Coast Guard Considers Arctic FONOPs As Russian Activity Increases in Region

Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star (WAGB 10) is at anchor in Taylor Bay, Alaska
The Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star (WAGB 10) is at anchor in Taylor Bay, Alaska, Thursday, February 11, 2021. (Cynthia Oldham/U.S. Coast Guard)

The Arctic could potentially become the next region in which the U.S. executes "freedom of navigation operations," or FONOPS, the Coast Guard's top officer said Monday.

Home to an estimated $1 trillion worth of rare minerals, a third of the world's supply of liquefied natural gas and migratory fish species, the Arctic is increasingly attracting traffic -- especially from Russia, which draws 20% to 24% of its gross domestic product from the region, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz said in an online discussion hosted by the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution.

While Russia has "legitimate access and rights" to the area, the U.S. also has an obligation to preserve "rules-based international order" if Russia or another country with Arctic interests, like China, fail to be "responsible actors" there, Schultz said.

"I don't want to accuse Russia of doing anything definitively, but I think what we have seen in terms of a propensity to aggressively be present ... is something we need a countering, tempering force for," Schultz said.

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Russia increased the number of Tu-95 Bear strategic bombers flyovers near Alaska last year and is positioning MiG-31BM Foxhound interceptors at bases on the Barents Sea. It recently held its annual Ocean Shield exercises to defend its maritime approaches in the Arctic and Pacific, which included amphibious landings on the Chukotka Peninsula near Alaska.

At the same time, the U.S. Coast Guard doesn't have the resources it needs to patrol the Arctic, with just one heavy icebreaker -- the Polar Star -- in operation, Schultz said.

"Presence equals influence in the Arctic, and right now, we are woefully lacking," he said.

The Department of the Navy released its Strategic Blueprint for the Arctic in January, noting that "U.S. naval forces must operate more assertively across the Arctic region to prevail in day to day competition."

According to the document, the challenge is to "apply naval power to keep the Arctic seas free and open and deter coercive behavior and conventional aggression."

Having a naval mission and law enforcement authorities, the Coast Guard is uniquely positioned to be the U.S.'s representative in the region, Schultz said.

"What we're concerned about is how [Russia] conducts in this space -- the same concerns we have about rules-based international order and adherence, modern maritime governance. The Coast Guard brings a lot of 'street cred;' we're recognized across the globe as adhering to and modeling those behaviors," Schultz said.

Some Arctic experts believe that increased activity in the Arctic, by Russia and to some extent, in partnership with China, is less a plan to be recognized as a "Great Power," when in fact it is a resumption of its Cold War activities in the face of adversaries who are far better equipped than they were during that era.

Eugene Rumer, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Richard Sokolosky, a non-resident senior fellow with the organization, described the current situation as a "clash of the two parties' interests."

In a report in March, they recommended that the issue be dealt with through diplomacy and deterrence.

"The alliance should continue to manage competition with Russia through a combination of resolve and restraint, improving and demonstrating its capabilities for defense and deterrence, but without overreacting to Russian muscle-flexing," they wrote.

In their meeting June 18, U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed how to "make the Arctic a region of cooperation rather than conflict," according to Biden, while Putin described the area as a "zone of understanding."

The U.S. Coast Guard, according to Schultz, is doing its part to improve cooperation in the region, but is also keeping its eye on Russian behavior.

"We want to have a cooperative dialogue with Russia ... search and rescue, fisheries operations, environmental cooperation -- those are places that it's advantageous to U.S. interests and Russia interests that we cooperate up there," Schultz said.

"I do think there is a practical, functional approach that Russia takes to the U.S. Coast Guard in these spaces, and that's a positive thing."

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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