Double Dragon: China’s Next Icebreaker Gets a Name

The author on the (original) Xuelong in Shanghai, June 2015. (Photo by R.G. Bertelsen)











This week it was announced that China’s second icebreaking vessel, currently under construction at Jiangnan shipyard (Shanghai) to be the sister ship of the icebreaker Xuelong or ‘Snow Dragon’ (雪龙), would be launched under the name- Xuelong 2 Snow Dragon 2.

The new ship, which will be the first of China’s indigenous icebreakers began construction late last year after being jointly designed by the Beijing-based China State Shipbuilding Corporation [In Chinese] (Zhongguo chuanbo gongye jituan 中国船舶工业集团) and Finland’s Aker Arctic Technology, is expected to be completed in early 2019. The new vessel’s name was confirmed via an online report [In Chinese] in the Chinese journal Science and Technology Daily (Keji Ribao 科技日报).

The original Xuelong was purchased in 1993 from Ukraine, and put into service the following year. Since then, the vessel has undertaken several research missions in the Arctic as well as around Antarctica. Both icebreakers are overseen by the Polar Research Institute of China [in Chinese] or PRIC (Zhongguo jidi yanjiu zhongxin 中国极地研究中心), founded in 1989 and with its offices in Pudong, Shanghai. According to the Institute, the Xuelong 2 will be 122.5 meters long, and have the ability to break through ice up to 1.5-meters thick at a maximum speed of three knots, (about 5.5 kilometres per hour). The Science and Technology essay also reported that the PRIC was seeking to purchase a Leonardo AW169 helicopter for potential use in polar conditions. The second icebreaker will allow for future missions at both poles with greater frequency at a time when China is stepping up its presence in the Arctic.

This month, the original Xuelong completed a transit through the Northwest Passage, within the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, as part of a larger mission to circumnavigate the Arctic Ocean, a journey which included travel through the Central Arctic Route [jpg] this past August. As the circumpolar north becomes increasingly ice free in the summer months, the possibility of future cargo transit via the central Arctic, colloquially known as the ‘doughnut hole’, is moving from speculation to reality. This mission is the vessel’s eighth such expedition in the Arctic region, and was expected to take eighty-three days to complete.

As more Arctic sea-lanes become navigable from longer periods of time, icebreakers have become the subject of greater attention as governments contemplate their strategies in the circumpolar north. This month also saw the launch in St. Petersburg of the nuclear icebreaker Sibir (Сиби́рь), measuring 173 metres in length, reportedly being able to break ice up to three metres in thickness, and touted as the world’s largest and most powerful. The Sibir, a LK-60Ya-class vessel, joins the Arktika (Арктика) which was launched in June of last year. Moscow now oversees over forty diesel and nuclear-powered icebreakers, in comparison with the United States with only a single operational heavy icebreaking ship, the Polar Star; thus leading to debates in US policymaking circles about a potentially troublesome ‘icebreaker gap‘ as Russian relations remain frigid.

Addendum: In mid-September, the US House of Representatives and Senate passed a bill, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018, which included permission to procure up to six Polar-class icebreakers and a call for a ‘capacity replacement plan to mitigate a potential icebreaker capability gap’ should the Polar Star not be available in the future (Section 1048 of the Act). ]