When Vice Commandant of the Coast Guard Admiral Charles Ray was starting his long career, nobody thought much about the Arctic.
Ice covered most of the region for most of the year. Not much moved up there, save Alaska Natives and the odd research scientist. But that’s changed.
“Thirty years ago, when I was a young officer in the service, nobody talked about it because the multi-year ice had not receded,” Ray, who is the Coast Guard’s second highest ranking officer, said at a Senate hearing about the Coast Guard and the Arctic in December.
“But now there’s access up there that didn’t exist. Traffic through the Bering Strait increased 200% in the last four or five years. It’s not going to replace the Suez Canal anytime soon, but it is growing.”
As climate change warms the world, the Arctic is warming more quickly than anywhere else. Surface air temperatures in the Arctic in 2020 were the second highest of any year on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) 2020 Arctic Report Card.
Sea ice was at its second lowest level in the past 42 years in the summer of 2020, the report card said.
Less ice means more water. And more water means more actors looking to exert influence in the now more hospitable environment. Russia, in particular, has made access to the Bering Strait a priority and is deploying more military assets to the region.
There are more military exercises, more shipping and more fishing in the Bering and Chukchi seas. More activity means a greater need for resources to police and protect the region.
And a greater need for resources in the Arctic ultimately means Kodiak, as the closest established base to the Arctic, will benefit.
It’s difficult to know much, but the Coast Guard is already planning to build 46 new houses at Nemetz Gazebo. Construction is slated to begin in February 2022, Lt. Commander Paul Salerno said in December.
The housing will accommodate crews for new boats. The Coast Guard will retire CGC Alex Haley and CGC Douglas Munro. These aging vessels will be replaced with two new 154-foot Sentinel-class fast response cutters and two new 360-foot Heritage-class offshore patrol cutters, Salerno said.
The net result will be a slight increase in the overall population of the base. It may not sound like much, but Kodiak is in its eighth year of population decline. An increase of Coast Guard resources can, however small, be a welcome change.
A warmer Arctic creates plenty of losers. As ice melts, coastal communities in Alaska and around the world will struggle with the impacts of higher sea levels, for instance.
But Kodiak, with its proximity to a new arena of great power struggle, could stand to gain.
Last August, Alaska fishermen came face-to-face with some of the new realities of the Arctic region. On Aug. 25, dozens of boats were out in the Bering Sea, fishing for pollock, mackerel, cod and flatfish.
As Stephanie Madsen, executive director of the At-Sea Processors Association, described in her testimony in the same Senate hearing where Ray spoke, a Russian nuclear submarine surfaced near the Island Enterprise, a Trident Seafoods-owned vessel. Later, a warship came within 2.5 nautical miles of the ship.
“These were our first clues that a major Russian military operation was underway smack-dab in the middle of our fishing grounds,” Madsen said.
The next day, the Russian military harassed the Northern Jaeger, an American Seafoods-owned ship. A war plane buzzed over the vessel, repeatedly ordering Captain Tim Thomas to leave the area.
Thomas was 21 miles inside the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone, the 200-mile band that surrounds Alaska where American ships are allowed to fish. A Russian warship positioned 40 nautical miles away repeated the orders, telling Thomas to sail south for five hours and not to return until Sept. 4.
Unable to get a clear answer from the Coast Guard about what was happening, Thomas complied. He later estimated that he lost five days fishing time worth about $1.5 million.
He wasn’t alone, either. Russian planes buzzed two longliners, telling them they were in a live-fire missile zone. Both captains fled the area, one of them cutting his fishing gear to do so.
Three Russian warships and two supporting vessels harassed eight American boats all day, telling them to leave the area, when they were 50 miles inside the EEZ. One Russian boat came within half a nautical mile of one catcher vessel before changing course.
What had happened, as it turned out, was that the Russian military had conducted a live-fire exercise deep into American waters in the Bering Sea. Coast Guard leadership eventually sailed USCG Cutter Alex Haley, which is based in Kodiak, out to the area to investigate
“Their irresponsible execution of this phase of their exercise created confusion and potentially unsafe interactions with American vessels legally fishing in our EEZ,” Ray said in his testimony at the Senate hearing.
There was plenty of blame to go around. Coast Guard leadership had also failed to notify fishermen of the danger and did not deploy ships to protect them.
“This was not our best day with regards to doing our role looking out for American fishermen,” Ray said.
“I’ll be quite frank. We own some of this.”
But the larger concern is that Russia is exerting more and more influence on the region.
There’s a number of reasons Russia and other nations want to secure access to the Bering Sea area. It’s a valuable shipping route, for one.
Along a future ice-free Arctic shipping route, a ship sailing from South Korea to Germany would have an average travel time of just 23 days, compared to 34 days via the Suez Canal and 46
days via the Cape of Good Hope, as noted in the text of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act.
Russia operates a massive natural gas plant on the Yamal Peninsula along its northern coast. China is its primary customer, and freight through the Bering Strait has grown — 10 million tons of goods flowed through the Bering in 2017, the Coast Guard’s 2019 Arctic Strategy said. Forty percent of those freight trips began or ended in China.
“The Bering Straits could one day become as important as the Straits of Malacca,” said retired Air Force Major General Francis “Church” Kee, who is now the executive director of the Arctic Domain Awareness Center (ADAC).
The Strait of Malacca, which sits between Malaysia and Indonesia, connects the Indian Ocean to the Pacifc, and is one of the most important shipping lanes in the world.
There are also plentiful resources. The Arctic Strategy document estimates that there are 90 billion barrels of undiscovered oil and $1 trillion worth of minerals in the Arctic region.
Those incentives have driven military activity.
In 2018, Russia conducted its largest military exercises since the 1980s, deploying 300,000 troops, 1,000 aircraft, 80 ships and 36,000 vehicles, plus 3,200 Chinese troops and 900 Chinese tanks.
Russia has a fleet of at least 54 icebreakers, ships capable of grinding through winter ice. The U.S. has two.
The power differential is making some Americans uneasy about the region’s future.
“In the rapidly changing Arctic, we fear being caught in the crossfire of Russia’s effort to establish a more assertive military and economic presence,” Madsen said at the Senate hearing.
“From our vantage point, a robust U.S. military presence to protect U.S. interests in the region is simply non-negotiable.”
More presence is on the way. At least some of it might end up in Kodiak.
“There’s a convergence here,” U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) said in an interview.
“It’s very bipartisan. It’s a recognition that we need to build up the Coast Guard. The strategic issues of Alaska are more than just things the Alaska congressional delegation cares about. … And to be honest, Kodiak is central to the build up.”
The U.S. has authorized six new icebreakers, one of which is under construction right now and will be delivered in 2024.
There’s also talk of leasing an icebreaker, possibly from Finland. Kodiak might make sense as a destination for that ship.
“Near term, it’d probably be Kodiak, Dutch Harbor and then looking further north to Nome as soon as you could get there,” Kee, of ADAC, said about icebreaker destinations.
He said the calculation for where to put an icebreaker is complicated, involving what kind of ship the U.S. ends up leasing and what kind of infrastructure already exists.
“Kodiak to me makes lots of sense. You have pier space there, you have an existing Coast Guard operation there,” Kee said in an interview.
A medium icebreaker might require 75 to 100 crew members, said Jason Roe, who also works at ADAC, but it would depend on the level of automation.
More generally, the Coast Guard base here will be an important piece of an increased Arctic presence.
“Many times the patrols come out of Kodiak,” Roe said.
“Kodiak is very, very important in that constant presence piece.”
But Kodiak is not the only place that will see a buildup. Congress recently allocated $505 million to construct a deep water port in Nome that could harbor icebreakers, cutters and other security ships.
Unalaska also has a deep water port, but the infrastructure around it is not as advanced as Kodiak’s.
And it would make sense to build up assets closer to the action. Kodiak is, after all, still 820 air miles south of Utqiagvik, roughly the same distance from Miami to Boston.
Elsewhere, Ketchikan will be getting fast response cutters soon, Coast Guard Public Affairs Officer Lt. Commander Scott McAnn said. Boats that patrol the Arctic also often deploy from Seattle, Washington, where both icebreakers are currently stationed, or from Alameda, California.
“Kodiak can expect to see some of these newer assets replacing the aging ones within the next several years,” McAnn said.
“Overall, the footprint in Kodiak will be slightly larger due to more pier space to accommodate the new assets, new shore-side facilities to support them, and an accompanying slight net increase in personnel.”
Even a slight net increase in personnel would be a big deal for Kodiak. The borough’s population has dropped to 12,611, according to the most recent estimates from the Department of Labor.
Job numbers have dropped in seafood processing and fishing, too. In 2012, there were over 4,000 jobs in seafood harvesting and processing in Kodiak. In 2018, the latest year DOL has numbers, there were fewer than 3,000.
Military and Coast Guard jobs are just under 1,000 right now, which doesn’t capture nonenlisted workers or family members those people bring.
Those numbers will rise soon as the U.S. learns to cope with the new reality in the Arctic.