United States Coast Guard

Arctic Strategic Outlook


T H E  C O M M A N D A N T
of the United States Coast Guard

For over 150 years, Americans have counted on the U.S. Coast Guard to proudly uphold American sovereignty, provide national security, and promote economic prosperity in the Arctic. Our important work is even more relevant as the northern approach to North America gains geo-strategic prominence. Access to the Arctic's vast energy, mineral, fisheries, and other commercial resources is growing at precisely the same time that global interests in these assets intensifies. The Nation's security demands in the region are both pressing and enduring. What was previously a region of energy interest and challenge is now an increasingly competitive domain.

As the Nation's primary maritime presence in the polar regions, the Coast Guard advances our national interests through a unique blend of polar operational capability, regulatory authority, and international leadership across the full spectrum of maritime governance. The Coast Guard will continue to work with our allies and partners on the mutual goal of ensuring a safe, secure, and cooperative Arctic, even as our aspiring near-peer competitors maneuver for strategic advantage in the area. However, competition need not lead to conflict. The Coast Guard thrives in situations that require nuanced responses to complex issues. Our persistent presence–on the water, in communities, or in international forums–absolutely equals influence.

This Arctic Strategic Outlook reaffirms our commitment to American leadership in the region through partnership, unity of effort, and continuous innovation. This document establishes three lines of effort crucial to achieving long-term success: (1) Enhance capability to operate effectively in a dynamic Arctic domain, (2) Strengthen the rules-based order, and (3) Innovate and adapt to promote resilience and prosperity.

We understand the significant investment required to secure the Arctic, and we appreciate and embrace the trust the American people have placed in the U.S. Coast Guard. We will remain vigilant in protecting our national interests in the polar regions to forestall the unchecked influence of competitors.

Semper Paratus
Admiral Karl L. Schultz

Today's Realities


Since the release of the Coast Guard Arctic Strategy in 2013, the renewal of global strategic competition has coincided with dramatic changes in the physical environment of the Arctic. The interaction of these drivers has made the Arctic a strategically-competitive space for the first time since the end of the Cold War. Competition does not preclude cooperation, and the Coast Guard will always look for opportunities to collaborate to solve complex issues. However, the Service must do so within the context of the Nation's national security interests.

Geostrategic Change


America's competitors have shown a willingness to work within established frameworks when advantageous to them, but they are just as willing to work outside these frameworks to further their ambitions or spoil the interests of others.

Environmental and Economic Change


The Arctic's role in geostrategic competition is growing, in large part, because it is no longer "self-secured" by permanent sea ice. The warming of the Arctic has led to longer and larger windows of reduced ice conditions.

Uncertainty and Risk


While long-term trends point to a more consistently navigable Arctic, other environmental factors make it difficult to predict what the near-term conditions will be. Though the Arctic continues to lose increasing amounts of multiyear sea ice, the remaining ice is becoming less predictable. For example, heavy pack ice conditions rendered the Northwest Passage impassible for cruise ships in 2018, despite it being one of the warmest years on record.

The United States Coast Guard in the Arctic


The United States is an Arctic Nation, and the Coast Guard has served as the lead Federal agency for homeland security, safety, and environmental stewardship in the Arctic region for over 150 years.

Ensuring Long Term Success


Three underlying principals are vital to each line of effort and are preconditions for long-term success. They will be incorporated into planning and decision-making at every level of the Service.

The Arctic is an exceptional place. Its harsh terrain, encompassing the territory of eight different countries, creates an environment that demands collaboration across national boundaries. U.S. interests are best served by working with the eight Arctic nations to ensure common interests, such as maritime safety, environmental stewardship, and sovereignty.

As the Coast Guard Strategic Plan 2018-2022 makes clear, unified effort is the principle of Coast Guard operations that guides the Service to partner closely across the joint and interagency community, as well as with state and local governments, industry, and other nonprofit and academic organizations.

The Service has an opportunity to develop innovative and transformative technology and policy solutions to complex and emerging problems. With little legacy infrastructure, the Arctic is an ideal place for new ideas, policies, and technologies that will allow the Nation to better measure, manage, and mitigate risk.


Enhance Capability to Operate Effectively in a Dynamic Arctic

In order to protect the Nation's sovereign interests, fulfill obligations to the maritime community, and uphold the rule of law in the Arctic, the Coast Guard must be able to fully understand and operate freely in this vast and unforgiving environment. Over the past 15 years, the Nation's strategic competitors have invested heavily in Arctic-capable assets, infrastructure, and relationships, some of which are targeted at eroding the influence of America and the rule of law. U.S. investments over that same period of time have been comparatively modest. This has resulted in a strategic resource gap that threatens the Nation's ability to effectively uphold sovereignty and the Coast Guard's ability to manage maritime risks inherent in increased human activity in the Arctic. Closing this gap requires persistent investment in capabilities and capacity for polar operations.


Strengthen the Rules-Based Order

As sea ice recedes and Arctic activity increases, actions by strategic competitors will challenge the long-standing norms that have kept the Arctic an area of peace and low tension. The institutions contributing to a conflict-free Arctic will face new challenges requiring active and committed American leadership. The U.S. Coast Guard is uniquely positioned to provide this leadership in the maritime domain. The Service's operations around the globe–ranging from marine inspectors enforcing international safety standards in Singapore to cutters enforcing international sanctions in the Arabian Gulf–represent the Nation's larger commitment to the rule of law. By upholding and complying with the rules-based order in the maritime domain across the globe, the U.S. Coast Guard reinforces its commitment to those principles in the Arctic.


Innovate and Adapt to Promote Resilience and Prosperity

The tyranny of distance and the harsh Arctic climate pose significant challenges to agencies charged with providing maritime safety and security, including the hundreds of villages and thousands of seasonal worker in the U.S. Arctic. The Coast Guard will use this challenge as an opportunity to develop new practices and technology to serve the maritime community and manage risk in the Arctic region. By collaborating and innovating with Arctic stakeholders, the Coast Guard will protect the homeland and its citizens living in this unique part of the United States; advance national interests; strengthen partnerships; and promote safe, secure, and legal economic activity, including commercial transportation and resource development.

Background photo courtesy of SpaceX, more information.


Innovate and Adapt to Promote Resilience and Prosperity in the Arctic

The Coast Guard's mission in the Arctic is enduring, but the strategic context has changed. In the intervening six years since the promulgation of the 2013 Coast Guard Arctic Strategy, changes in regional geopolitical competition, economic drivers, and the physical environment required the Coast Guard to take a fresh look at our existing missions, activities, and strategic objectives in the Arctic. Similarly, our federal and international partners and competitors are revising their Arctic strategic documents and investments as they react to the region's evolving conditions