition of what threats the Coast Guard is expected to respond to and no definition of the capabilities the Coast Guard is expected to provide to deal with these threats.

A Major Omission:

Cutter Owasco (WHEC-39) unreps while engaged in Operation Market Time off the coast of Vietnam.

In the Sea Control section there is no mention of a Coast Guard role in Sea Control. There should be. Sea Control frequently involves Visit, Boarding, Search and potentially Seizure of non-military vessels, e.g. merchant and fishing vessels. The Coast Guard is ideally suited for this role and has conducted this type of operation in war zones in the past, notably the Market Time Operation during the Vietnam War. In fact, the common Coast Guard missions of drug and alien migrant interdiction are forms of sea control that potentially protect the US from non-state actors. The strategy does address these particular elements of Sea Control in the Maritime Security section.

When it comes to counting assets that might be used to exercise sea control, the Navy has roughly 110 cruisers, destroyers, frigates, LCS, and patrol craft and most of these, particularly the 85+ cruisers and destroyers, will almost certainly have higher priority missions. The Coast Guard includes over 100 patrol boats and about 40 larger patrol vessels that routinely exercise sea control on a daily basis.

121203-G-XX000-001_CPO Terrell Horne


From a Coast Guard perspective, this strategy has largely canonized the status quo and the existing recapitalization program of record. It recognizes the Coast Guard’s unique authorities and its ability to contribute to capacity building. It seems to promise greater integration of a multiservice Maritime Domain Awareness.

On the other hand it does nothing to define Coast Guard wartime missions or how the Coast Guard might transition to a wartime footing. The force structure section does nothing to inform the design of Coast Guard equipment so that it might be more useful in wartime. It also does nothing to help that Coast Guard patrol boat I talked about at the beginning that is about to attempt to stop and board a potential hostile vessel that may be about to make an unconventional attack on a US port.

This is only the second iteration of the three service cooperative strategy. It is a marked improvement in specificity over the previous document. Hopefully there will be a process of continual improvement in succeeding editions.

This post appeared in its original form at Chuck Hill’s CG Blog. Chuck retired from the Coast Guard after 22 years service. Assignments included four ships, Rescue Coordination Center New Orleans, CG HQ, Fleet Training Group San Diego, Naval War College, and Maritime Defense Zone Pacific/Pacific Area Ops/Readiness/Plans. Along the way he became the first Coast Guard officer to complete the Tactical Action Officer (TAO) course and also completed the Naval Control of Shipping course. He has had a life-long interest in naval ships and history.