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Lesko Opening Statement at Northern Border Arctic Hearing

September 19, 2019

Lesko Opening Statement at Northern Border Arctic Hearing

WASHINGTON – Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.), Transportation and Maritime Security subcommittee ranking member, today delivered the following opening statement at a hearing about the northern border in the arctic.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I appreciate our shared interest in this topic, and I appreciate you convening today’s hearing to learn more about what the Department of Homeland Security can contribute to our position in the Arctic.

As one of eight countries with a geographic footprint within the Arctic circle, the region is of great national importance to the United States. The area is abundant with natural resources, has immense value for scientific research, is a strategic position for national security purposes, and offers significant benefit to commerce and maritime shipping. Considerable changes are also taking place in the Arctic that will allow these potential benefits to be realized to a greater extent while also making U.S. action more urgent. Changes in the levels of seasonal sea ice in the Arctic Ocean have allowed for increased transit through the area while also increasing interest from other Arctic countries like Russia and even non-Arctic countries like China.

In a renewed era of great power competition, one thing we can all agree on is the need to ensure U.S. national security in the face of growing influence in the Arctic from Russia and China.  As commerce grows in the region, U.S. interests and freedom of navigation must be protected if we are to fully realize the potential opportunities in a changing Arctic.  

The United States Coast Guard has a diverse range of missions as a component of the Department of Homeland Security. Drug interdiction, environmental enforcement, search and rescue, as well as port security are all responsibilities of the United States Coast Guard. The Coast Guard is also the sole owner and operator of the United States polar capable fleet and thus best placed to facilitate the United States’ sovereign presence in the Arctic. And yet, the United States Coast Guard relies on a single, aging heavy ice breaker, the Polar Star, to conduct polar operations. As with any aging platform, the Polar Star suffers from frequent mechanical issues that can result in the need for maintenance at sea. In an attempt to remedy this situation, Congress enacted funding for the first new polar ice breaker in last year’s appropriations. While funding a new heavy ice breaker is an important first step, it is imperative that this action is only the beginning of our nation’s Arctic conversation.

The Coast Guard stated a need for 3 new heavy polar security cutters and 3 medium polar security cutters in 2013. Since then we have funded the first heavy polar security cutter as well as long lead time materials for a second. To maintain the United States’ position in the Arctic during this dynamic period, we must consider the benefits of Arctic activity beyond just the military. We must recognize the importance of this mission and continue to direct our attention and investment to the Arctic region if we want to continue our sovereign presence. With renewed Coast Guard capability and continued national focus in the Arctic region, our usage and presence will continue to grow through increased commerce, research, and even tourism as we are able to transit more of the Arctic Ocean for longer periods of time. This is what we will need in order to truly bolster our presence in the Arctic region as other great powers like Russia and China seek to project their own.

This is a complex problem that requires complex solutions to achieve our nation’s desired result. Many scholarly organizations are focused on this issue and I look forward to hearing from a few today. Whether that solution is continued investment, interagency efforts, existing international initiatives, or new international initiatives, Congress must set a new course for U.S. focus on the Arctic. Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and I yield back the balance of my time.