The Cable

The United States’ Need for a New Icebreaker Doesn’t Really Have Much to Do With Russia

It's not about the "icebreaker gap" — it's about business as usual.


As President Barack Obama was preparing to trek up Alaska’s Exit Glacier to tape a special episode of Running Wild With Bear Grylls, the White House announced Tuesday it will ask Congress to accelerate funding to build a new icebreaker and expand the nation’s small and aging fleet. The proposal, which calls for a new ship by 2020 rather than 2022, has been described as an effort to catch up to Russia’s far larger fleet, closing the “icebreaker gap” and asserting American power in a changing Arctic.

Yet it may merely be a necessary step for the United States to keep to business as usual.

Of the Coast Guard’s two operational icebreakers, the heavy Polar Star, commissioned in 1976, has already exceeded the 30-year service life the boat was built for. The medium-grade Healy, commissioned in 2000, was built for slightly lighter work but is better outfitted to support scientific research. A new ship is estimated to cost nearly $1 billion — roughly one tenth of the Coast Guard’s budget.

Lawson Brigham, a professor of geography and Arctic policy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said too much has been made of the disparity between Russian and U.S. assets — and specifically the popular comparison of Moscow’s 40 icebreakers and America’s two.

Russia is “trying to make it a national transport system,” Brigham told Foreign Policy. “It’s integral to their movement of natural resources.” That’s in contrast, he said, to U.S. interests — dominated by research, search and rescue, and law enforcement — that demand a different set of tools.

While Russia is building an economic engine that will help it exploit its natural resources and transport goods not only from other countries but also between its own icebound ports, the United States has only tentative energy interests in the form of the controversial Shell offshore drilling project. And while Russia is eyeing fees from travel within its Northern Sea Route, maintained by icebreakers, the United States has little use — at least in the near future — for a modern northwest passage.

“If we had 10 icebreakers, what the hell would we be doing with them, anyway?” said Brigham. “But the numbers of them don’t relate at all to a combat capability or power — it relates to national interest.”

The number of ships sailing through Arctic waters has fallen off since its high of 70 in 2013. Only 31 sailed through the Arctic from Europe to Asia in 2014. An American-flagged ship has never used the route. But as the ice continues to recede, traffic will doubtless rebound. It has been steadily rising for years in areas like the Bering Strait, and mining, shipping, and tourism are all on the rise throughout the arctic.

Even so, “the United States will never be an Arctic player like Russia,” said Malte Humpert, the founder and executive director of the Arctic Institute, a Washington-based think tank. “Overall, it’s less about resources and who will own what. It’s more about a new geopolitical arena [that] will open up.”

As the sea melts, there is more activity in the Arctic that affects American interests from a practical, if not a competitive, standpoint. “The reason why the U.S. needs [an icebreaker] desperately is so that the Coast Guard can fulfill its basic demand,” says Humpert — namely the scientific research, policing, and search and rescue operations that help protect America’s presence on the Arctic waters.

Photo credit: KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

Thomas Stackpole is an Assistant Editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tom_stackpole

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