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Chairman Green for the Wall Street Journal: Russia, China and the Threat to the North Pole

January 6, 2024

Chairman Green for the Wall Street Journal: Russia, China and the Threat to the North Pole

WASHINGTON, D.C. – This week, House Committee on Homeland Security Chairman Mark E. Green, MD (R-TN) penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal highlighting the U.S. Coast Guard’s crucial role in protecting American sovereignty and freedom of navigation in the Arctic as Russia and China expand militarily and economically in the region. The op-ed also discusses the Committee’s work conducting oversight of the Coast Guard’s Polar Security Cutter program and calls for the purchase of a new commercial icebreaker to ensure the United States can access polar regions. In December, the Committee held a hearing with the Deputy Commandant for Operations for the Coast Guard, Vice Adm. Peter Gautier, and the Acting Assistant Secretary for Trade and Economic Security at the Department of Homeland Security, Christa Brzozowksi.

Russia, China and the Threat to the North Pole
By Chairman Mark Green
January 5, 2024 
Despite a slow-burn conflict growing in the Arctic, the U.S. military presence in the region has waned substantially following the Cold War. The Coast Guard is our first line of defense there, but the service may not be ready for the mission.
While the U.S. sits on the sidelines, adversaries like Russia and China are investing in their economic and military capabilities in the High North. We must address growing U.S. vulnerabilities before it’s too late. We should begin by passing an appropriations package that includes funding for a commercially available icebreaker.
The Coast Guard is the primary enforcer of U.S. sovereignty in the region. It performs search-and-rescue operations, enforces U.S. laws in our waters off Alaska, and operates the nation’s icebreaker fleet, which allows the U.S. access to polar regions.
Vice Adm. Peter Gautier, deputy commandant for operations for the Coast Guard, testified before the House Homeland Security Committee in November that the Coast Guard needs as many as nine icebreakers to maintain U.S. power and presence in the Arctic. We have only two aging icebreakers, which require regular substantial repairs.
In 2012 the Coast Guard established the Polar Security Cutter program to modernize our outdated icebreaker fleet and to deliver the first new icebreaker by 2024. But a lack of U.S. shipbuilding expertise and business infrastructure is delaying construction until at least 2028, according to a Government Accountability Office report.
Today, the Arctic Ocean is more navigable than ever, empowering allies and adversaries to take a new and more urgent interest in the region. As one of only eight Arctic states, the U.S., along with our North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies, benefits from proximity to natural resources, including an estimated 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural-gas reserves, shipping routes, fishing waters and a chance at development. This interest also makes the High North a flashpoint in a new era of great-power competition. 
Amid this strategic importance, the Coast Guard has a more daunting mission to maintain strength and deterrence in the region while warding off escalation by adversaries.
Mainland Russia is less than 60 miles from the west coast of Alaska. Russia’s regional dominance in the Arctic is amplified by its proportion of Arctic coastline, and it operates more than 50 icebreakers—nearly half of all icebreakers in the world. Once Sweden joins NATO, Russia will be the only non-NATO Arctic state. Isolated by its invasion of Ukraine, Moscow has increased collaboration with China in the region as part of its new unlimited relationship, even going so far as to establish a joint maritime agreement for travel along the Northern Sea Route to share intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance information.
China proclaimed itself a “near-Arctic state,” despite having no sovereign Arctic territory. Alongside Russia, China has stepped up its activity in Arctic waters, including in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone. In 2021 the U.S. Coast Guard reported that a formation of four Chinese warships had entered the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone off the Aleutian Islands. In July a Chinese and Russian flotilla sailed in the waters off the coast of Alaska in a show of power. Adm. Gautier testified that China’s “military has expanded its capability at an absolutely extraordinary rate,” and these surface action groups are becoming the norm. 
With time running short and the High North barreling toward Cold War-level tensions, the Homeland Security Committee is conducting rigorous oversight of the Polar Security Cutter acquisition program for shipbuilders.
The Coast Guard needs the resources and clarity today to advance our interests in the region. The U.S. can’t afford to wait until 2028 for a new icebreaker. The House and Senate appropriations committees must pass legislation authorizing the purchase of a commercially available icebreaker to start filling the U.S. icebreaker void and matching our adversaries’ presence in the Arctic. 
The Arctic plays a crucial role in our security, and failing to focus on the region has put us on a collision course on the world stage. The U.S. needs to reassert our interests as adversaries work to expand economically and militarily.