Arctic Commitment Act requires different commitments

AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) questions Interior Secretary Deb Haaland during a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the budget on July 13, 2022.

Last week, Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Angus King (I-Maine) tabled the Arctic Commitment Act, a bipartisan bill to improve U.S. Arctic security. The bill calls for the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard to determine feasibility of establishing a “persistent, year-round presence” and conducting “year-round maritime operations” in the “vicinity of the Bering Sea and the Arctic Region.” This is a tall order that falls short. 

As Gen. Glen D. VanHerck, commander of U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) and Arctic advocate for the Department of Defense (DOD), explained, NORTHCOM calls for more spending. But the solution rests — at least in the interim — with deliberate utilization of the federal fleet and establishing interagency coordination with an underutilized Arctic partner. NORTHCOM, the Navy, and the Coast Guard need help in the Arctic and they can get it from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

As introduced, the bill charges the maritime services with reporting the feasibility of persistent maritime presence in the Arctic. But NOAA’s fleet collects and provides much of the domain knowledge used by the sister services for Arctic operations and is, at times, more Arctic-present than the Navy and Coast Guard. Limiting assessments to the Navy and Coast Guard overlooks NOAA as a capable Arctic partner. We can do better.

Despite its promise to be more assertive in the Arctic, the Navy’s few brief Arctic sailings since 2018 left crews battered and ships damaged. Prior to 2018, the Navy hadn’t sailed a vessel north of the Arctic Circle since 1991. The Navy’s historic and current Arctic presence is almost exclusively in the subsurface and air domains. 

The Coast Guard struggles as well. It has two polar icebreakers, one of which is more reliably broken than it is reliably at sea. Its two future polar security cutters won’t be fleet ready and operational until 2025, at best. The Arctic Commitment Act calls for feasibility assessments of persistent maritime presence now, not in three years. So, what to do?

Comparatively, since 2015, NOAA vessels have sailed over 30 underway legs totaling 489 planned days at sea in the U.S.-defined Arctic region. Of those days, nearly all were in North American Arctic waters. The majority of NOAA’s 15 vessels sail in and around North America conducting surveying missions. Two NOAA ships homeport in Alaska (Ketchikan and Kodiak) and a third of the overall fleet operates in the Arctic at times. Moreover, six of the NOAA ships have ice-hardened hulls that can operate in first-year sea ice. The Navy has zero. NOAA and the Coast Guard maintain “robust partnerships” such that NOAA is a curious omission in the Arctic Commitment Act. 

For persistent Arctic presence, the bill markup must include NOAA in the feasibility assessment. This is both a logical and legally-mandated recommendation. Here’s why.

NOAA fleet vessels are commanded by commissioned NOAA Corps officers, one of eight uniformed services of the United States. Per their mission statement, these officers can serve with the Armed Forces during war or national emergency. The president can declare a national emergency and legally arm and absorb NOAA vessels and NOAA Corps officers for defense use — but we aren’t there yet.

Short of in extremis, federal law requires NOAA Corps to coordinate its operations with the DOD during peacetime. Specifically, law requires the DOD and Department of Commerce to jointly prescribe regulations for interdepartmental peacetime coordination. That’s exactly what needs to happen. And this peacetime coordination between NOAA Corps and DOD for Arctic missions will occur via, with and through NORTHCOM.

NORTHCOM’s collaboration with NOAA vessels for Arctic presence requires liaison with NOAA Corps. Twenty-three of 24 assets (15 ships and nine aircraft) within NOAA’s Office of Marine and Aviation Operations (OMAO) are homeported, based and operate within NORTHCOM’s area of responsibility. NOAA Corps has a legal and interdepartmental regulatory requirement to “maintain liaison” with the DOD during peacetime, in preparation for wartime duties and missions. 

So, it makes sense that NOAA Corps has a resident liaison at the DOD command whose area of responsibility aligns to 96 percent of its asset locations and base of operations, right? Wrong. U.S. Indo-Pacific Command hosts NOAA Corps’s only resident combatant command liaison, despite the fact that only one of NOAA’s ships and none of its aircraft homeport in Hawaii. This must change for enhanced Arctic presence and domain awareness.

Given that most of NOAA Corps’s assets are based and operate in NORTHCOM’s area of responsibility, and that NOAA Corps is required to maintain liaison with the DOD, NOAA Corps can’t be the only uniformed service without a resident liaison at NORTHCOM. But it is, despite NORTHCOM’s insistence that “all service branches” work at the command’s headquarters. Seven of eight uniformed services employ a full-time resident liaison at NORTHCOM headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo. The NOAA Corps liaison, however, is an ancillary duty assigned to an officer 100 miles north in Boulder, Colo. It is, effectively, a non-functioning relationship. This also must change.

A serious homeland defense commitment requires a credible deterrent. Washington can achieve more credible deterrence through visible federal presence in and around the Arctic. Integrating NOAA ships into the Arctic presence posture is a known capability to leverage now and a first step advancing the U.S. toward expanded Arctic commitments. But doing so requires forging formal partnerships between NORTHCOM as the designer of the missions and NOAA Corps as a contributor.

If the bipartisan Senate Arctic Caucus is serious about improving U.S. Arctic presence and national security via the proposed Arctic Commitment Act, integrating NOAA marine operations into the bill markup is a necessary first step. Including NOAA’s assessment clarifies the federal fleet’s Arctic feasibility presence picture. The second step to enhanced Arctic domain awareness — via the NOAA integration proposal — is for NOAA Corps to establish and maintain liaison with NORTHCOM via a resident liaison to assist the command in coordinating future Arctic presence missions and improve critical interdepartmental partnerships between the DOD and NOAA Corps for future national defense and security. 

These recommendations are actionable now. Absent these bill revisions, Washington is willingly shortchanging Arctic commitments and gambling on our national security.

Ryan Burke, Ph.D., is a professor of Military and Strategic Studies at the U.S. Air Force Academy, co-director of Project 6633 at the Modern War Institute, and an affiliate faculty member at the University of Alaska’s Center for Arctic Security and Resilience. His latest book, “The Polar Pivot,” discusses the polar regions through the lens of strategic competition. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Department of Defense, Air Force, or the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Tags Arctic Lisa Murkowski NOAA U.S. Northern Command US Navy

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