As a Professor in the War Gaming Department at the U.S. Naval War College, I recently found myself serving as the Lead Analyst for the Fleet Arctic Operations Game. In order to support the U.S. Navy's Arctic Road Map, the game examined the capability gaps that inhibit the U.S. Navy from sustaining operations in the Arctic. After analyzing myriad datasets collected from the nearly seventy senior civilian and military planners and operators, as well as systems analyst and scholars, it became clear that the U.S. Navy and broader national security community lacks sufficient capabilities to operate in the Arctic. Nowhere was this problem more evident than in the U.S Navy and Coast Guard’s ability to effectively respond to an oil spill in the Arctic.
Last Thursday, the Obama administration announced plans to open up three new areas in the Arctic Ocean, just off the coast of Alaska, for oil and gas drilling. While discussing these plans, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar asserted that the capabilities exist that are required to quickly respond to an oil spill in the Arctic and avoid environmental damage.
Secretary Salazar’s argument seems to rest in the hands of industry rather than government. Pete Slaiby, vice president of Shell Alaska, suggest the company is prepared to deploy emergency assets within an hour of an accident and leverage existing relationships to acquire necessary personnel and equipment from Alaska and around the world. While private companies, such as Shell are confident in their ability to respond to a spill, the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard must quickly develop required response capabilities and plans before production gets too far ahead of preparation.
According to the game’s findings, a U.S. oil spill response force off the northern coast of Alaska – with the U.S. Coast Guard as the lead entity and U.S. Navy supporting - would most likely require coordination with Russia, Canada, and the state of Alaska, the acquisition of oil spill data models, air assets to support air traffic control, as well as surface platforms to support industry efforts to control the oil leak and spill containment.
Ice accretion, strong winds, and thick fog, coupled with longer and darker nights, make oil spill containment and cleanup operations in the Arctic quite challenging. Moreover, the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard lack sufficient knowledge of oil spill dispersion forecasts, trained personnel, and ice capable vessels, as well as cooperative arrangements with industry, local authorities, and partners in the region, particularly Canada and Russia.
The political and economic ramifications for US forces unable to control and contain a massive oil spill as well as save the lives of those impacted are much more complex than Secretary Salazar’s decision to open up new drilling areas in the region would suggest. If industry is unable to quickly control and contain a massive oil spill in the Arctic, than I would not look to the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard to be of much help. So, if not U.S. maritime forces, then who?
These are the author's own personal views and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Naval War College, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense or any other branch or agency of the U.S. Government.