Aboard a Lockheed C-130 Hercules on a flight to the Arctic, the Associated Press interviewed Coast Guard Rear Admiral Christopher C. Colvin, Commander of Coast Guard District Seventeen based in Juneau. He is charged with covering all of Alaska’s coastline, which is longer than the coastline of the rest of the 49 states combined. As Colvin oversees Coast Guard activities in the Arctic Ocean, Bering Sea, and North Pacific Ocean, he is well-positioned to comment on the United States’ capabilities in the High North.
During his interview with the AP, he stated,
“We have to have presence up there to protect our claims for the future, sovereignty claims, extended continental shelf claims.”
There is nothing really new in his statement. Representatives of all Arctic-5 countries have at some point or another mentioned the importance of “presence.” It is not enough to have the United Nations recognize your maritime borders, though that certainly helps. The general opinion, as it has been for centuries, is that a physical presence is necessary to maintain and enforce sovereignty. On the contrary, any national physical presence in disputed areas causes controversy. Witness the furor over the Russian flag at the bottom of the North Pole, Danish tourists on Hans Island, and American submarines in Canadian waters. Thus, the significance of Colvin’s statement lies not so much in its content, but rather in the fact that yet another high-ranking U.S. official is underscoring the importance of American involvement in the Arctic. The Coast Guard and the Navy have been the most vocal institutions of all, and unsurprisingly so, as more and more of the Arctic is becoming open water.
A presence in the Arctic would also help the U.S. respond to any search and rescue emergencies and disasters, some of the Coast Guard’s responsibilities. As sea traffic increases, the Coast Guard’s role will inevitably increase – and therefore, so should its budget. Colvin believes that the Bering Strait will become a “significant marine highway in the future,” comparing it to Russia’s Northern Sea Route. In fact, earlier this year, a Russian ship called the Baltika carrying gas condensate sailed from Murmansk to Ningbo, China. The voyage halved the normal time of the journey from Russia to the Far East, which is usually made via the Suez Canal, by using icebreakers to ram through the ice. However, such an expedition is costly. The director of the shipping company which owns Baltika, Sovcomflot (which happens to be Russia’s largest shipping company), said,
“Even using the accompaniment of icebreakers could lead to a situation where we only break even. It’s possible that this won’t bring any special material profit.”
Still, Colvin seeks improved U.S. infrastructure in the Arctic. He mentioned, “What I’d like to see someday is a hangar in Barrow,” referencing an incident where a U.S. cargo plane was left outside overnight after a trip to the North Pole, causing it to freeze and delaying the return journey by four days for repairs. Colvin continued, “That just doesn’t work. We really need a structure that we can put our C-130s in to protect them when we come up here and operate.”
Referencing lacking equipment and facilities, Colvin spoke of the sorry state of America’s three icebreakers, of which two are “broken.” One is not due to be back in service until 2013. Russia, by contrast, has 5 operational nuclear icebreakers, out of a total of 7. While the U.S. may be behind in numbers, at the very least, more officials are drawing attention to the country’s practical and geopolitical need for resources in the High North.
To read more of Colvin’s interview, click here.
 “Russian Icebreaker Escorts,” Bellona