Category Archives: Arctic

Analysis related to the global polar regions.

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

AN OVERVIEW:

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.

WHAT IS INCLUDED IN THE STRATEGY?

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?

512px-Antarctica_CIA_svg
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.

IMG_4135

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:

USCGC_Owasco_(WHEC-39)_conducting_UNREP_Market_Time
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

EVALUATION:

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.

Polar Shipping: A 2014 Recap

By Captain David (Duke) Snider, FNI FRGS
The year 2014 was indeed one of intriguing activity in the Polar Regions. The maritime world and public in general began the year captivated by the almost hourly updates from the Russian ship Akademik Shokalskiy, captive in the Antarctic Ice.  
 
Antarctic CaptivityIt certainly wasn’t the first time a ship had become beset in polar ice conditions, nor will it be the last. What caught the attention of the world was that modern technology and the thirst for a moment in the spotlight prompted regular Internet postings by blog and other means highlighting the “plight” of the ship from several onboard.  French and Chinese light icebreakers attempted to close the distance between open water and the beset ship but could not get sufficiently close to break her out. Even the United States Coast Guard’s Polar Star was diverted to assist. The decision was then made to fly a helicopter from the Chinese ship Xue Long to repatriate the hapless high paying passengers and “science party”. A short time later, having never declared a distress, and knowing the ice conditions would change, the Master and crew steamed clear of the ice under their own power. In the end, the Australian government shelled out nearly $2m Australian in “rescue efforts”. Shortly after the Akademik Shokalskiy steamed clear of the ice, the Russians felt the situation had been so distorted as to its danger in the press that a formal statement was made at IMO making it clear that the Akademik Shokalskiy and her crew were well suited to the conditions, and at no time in danger and that the Master of the vessel did not declare distress.

The Polar Code

The playing out of the Akademik Shokalskiy incident became a backdrop for more frenzied efforts at IMO to finalize drafts and meet Secretary General Koji Sekimizu’s desire for a mandatory Polar Code as soon as practicable.  

Throughout 2014, various committees, sub-committees and working groups struggled to finalize consensus-based drafts of a Polar Code; however, the Secretary General’s strict timetable demanding an adoption before 2017 unfortunately resulted in the gradual streamlining of the initial robust drafts. In order to meet the timelines set down, issues that were remotely contentious or not subject to almost total consensual agreement were watered down or omitted.  

Many parties were disappointed to see a much weaker document evolve into what was finally approved by the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) in November. Others leapt to declare a new age of safety and environmental protection for Antarctic and Arctic waters. 

Come the end of 2014, the Polar Code was still some way from actualization. The entire Part II – Prevention of Pollution must still go through the Maritime Environmental Protection Committee adoption, then the Council must approve both parts submitted by MSC and MEPC. Still, given the SG’s direction, there will be a mandatory Polar Code in existence by the first of 2017; however, it will not be the powerful and robust direction it was originally envisioned to be.  

As a result, many classification societies and flag states are already issuing “guidance” to close gaps that have been left by the leaner “more friendly” Polar Code. The Nautical Institute is moving forward with their plans to put in place an Ice Navigation Training and Certification Scheme to meet basic requirements of the human element chapter of the Polar Code with defined standards of training and certification.

Ice Conditions

Climatically, 2014 was more in line with 2013 as a heavier ice year overall in the Arctic this summer. This followed a particularly bad year in the North American East coast, where heavier ice trapped ships and lengthened the icebreaker support season into May. In the Arctic, conditions were much tougher than the low record years of the past decade that led up to the last two. No one with any real understanding of global climate change would suggest that 2013 and 2014 can be held as the “end of global warming”; however the variability experienced shows that it will not be easy-going for polar shipping in the near future and that ice conditions will continue to wax and wane.

Polar Traffic

Traffic in the Polar Regions still has not met the expectations of some over-optimistic forecasts. The Northern Sea Route (NSR) experienced a dramatic reduction in traffic this year. Less than two dozen full transits were reported and initial figure indicate only 274,000 tons of cargo moved compared to 2013’s 1,356,000 tons. Though ice conditions in the NSR were somewhat more difficult in 2014, conditions were heavier in the Canadian Arctic. 

Notably absent this year was an expected repeat Northwest Passage transit by Nordic Bulk after their landmark Nordic Orion voyage in 2013. Fednav’s latest arrival, MV Nunavik, did however make a westbound transit late in the season.

Routine destination traffic, which includes the resupply of Arctic communities and export of resources, continues to show incremental increases in both the NSR and Northwest Passage (NWP). However there has been some cooling of interest in hydrocarbon exploration over the past year, whether it is as a result of sanctions against Russia for their activities related to Ukraine, or uncertainty of regulatory environment in American waters.  

In the Antarctic region, traffic statistics remain static, driven mainly by research, resupply of research stations and the occasional adventure cruise vessel.

Ice Ship Orders and Construction

The growing interest in polar ice shipping is being felt in ship orders and construction. Numerous ice class ships are on the order books, and some notable orders and deliveries are those of Nordic Bulk with their Baltic ice class new builds and Canada’s Fednav with delivery of their newest icebreaker cargo ship Nunavik. The latter made news with the first unescorted commercial cargo vessel transit of the Northwest Passage this summer.  

Russia has announced and commenced the construction of their new design conventionally powered icebreakers as well as three LK60 nuclear powered icebreakers. Russia is also building a number of icebreaking search and rescue vessels to meet their commitment to increase SAR capability after wholeheartedly embracing the Arctic Council’s 2010 Arctic SAR agreement.  

At the beginning of the year, Russia took possession of the novel oblique icebreaker, Baltica.  Shortly after delivering the Baltica, Finland’s Arctech Helsinki Shipyard announced a contract to build three icebreakers for the Northeast Sakhalin oil and gas field. Perhaps the largest Russian driven high ice class construction is the DSME designed 170,000m3 icebreaking LNGCs to be built for LNG export from the new Yamal field. These ships will be operated by a number of companies including SOVCOMFLOT, MOL and Teekay over the life of the Yamal project. A fleet of six support icebreakers for port and channel clearing, as well as line support in heavier coastal ice will also be built. Three more ice class shuttle tankers were ordered from Samsung Heavy Industries by SOVCOMFLOT for delivery by April 2017.

China is building a new icebreaker to complement their secondhand Xue Long, delivery in 2016; Britain has begun the work to acquire a new 130m icebreaker for delivery in 2019; Australia intends to replace the Aurora Australis hoped for by 2018 with the bidding narrowed to three contenders in the fall; Germany is not far behind in plans to replace the venerable Polar Stern; and, Finland has a new Baltic LNG fuelled Icebreaker under construction and has announced a billion Euro plan to replace their current fleet of icebreakers in coming years. 

India has also announced plans to build a polar research icebreaker to be operational before the end of the decade. Columbia has announced plans to build and send an ice-capable research ship to Antarctica while Chile’s president announced in December plans to build an ice-capable research ship for Antarctic service as soon as practicable.

Though the American built light icebreaker research vessel Sikiluaq entered service this past year, the United States and Canada continue to be mired in indecision or delays with respect to ice-capable ship construction. There are no clear plans to consider replacing the ageing United States Coast Guard’s polar class ships, and Canada’s much vaunted announcement of the acquisition of the new generation polar icebreaker, which was named by the government as the John G. Diefenbaker, has seen cost increases and delays in delivery. The original delivery of 2017, for the Diefenbaker has slid to the right, first to 2020 and now rumored to be 2022.  Reports now indicate the original construction cost of $750m CDN has climbed to well over $1.2B CDN. Given the advancing age of Canada’s venerable icebreaking fleet, it is surprising that only one replacement has been approved.  

The Royal Canadian Navy’s plans to build 6-8 ice-class Arctic Offshore Patrol vessels has experienced similar cost overruns and delays even before steel has been cut. News reports at the end of 2014 indicated the number of ships that could be obtained would likely be fewer than originally announced, and only three vessels could be built for the allocated budget.

Changes in Arctic Offshore

Russia’s almost frantic growth in Arctic exploration and exploitation over the past decade has taken a downturn in the past months. As a result of increasing sanctions put in place by European Union, the United States and other nations, and the rapidly dropping price of oil in the last weeks of 2014, Russia has either seen the gradual pulling away of western partners, or has terminated contracts themselves (such as the recent termination of contracts with Norwegian OSV operators), and reduced projections for hydrocarbon export. As a result, hydrocarbon exploration and exploitation activities in the Russian Arctic began to slow in the latter part of the year.   

In the midst of pullbacks from exploration, Russia has continued to bolster their Arctic presence, opening the first three of ten Arctic search and rescue centers in 2014, taking delivery of the first of six icebreaking search and rescue ships and increasing naval presence capability.

Risks Remain Evident

Just as the situation with the Akademik Shokalskiy indicated in the Antarctic in the beginning of the year (in the latter part of the Antarctic shipping season), an incident with a Northern Transportation Company Limited barge adrift in the Beaufort Sea at the end of the Arctic shipping season highlighted the remote nature of polar shipping operations.  In each case, the situations were exacerbated by the lack of nearby rescue resources. While the Akademik Shokalskiy eventually broke free on her own, the NTCL barge was left to freeze into the ice over the winter as the tug initially towing was unable to reconnect and no other resources were close enough to recover the nearly empty fuel barge.

Discovery of the Wreck of HMS Erebus

One long standing search and recovery mission did result in a very successful search this year as the Canadian Coast Guard ship Sir Wilfrid Laurier and onboard researchers from Canadian Hydrographic Services and Parks Canada discovered the well preserved remains of Sir John Franklin’s flag ship HMS Erebus in the waters near to King William Island in the Canadian central Arctic.  

Under command of Sir John Franklin, HMS Erebus and Terror set out from England in the mid 1800’s in what was thought to be the most technologically advanced and therefore “bound to be successful” effort to discover and sail the Northwest Passage. Tragically, both of Franklin’s ships became hopelessly trapped in the ice, the crews eventually abandoned both vessels and were never seen alive again. Most of the Canadian Arctic was charted in the many searches at sea and from ashore in search of survivors, many relics were discovered including a note that described the abandonment, but the vessels themselves remained lost until this summer when HMS Erebus was discovered.

This post originally appeared in The Maritime Executive.

Sea Control 22 – Behind the Curtain

seacontrolemblem(Download: Sea Control 22 – Behind the Curtain, the First.)

A. Denis Clift, former Naval Officer, president emeritus of the National Intelligence University, and Vice President for Operations of USNI, joins us to talk about his reflections on his time in the Antarctic, Cold War intelligence, life, and the United States Naval Institute. This is the first of a bi-monthly series that will be investigating his career during the Cold War.

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