Wednesday, August 11, 2010

USS Porter Sets Sail for the Arctic and the Future

By Bob Freeman, Office of the Oceanographer of the Navy

WASHINGTON (NNS) -- In response to an invitation from the Canadian government, USS Porter (DDG-78) and a Navy P-3 maritime patrol aircraft are headed north to join the Canadian navy in its annual Arctic military exercise, Operation Natsiq.

U.S. Coast Guard and Danish naval assets are also joining the exercise.

"This is a clear indication of the spirit of cooperation that exists between Arctic nations," said Rea Adm. David Titley, Oceanographer of the Navy and director of Task Force Climate Change.

Several high-level policy documents have prompted U.S. Navy interest in the Arctic, including the National Arctic Policy (National Security Presidential Directive-66/Homeland Security Presidential Directive-25), which states that the U.S. has "broad and fundamental national security interests in the Arctic region."
The need for a naval presence in the Arctic is further supported by the nation's Maritime Strategy, the Congressionally-mandated Quadrennial Defense Review, and the Navy's Arctic Roadmap, released last November.

"Some people forget that the Arctic is largely ocean," said Capt. Tim Gallaudet, deputy director of the Task Force. "The Navy has the same responsibilities there as in any other maritime domain."

"After years of record decreases in both ice coverage and ice thickness, it is clear that the Arctic Ocean is becoming more accessible to human activity," said Titley. He mentioned that the two primary sea lanes around the Arctic, the Northwest Passage (along the Canadian and Alaskan coasts) and Northeast Passage (along the Russian coast) were both navigable in 2008 for the first time in recorded history.

Sea routes across the pole can save thousands of miles of transit time with significant fuel savings, and will become an increasingly attractive option for commercial shipping. The open water also allows access to massive oil, gas, and mineral reserves in the sea bed.

"During the second half of this century the Bering Strait could take on strategic significance for oil shipping, like the Strait of Hormuz, as well as for general trade, like the Strait of Malacca," Titley noted.

Despite the melting sea ice, shrinking ice fields, and increased temperatures, the Arctic remains a very challenging environment.

"The Arctic thaws in late summer, but freezes over again every winter, and we think that will continue throughout this century," said Gallaudet. "An increasing number of climate scientists predict that we will likely see the Arctic Ocean basically ice-free for several weeks each year as soon as 20 to 30 years froms now."

This buys the Navy some time to prepare. The Arctic Roadmap recommends increased training missions in the high latitudes to prepare for probable future mission requirements. This will build a cadre of sailors experienced in polar waters, and help determine operational shortfalls.

"The Arctic environment can be very challenging for surface ships," Gallaudet noted. "Aside from the threat of drifting icebergs, surface ships must worry about freezing spray covering exposed weapons and sensors and changing the stability of the ship, proper foul weather gear for the crew, challenged communications, and the lack of logistics, medical support, and search and rescue assets in such a remote part of the world," he said.

Operation Natsiq will give the crew of USS Porter an opportunity to get some experience in the far north, and help mission planners determine what future polar operations will require. It will also help build essential relations with some of our Arctic partners.

"Partnerships will help us prepare for these new challenges more effectively and with less cost," Titley said. "That includes partnerships with federal agencies like the U.S. Coast Guard and NOAA, and also with other nations."

"In the Arctic," he added, "harsh environmental conditions are a common enemy."