April 23 (UPI) -- The U.S. Coast Guard wants to add resources to the Arctic because "dramatic changes in the physical environment" of the region have allowed China and Russia to become more competitive there.
The military branch has proposed upgrading ships, aircraft, unmanned systems and communications systems in a 48-page Arctic Strategic Outlook, which was released Monday.
"Since the release of the Coast Guard Arctic Strategy in 2013, the resurgence of nation-state competition has coincided with dramatic changes in the physical environment of the Arctic, which has elevated the region's prominence as a strategically competitive space," the report says. "America's two nearest-peer powers, Russia and China, have both declared the region a national priority and made corresponding investments in capability and capacity to expand their influence in the region."
Because of Russia and China's "persistent challenges to the rules-based international order around the globe," there is concern of "similar infringement to the continued peaceful stability of the Arctic region."
The agency said it can uniquely address these challenges as the only U.S. service that combines military and civil authorities.
"Before, it was a peaceful, safe, secure Arctic collaboration," Adm. Karl Schultz, the commandant of the Coast Guard, said in an interview with Stars and Stripes. "None of that goes away. We want the Arctic to be a peaceful place where we work to cross international lines here with partner nations that share interests in a transparent fashion. But I think if you're looking around at what's going on in the Arctic, I would say it's maybe trending in a slightly different direction. This will pivot with a little more focus on projecting."
The U.S. territorial waters and exclusive economic zone in the Arctic comprises 1 million square miles and has a $3 billion economic impact on Alaska's seafood industry, 90 billion barrels of oil reserves, 30 percent of the world's undiscovered natural gas and $1 trillion value of earth minerals, including zinc, nickel and lead.
But since 2013, China has engaged in six expeditions to the region, despite not being an Arctic nation. The communist nation has made the Arctic a strategic priority, declaring themselves a "Near-Arctic state," according to the report.
China has constructed a second multi-mission ice-capable ship and plans to build a nuclear-powered icebreaker, officials write in the report. And the nation wants to build "Polar Silk Road" in which goods can be delivered from China to Europe through the Arctic Ocean as ice in waterways diminish.
Russia has built 14 additional icebreakers, as well as six bases there, since 2013 as it continues to invest heavily in military facilities. Its fleet of 40 icebreakers is the largest in the world.
The Coast Guard has only one heavy icebreaker, and it also serves the Antarctic -- the Polar Star, which was commissioned in 1976. The USCGC Healy is a medium icebreaker commissioned in 1999 that is based in Seattle and goes to the Arctic. The Navy has none.
Last September, the Coast Guard changed the name of the heavy polar icebreaker to the Polar Security Cutter to highlight its importance to national security.
Congress has approved a $655 million to begin building the first of up to six polar security cutters.
In addition to vessel problems, there are Coast Guard communications weaknesses in the Arctic.
"Closing the communications gap is a whole-of-government challenge and will require intensive partnerships across the interagency, industry, and the international community, as well as the State of Alaska and Alaska Native communities," according to the report. "As commercial, recreational, and subsistence-based activities increase, the Coast Guard must also work cooperatively to enhance communications with and between stakeholders."
The Arctic's role in geostrategic competition is growing mainly because reductions in permanent sea ice have exposed coastal borders and facilitated increased human and economic activity.
Because of warming of the Arctic, there are longer and larger windows of reduced ice conditions. From 2006 to 2018, satellite imagery observed the 12 lowest Arctic ice extents on record.
The Coast Guard is part of the Department of Homeland Security. The Defense Department, which includes the Air Force, Army, Navy and Marines, is preparing its own new Arctic strategy for Congress in June.