Since more Coast Guard ships and planes are operating in the Arctic, Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr. said, he is often asked when the service is going to build airports and stations in the region.
The Coast Guard's first Arctic Strategy, released Tuesday, states that for at lease the next decade, the Coast Guard is not going to invest heavily in infrastructure along the shore. Rather, the strategy calls for deploying aircraft, cutters, small boats, personnel and other mobile assets to Barrow, Alaska, and other Arctic sites in the summer.
"We will use the resources we have now on a seasonal basis to go up there and carry out the missions we're responsible for," Papp, the Coast Guard commandant, said in an interview.
The Coast Guard is still figuring out what resources will be needed and should work with other agencies, industry executives and officials in Alaska to determine together what the priorities are and how they will be funded, he added.
The Obama administration released a national strategy for the Arctic on May 10. The Coast Guard is the first agency to reflect that strategy with its own Arctic plan to guide maritime efforts in the region over the next 10 years.
Papp, who discussed his vision for the Arctic at an event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., said it's only right that the Coast Guard is the first, since the service has had a presence in the Arctic for nearly 150 years.
The strategies are aligned and both call on the U.S. Senate to ratify the Law of the Sea Convention, the United Nations treaty that regulates the resources of the sea and uses of the ocean. Of the eight Arctic nations, only the United States is not a party.
Not being a signatory hinders the nation's ability to resolve disputes over maritime boundaries, Papp said. Other countries with Arctic coastlines are charting the continental shelves to make claims under the treaty to increase their rights to the oil and gas reserves that lie beneath the Arctic waters.
The region holds an estimated 13 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its undiscovered gas, according to the Coast Guard document, and more than 35 percent of Alaska's jobs are tied to the energy sector. Onshore production of oil in Alaska is diminishing.
Besides the oil companies that are increasingly heading to the Arctic as sea ice melts, more than 1 million adventure tourists are expected to visit this year and trans-Arctic traffic through Russia's northern sea route is increasing.
At least one cruise ship has let off passengers on Alaska's North Slope, which poses an issue for border security, Papp said. And, he said, he worries about ships breaking down, running aground or colliding with each other in areas that tugs can't easily reach. The Coast Guard will experiment this summer with a towing system used by the state of Alaska, delivered via helicopter.
Agencies within the Department of Homeland Security, including the Coast Guard, are discussing how to confront these emerging challenges together and a senior advisor to Secretary Janet Napolitano is coordinating the effort.
According to the Arctic Strategy, the Coast Guard, specifically, will try to ensure the maritime activity in the Arctic is safe, secure and environmentally-responsible by taking a leadership role in gaining a better awareness of the area, modernizing the governance system to oversee these activities while safeguarding national interests, and broadening public and private partnerships.
The president's budget includes money to build a new, heavy icebreaker. The Coast Guard Cutter Healy is the nation's only operational polar icebreaker but other cutters can operate in light ice. Last summer, one of the new National Security Cutters served as a mobile command post off of the North Slope and the Coast Guard sent two helicopters to Barrow and rented a hangar.
There is no other government agency better prepared at this point to operate in the Arctic, Papp said, because the Coast Guard's presence in the region has been "constant and persistent" since 1867. For the past three years especially, as more attention has been focused on the Arctic, the Coast Guard has tested its equipment, gained more knowledge and skills and learned from the indigenous people, he added.
"We are ready," Papp said. "The Coast Guard is always ready."