The U.S. Navy estimates that by 2035 the Arctic Ocean might be free of ice for a month each year. In an op-ed for Foreign Policy magazine, James Holmes, a maritime authority from the U.S. Naval War College, argues that in preparation for the increased activity in the Northwest Passage, the U.S. needs a Coast Guard “that can fight.”
“If and when that icy expanse opens regularly to shipping, the Arctic will need policing, just like any other marine thoroughfare,” Holmes writes. “Placing a law-enforcement and disaster-response agency in charge will give operations in northern reaches a complexion unlike those in more hospitable climes – where the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, services built to break things and kill people, are the chief bearers of American interests and aspirations. How can the Coast Guard prepare itself for this new era?”
Holmes notes the Coast Guard’s history, founded in 1790 and the oldest continuously functioning sea service in the United States, and now composed of nearly 44,000 active-duty officers or enlisted sailors who operate some 160 coastal and patrol vessels, 92 logistic and support craft and 211 aircraft.
“So why would Washington assign the U.S. Coast Guard the lead for Arctic operations? It has experience, for one thing,” Holmes writes. “It operates the United States' modest flotilla of two icebreakers while performing the same police functions off North America's northern shorelines that it executes in warmer zones. Navy submarines prowled the Arctic depths during the Cold War. They will return if the polar region heats up, both figuratively and literally.
But Navy surface and air forces seldom venture north of the Arctic Circle and thus are less accustomed to the frigid surroundings.”