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Research Questions

  1. Which capability gaps does the U.S. Coast Guard face in the Arctic region, both currently and in the 2030s?
  2. What future capabilities are needed to ameliorate these capability gaps?

A key Arctic strategy and planning challenge for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) is how to enhance activities to prepare for operations before a crisis comes to pass. The USCG Arctic Strategy has been instrumental in developing some momentum for USCG and DHS planning in the region, but may require updating in light of continuing transformations in the Arctic region. Another important step in planning will involve the development of a new Arctic Capabilities Analysis Report (CAR), one type of planning document within the broader DHS Joint Requirements Integration Management System process. The research described in this report focuses on articulating potential Arctic capability gaps in 2017 and the 2030s. It was designed to provide information for a forthcoming USCG Arctic CAR. As such, it includes some aspects of a capability analysis, such as the identification of necessary, high-level capabilities; articulation of links between capabilities and missions; and documentation of potential capability gaps. Although previous reports and statements have articulated Arctic needs, challenges, gaps, and vulnerabilities, this new work provides a fresh look at potential gaps using a structured, traceable approach that considers a broad spectrum of contingencies that DHS might have to respond to in the Arctic.

Key Findings

  • Communications are critical to all missions, but in the Arctic, voice communications are patchy and unreliable, and transmission of data is extremely limited. Successful Department of Homeland Security (DHS) execution of a range of mission types could require the ability to communicate via voice anywhere, at any time, and with text, images, video, or other data.
  • Understanding and being able to assess situations is another important aspect of conducting a successful mission. However, many threats and hazards in the Arctic are poorly understood, and there is limited capacity or capability to regularly monitor those that are identified.
  • Even if a threat or hazard has been identified and communicated about in the Arctic, the potential for doing anything about it is limited by the scarcity of available assets and supporting infrastructure, combined with long distances, harsh operating conditions, and the small scale of the resources available for coordination.
  • The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) and DHS have had much difficulty in making progress toward addressing persistent Arctic challenges. Improving the USCG's capability as an institution to identify and articulate specific needs and risks could help generate momentum for closing Arctic (and other) capability gaps.


  • DHS should spearhead more extensive planning and exercising for response in the Arctic than at present.
  • The next steps for the USCG should include prioritizing Arctic CAR research to support the development of materiel and nonmateriel approaches for closing gaps. The CAR should stress the presence of capability gaps, even given the acquisition of a new heavy icebreaker, which will facilitate an important but incremental step up in capability.
  • The USCG should also continue reviewing requirements for the Polar Icebreaker Recapitalization Ship to ensure this vessel is best suited to meet the demands of a multimission environment.
  • A forthcoming Arctic CAR could suggest gaps that will cause the USCG to review and update its Arctic strategy, as well as develop related plans for implementation and specific concepts for different types of response.

This research was sponsored by the USCG Office of Emerging Policy and conducted within the Strategy, Policy, and Operations Program of the Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center, a federally funded research and development center (FFRDC).

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

RAND is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.