So What Is the ‘Icebreaker Gap’ Anyway?

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US icebreaker Polar Star [Photo via Wikipedia]
One of the lesser-known issues entangled in the increasingly divisive political atmosphere of Washington DC has been funding for new icebreaking vessels responding to the strategic changes taking place in the Arctic. The United States currently has two operational icebreakers, one heavy (USCGC Polar Star) and one medium (USCGC Healy), both under the command of the United States Coast Guard. Engine problems have kept a third, the heavy icebreaker USCGC Polar Sea, out of service since 2010, and the future of the ship remains in doubt.

Late last month, a fire broke in the Polar Star’s incinerator room when the ship was traversing the coast of Antarctica, further underscoring the age and vulnerabilities of the vessel, (commissioned in 1976). Even before the incident, the Polar Star’s voyage to the southern polar regions, a mission to re-supply the McMurdo Station on Antarctica, had been beset by other problems including technical faults and power failures, a situation compounded by the recent government shutdown which forced the vessel’s crew to temporarily work without pay.

With the Arctic welcoming increasing commerce, as well as growing concerns about Russia’s expanded strategic interests in the far north, there have been concerns raised about whether the US is preparing to cede the Arctic to other powers. This fear has been connected to what has been called the ‘icebreaker gap’ between Russia and the United States, given that Moscow operates more than forty-five [pdf] icebreaking ships, including nuclear powered vessels, with more advanced models on the way. Chief among these are the nuclear powered Leader (Лидер)-class heavy icebreakers currently under development and boasting cutting-edge technologies, (a heavy-rock music video describing the vessels was uploaded [In Russian] to YouTube in June last year). The planned ships are larger than any previous icebreakers, reported to be 205 meters (673 feet) in length and weighing 71,000 tons, with a cost of US$1.6 billion per ship. These icebreakers would join the still-new Arktika (Арктика)-class ships, the first of which was launched in June 2016.

During then-US President Barack Obama’s watershed tour of Alaska in August-September 2015, he issued a public call for new icebreakers to be built for the Coast Guard not only in response to the opening of the Arctic but also anticipating the potential competition for regional influence with Russia as well as other emerging Arctic players such as China. However, no progress was made during the final years of the Obama administration and the first two years of the Donald Trump government, despite a pledge from Mr Trump in 2017 that he would seek to obtain funding for new ships.

Movement towards funding for a new icebreaker faced an unexpected obstacle during the middle of the year when the US House of Representatives sought to withdraw funding for the vessel in favour of using the money, (an estimated US$750 million), to instead help finance the highly-controversial border wall project between the US and Mexico in the run-up to the November 2018 midterm elections. As one US General recently argued, the political posturing concerning the wall has distracted the country from many other security challenges, including the growing presence of Russia and China in the Arctic.

In January this year, a spending bill which brought an end to a thirty-five day government shutdown did include an allotment of US$655 billion for construction of a new heavy icebreaker, as well as US$20 million for a second vessel and US$740 million for new cutters, most of which would be stationed in Alaska. Alaskan senator Lisa Murkowski hailed the decision as a significant step towards an eventual ‘icebreaker fleet.’ Alaska’s junior senator, Dan Sullivan, added that ‘with this appropriation, Congress and the Trump administration are acknowledging that Alaska is America’s Arctic.’ While the future vessel has yet to be assigned a home port, it is projected to be launched in 2023.

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US Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) [Photo by the Arctic Circle Conference, Reykjavík, Iceland, 2018]
The announcement of the icebreaker construction is a major element of overall plans by the Trump government to improve its visibility in the Arctic due to concerns about great power competition. An updated US governmental policy paper on the Arctic is expected to be published before mid-year, and there have been efforts by senior government officials to assure the international community that the country has no plans to withdraw from the Arctic. In January this year, it was announced [paywall] by US Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer that at least one US Naval vessel would enter the Arctic Ocean, including local shipping lanes, as a ‘freedom of navigation operation’ (FONOP), to further show the flag in the region. In October 2018, a US Navy strike group was operating in the Nordic Arctic region as part of the Trident Juncture NATO military simulations.

As well, during a brief stopover in Reykjavík, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with his counterpart, Foreign Minister Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarsson, along with Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, to assure his hosts Washington was not neglecting the Arctic region. During his remarks at a press conference at Reykjavík’s Harpa opera house, Pompeo noted that ‘we know that when America retreats, nations like China and Russia will fill the vacuum. It’s inevitable if we are not there.’

However, the question remains as to whether and how new American icebreakers will augment US interests in the Arctic as well as influencing a potential balance of power in the region. More to the point, will the emerging security issues in the Arctic, including access to resources and shipping lanes, be affected by the addition of a single US icebreaker, or possibly two, in the next five years? Parity with the Russian fleet does not appear to be a viable policy for Washington.

As well, the debate facing the US, along with other major Arctic actors, includes the nature of the security threats facing the region and the possible unilateral and multilateral solutions. The potential ‘resource scramble’ in the Arctic has given way [paywall] to a greater pragmatism in light of low fossil fuel and commodity prices. As well, there is little in the way of contested space in the Arctic which may inflame tensions, and most Arctic resources becoming available for potential exploitation lie within established national borders and/or exclusive economic zones. There are exceptions, such as Hans Island and potential disputes over the Lomonosov Ridge and the demarcation of continental shelves in the Central Arctic Ocean, but thus far these issues have been firmly relegated to diplomatic circles. There are now concerns about Russian military activities in Northern Europe, but these incidents have largely involved either submarines or aircraft, including a recent example of ‘swaggering’ near the Norwegian-Russian border.

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US icebreaker Healy [Photo by Debbie Hutchinson, US Geological Survey / Public domain]
There have also been questions about the expense of such vessels versus the benefits, as well as the feasibility of potentially subcontracting icebreaker construction to another Arctic state, such as Canada or Finland. Certainly, the deployment of new icebreakers does demonstrate a strengthened US commitment to Arctic affairs, along similar lines as China’s deployment of a second icebreaker, the Xuelong 2 (雪龙 2) in September of last year.

However, the next American icebreaker, when it finally puts out to sea, will hardly be a silver bullet for American Arctic policy given the other pressing issues in the region beyond hard security. For example, the Trump government has maintained its aversion to acknowledging the effects of climate change in the Arctic (or elsewhere), and the Arctic as a whole has scarcely been on the presidential agenda for the past two years. The next American Arctic policy paper may address that, but constructing an updated US commitment to the Arctic will be more complicated than simply counting icebreakers.