One of the biggest challenges facing the United States’ capability and capacity to defend its interests in the far north is the dearth of icebreakers. Icebreakers are imperative to the national security of the United States and its Arctic territories. Their importance is also growing due to the continued melting of the polar ice caps, the encroachment of non-Arctic nations to the region, including China, and heightened tensions over pre-existing territorial disputes and new economic opportunities in the Arctic. However, despite their importance, the United States’ fleet of icebreakers has been severely neglected.
Icebreakers are indispensable to the United States for a multitude of reasons. Not only do they keep trade routes free from winter sea ice and escort shipping vessels safely through ice-covered passages, but they also help supply winter bases, oil rigs, drill sites, and scientific missions with the necessary equipment and cargo year-round. With the retreating northern ice caps, global shipping is increasingly using northern routes for Asia to European trade bypassing the Panama and Suez canal. These shifts can drastically cut shipping times but also allow nations with a significant arctic fleet to hold global trade at risk.
The icebreakers also serve the vitally important role of protecting energy claims and keeping fisheries from foreign exploitation. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic holds over 90 billion barrels of oil and 1,669 trillion cubic feet of gas, the majority of which is commercially viable. Additionally, Arctic fisheries offer a vast, and growing, source of wealth for Arctic nations — the average annual catch value is estimated at over $500 million, another incentive for non-arctic states to encroach on the region. Just last year a massive Chinese fishing fleet encroached on U.S. territorial waters with no regard for international law or sustainable fishing regulations.
Icebreakers often serve as moving research institutions and platforms with teams conducting scientific research in the Arctic, including vital climate change-focused research helping to tackle one of the region’s largest threats. The simple presence of icebreakers in the Arctic also sends an important message to potential adversarial nations showcasing the United States’ readiness and willingness to defend its interests in the region.
Despite these growing needs, the U.S. Coast Guard currently only operates two icebreakers, the Polar Star (already 10 years over its 30-year life expectancy) and Healy (which suffered an electrical fire in 2020 and was only recently repaired), both diesel-powered. The only other two U.S.-based icebreakers are privately owned or operated by the University of Alaska.
In comparison, China operates two (and is developing a third), while Russia’s armed forces operate at least 46 — including three that are nuclear-powered, extending both their power and durability. These numbers do not take into account those currently under construction or planned, and both nations are investing heavily in expanding their fleets. Russia has also re-militarized a dozen Cold War-era arctic bases to expand its naval presence in the region and to use as berths for its numerous active icebreakers.
NATO allies in the region, such as Norway and Canada, also own icebreaker fleets. However, none of them are nuclear-powered. Norway’s fleet is focused on territorial defense against increasingly aggressive Russian incursions while Canada’s fleet is currently comprised of smaller vessels focusing on scientific research and search and rescue efforts. Thus, the U.S. cannot rely on its Northern or European allies for defense posturing in the Arctic. This lack of a substantial U.S. fleet of icebreakers, the absence of nuclear-powered vessels, and reliance on allied icebreaker posturing in the region is a major flaw in the US national security strategy and defensive umbrella, which needs to be addressed as quickly as possible and is an important strategic investment the United States needs to make immediately.
Currently, the two Coast Guard icebreakers fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security whose budget is anemic compared to the Department of Defense. The Coast Guard does not have the budget to obtain enough icebreakers to contest Russian or Chinese presence in the Arctic — each heavy icebreaker has an average cost of approximately $800 million. While, accumulating the same number of icebreakers as Russia is unnecessary, moving forward all potential solutions to securing America’s North requires the purchase of icebreakers, regardless of their status: new or used. Coast Guard Commandant Karl Schultz has stated that “a fleet of nine U.S.-flagged icebreakers” would be sufficient to meet our economic and security needs in the far north.
Thankfully, Congress has already initiated expanding America’s arctic security program by authorizing the construction of six new Polar Security Cutters (PSCs), three heavy and three medium icebreakers. However, it is only actively funding the first four.
The next vital step to securing the North is to fully fund and expedite the construction of these six PSCs, especially given the fact that the first PSC is currently planned to be delivered only in late 2024 if it stays on schedule. This is extremely important as expanding the current fleet’s missions comes with opportunity costs, thus necessitating a larger fleet to be able to cover all possible icebreaker missions in the region.
Another longer-term option, which can also be done simultaneously to the PSC program, is to increase the available funding for the Coast Guard, specifically focused on Arctic security, to establish partnerships with private corporations to design and construct the United States’ first nuclear-powered icebreaking vessel. While more expensive, nuclear icebreakers come with many benefits over diesel-powered vessels, including both longevity, range, and power, including increasingly vital, soft power. With the additional range and longevity of nuclear icebreakers comes a reduced need for the United States to build expensive and difficult to maintain arctic bases — the icebreakers become de facto mobile bases. Additionally, the nuclear-powered ships can conduct longer and more missions, cementing U.S. positioning in the region.
A different and swifter approach would involve working with the Department of the Navy to authorize the purchase of an icebreaker under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Navy. This would not only expand the Navy’s mission to include patrolling of the far North but could also lead to involving NATO forces in the region. This would also be a welcome step to counteract Russia’s recent decision to establish a new Arctic fleet within their navy, acting as a strong signal of America’s willingness and readiness to defend its northern territories and those of its allies.
Regardless which option is given the go-ahead, it would also be beneficial to simultaneously encourage the development or purchase of private icebreakers, whether by corporations or public institutions. For example, there is also an existing U.S. icebreaker available for purchase, the Aiviq, currently owned by Edison Chouest Offshore, valued at only $150 million. There are also ships in Finland available for lease that could fill gaps until the PSCs come online. The private purchase and leasing options would maximize the United States’ presence in the region.
For the United States to remain economically and militarily competitive in the Arctic and maintain its territorial integrity in the region, it requires a substantial fleet of new, advanced, and durable icebreakers, as soon as possible. The first vital step is to fully fund and expedite the construction of the currently authorized six PSCs. These will enable the United States to continue to secure the freedom of the seas, ensure its national security, and expand economic and academic opportunities to its institutions in the region and beyond.
Dr. Julia Nesheiwat served as former Deputy Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Resilience, and in December 2020, was appointed as a Commissioner to the Presidential Commission on Arctic Research. She was Florida’s first Chief Resilience Officer and has held numerous senior level positions in national security, diplomacy, and as a U.S Army veteran with multiple combat tours. Dr. Nesheiwat is a Distinguished Fellow at the Atlantic Council focused on Arctic policies, energy, and national security.
Andro Mathewson is a Capability Support Officer at the HALO Trust. He focuses on international & maritime security, arms control, and military technologies. Andro has previously contributed to The Bulletin of Atomic Sciences, The Texas National Security Review, and the Center for International Maritime Security. He received his Master’s in international relations from the University of Edinburgh, and was previously a Research Fellow at Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania, where he also received his Bachelors in PPE.
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