U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy is heading to the Northwest Passage this summer in a joint effort with Canada.

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, in collaboration with Canada, will travel through the Northwest Passage this summer in a voyage that underscores the alliance between the two nations, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

The need for Coast Guard capabilities in the Arctic region is increasing to meet existing and future demands for maritime security, Adm. Karl Schultz, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, said in a speech last month. Schultz described the upcoming trip through the Northwest Passage as a “historic Arctic patrol.”

Planned for August and September, the Arctic Ocean voyage was announced by Schultz in his annual State of the Coast Guard address.

“The Arctic continues to be a region of growing geo-strategic importance where the maxim ‘presence equals influence’ rings true,” Schultz said. “Along with Global Affairs Canada, we are planning a Northwest Passage transit for Cutter Healy later this year.”

Schultz’s speech highlighted upcoming maritime missions with “like-minded nations,” a reference to Canada and other allies.

The official status of the Northwest Passage has been a longstanding issue between the U.S. and Canada. 

The Trump administration rekindled concern in 2019, when then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the Arctic Council that “Russia is not the only nation making illegitimate claims. The U.S. has a long-contested feud with Canada over sovereign claims through the Northwest Passage.”

The statement “caused immediate concern” by Canada and other regional allies, said Troy Bouffard, director of the Center for Arctic Security and Resilience at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. 

“The comment was nothing dangerous, but it was seen as very unnecessary,” Bouffard said in an interview Monday with the News-Miner.

The 2021 voyage is symbolic and significant, as the Biden administration seeks to underscore its ties with Canada.

“This voyage has the potential to clarify — and for the U.S. and Canada to send a signal to Russia — that we are strong partners working together,” Bouffard said.

The U.S. has long maintained that the Northwest Passage is an international strait. Canada’s position is that the Northwest Passage represents internal territorial waters controlled by Canada. A 1988 treaty between the two nations quieted the dispute and was described as “a settlement to disagree.” The U.S. agreed that Canada would consent for the U.S. to sail vessels through waters that Canada claims. Canada agreed it would allow for all such requests by the U.S. The Cutter Healy’s voyage honors that treaty.

In 2020, Bouffard published a research paper that emphasized the importance of collaboration with allies that have interests in the Arctic region. He noted that security, shipping routes, natural resources and environmental protection are priorities.

“The Arctic, as it was throughout the Cold War, remains the shortest path for a Russian nuclear missile to hit the United States,” Bouffard wrote with co-author Elizabeth Buchanan. “But it is not all doom and gloom in the High North. The Arctic remains rather protected from external tensions and is a region of cooperative stakeholder engagement, for now.”

The Coast Guard maintains that the Cutter Healy patrolling Arctic waters enhances global security as well as U.S. research capability in the region. The Cutter Healy will embark from Dutch Harbor and finish its patrol in Greenland.

The ice breaker performs diverse duties that include logistics, search and rescue, environmental protection and enforcing the nation’s laws and treaties. The vessel has a 4,200-square-foot lab that can accommodate up to 50 scientists and researchers. 

Contact political reporter Linda F. Hersey at 459-7575 or follow her at twitter.com/FDNMfeatures.