CSIS: National Security Challenges and Icebreaking Operations in the Arctic

January 14, 2016 in Blog

This week, the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) held two discussions concerning the present and future role of the United States in the Arctic.  All of the participants emphasized the urgent need to bolster the region’s deficient infrastructure, especially U.S. icebreaking capability, the national security threats the country faces in the Arctic, and increased shipping activities expected in the region. Among the participants were U.S. Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Angus King (I-ME), U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Paul Zukunft, and Dr. Lawson Brigham, a professor of geography and Arctic policy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

During the “National Security Challenges and Icebreaking Operations in the Arctic” panel, the speakers  shared concerns over inadequate U.S. icebreaking capacity. Senator Murkowski explained that icebreakers are an “integral part of the infrastructure if you’re in the Arctic,” adding that she “can’t help but look at Russia with envy” regarding Russia’s plans to deploy 14 icebreakers in the Arctic. The Senator concluded her remarks by imploring the President, and the future Commander-in-Chief, to secure a new $1 billion icebreaker by the year 2020.

Coast Guard Admiral Paul Zukunft explained that the need for additional icebreakers was a matter of national security, because the United States “cannot enforce freedom of navigation in the Northern Sea Route without icebreakers.” Admiral Zukunft outlined how increased tourism and resource development in the Arctic region called for greater icebreaking capability in order to “secure our domestic sovereign sea floor” and to protect our “multitude of oil and gas opportunities.”

The second panel that CSIS hosted, “Ice Floes and Global Economic Woes: The Future of Arctic Shipping Considered,” added another dimension to the call for bolstering Arctic infrastructure: increased Arctic shipping in the future. Dr. Lawson Brigham, describing the Arctic’s vast undiscovered energy resources, stressed that resource development would be the primary driver of shipping activity in the region. To support his case, he referenced 2008 U.S. Geological Survey resource estimates: 13 percent and 30 percent of global oil and natural gas reserves, respectively, are located in the Arctic.

Helen Brohl, Executive Director of the U.S. Committee on Marine Transportation Systems, echoing this sentiment, estimated that U.S. Arctic traffic will increase from 300 unique vessels in 2015 to 420 vessels in 2025. Concluding his remarks, Dr. Brigham emphasized that investments in infrastructural upgrades would be needed to accommodate the increased traffic, and that public-private partnerships would be essential.

Overall, Wednesday’s discussions at the CSIS revolved around the common theme that human activity in the Arctic is increasing, much of it fueled by receding ice sheets, the region’s abundant natural resources, and potential new trade routes. In light of these circumstances, the speakers urged the U.S. to invest in infrastructure and icebreaking capabilities in order to protect domestic interests and economic gains.