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“Most Strategic Place in the World”: USCG, DHS, GAO Testify on Threats to U.S. Interests in the Arctic Region

November 29, 2023

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Today, the House Committee on Homeland Security, led by Chairman Mark E. Green, MD (R-TN), held a hearing to examine the present and future challenges in the Arctic region and evaluate the United States Coast Guard’s (USCG) unique role in maintaining freedom of movement, defending vital U.S. national interests, and protecting our sovereignty in the region. Witness testimony was provided by U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK); Vice Admiral Peter Gautier, the deputy commandant for operations for the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG); Christa Brzozowksi, the acting assistant secretary for the Trade and Economic Security Office of Strategy, Policy, and Plans at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS); and Chelsea Kenney, the director of international affairs and trade at the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). 

Witnesses testified on the strategic importance of the Arctic region to not only the United States but our adversaries, as well as the urgent need to improve the USCG’s Polar Security Cutter Program, which has fallen behind in its goals of modernization and enhancement. Amid Russia’s icebreaker fleet dominance and in the wake of China decrying itself a “near-Arctic” state to coordinate with Russia, despite having no actual territory in the Arctic region, Members and witnesses detailed the need to maintain a USCG presence in the High North to defend U.S. sovereignty and freedom of navigation for all. In addition, witnesses highlighted the importance of securing America’s critical infrastructure in the region amid these increasing threats, as this infrastructure supports not only U.S. military operations but national and international commerce, communication, and travel.

In his opening statement, Sen. Sullivan detailed the strategic importance of Alaska to U.S. homeland security:

“Alaska constitutes three pillars of America’s military might. We are the cornerstone of missile defense for the entire country; all the radar systems and all the ground-based missile interceptors are based in Alaska, protecting every city in the United States. We are the hub of air combat power for the Arctic in the INDOPACOM region. … We are the platform for expeditionary forces, including the Army’s new 11th Airborne Division that can deploy on a moment’s notice anywhere in the entire northern hemisphere, but we need to make sure that Alaska becomes the logistical hub for the Arctic, for our power projection in the Arctic.”

“The Department of Defense has been asleep at the switch in the Arctic. The leaders on these issues have been the House and the Senate. … Icebreakers are only the beginning. The level of infrastructure, domain awareness, [and] reliable comms that are sufficient to support America’s security needs in the Arctic are lacking.”

“We need a whole-of-government effort. We must respond to bolster our presence, both military and civilian, to make sure that we can protect our national security interests, economic security interests, energy security interests, and environmental security interests that are so critical to our national security. I do want to mention one final thing: we need to do this in conjunction with all federal agencies and Arctic communities, especially the very patriotic Alaska native communities, our indigenous communities that have been living in the Arctic for literally thousands of years and are some of the most patriotic Americans anywhere.”


In his opening line of questioning, Chairman Green questioned witnesses on the importance of the USCG in the region amid rising threats from America’s adversaries, and how Congress can better support its mission:

“In the context of the Arctic and the Antarctic, could you both describe how both the Coast Guard and DHS are involved in projecting the soft power of the country?”

Vice Admiral Gautier answered:

“Soft power in the Arctic and elsewhere is absolutely critical to advance the international rules-based order that we all enjoy. When you look at what our adversaries are doing todirectly undermine those very norms, it’s the alliances, partnerships, and the use of softpower in the Arctic and around the world that helps in the best way in order to counter that. So, for us, soft power includes things like the port calls that you explained, and whenever the Coast Guard cutter Healy gets underway in the Arctic, it’s for science, it’s for enforcing our own national interests and sovereign interests.”

Ms. Brzozowski answered: 

“What comes to mind first is that very vital and necessary relationships with the tribal community is sort of, in essence, of maintaining that soft power. Some of the recent activity in that area has been the establishment of a, as I said in my statement, a tribal homeland security advisory committee, and that is indispensable in getting theperspective of the local community, where we might not have as robust of a physical presence in the areas where they are…I also think, looking across to what our Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, does. Not only in the area post a disaster or helping to respond to something that has happened but have a very robust presence with the allocation of grants and engagement with communities in a very proactive way to use their authorities, use their grants and use their expertise to work with communities.”

Chairman Green continued:

“Ten years from now, what is the total number [of USCG icebreakers] needed?”

Vice Admiral Gautier answered:

“As a result of a Congressional requirement, the Coast Guard recently did an analysis and completed a report submitted to Congress on the fleet mix that we think we need, to answer your question. And the answer that we have is eight to nine icebreakers, and that’s a mix of heavy icebreakers like the Polar Star, the polar security cutters that we’rebuilding now, and medium icebreakers, like the Healy, that have shallower drafts andcan get into tighter spaces, in shallower areas.”


Subcommittee on Border Security and Enforcement Chairman Clay Higgins (R-LA) questioned Vice Admiral Gautier on the challenges facing America’s outdated Polar Security Cutter Program:
“You are aware that the shipyards of America play a significant role with developing our fleets for the Coast Guard and the Navy. … How is the Coast Guard working with aUnited States shipbuilder like Bollinger to help them perform within the parameters of the reality of inflation to produce a much-needed ice breaking vessel, polar security cutter. How are they working with the shipbuilder?”
Vice Admiral Gautier answered:
“Very closely. We knew that we would have challenges with this particular acquisition. We haven’t built a heavy icebreaker in the United States for 50 years. This is the most complex Coast Guard cutter that we will have ever built, and we knew there would be risks and challenges in the process. With Bollinger taking ownership of the shipyard, we are encouraged at the progress now and the acceleration they are providing in that particular contract. I was just down there with some of our senior acquisition professionals in October to look at what’s going on. They’re making progress on the detailed design, and we hope that construction will begin in 2024.”


Subcommittee on Counterterrorism, Law Enforcement, and Intelligence Chairman August Pfluger (R-TX) questioned witnesses on China’s growing malign influence in the Arctic:

“[China’s] presence in the Arctic poses a threat. … In August of this year, 11 Chinese and Russian military vessels were identified in the region. In 2022, three [People’s Republic of China Navy] ships were found sailing with four Russian vessels, so this partnership, this alliance, whatever you want to call it, is obviously concerning. … Looking at Xi Jinping and him expressing ambitions to make China a polar great power by 2030. Much like space, I kind of look at this domain as a little bit of a new frontier in the Arctic. At least from what DHS can see, at what pace is the PRC increasing its military profile in the Arctic?”

Vice Admiral Gautier answered, confirming the CCP is expanding its Arctic presence:

“The PRC military has expanded its capability at an absolutely extraordinary rate. So in the surface action groups that you mentioned, this is now a routine—this is the third time where we’ve seen these combined China-Russia, surface action groups that have patrolled through the U.S. [exclusive economic zone] in the Aleutians. We have not seen Chinese military vessels north of the Bearing, although they do have two icebreakers, civilian but state-owned, Xuě Lóng and Xuě Lóng 2, that operate in both the Arctic and Antarctic. We know that those plans are going to be expanded. They articulate, sort of, common values in their operations in the Arctic, but we know that elsewhere they do not necessarily follow those.”


Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-TX) questioned witnesses on the coordination between Russia and China in advancing their strategic goals in the region: 
“Can you talk a little bit about maybe joint exercises or a show of force that China, and Russia, in particular, have done whether it’s in the Arctic region or to show their ability to fight in an Arctic environment.”
Vice Admiral Gautier answered:
“In this environment we’re in where Chairman Xi and Putin have expressed an unlimited relationship. We are seeing growth in how Russian and Chinese militaries are operating together. The latest example of this is the flotilla of vessels, the surface action group of eleven or so vessels that transited through the Aleutian, the U.S. exclusive economic zone. We are now seeing that every summer.”


Subcommittee on Emergency Management and Technology Chairman Anthony D’Esposito (R-NY) touched on the importance of critical infrastructure security and resilience in the Arctic:

“The Department of Homeland Security plays a vital role in securing the transportation sector in the United States of America. This includes airports, maritime ports, those that facilitate the flow of goods and people across this world. As well as oil, gas pipelines, and freight rail networks. Can you describe the posture of the DHS equities and protecting the infrastructure that supports life in the American Arctic?”

Ms. Brzozowksi answered:

“That infrastructure, beyond the very visible port infrastructure that we see in maritime facilities, is just so vital. Even just in Alaska, we’re looking at, of course, the big infrastructure in maritime ports, like the Port of Alaska, but also airports that are also a very visible presence. And then the things that you may not see that are indispensable to transportation, but also other types of energy and networks in Alaska and basically to the rest of the United States. Things like undersea cables, where you see 98 percent of the world’s internet and other types of communications are not in that region, but sort of in those undersea cables where you see them running through that region. Also, things like the Trans-Alaska pipeline, which is an 800-mile network that provides fuel, gas, [and] other types of energy resources not only to the region but to the continental United States. So, our posture in the region is going to be sort of spanning the totality of the DHS mission set.”