When it comes to defending the Arctic by sea, the United States finds itself behind the eight ball when it comes to icebreakers.

"Well look, we're finally making progress," Sen. Dan Sullivan said. "There's been a lot of talk, but we are finally making progress on actually buying and purchasing icebreakers that not only Alaska needs but our country needs."

Currently, the U.S. only has two, compared to Russia which has 40 as well as over a dozen more in the works. 

"We have two, one is broken, but we are finally doing this," Sullivan said. "It's not only good news for the country but also good news for Alaska."

The U.S. Coast Guard Sector Anchorage is monitoring the situation very closely. They more than likely won't manage or use the cutter but what the icebreaker will do is provide a platform for the local Coast Guard to move personnel into the Arctic.

"When the ice goes away, we can push up into the Arctic both on the land side which is mostly what we do here and on the water side on that cutter fleet," Lt. Cmdr. with the U.S. Coast Guard Sector Anchorage Jereme Altendorf said. "So it's just one more platform to push personnel in there to conduct national security, law enforcement, safety of life at sea boardings and things like that."  

The U.S. Coast Guard recently put out a new Arctic strategy which calls for upgrading ships in the Arctic along with aircraft and other unmanned systems in an increasingly contested region.

"We need these, right? We need these," Sullivan said. "The Arctic is an incredibly important strategic area for America. We're an Arctic nation because of Alaska and a lot of people forget that, and when you can't defend your area with icebreakers you are at a disadvantage." 

In preparation for the new icebreakers, the U.S. Coast Guard is conducting an inspection surge operation on all 394 bulk oil waterfront facilities in their area of responsibility. 

"These fuel facilities really are the lifeblood for a lot of these communities where it's the only source of fuel for power, for fueling machinery and whatnot," Chief of Incident Management with USCG Sector Anchorage Lt. James Nunez said. "The issue that we've seen with some of these spills, it's starting to impact the environment."

In March 2018, 3,000 gallons of heavy oil spilled near Kodiak. The total cost to clean up the area was $9 million and, according to the Coast Guard, the highest cost per gallon spill in U.S. history. 

"We had a spill late last year that ended up closing a fishery for a period of time," Nunez said. "So it's this delicate balance between making sure that they have this fuel in these communities so that they can survive out there but also the balance of protecting the environment."

Of the facilities the Coast Guard plans to inspect, just over 30 of them are reachable on a drive from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. 

"We're sending teams into places where we know, that that hub community is the only way we can get to other smaller villages that have some issues with their facilities that we have been seeing over the past couple of years," Altendorf said. 

Since the last report in 2013, the Coast Guard noted the physical and political landscape of the Arctic is changing. The strategy commits to holding the line against so-called competitors who do not respect international order. A threat to homeland security and a sustainable way of life could come from any number of sources, including Russia, China or even the fuel that powers so many coastal communities. 

 

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