Tuesday, January 13, 2009

U.S. Coast Guard Statement on new Arctic Region Policy: Icebreakers, anyone?

Adm. Thad Allen, Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, issued a brief statement today on the "Arctic Region Policy" signed by President Bush on January 9, 2009, and released to the media by the White House on January 12, 2009, as a dual Presidential Directive  (on National Security - NSPD-66, and on Homeland Security, HSPD - 25).  Curiously, neither the statement nor the directive(s) specifically mention icebreakers beyond the latter's  general reference to "icebreaking capabilities" in emergency response scenarios.  The Arctic Region Policy does refer to projecting "sea power throughout the region" and indicates that the appropriate Secretaries, agencies and departments shall  "Develop greater capabilities and capacity, as necessary, to protect United States air, land, and sea borders in the Arctic region."

Given the environmental, research and security priorities in the Arctic Region Policy, it bears remembering that the U.S. Coast Guard currently has only three icebreakers, one of which - the Polar Star - is out of  service.  One need not adopt entirely Scott Borgerson's colorful characterization of the three as "a geriatric bunch desperately in need of revitalization and/or replacement" in his analysis today of the new policy, to see that the U.S. needs more and improved icebreaker capacity.

According to the Coast Guard, The Polar Sea and Polar Star, both 399-foot polar class icebreakers, were "built in the 1970s and the newest and most technologically advanced icebreaker, the Cutter HEALY was added to the fleet in November 1999."  The Healy, a 420-foot icebreaker, supports scientific research as one of its primary missions, including the mapping of the U.S. extended continental shelf discussed in much more detail elsewhere in this blog.  This summer the National Academy of Sciences and the Pentagon's Pacific, Northern and Transportation commands were among those supporting  calls to increase United States icebreaker capacity

Icebreaking into the Arctic

The USCGC HEALY embarked Barrow, Alaska, in August 2008 to map the US extended continental shelf, or ECS, in the Arctic Ocean (HLY 0805). Healy sailed again from 7 August to 16 September, 2009 (HLY 0905) to continue ECS mapping, joining with the Canadian icebreaker, the Louis S. St.-Laurent. The two vessels mapped together again in 2010 (see HLY1002) and 2011 (HLY1102).

As the only law professor on the science crew, I was along on HLY 0805 and 0905 to better understand
the science behind the legal process that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea establishes for states making ECS submissions. As to why the US is mapping now, even though it has not yet acceded to the Convention, read on both here, and in the Law of the Sea notes below.

Thanks to
Vermont Law School and especially to Larry Mayer, Director of the University of New Hampshire's Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping, for making my part in the trip possible.
Thanks, as well, to Adriane Colburn, for opening new windows on and for the deep.