The following is a transcript of a report from "Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson." Watch the video by clicking the link at the end of the page.
Today we're off to one of the coldest places on the planet, where there's a heated competition among superpowers for resources from oil to fishing grounds. It turns out the Arctic rivalry between the U.S., Russia and China is potentially dangerous, and Scott Thuman reports the Coast Guard is on the front lines in this version of a cold war.
In Kodiak, Alaska, a Coast Guard ground crew rolls out a C-130J, known as a ‘Super Hercules’, preparing for a long-range mission. We jump on the giant four-engine aircraft specially modified with extra fuel tanks and high-tech sensors and head northwest for the 9-hour ride toward the Arctic Circle. Today’s task: patrolling the Maritime Boundary Line. That invisible but very real divide between U.S. and Russian territory,
Scott: Where are we right now?
C130 pilot: Right now, we are pretty much north of Kotzebue, Alaska. We checked where the ice line was. Now we're just patrolling the line to find out what vessels are even out here currently.
Scott: Right now, we’re over the Bering Sea and this is the Maritime Boundary Line. In other words, Russia on one side of the plane, America on the other. And it is a massive stretch the Coast Guard has to patrol: some 1700 miles. That’s the equivalent of going from Miami to Maine.
The closest point between these two countries, these two tiny islands, less than three miles apart. That’s Russia’s on the right, America’s island on the left. This is a regular mission for the coastguard, both to see if Russian boats and aircraft are out here, but also to let the Russians know, America is keeping a close watch.
Cdr. George Cottrell: Their vessels are definitely out there and our vessels are out there as well.
Commander George Cottrell is the operations officer. Seeing more Russian activity recently.
Cottrell: I've spent about seven years in Alaska over two different tours, and I can definitely say that it's increased throughout my time in Alaska.
Scott: How big of a concern is that?
Cottrell: We certainly take that responsibility seriously to be out there and showing that the United States Coast Guard is out there to watch over our fishing fleet and make sure that they feel safe and secure to do the dangerous work that they do.
Dangerous because while these are some of America’s most productive fishing waters, the conditions are often extreme. And adding to the natural hazards, a rise in tensions in recent years as Russia makes a strong play for arctic resources: rebuilding old Soviet bases, sending troops, ships, and nuclear subs to the region rich with oil and gas resources. And the promise of new, faster shipping lanes between Asia and Europe. It all adds up to economic opportunity and increased competition between nations.
David Anderson: I just figured at that point okay, here it goes. It's all or nothing.
This is commercial fisherman David Anderson.
Anderson: We're going to war and here I am out here as a civilian fishing.
We caught up with David via zoom while he was out at sea and he played us this is video from August 2020 of Russian aircraft buzzing his commercial fishing boat on the American side of the U.S./Russia boundary line.
Anderson: They said, "steer one steer course, one 35 degrees, maximum speed.”
Scott: What's going through your head as that moment is occurring, right? You've got Russian airplanes flying overhead buzzing you close enough that you say you could throw a rock and hit them.
Anderson: At that point, I thought anything was possible with these guys. Are we going to war? What's going on? These guys are just showing up out of nowhere. There's Russian military ships also, war ships that were spotted.
He called U.S. Coast Guard on the radio, they told him to follow the Russian orders to leave the area, even though, these were international waters and he was on the American side. Stunning to Mike Fitzgerald, also on board that day.
Mike Fitzgerald: And I heard the Coast Guard said, obey them. So, this is our U.S. Coast Guard telling us to obey Russian military in our own waters that they were in shock. They had no idea what to do. They did not, they were not aware of any military exercise.
Scott: Do you wonder if it was more than an exercise?
Fitzgerald: I've fished those Russian border for 32 years. They've never come across the border. They were coming across aggressively and harassing vessels down to the south of us. There was a surfaced submarine. This was no exercise.
This confrontation, not common but also, not a first. Admiral Nathan Moore commands Coast Guard operations in Alaska.
Scott: We spoke with one of the captains. His take was, he was concerned. He was worried. He didn't know what was happening, and he wants to know if there was going to be more of you all up there.
Adm. Nathan Moore: So, my answer would be that the Coast Guard capabilities continue to grow and are going to be even better in the future than they are today. We look at the new ships that are coming online, like the icebreakers of the new Polar Security Cutters, that will provide us even more capability in the high latitudes, in the Arctic to operate. And I think across the board, our mission set will be better because of it.
It’s not just the Coast Guard that’s facing a challenge in Alaska as Russian and American military aircraft come into contact along the border. The U.S. maintains squadrons of advanced F22 fighter jets to police the skies because Russia has stepped up military activity here too. And in the arctic, with live-fire exercises, paratrooper drops, and increased submarine missions to the North Pole, both sides, blaming each other in a finger-pointing game over social media with videos like this showing dangerously close interactions. In Washington, President Biden, voiced concerns, to Vladimir Putin.
President Biden: Throughout our long history of competition, our two countries have been able to find ways to manage tensions and keep them from escalating out of control. There are always areas where Russia and the United States can and should work together.
And perhaps surprisingly, the two nations do at times, partner up in joint patrols and responding to emergencies.
Adm. Moore: We have direct communications with them. We've got joint operations that we do routinely with them in shared mission space, in, in those dangerous waters. We have agreements for pollution response and environmental search and rescue response-type efforts that would be done jointly. So, our interactions and relationship with the Russians have, have been very solid and I expect that to continue.
Because there’s a mutual fear: China and its powerful military is making inroads here. Seen this fall as China sailed a small fleet of naval vessels near Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. All putting pressure on the Coast Guard and its aging fleet of ships.
Aboard the 110-foot cutter Chandeleur out of Valdez, we watch calls to abandon ship, overseen by Lieutenant Commander Tim Cassel.
While just a drill, right after it finished three minor emergencies: electricity on the ship failed twice, followed, by the port-side engine.
Scott: It's an older boat. You had some challenges.
Lt. Cdr. Cassel: It's a 33-year-old boat. The original lifespan was supposed to be approximately 20 years. So, it has extended quite a bit past its life. With that, it is definitely inclined to have some mechanical failures.
Scott (on-camera): It’s another sign for this crew and really the Coast Guard at large that adaptability, making do with what you've been given is critically important.
In fact, everything from the planes to helicopters to ships often, hand-me-downs from the u-s navy, have often outlived their intended use. Billions of tax-payer dollars are going into a multi-decade program to replace nearly 100 ships fleetwide. The new equipment can’t come quickly enough - as Full Measure already documented, in the lack of icebreakers needed in high-Arctic waters. The U.S. has only two at the moment, the Russians, dozens.
As we head back to the tiny port of Valdez, fishing boats pass the sprawling oil terminal a reminder of the two big industries relying heavily on the Coast Guard’s protection: oil and fish. The economic drivers of the region desired by competing countries, and why the Coast Guard must live up to its motto, ‘always ready.’
Sharyl (on-camera): So Scott, did the Coast Guard say why they told the U.S. fishermen to comply with the Russian orders?
Scott (on-camera): Well, it's a controversial thing in the way they handled it because as we showed you, those fishermen were on the American side of that maritime boundary line where we flew. Now, months later, a senior Coast Guard leader told Congress they did know in advance of the Russian military exercises, but they failed to tell those fishermen. That's something they say they have to do a better job of in the future. But the wider issue here is that the Bering in the Arctic region has become a new focus for tensions, and that is going to continue.
Sharyl (on-camera): And trying to keep those tensions down. Thank you.