Coast Guard Vice Commandant Commits to Improving Communication with Alaska Fishing Fleet Following “Irresponsible” Russian Exercises in Bering Sea

WASHINGTON, D.C.—U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Security, convened a hearing yesterday, attended by Admiral Charles Ray, vice commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, to examine the ability of the Coast Guard to safeguard America’s national security and economic interests in the Arctic region, and the Coast Guard’s response to recent Russian war games in the Bering Sea. The hearing comes one week after Senator Sullivan chaired a Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness and Management Support hearing on the capabilities of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps in the Arctic. In last week’s hearing, Sullivan also pressed Secretary of the Navy Kenneth Braithwaite about the Navy’s response to the Russian military exercises. 

“We've seen Russia push all in on controlling the Arctic,” said Senator Sullivan. “Russia has opened sixteen deep-water ports, fourteen airfields, built Arctic military bases, and even formed a new northern Arctic command. In fact, Vladimir Putin has referred to the northern sea route as the new Suez Canal, which he says Russia intends to fully control. In recent months, Russian provocation has only increased…Without persistent U.S. presence in the Arctic, we risk leaving an opening for these types of aggressive actions to continue.”

Sullivan went on to describe the work Congress and the Trump administration have done to significantly increase America’s presence in the Arctic, including historic progress on the nation’s first deep-water port in Nome, authorization of six new Polar-class icebreakers, and a White House memorandum on Arctic security.

Later in the hearing, Sullivan asked Admiral Ray about the concerns of many Alaska fishermen who were threatened in the August large-scale Russian military exercises.

“First of all, our fishermen, in my view, should never be essentially forced out of the American EEZ when they're legally fishing. And yet, that did happen because the Russians are being quite forceful,” said Sullivan. “Secondly, there seemed to be somewhat of a lack of information flow…Can you comment on that and how we avoid that from happening again, and what steps we need to take, and if you're looking at coordinating with NORTHCOM and the U.S. Navy on this

“This was not our best day with regard to doing our role to look after American fishermen,” said Admiral Ray. “What we are doing to hopefully prevent this from ever happening again, we are having bi-weekly meetings with the industry groups, in particular, the at-sea fish processing group…to understand how we can communicate that to the fleet so that the fleet knows in advance when they think that could cause a challenge to their fisheries operations. And we're dedicated to doing a better job at that. This is not a one and done thing. This is going to be a persistent effort on the part of the U.S. Coast Guard to keep that fleet informed.” 

The committee also heard from a second panel of witnesses that included two Alaskans: Stephanie Madsen, executive director of the At-Sea Processors Association, and retired Air Force Major General Randy Kee, executive director of the Arctic Domain Awareness Center and a recent appointee to the U.S. Arctic Research Commission.

“I want to share two main messages with the committee,” said Madsen. “First, in any future incident such as this, U.S. authorities must be far more active in safeguarding our sovereign fishing rights. We would later learn that these confrontations were related to a major Russian military exercise of which the government received notice, yet nothing about the exercise was communicated to our industry…Second, this kind of harassment simply cannot be allowed to become a new normal. In a rapidly-changing Arctic, we fear being caught in a crossfire of Russia's effort to establish a more assertive military and economic presence. Our sovereign right to legally fish within the U.S. EEZ must be protected…From our vantage point, a robust U.S. military presence to protect U.S. interests in the region is simply non-negotiable.”

General Kee reinforced Admiral Ray’s and Madsen’s calls for a more robust U.S. military and Coast Guard presence in the Arctic to meet the challenges posed by Russia. 

“With a dominant number of icebreakers, Russia can project surface forces in multiple directions simultaneously,” said General Kee. “Russian national decision making and defense planning are opaque at best. And Russia's Arctic military advantage should be met with resolve and strength as America cannot afford to be perceived as weak in our Arctic commitment to the Kremlin.”

To watch the full Senate Commerce Subcommittee hearing, click here

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