Icebreakers are integral to the success of U.S. operations in the Arctic. In order to safely conduct shipping, military, and exploration activities, we need icebreakers to navigate America’s Arctic waters throughout the year.
Unfortunately, there exists a misconception that because there is less ice today in the Arctic than in previous years, the need for icebreakers has decreased. This is not the case, and the U.S. will continue to fall behind in the Arctic if we chose to believe this fallacy. A recent paper from the Congressional Research Service clarifies why less ice does not mean fewer icebreakers:
“Even with the diminishment of polar ice, there are still significant ice-covered areas in the polar regions. Diminishment of polar ice could lead in coming years to increased commercial ship, cruise ship, and naval surface ship operations, as well as increased exploration for oil and other resources, in the Arctic—activities that could require increased levels of support from polar icebreakers.”
A 2015 Politico article also reiterated this point saying:
“As northern waters become more accessible, far more ship traffic will be at risk, and their shifting climate conditions make it more likely seas will freeze unpredictably.”
Not only will the need for icebreakers continue, but there is a large possibility that we will see an even greater need for these vessels with less ice. This decrease in ice could lead to a jump in Arctic commercial activity, which would require icebreakers to ensure transit safety throughout the region.
The United States is known for its military and economic prowess, but when it comes to icebreakers we are far from leading the pack. According to the Congressional Research Service, only two of America’s three icebreakers are operating at full capacity, and new Arctic activity could require the use of 6 more icebreakers. As the CRS notes, it’s time policy makers get moving on budget items for these vital ships:
“The current condition of the U.S. polar icebreaker fleet, the DHS MNS, and concerns among some observers about whether the United States is adequately investing in capabilities to carry out its responsibilities and defend its interests in the Arctic, have focused policymaker attention on the question of whether and when to acquire one or more new heavy polar icebreakers.”
Our neighbors around the globe seem to better understand the need for these polar vessels than our lawmakers do. Russia has over three dozen icebreakers in its massive naval fleet. And just last week, the Russian government unveiled the Arktika, the world’s largest, most powerful icebreaker, in St. Petersburg.
The Arktika provides an excellent example of the positive infrastructure advancements that can occur from long-term planning. In addition to the icebreaker, Russia is now also constructing new bases and ports in the Arctic region, and updating its ships that are already in use. These projects all encourage additional investment in the region, benefiting the local towns, while also bringing jobs and tax dollars to the citizens and communities of the region.
Meanwhile, funding for a new US icebreaker is currently tied up in Congress, and it doesn’t appear that progress is going to take place anytime soon. Last week, during a hearing hosted by the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, Admiral Charles Michel, Vice Commandant of the Coast Guard, stated that America will have limited icebreaking capabilities until at least 2025.
The U.S. is ill prepared for the increased activity in the Arctic that is expected to occur in the coming years. The icebreaker conversation is gradually beginning to gain traction, due to the recent CRS Arctic paper, congressional hearings spearheaded by Chairwoman Murkowski and others, and news of Russia’s steady stream of Arctic infrastructure advances. But unfortunately, we don’t have time for a protracted conversation when it comes to icebreaker construction. In order to adequately plan for our nation’s Arctic future, we need Arctic investment now.