An annual joint military mission in Antarctica is where the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star normally spends winter months. This year the nation’s only operational heavy icebreaker will instead be conducting an 82-day deployment in the Arctic, tasked with reducing regional maritime risks and advancing national security objectives.
Coast Guard officials said the Polar Star will operate primarily in the Bering and Chukchi seas to project U.S. sovereignty along the U.S.-Russia Maritime Boundary Line, strengthening international intergovernmental and community partnerships, and improving maritime domain awareness in this remote region.
Although plans are still to be finalized, they tentatively will include engagement and training with local communities and Polar Region allies including Canada and New Zealand. Training opportunities with the U.S. Navy are also possible.
Vice Admiral Linda Fagan, commander of the U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Area, said that the Arctic is no longer considered an emerging frontier, but is instead now a region of growing national importance. “The Coast Guard is committed to protecting U.S. sovereignty and working with our partners to uphold a safe, secure and rules-based Arctic,” she said.
The decision to assign the Polar Star to the Arctic, rather than Antarctica, was based on weather conditions, plus the novel coronavirus pandemic the Coast Guard said. The ice pier needed at Antarctica could not be reestablished in time for the maritime resupply effort at McMurdo Station. Implementing a mobile causeway solution, as has been done in the past, would have required more than 100 staff to deploy, which military officials said cannot be accommodated without significant risk to personnel related to COVID-19.
Instead this year the U.S. Antarctic Program resupply effort will be conducted by aircraft. The Coast Guard anticipates resuming deployment of the Polar Star to that mission again next year.
In Antarctica, the Polar Star supports the National Science Foundation program by providing a vital escort through the ice for resupply ships. Then upon returning to the United States, the Polar Star undergoes time in drydock for repairs in preparation for the next year’s Operation Deep Freeze mission.