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Trouble at the Ends of the Earth

Author: Frank G. Klotz, Senior Fellow for Strategic Studies and Arms Control
October 8, 2012
National Interest

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Earlier this month, a giant U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo jet touched down near McMurdo station in Antarctica, landing on a runway made entirely of ice. Thus began this season's Operation Deep Freeze, the U.S. military's annual mission to support American activities on the continent.

McMurdo is the largest American outpost in Antarctica. As many as 1,100 scientists and support personnel live and work at the sprawling facility during the austral summer season. The station also serves as the hub for onward travel to the South Pole and other remote research sites.

Supplying food, fuel and equipment to McMurdo is essential to maintaining America's presence and protecting its interests in the region. As every logistician knows, "getting there" is a prerequisite to "being there." And getting to Antarctica requires the carefully coordinated use of aircraft, ships and icebreakers.

Last season, C-17s staging out of Christchurch, New Zealand, flew more than five thousand passengers and six million pounds of cargo to and from McMurdo. This season's effort will be comparable in size and scale. Yet, aerial resupply by itself is not sufficient to meet American logistical needs in Antarctica. Aircraft are not particularly well suited for carrying the kind of outsized cargo used in major construction projects, nor are they the most cost-effective means for hauling massive quantities of fuel.

These tasks are best handled by ships. Each year, a freighter and a tanker chartered by the U.S. Navy's Military Sealift Command also participate in Operation Deep Freeze. Last season, nearly seven million pounds of cargo and more than six million gallons of fuel were delivered to McMurdo by sea.

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