US security starts in the Arctic

US security starts in the Arctic
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President Donald Trump’s June 9, 2020 Memorandum on Safeguarding U.S. National Interests in the Arctic and Antarctic Regions is welcome news to those who have long called for a more robust U.S. presence in the Arctic.

The memorandum calls upon five federal agencies to review, assess and execute a “polar security icebreaking fleet acquisition program that supports our national interests in the Arctic and Antarctic regions.” 

Although the United States Coast Guard has detailed their needs to better serve and assert U.S. interests in the polar regions, the president’s affirmation that current U.S. maritime capabilities and related infrastructure is woefully lacking should spur further development and implementation of a new comprehensive Arctic strategy for the United States. 


On May 29, retired Rear Admiral Kenneth Braithwaite, former U.S. ambassador to Norway, was confirmed as the 77th secretary of the Navy. During the secretary’s confirmation hearing, U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan (R- Alaska), highlighted the lack of a U.S. Arctic deep-water port and asked Braithwaite if he could commit to advocating for one should he be confirmed. Braithwaite’s answer was succinct, “Yes, sir.” Regarding the transformation of the Arctic Ocean, he stated, “As it begins to become more navigable on the surface, we also need to make sure that our presence is noted…it will be a priority of mine…”

On the same day Braithwaite was sworn into office, the city of Nome, located on Alaska’s Seward Peninsula along the Bering Strait, announced the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decision to advance to Congress for action the Port of Nome, Alaska Modifications Report. The report calls for the U.S. to “provide shore-side support for research vessels, cruise ships, oil tankers, and most importantly, U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers and national security cutters, as well as U.S. Navy vessels.” 

The U.S. was a lead country, with Canada and Finland, in the Arctic Council’s Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (AMSA) approved by the Arctic Ministers in April 2009. AMSA determined that Arctic states cannot achieve enhanced security without robust marine infrastructure. This includes the development of ports, communication systems, aids to navigation, hydrography and charts, search and rescue (SAR) capacity, environmental response capacity, intermodal access to ports, environmental observation networks, marine domain awareness capacity, icebreakers, icebreaking commercial cargo carriers and scientific research stations.   

President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden prepares to confront Putin Biden aims to bolster troubled Turkey ties in first Erdoğan meeting Senate investigation of insurrection falls short MORE’s memorandum, steps to advance an Arctic port in Nome and Braithwaite’s commitment to an Arctic port, are three significant and timely developments to bolster U.S. national and economic security in the Arctic and address the lack of U.S. maritime presence in the region. But action is needed. 

This basic Arctic infrastructure deficit presents serious economic, social, political, national and environmental security implications in Alaska and the United States. The lack of a deep-water port from Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands, to the U.S.-Canada boundary in the Beaufort Sea, is a critical gap that limits America’s sea power and constrains the economic development of our Arctic region. We urgently call for funding to establish the country’s first Arctic deep-water port in Nome. However, it will not be enough to have an Arctic port without the essential complementary connections to the rest of Alaska. Nome should be connected to Fairbanks by a new, strategic rail thoroughfare where a seamless connection can be made to the existing Alaska Railroad system south to Anchorage.


Federal funding for basic infrastructure in Alaska is vital to respond to a profoundly changing Arctic with greater marine access, potential natural resource development and concerns for increased Russian and Chinese bilateral Arctic investments, engagement and military activities. 

We identify nine key recommendations for agency funding, including: Fund the Army Corps of Engineers to dredge and build a suitable Arctic port in Nome capable of mooring a large vessel, such as a Coast Guard icebreaker, naval combatant or commercial ship.

Fund NOAA’s National Ocean Service for a 20-year program to conduct hydrography and chart the U.S. Arctic Exclusive Economic Zone; this action is consistent with the Presidential Memorandum of November 2019 focused on ocean mapping of the U.S. EEZ and the shoreline and nearshore of Alaska.  

Fund NOAA’s National Weather Service and National Ocean Service to enhance the operational marine and terrestrial observation operational network in Alaska.

Fund the Department of Homeland Security and the Coast Guard to build and commission a third Polar Security Cutter and additional ships as deemed required for enhanced U.S. Arctic and Antarctic operations.

Fund the Departments of Transportation, Interior and Defense to construct a railway corridor linking a new, deep-water Arctic port in Nome to Fairbanks, Alaska.

Fund the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security (Coast Guard), NASA and NSF to build a High Arctic Research Center (HARC) near Prudhoe Bay. The HARC would conduct advanced environmental and tactical research central to our understanding of a changing Arctic security domain.

Fund the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security to develop and construct an enhanced communications system for military and civilian use in Alaska; the system must include submarine fiber-optic cables connecting coastal communities, industrial facilities and vital defense locations

Fund enhanced maritime domain awareness systems that improve marine information to Arctic coastal communities and aligns with the Marine Exchange of Alaska

Fund the Department of Defense to establish the Ted Stevens Arctic Center for Security Studies to inform and advance the nation’s interests throughout the region. 

The nearly complete lack of U.S. Arctic marine infrastructure remains a critical vulnerability for Alaska and the nation. Congressional funding is imperative if the U.S. wishes to respond seriously to the many security challenges of a changing Arctic Ocean and capitalize on the potential economic opportunities that await greater access to this region. Continued lack of investment in our Arctic infrastructure will be a strategic shortcoming with negative, long-term consequences.

Mike Sfraga is the director of the Polar Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former distinguished co-lead scholar of the Fulbright Arctic Initiative. Lawson Brigham is a global fellow in the Wilson Center’s Polar Institute and fellow at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy’s Center for Arctic Study and Policy.