Navy Previews Forthcoming Arctic Strategy in Sullivan Hearing on Navy & Marine Corps Readiness

Military leaders pressed on Russian harassment of Alaska-based fishing vessels in August; Say more Arctic presence is needed to counter Russia and China

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), chairman of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness and Management Support, hosted a hearing yesterday on the readiness and capabilities of the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps, and to preview a new U.S. Navy strategy for the Arctic. The subcommittee heard from three witnesses: Secretary of the Navy Kenneth J. Braithwaite, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael M. Gilday, and Commandant of the Marine Corps General David H. Berger.

In the hearing, Senator Sullivan questioned the leaders of the two military service branches about the rise of “Great Power Competition” between the United States and China and Russia, and the importance of a strong and consistent U.S. presence in the Arctic region. Specifically, Sullivan raised the troubling incursion of Russian vessels and aircraft into the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in August in the Bering Sea, and the Russians’ aggressive and harassing maneuvers toward Alaska-based fishing crews who were lawfully operating in the area but were ultimately forced to depart.

“As our country seeks to recover from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever that our military maintains its readiness and lethality,” said Senator Sullivan. “Our Navy and Marine Corps have a great history of operating effectively under the most difficult conditions. As Russia continues its military build-up in the Arctic, it is not a time to become complacent and it remains imperative that our Navy and Marine Corps are able to operate effectively in all climates, to include expanding their capabilities in the harsh conditions of the Arctic region.”

In his first line of questioning, Senator Sullivan asked Secretary Braithwaite and Admiral Gilday what the Navy is doing to deter Russian aggression in the Arctic following the widely-reported large-scale Russian military exercises in August, and how communication can be improved so that Alaska fishermen never find themselves in this situation again.

“The Russian exercise that I mentioned caught our fishing fleet by surprise,” said Senator Sullivan. “I know that there's been an ‘after action,’ but our fishing fleet was ordered out of the EEZ—which, of course, is our EEZ, where they fish—and [they] shouldn't be ordered out by the Russians. But they were buzzed. They were harassed. What are we doing in terms of an after action to make sure that that doesn't happen again?” 

“I share your concern, Senator,” said Admiral Gilday. “I actually meet with the NORTHCOM Commander later on this week, and I know they're looking at what potentially happened with communication breakdowns, potentially to our fishermen, and perhaps miscommunication between agencies and the U.S. government. But U.S. fishermen should not feel threatened by another nation, and in our own EEZ, in terms of fishing. I think our continued presence up there will have some blunting effect to that. But I think perhaps more needs to be done, including through the Arctic Council, to have honest discussions about it.”

Secretary Braithwaite agreed with Admiral Gilday on the importance of naval surface presence in the Arctic.

“We need that visible presence, as the chief of naval operations talked about just a few moments ago,” said Secretary Braithwaite. “Power projection, sea control, and the ability to ensure to our partners and allies and our own people that we, the United States Navy, have first and foremost in our minds. We are about to release an Arctic strategy that you and I talked about during our recent trip to Alaska and the importance of how that blueprint will recommit ourselves in a much more visible way to activities in the Arctic…Russia has re-militarized the Arctic, China has recommitted itself to build icebreakers...The United States Navy, the United States Marine Corps, Senator, is committed, to being present in the Arctic in a much more visible way than we've historically been.” 

During the hearing, Senator Sullivan also highlighted the Navy’s soon-to-be-released Arctic Strategy, and emphasized the need to home-port the next generation of U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers – the Polar Security Cutter – in the Arctic to support naval operations. In June, the White House released a historic “Memorandum on Safeguarding U.S. National Interests in the Arctic and Antarctic Regions”that calls for assets and resources in the Arctic to ensure a persistent United States presence in the area, including a fleet of icebreakers that is operationally tested and fully deployable by Fiscal Year 2029. Additionally, in October, Sullivan penned an op-ed in Roll Call calling for the new vessels to be based in Alaska.

“I'm hopeful to hear some positive news about a new Navy Arctic strategy, which this committee has been encouraging all of the services to produce Arctic strategies, and I am hopeful that we could also have a discussion on…the support for building six Polar-class icebreakers that our nation needs,” said Senator Sullivan. “I authored language in the NDAA [National Defense Authorization Act] a couple of years ago that put forward the authorization to build [these] icebreakers between the Coast Guard and the Navy. I think it makes strategic sense for America, if you're going to have icebreakers, you need to base them in the place where the action is, and that's in the Arctic, not in Florida or other places where there's no ice. Do you have a view on where we should be basing these?”

“As far as home-porting those ships, if they fell under the control of the United States Navy, of course we would home-port them closer to where they would be required to fulfill their mission,” said Secretary Braithwaite. “Going into Kodiak, I was extremely impressed with the Coast Guard facility there, meeting with the station commander again. [This is] a phenomenal base with the infrastructure to support additional ships being home-ported there.” 

To watch the full subcommittee hearing, click here

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