Stand down, avast, move on to the next crisis, catastrophe averted — all is well in Nome.
“Down South” Coast Guard and elected officials can sleep soundly knowing no one was killed and no one outside Alaska was inconvenienced. D.C. policy makers can move on to the pressing issue du jour. The National Science Foundation remains the smartest agency in the room by proving, once again, that the U.S. does not need a robust Arctic surface fleet of seagoing vessels — all our polar needs can be outsourced to the international community.
Everything worked liked clockwork! Need a U.S. flag tanker to bring much needed fuel to Nome? No problem — work through Federal Regulations to obtain a waiver to the Jones Act to allow the Russian tanker Renda to contract 1.3 million gallons of fuel for delivery. Of course, the United States owned three T-5 (double-hulled, ice-strengthened tankers) until the Military Sealift Command decided to retire the fleet in 2011. MSC elected to replace the three Navy owned, ice-capable tankers with one U.S. flagged tanker, the Maersk Peary, currently under exclusive contract in Antarctica and unable to perform this domestic mission. Need an icebreaker escort? While the fate of the country’s most capable polar icebreakers (Polar Sea and Polar Star) remains in peril, the expedient answer is extend the deployment of the only operational icebreaker from seven months to eight months. Never mind that the Healy was supposed to return to its home port before Christmas after months of arduous Arctic science mission support. Never mind that the Healy will sail again this spring. Never mind that the sailors will endure this challenging schedule each year as Coast Guard families suffer the consequence of multiple extended deployments.
The Healy is an impressive and capable Arctic science platform and serves admirably in her single mission focus. When Healy was designed in the 1990s it was never envisioned she would be tasked with close-in vessel escorts. The problem is that when the only tool in the tool box is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Healy got the job done in spite of the tool. The Healy was successful because of the dedicated Coast Guard skipper and crew — not because they were give the appropriate tools. Need additional operational ice breaking know-how? Hire the expertise of the “godfather of Coast Guard icebreaking,” retired Adm. Jeffrey Garrett. The Coast Guard icebreaking mission has been marginalized to the point where ice operations and its operational support are not considered a valued added mission — thus the necessity to recall a retired admiral.
Our country needs an Arctic maritime surface fleet of vessels meeting the vision of National Security Presidential Directive 66 — Arctic Regional Policy. The implementation of NSPD 66 includes developing greater capabilities and capacity to protect U.S. Arctic interests, and preserving the global mobility of United States military and civilian vessels and aircraft throughout the Arctic region. The drama of the rescue mission to deliver petroleum to Nome that for weeks played out on the evening news and newspapers highlight the dearth of inventory available to make the U.S. an Arctic Nation and meet our Arctic needs.
Our country needs multi-mission platforms capable of operating and meeting “any threat, any hazard” including the ice-locked Arctic and national interests in the Antarctic. Vessels capable of operating in the Arctic that meet ice escorting requirements, oil spill skimming and collection, national defense, fisheries and law enforcement, search and rescue, aids-to-navigation and even polar scientific support. Nome dodged the proverbial bullet. The only question remains whether beltway policy makers will adopt a “pro-polar region posture” and prioritize the needs of this Arctic nation or will the “deciders” elect ostrich politics and bury their heads in the ice.
• This is the first of a series of columns by Uchytil, Juneau’s port director, who will write monthly columns of general interest for the Empire. He retired from the U.S. Coast Guard after 31 years in May 2011 and has served in command of the icebreaker Polar Sea.