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Friday, October 31, 2014



This summer, when the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Bertholf was monitoring shipping traffic along the desolate tundra coast, its radar displays were often brightly lighted with mysterious targets.

There were oil drilling rigs, research vessels, fuel barges, small cruise ships. A few were sailboats that had ventured through the Northwest Passage above Canada. On a single day in August, 95 ships were detected between Prudhoe Bay and Wainwright off America’s least defended coastline, and for some of them, Coast Guard officials had no idea what the vessels were carrying or who was on them.
“There’s probably 1,500 people out there,” Rear Adm. Thomas P. Ostebo, commander of the Coast Guard’s 17th District in Alaska, said at a recent conference of Arctic policymakers near Anchorage. “It’s kind of spinning a little bit out of control.”
The rapid melting of the polar ice cap is turning the once ice-clogged waters off northern Alaska into a navigable ocean, and the rush to grab the region’s abundant oil and mineral resources by way of new shipping lanes is posing safety and security concerns for Coast Guard patrols.
What happens if a cruise ship gets stranded in stray ice? Or if a sailing vessel capsizes off an uninhabited coast?
“Yesterday, we saw three sailing vessels in 24 hours,” said the Bertholf’s commander, Capt. Thomas E. Crabbs.
The Coast Guard this summer ran Arctic Shield, the most extensive patrol operation it has ever mounted in the Arctic. It set up a temporary operating base and remote communications station at Barrow.
A fleet of cutters, buoy tenders, helicopters and boarding vessels deployed across the Beaufort, Chukchi and Bering seas to oversee new offshore oil drilling operations offers search-and-rescue if needed and provides notice to burgeoning ship traffic that the U.S. is monitoring its northernmost border.
The rush for riches as Russia, Norway and Canada vie with the U.S. for the Arctic’s mineral resources, and the possibility that drug dealers, arms merchants and terrorists could begin to explore transport routes near America’s largest oil fields have prompted the U.S. military to begin planning for a future in the Arctic much more substantial than it had envisioned.
The U.S. Naval War College last year conducted war games simulating the sinking of a ship carrying weapons of mass destruction from North Africa to Asia across the top of Canada and Alaska.
The Air Force has been practicing how to make food and survival gear drops to survivors of a large plane crash in the unbelievably remote Brooks Range, north of Fairbanks.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command, known as NORAD, already has gone beyond drills: F-15 fighters have been launched on interceptions at least 50 times during the last five years in response to Russian long-range bombers — not previously seen here since the Cold War — which have been provocatively skirting the edges of U.S. airspace.
Through it all, U.S. security forces are battling historically sketchy radio communications, vicious storms, shifting ice floes and huge distances from base: Coast Guard cutters must sail 1,200 miles south just to take on food and refuel.
Oversight of Alaskan Command was transferred to U.S. Northern Command this week, according to a statement released by Alaskan Command on Wednesday.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel approved the move Monday, reassigning control of ALCOM from U.S. Pacific Command, which is headquartered in Hawaii.
NORTHCOM is the combatant command responsible for North America and the Arctic, and the shift is expected to better align ALCOM with its emphasis on cold-weather training and missions, the statement said.
The move is not expected to have an effect on ALCOM’s force size or budget.
The realignment is “a more cohesive approach” to defending North America, according to Gen. Charles Jacoby, who commands both NORTHCOM and the U.S.-Canada North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD.
"This is an important step in integrating our defenses across North America,” Jacoby said in the statement. “It places our nation in a better position to plan and execute homeland defense and civil support missions in Alaska, and reflects the growing strategic value of the Arctic to our nation’s defense.”

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