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Arctic Maritime Safety and the Pressing Need for a new Coast Guard Technology Pact

Year after year, Arctic Ocean ice continues to melt faster, freeze slower and continuously recede – opening new opportunities on the one hand but creating just as many more on the other

By: /
3 June, 2024
The United States Coast Guard Cutter Healy and the Norwegian Coast Guard Vessel Svalbard sail in formation, in 2023, while en route to conduct joint exercises in northern Norway in the Barents Sea. Photo:  Norwegian Coast Guard, DVIDS & USCG Historian's Office
Andrew Erskine
By: Andrew Erskine
Young Fellow at the Institute of Peace & Diplomacy

The Arctic is regarded by Arctic Council nations as an exceptional theatre in geopolitics. Focused on upholding regional governance structures, Arctic Council nations have also sought to coordinate and collaborate amongst themselves, while at times reaching out to Arctic Council observers, to protect, develop, and capitalize on the Arctic’s riches and geographical opportunities.

However, due to Russia’s war against Ukraine, which has resulted in Western democratic members in the Arctic Council condemning Moscow, Russian delegates have threatened to withdraw from the organization. Indeed, the exceptionalism that once defined the Arctic has given way to uncertainty and increased state friction in the region. Moreover, the Arctic is witnessing the effects of heightened geopolitical competition – especially with Russia’s no-limit partnership with China, and Moscow’s excessive military build-up and increased “show-of-force” exercises in the Arctic – all at a time when the region is becoming more attractive for trade, scientific research and civilian travel. 

On defence, like-minded Arctic nations – Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and the United States, referred to as the Arctic Seven (A7) – have come together to improve regional security. With the recent addition of Finland and Sweden into NATO, the Alliance has also attained near military dominance, particularly with its sea, air, and space capabilities. Combined, they serve to deter and defend against potential Russian advances in the Arctic while allowing for significant knowledge and expertise sharing to better integrate European and North American Arctic defence plans.

However, on more general areas of maritime safety – especially regulating shipping, monitoring fishing and pleasure boating, natural resource mapping and extraction, sea-boarding enforcement, ship escorting and environmental hazard response – more needs to be done so that the region remains governed by a rules-based system of maritime laws and safety norms. In particular, as the Arctic becomes more hospitable for civilian and private scientific research missions, commercial operations, and fishing, the resulting maritime traffic will increase the likelihood of emergency incidents. As a result, there will undoubtedly be a need for more search and rescue capacity, better marine communications and traffic surveillance, faster hazard response, and quicker navigation assistance. Much of this work will fall under the rubric of A7 powers and to the point, their individual coast guards. 

Currently, the A7 are juggling the need to safeguard their individual territorial and economic interests with the need for international cooperation to protect and enforce laws and rules of maritime safety writ large in the Arctic. However, A7 governments are having recruitment problems in their coast guard organizations, shortfalls in maritime surveillance capabilities and  a tendency to undervalue or shift priorities and resources away from the coast guard in favour of more hard power capabilities, as is the case in Canada and the US. As a result, there are increasing gaps in the A7’s coast guard domain that limit their ability to detect and respond to maritime safety issues and incidents. 

For some, the answer to this problem is to build and incorporate more Arctic-capable vessels in individual coast guard fleets to enforce maritime laws and ensure maritime safety in the Arctic. However, given the cost and lengthy timelines associated with procuring and building new vessels, and addressing recruitment shortfalls, more vessels patrolling Arctic waters is not a viable option for the short to medium term – with time being of the utmost importance. 

What should be done?

Rather than seeing individual national responses to what are shared problems, the A7 should seek to capitalize on their collective need to uphold maritime laws and maintain maritime safety in the Arctic by increasing their collaboration to achieve better Arctic maritime domain awareness. This should be done by fast-tracking a collaborative technology strategy to expand their combined coast guard capabilities through technological innovation and interoperability advancements. The precise aim would be to enhance their joint capabilities in areas that cover cybersecurity, artificial intelligence (AI), quantum technologies, autonomous vehicles, and information-sharing networks as a way to break down barriers caused by geographical challenges within established Arctic maritime zones and differences in coast guard structures that often impede Arctic maritime safety operations. 

In terms of identifying critical technologies vital for improved operations, the A7 requires force multipliers to minimize their coast guards’ administrative burdens while simultaneously optimizing situational awareness, determining an appropriate response to identified issues and then responding in a timely and appropriate manner. In particular, for the A7 to better establish a maritime domain awareness strategy to reinforce maritime laws in their sovereign waterways and international waters in the Arctic, there must be sustained presence by the A7 coast guards. 

To attain this objective, an A7 coast guard technology agreement should work towards establishing new and improved hybrid air vehicles (HAVs), high-altitude surveillance balloons (HABs), unmanned surface vehicles (USVs), and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), paired with innovative autonomous systems, advanced AI and communication, position, navigation, and timing capabilities, within their respective capabilities. Doing this will amplify the A7’s coast guards’ Arctic maritime domain awareness by having the capabilities to collect and analyze data in support of operations like search and rescue, sea-boarding enforcement and ship escorting. 

Moreover, as the Arctic becomes increasingly more internationalized, welcoming more civilian and business operated vessels for tourism, fishing, and scientific research purposes, the A7 will need to better manage their responses to distress calls for emergency assistance as well as identifying state and non-state actors that perform illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. A7 countries will also need the capacity to respond quickly to vessels that, for whatever reason, fail to operate their shipboard Automatic Identification Systems, which continuously transmit signals to alert others to the presence of their vessel.

Such capabilities will also provide A7 coast guards with the means to monitor dark fleets, aging seafaring vessels that operate without industry standard insurance and outside maritime regulations. For the A7, dark fleets pose significant threats to maritime safety in the Arctic as they undertake ventures to avoid international sanctions, engage in risky ship-to-ship transfers or end up in ship-to-ship collisions resulting in large oil spills or onboard fires that prompt environmental incidents. Moreover, dark fleets can also perform tasks like border patrols, surveillance and reconnaissance, maritime transportation, sabotage and other auxiliary tasks in support of naval operations and need to be treated like any potential adversary entering sovereign waters.

To ensure that each A7 coast guard organization can fully benefit from a technology agreement, the A7 should ideally work within an established multilateral forum that has already been able to minimize bureaucratic red-tape and political wrangling. Although the Arctic Coast Guard Forum would be an ideal candidate, the inclusion of Russia in the organization creates sensitivity issues on technology-sharing agreements and fostering strategic collaboration. 

As such, the A7 should work within NATO to strengthen multilateral cooperation on innovative and interoperable technologies, seek common solutions for how HAVs, HABs, USVs, and UUVs can assist in supporting and enhancing Arctic maritime missions while establishing high standards for Arctic maritime safety operations. Using the Alliance’s civilian-military sectors and its crisis prevention and management feature, the A7 can integrate the data from autonomous and AI systems with NATO’s command-and-control structure for more robust Arctic maritime safety and security missions like surveillance and law enforcement. 

Increasing the A7’s coast guard maritime domain awareness with innovative technologies will also have major benefits for countering the emerging Sino-Russian strategic relationship in the Arctic. Last spring, Russia and China signed a bilateral Arctic maritime agreement between their respective coast guard organizations to combat terrorism, prevent illegal migration, fight the smuggling of drugs and weapons, and stop illegal fishing. However, given Moscow’s and Beijing’s derisive interpretations of international maritime laws, as well as the revelation of the ongoing investigation of China’s NewNew Polar Bear and Russia’s Sevmorput vessels alleged involvement in damaging the Baltic telecom cable in the Baltic Sea, this new partnership poses two significant challenges for maritime safety in the Arctic. 

First, a Sino-Russian maritime security bloc could see Moscow and Beijing use their coast guards, through a shroud of law enforcement and upholding maritime safety, to launch surveillance operations for dual-use purposes. By equipping their vessels with off-shore buoys, weather balloons, space-ground systems, and unmanned underwater vehicles, Russia and China could, in theory, conduct gray-zone operations in the Arctic’s international waters and inside the A7’s maritime boundaries to enhance their ability to monitor, detect and assess the defence capabilities of the A7. 

Second, with the need to manifest more cooperation by all actors that wish to use the Arctic to avoid environmental and human catastrophes in the region, the growing geopolitical tension between the A7 and Russia, and to an extent China, make any collaborative environment questionable, potentially dividing the Arctic into two separate maritime security blocs that will assess and prioritize different approaches in carrying out vital maritime safety operations. 

Given, the commitment-capability gap of A7 coast guards in Arctic maritime safety, it would not be unprecedented to assume that Moscow and Beijing will use this divide as a way to institute more non-confrontational strategies in China’s pursuit of becoming a pivotal Arctic power and Russia’s redoubling efforts to remain a indispensable regional player. If successful in this venture, Russia and China could, in future, elevate illiberal approaches to maritime security and safety. 

Therefore, to ensure that the A7 can monitor Russian and Chinese advances and any future transgression against a rules-based system of maritime laws inside their sovereign waterways, while also reinforcing their capacity to be a reliable Arctic partner for international maritime safety, a technology agreement among A7 coast guards offers an avenue for better maritime domain awareness that can survey and detect and transfer data on disruptions from a Sino-Russian coast guard presence to improve tracking and response operations. 

With all this in mind, it is high time that the A7’s coast guard domain is afforded the resources needed to do the job and in future the A7 should work within NATO to strengthen multilateral cooperation on innovative and interoperable technologies to support and enhance Arctic operations.

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