U.S. Falls Behind in Arctic Great Game

Amid a global boom in icebreaker construction, the United States risks getting frozen out of the melting Arctic.


The United States is scrambling to catch up with a big, global push to build icebreakers as the melting Arctic opens the once-frozen north to oil drilling, new shipping and cruise routes, and intensified military competition.

The United States is scrambling to catch up with a big, global push to build icebreakers as the melting Arctic opens the once-frozen north to oil drilling, new shipping and cruise routes, and intensified military competition.

Countries from Russia to China and Chile are all muscling ahead to build a new generation of icebreaking ships. The United States, despite a belated polar effort last year by the Obama administration, has struggled to upgrade its tiny and aging icebreaker fleet, potentially leaving it at a disadvantage in the race for influence in the Arctic.

But on Tuesday, a Senate Appropriations subcommittee earmarked $1 billion for a new polar icebreakera potentially big step forward toward building at least the first new ship of its kind in more than a generation.

If passed by Congress, that would fund nearly the entire cost of the ship’s construction, avoiding contentious and yearly fights over money. But it also essentially puts any larger American ambitions in the Arctic on ice for at least a decade while the ship is being built.

The U.S. Coast Guard, which operates the icebreaking fleet, has said it needs six big ships to handle all its missions in the Arctic and in Antarctica. Building fewer than that will make it harder for Washington to police those open waters, escort commercial and cruise shipping, and carry out search-and-rescue missions, among other things.

“It’s unfortunate that our nation, an Arctic nation, has fallen so far behind with this capability, particularly as the Arctic enters an extremely dynamic geopolitical and environmental period of rapid change,” retired Adm. David Titley, who set up the U.S. Navy’s task force on climate change, told Foreign Policy. “Icebreaking capacity is a very good hedging strategy, and our capacity is very limited.”

The newly proposed funding would ease budgetary pressure on the Coast Guard, which has a total ship acquisition budget of less than the cost of a single new icebreaker. And it’s a throwback to the way the United States funded and built its last Arctic workhorse, the Healy, beginning in 1990.

To judge by bustling shipyards, plenty of other countries are preparing for increasing activity in the Arctic and the Antarctic, even countries far from the poles. Russia, which already has the world’s biggest icebreaking fleet, is building a dozen more ships, including several nuclear-powered icebreakers. China just launched its second icebreaker and has a third under construction. Finland is currently constructing the world’s first icebreaker to be powered by liquefied natural gas, or LNG. A Korean shipyard is building a fleet of ice-capable LNG shipping tankers in anticipation of the coming Arctic gas boom. Norway and the Netherlands are building ice-capable cruise ships. And several countries — France, Britain, Chile, and Australia — are all building new ships to operate in Antarctica, and Argentina just refurbished its single icebreaker to restore its polar capability.

Most of the activity is in response to a record-setting melt of Arctic sea ice. This past winter, the Arctic again set a record for the lowest amount of winter ice coverage and is on track this year to shatter the summertime minimum as well. The Arctic is warming so fast that the U.S. Navy this spring had to call off its annual Arctic exercise a week early, after the ice began to crack.

That is literally opening what amounts to a new ocean at the top of the world. Countries and companies, especially in China, are eyeing new shipping routes. Beijing said recently it intends to promote more shipping through the Northwest Passage, via Canada, while Chinese shipping giant COSCO plans greater use of the Northern Sea Route, along the top of Siberia. The opening Arctic is creating a new market for tourists, as well: This summer, for the first time, a cruise ship will sail from Anchorage, Alaska, to New York City, through the Northwest Passage.

And while oil companies have bailed out of the U.S. Arctic for now, exploration and drilling for oil and gas continues apace in Europe and especially in Russian waters.

“We’re in a situation where the global icebreaking fleet is not meeting demand,” said Tero Vauraste, the president and CEO of Arctia, a Finnish shipbuilder specializing in icebreakers.

But the United States is lagging behind. It currently has a single heavy icebreaker nearing the end of its operational life and a medium icebreaker used in the Arctic. For years, despite pleas by the Coast Guard, Congress was loath to fund new ships, which can cost upwards of $1 billion each.

Now, the rapidly melting Arctic and new geostrategic battleground are seemingly changing that calculus. U.S. President Barack Obama visited Alaska last year and called for rebuilding the icebreaker fleet. Earlier this year, the Coast Guard asked for $150 million in funding to design two new planned icebreakers and hopes to award a production contract by 2019. If the defense appropriations bill passes Congress, the construction of at least one new ship is guaranteed.

A few years ago, the changing conditions in the Arctic “weren’t seen as the wolf closest to the sled,” said Sherri Goodman, a former deputy undersecretary of defense and a fellow at the Wilson Center. “It’s still not the closest, but it’s getting closer.”

But building two new ships would simply replace the two currently in service and would still leave the Coast Guard short of the six-strong fleet it says it needs. What’s more, it will take at least a decade to build the first of the new heavy icebreakers, even if funding is guaranteed. That leaves a dicey window in the meantime.

“We’re very mindful that, as vulnerable as we are today, our vulnerability will only increase over time,” until the new ships are built, Adm. Paul Zukunft, the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, told FP.

Some lawmakers have railed for years against Washington’s bureaucratic infighting and go-slow approach to Arctic issues.

“I get very impatient because I don’t see us prioritizing icebreakers as a national asset,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who formed an Arctic caucus last year to push for greater U.S. involvement in the region. And that, she said, has implications as the Arctic becomes a focus of economic and geopolitical competition.

“People can quibble about what we have versus what Russia has versus what China is building. All I can tell you is we are not in the game right now,” Murkowski said. She and colleagues from across the aisle pushed through the defense appropriations bill this week in a bid to resolve the long-standing fight over who will pay for the new ship.

Other lawmakers are also pushing the administration to make new icebreakers a broader priority. Alaska’s other senator, Dan Sullivan, a Republican, compared Russia’s huge fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers that open new routes through the Arctic with the aging U.S. ships stretched among several missions.

“Right now, the Russians have superhighways, and we have dirt roads with potholes,” Sullivan said.

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), who serves on the House Armed Services Committee and its panel that oversees the Coast Guard, is usually an outspoken critic of the White House. But he has become an unlikely booster of the Obama administration’s Arctic push, worried that the cash-strapped Coast Guard can’t purchase the pricey new ships on its own. Hunter this week had called on the U.S. Navy to help pay for the new ships.

“It’s more of a Navy issue,” he said, which requires “getting the Navy to realize they’re the ones who are going to benefit from this; the Coast Guard can’t do it.”

Despite the possible funding through the defense budget, the U.S. Navy insists icebreaking is not its mission: It can go through the Arctic anytime it wants with nuclear submarines.

“U.S. Navy submarines regularly use the Arctic as a transit route between the Atlantic and the Pacific, greatly improving mission agility and flexibility. Only submarines can do this,” Navy spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Tim Hawkins said.

But Titley, the former Navy admiral, says the United States needs the ability to operate on the ocean’s surface as well. “Virtual presence is physical absence,” he said. “It’s all well and good to say you have interests in the Arctic, but if you can only be on the surface where there is little or no danger of ice, then your presence is very restricted.”

Canada may be in an even tougher bind: It has greater Arctic responsibilities than the United States but faces many of the same constraints on new icebreaker construction. As part of its joint Navy-Coast Guard $37 billion shipbuilding plan, Canada currently aims to construct a new polar ship over the next decade at a cost of about $1.2 billion. But it won’t start construction until the Vancouver shipyard where it will be built has finished new support vessels for the Royal Canadian Navy. In the meantime, a Canadian Coast Guard spokesperson told FP, Ottawa will refurbish its sole existing icebreaker to keep it in service for another decade.

Other countries have been floating possible solutions to help both the United States and Canada bridge their icebreaker gaps. Finland, for example, built more than half of the worldwide icebreaking fleet and has plenty of shipyards with specialized design and construction experience. Finnish government representatives reportedly met with U.S. and Canadian government officials this year to propose collaborating on the design and construction of new icebreakers, and they bent the ear of U.S. lawmakers at a recent summit between the United States and Nordic leaders on the same issue.

Vauraste says Arctia can build a heavy icebreaker in Finnish yards for about 250 million euros, far cheaper than the proposed price tag for new U.S. and Canadian ships. And Arctia could also help the United States design its new ship, he said, given U.S. shipyards haven’t built an icebreaker in 20 years or a heavy icebreaker in 40. “There is increasing interest” in Washington, he said. “It’s definitely not a non-starter.”

Murkowski said international collaboration, whether for co-design, building, or leasing existing ships, “needs to be on the table.”

Zukunft of the Coast Guard said he has held lots of conversations about collaboration with other nations, including Finland, but that it’s “too early” to make any commitments. The Coast Guard does have partnerships with Finland and Canada to share best practices on icebreaking acquisition.

But there are legal and political restrictions in both the United States and Canada that prohibit relying on foreign shipbuilders. Under U.S. law, no major component of a Coast Guard ship can be built in a foreign shipyard. And U.S. shipbuilders are gearing up for billions of dollars in local contracts, especially Huntington Ingalls Industries, which manufactures the Coast Guard’s National Security Cutters and built the last U.S. icebreaker in 1997. And there are no heavy icebreakers currently available to lease, even if that were an option, said Zukunft.

That means, for the foreseeable future, both the United States and Canada could well find themselves short-handed when it comes to being able to operate in the Arctic, just as the region is opening up to new economic and even military activities. Finding a way to patrol U.S. waters, respond to oil spills and stranded cruise ships, or police a flurry of shipping activity through the Bering Strait will likely strain America’s tiny and aging icebreaking fleet, especially if there’s no will or ability to lease ships from other countries to help fill the gap.

“That’s the near-term risk that needs to be addressed, and that’s why it’s urgent to develop that capability now,” Goodman said. “Because those risks are only going to increase as there is more activity in the Arctic.”

FP reporter Molly O’Toole contributed to this article.

Photo credit: PATRICK KELLEY/U.S. Coast Guard

Keith Johnson is a deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP

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