The situation in the Arctic has all the makings of a Tom Clancy novel.
Russia is aggressively pushing its claims there, national boundaries are still unknown and rapidly melting ice has opened previously frozen shipping lanes.
In the midst of all this, the Coast Guard's fleet of only two working icebreakers is unprepared to deal with such rapidly changing shifts in a region of rising importance.
"We have a fourth coast, our northern flank, and basically it's being ignored," said Scott Borgerson, international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
In the ongoing race to gain clout in an area where the thawing ice could unlock vast resources and lead to heavier traffic, the Coast Guard has been provided few resources, Borgerson said. And since the Arctic is in Alaska's back yard, guarding it is crucial to national security, Borgerson said.
"The reality is that all eight Arctic nations have substantial interest in the Arctic," said Rear Adm. Arthur E. Brooks, commander of the 17th Coast Guard District. He added that even non-Arctic nations such as China are eyeing the region.
James Overland, an oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, said the Arctic is moving toward a time when all the ice formed in winter will melt during summer. Last year, arctic ice shrank by more than 1 million square miles to 60 percent of '80s and '90s levels. Many scientists now project that the Eurasian side of the Arctic could be ice free in summer within five to 30 years, which would allow passage between Asia and Europe for up to three months a year.
Last September the entire Northwest Passage--a sea route from Europe to Asia--was unfrozen, Overland said.
More navigable water will eventually bring savings for shipping companies of countless transit hours and billions of dollars. The Coast Guard would have to ensure safe passage for vessels traversing the Arctic, Brooks said. But it has no forward operating bases and no aircraft capable of operating in minus 40-degree temperatures in a region with little infrastructure, said Lt. Dave Oney, a spokesman for the Pacific area.
What's more, the Coast Guard has only three icebreakers, one of which is mothballed. Ice breakers are used not only for scientific issues but also to patrol icy arctic waters.
"The Coast Guard's icebreaker fleet is pretty sorry," said Borgerson.
Russia, with 18 icebreakers in the Arctic, has a keen interest in the...